Checking In: A Sense of Place

By Catharine Cooper
By Catharine Cooper

True to it’s roots as an artist colony, and in spite of the loss of support of the Laguna Art Museum, the Laguna Plein Air Painters Association (LPALA) kicked off their annual Invitational on Sunday with a paint-off at Treasure Island Park. Forty of the nation’s top plein air artists scattered across the cliff-face and beaches with easels, umbrellas and tubes of oil.  They had a daunting two-hour window in which to take a blank canvas and transform it into a framed and finished art piece.

Prior to the first paint-off, they scouted the location, selected their subject/scene and completed a quick pencil sketch of their intentions. Early Sunday morning they set up easels, squared their canvases, and set their palettes.  At 11 a.m. sharp, brushes laden with oily color, they began to paint.

Viewers crowded around each artist, silently observing or asking what might have been annoying questions, tinged with awe and respect. Broken clouds obscured what had earlier been brilliant sunshine and a cool breeze ruffled painter’s umbrellas. The scent of oil and turpentine mingled with salty sea air, park flowers and freshly mowed grass.

These artists were tasked with capturing what we so often take for granted. We know our parks are beautiful, our sea sumptuous and soothing. But how often do we really see our own environment?

The act of painting requires a vigorous way of looking more closely at a scene, almost looking within. There is a drilling down from the first glance into the finer details. The way a shadow changes a shape. The way light frames a cliff face or opens up the inside of a breaking wave. The brilliant colors of a child’s toy contrasted with the flat beige tones of sand. The painterly conveyance of a beachgoer relaxed under an umbrella.

From the 40 artists, there were 40 diverse and exquisite paintings, each giving new life to an aspect of the area. It is hard to fathom that they had been completed in a mere two-hour period. Each and every painting was wonderful, but some touched my heart:  Michael Obermeyer’s stunning sense of space and light, April Raber’s muted seascape palette, Rita Pacheco’s sensuous figure study, Debra Huse’s beach child, and Mary Garrish’s crashing wave.

This year marks the 15th annual Invitational, with artists competing for prestigious prizes during the weeklong events.  Hats off to Mark Christy, one of the new owners of Aliso Creek Inn, for stepping up in support of LPALA. He has provided not only a physical venue for the art auctions, educational events and Saturday’s aala, but also a place to paint. By closing the golf course on Thursday, he provided an exclusive entre for painters and the public to experience the majestic state of Aliso Canyon.

It is reassuring that a traditional art form can thrive in the midst of recent changes and development in our small community.  With a backward look to the paintings of Edgar Payne and William Wendt, and a forward glance to the plein air events of this week, I find a sense of faith that the core essence of this very special place will continue to be nourished.

Catharine Cooper is a lifelong resident of Laguna Beach.  Reach her at [email protected]

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