Something in the air: Exhibit celebrates Four Corners Plein Aire Painters

The artist heads toward the mesa, carrying easel and paint box. In summer, he dons a straw hat, and slathers on suntan lotion.

In winter, she wears layers, and tight-fitting gloves, open at the finger tips, so she can manipulate a brush.

Why? Because both love to paint en plein aire, French for in open air. Working that way gives their pictures a unique look, based on a special philosophy for drawing outdoors.

Four Corners oil painter Phillip West describes the style as loose, and less detailed than studio painting, which presents a more carefully-rendered finished product. “(Plein aire paintings) just have a look of catching the expression,” he says.

“(Artists) can’t do more than 10 percent touch-up in the studio,” adds his colleague, K. K. Walling, who works in several media. “Because often times, if you go to touch up, (a painting) changes.”

Water-colorist S a n d y Sabelman, chortles in agreement. “(You’re) on location as the light is at the moment, and you’d better be quick.”

Painting fast and loose with a minimum of detail can produce exciting results. About 75 examples currently hang at the Gateway Museum in Farmington, in an exhibit entitled “2007 Pleinly Art: A Juried Show of Recent Oils, Pastels, and Watercolors by Members of the Plein Aire Painters of the Four Corners.” West, Walling, and Sabelman belong to this group.

To assemble their images of mesas, river valleys, barns, and stands of trees for the show, the Plein Aire Painters of the Four Corners faced special challenges. First, they strove to finish paintings on location, to honor the 10 percent rule.

“But there’s always some kind of little touch-up thing,” says West, a tall, quiet-spoken man.

“The main thing is to have some degree of integrity.” He begins to laugh. “I have probably five paintings in my studio now that were supposed to be plein aire paintings, and I worked on them to such an extent, that it wouldn’t be honest to use them.”

But avoiding the studio is only one thing plein aire painters have to worry about. Sandy Sabelman, whose still life “Prickly Pear” won an Award of Honorable Mention in “2007 Pleinly Art,” recalls painting in New Mexico’s Bosque del Apache, when the chances “were real good” of getting hit as birds flew overhead.

Another time, as she painted near a hiking trail In Sedona, people stopped to watch and talk. “It’s almost like you’re a performer,” she says.

Mosquitos, gnats, flies, and June bugs swarm in summer, invading artists’ eyes and ears, and landing in paint. “(Gnats) love oil,” West affirms, with a smile. “Yellow and the light blue of the sky. The secret is: just let ‘em dry (then) pick ‘em off with a palette knife.”

Removing bugs from a canvas doesn’t count against the 10 percent rule, assures Walling. She doesn’t remember if she picked insects from “Morning on Chalk Creek,” which won the 2007 Pleinly Art Award of Juror’s Choice.

Besides critters, paint, water, and solvent present their problems outdoors. Watercolors dry too fast in the Four Corners’ climate, according to Sabelman. Near the sea, they “never dry.”

Getting enough detail can pose a dilemma. To work quickly, plein aire painters first create large shapes, then smaller ones. This means beginning with a thin layer of oil paint and building thicker and thicker layers for West. “That’s pretty tricky at times because the paint wants to not stay there. It wants to run.”

Still, plein aire artists manage to capture brilliant light and form, sometimes in extreme conditions.

“You see a lot more dimension and a lot more color than if you try to paint from a photograph,” says Sabelman. “The Southwest light — there’s nothing like it.”

She nods at one of her paintings. Created in March wind, it depicts Ship Rock, as if the monster lava outcrop might blow away in the powerful gusts. As she worked on the painting, clouds constantly shifted. She drew the basic shapes she saw when she looked up. Thereafter, she paid no attention to the real sky, but added detail to the one she created.

Roughly 34 artists belong to The Plein Aire Painters of the Four Corners. Most are participating in 2007 Pleinly Art, and they created many of the show’s pictures in group paint-outs. Working together has advantages.

“It’s rubbing elbows with like-minded people,” says Sabelman, adding that the Plein Aire Painters taught her to choose diverse subjects, and to experiment with small works.

Constructive critique sessions have let West learn new techniques and new painting tools. “This happens to be a group of real good people, caring and willing to help one another,” he says.

Besides Sabelman and Walling, several artists received recognition for contributions to the show. Dwight Lawning got the Award of Excellence, Gayle Lewis the Award of Merit. Honorable-mention awards went to Judy DiVincentis-Morgan, Mary MacAdams, Jan Goldman, Wanda Coffee, and Maryellen Morrow.

From -October 2007, Arts & Entertainment.