Arts & Culture

Plein air painting exhibit highlights process from sketch to studio

Rainy Washington might not strike you as the best place to take canvas and paints outside for hours on end. But some enthusiastic artists love the beauty of nature and mild climate that lead to plein air (open-air) painting, and right now their annual show at American Art Company in Tacoma is worth a look, if only to see the process an artist takes from swift sketch to finished studio work.

As a bonus, the annual Plein Air Washington Artists show “Nature’s Gift of Water” captures some popular locations, from Sol Duc to Gig Harbor.

What makes the comparison of sketch to finished work possible is that the PAWA association makes it a rule of show that artists must submit both the original plein air painting and the later studio painting of the same view. While they’re not labeled as such, the plein air work is usually smaller, often more photographically realistic, and with looser brushstroke and fill — sometimes done in haste between rain showers. The 80-plus works are usually hung in those pairs and spread throughout the gallery.

In “September Song,” for instance, Barbara Benedetti Newton uses pastels to paint a serenely reflective pool fringed with bamboo, the yellowy-green water punctuated with red goldfish streaks and a hint of a black-smudged forest behind. Her studio work, though, layers another palette on top, with aqua falling out from the bamboo into the pool and lavender-pink tufting the pale reeds. White highlights the grass strands, and the forest and sky are more defined. Yet the mood stays the same.

Amanda Houston, again with pastels, goes from “Slack Tide” to “Mid Tide,” zooming in closer to her water scene in the studio work, cropping close and adding more pooling water to reflect the rich blue sky and green forest. Interestingly, Gregg Caudell completely reverses his artistic decisions between plein air and studio in his daubed-oil “Sea of Palouse”: lowering the horizon, reversing the downward daub arcs to upward, watering down his saturated palette and going from a lime-green base to a pink one.

Jane Wallis, in her close-up oil paintings of Sol Duc Falls and Falls Creek, chooses to lighten the tone in her studio work, highlighting the white-green rapids rather than the rocks, and Emilya Lane, in “Red Canoe,” brings more emphasis to the foreground reflections, bringing her canoeists into sharp focus rather than dreamy blurring.

Because of the water theme, the show is full of landscapes: beaches, waterfalls, seastacks, sailboats. But a few of the artists find more original ways to highlight their water: Jan Jewell’s “Alpenglow” (the third-place winner) paints reddish-pink peaks glowing Technicolor amid iridescent snow, with the foreground lake far less important to the overall composition. Iryna Milton positions a nude on river rocks: Her proportions are a little skeletal and her skin streaky, but the studio shot gives energy to the water with chunky diagonals. (You can only imagine how cold it must be to pose nude by a river in Washington.)

First-place winner Jim Lamb finds the still, rich sheen of a slow stream in his otherwise dull landscape of puffy bushes and fluffy clouds, but Melanie Thompson (second-place) contrasts the shiny gold desert and red mesa with the pale blue of a river that snakes through it, while Christine Troyer (honorable mention) captures the crystalline frost of a winter morning on a flooded field with impressionistic strokes and pink tones.

Around the rest of American Art Company you’ll find some sculpture worth seeking out: basketry by Jill Nordfors Clark that layers man-made onto natural, and Anne Bullock’s human-size tulip made of sculpted white paper.