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“Plein air,” says Daryl Millard, owner of the Daryl Millard Gallery Solana Beach, “means painting a scene outdoors in the elements” where one can see, smell, hear, and feel what one is painting. It is the combination of these sensations, says Millard, that is “used to amplify one’s emotions onto canvas.” The term “plein air” is derived from the French term for “in the open air.”

“In recent years, ‘plein air’ has been a popular word in painting landscape,” says oil painter John Burton. On November 1, Burton will take part in the Plein Air Art Invitational in Torrey Pines.

The plein-air style of painting first became popular when portable easels and paints premixed in tubes became available in the 1870s. Before that time, artists mixed their own pigments with linseed oil. Many art historians believe that plein-air painting was the catalyst for the French impressionist movement.

“In a world where painters have easy access to photography and the computer, it becomes easy to use these as a crutch rather than a tool,” says Burton. In Burton’s view, painting from real life takes more vision and artistry than painting from a photograph.

“It is easier to paint from a photograph because it frames and reduces the incredible amount of information that is inherent in our three-dimensional world…when one works exclusively from photography it means they are always working once removed from the subject. It is as if a poet or a novelist is writing a book about Venice from looking at pictures on the Internet or from stories a friend has told him about the city.”

Millard expresses a similar sentiment. “One has to remember that the camera alters the landscape drastically — darks become darker, lights lighter. All of the subtleties disappear.”

Burton says plein-air painting focuses not so much on the subject as it does on light. “I’m outside right now, looking at a pine tree, but I’m not seeing every needle. You look at a tree, and you’re not as concerned with painting every leaf, but if you can put the right color and value on the shaded side and the right color and value on the lit side, it would appear more like a tree than if you were to paint every leaf.”

Once a painter understands the relationship between color and light in the natural world, says Burton, one is able to begin a painting outdoors and complete it indoors. “Plein-air painting is as much a process of learning as it is an end-product. Sometimes it is art in its own right, and sometimes it is a piece of knowledge or notes to expand on in the studio.”

Burton, who won the grand prize at the invitational last year, believes landscape paintings can be a way for modern society to connect with nature. “We become so overwhelmed by our televisions, video games, BlackBerries, traffic jams, deadlines, and media bombardment. I feel people need that connection with God’s creation. That is why someone works a long week and then goes for a hike in Torrey Pines.”

Painting from natural light is not without its disadvantages. “You don’t have much time to capture what you are looking at because the light changes probably every minute,” explains Millard. “Shadows change, vibrancy changes, clouds change, water changes when the wind blows…this means you have to work very fast, which I believe switches the brain to the creative side, allowing for something great to happen, rather than getting bogged down in a well-thought-out painting.”

— Barbarella

Plein Air Art Invitational
Saturday, November 1
10 a.m. to 2 p.m.
Torrey Pines State Reserve
11480 North Torrey Pines Road
Cost: Free ($8 day-use fee required for each vehicle)
Info: 858-792-4700 or www.celebratethecraft.com/painting

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