The perils and pleasures of plein-air painting

Top: Artist Scott Wynn works on his canvas, which later fell into the lagoon. He chalked it up as all part of the learning process. Above: Visiting artist Meridee Mandino sets up at 10 a.m. on the trail, as surfer Otter (looking to sea) and relatives leave. Right: The Allied Artists take up their brushes at the Malibu Lagoon Paint-Out.

A group of artists meets monthly to work outdoor in a medium called plein-air painting, which is, as one artist explained, “one of the hardest things to do.”

Story and photos by Diana Funaro/Special to The Malibu Times

Sharing a passion for painting and nature, members of the art group, Allied Artists of the Santa Monica Mountains and Seashore, met Saturday for their monthly paint-out at Malibu Lagoon State Beach.

“We try to go to different locations each month either in the canyons or seaside,” explained Allied Artists President Pat Ryan. “We have members who come from all over Los Angeles County-San Fernando Valley, Conejo Valley, Beverly Hills and, of course, Malibu. And we have all levels of proficiency, from beginners who just enjoy the experience to full-time professional artists.”

Ryan is also one of the founding members of the group, which started in 1990.

“Back then it was a whole group of art associations that came together, which were adjacent to the Santa Monica Mountains,” she said. “We formed one group called, The Allied Artists.”

In 1991, the new group organized its first collective exhibit at the Peter Strauss Ranch called “Celebrating the Santa Monica Mountains.”

These days, the group has several shows throughout the year including the recent Malibu Arts Festival, and 20 percent of all sales go to local environmental and educational programs in the Santa Monica Mountains area.

There are about 85 members in total, with a core group that comes out for these plein-air paint-outs, which take place the second Saturday of each month.

“Many artists like to go outdoors and paint, but plein-air painting is one of the hardest things to do,” Ryan explained. “The sun is very different in the morning than it is in the afternoon, so the lights and darks are totally different. Some days it’s windy and today it’s hot so you never know what you’re going to get.”

On Saturday the art group met in the Malibu Lagoon parking lot before heading off in different directions to find their favorite spot. About half of these painters work with oils while others prefer watercolors.

The plan this day was to paint for a couple hours and then regroup for their first potluck picnic lunch so members could spend more personal time together.

Most of the artists headed up the main trail to the seashore, sharing the narrow path with surfers hoisting boards, birdwatchers with binoculars perusing the lagoon estuary, and the general beach-going public.

Ryan said she got hooked on painting landscapes in this region ever since enrolling in a watercolor class at UCLA years ago entitled “Learning to Paint the Santa Monica Mountains.” Before that, she had never realized how beautiful the local mountains really were.

Another longtime member, artist Bruce Trentham, also likes the unique locales where the group meets for these paint-outs, not only for inspiration for his pastel watercolors but for the first-hand knowledge he’s been gleaning of the region.

“Once you get out of your car and walk down to the water there are lots of little special spots,” he said. “There are plenty of little beaches-some are sandy beaches; some are rocky beaches. And the landscapes change dramatically.”

Trentham especially likes the little-known hillside locales. “You’ll start hiking around and you’ll think you’re in Zion National Park-it’s almost a wilderness here. You can’t believe that you’re still in the Santa Monica Mountains.

“This whole string of mountains gives some amazing panoramic views,” Trentham added.

He mentioned that the highest point in the range is Bony Mountain in the Thousand Oaks-Newbury Park area, which is just over 3,000 feet- the height he understands qualifies for mountain status. Otherwise, this range might have been called the Santa Monica Hills.

While the pleasures of plein-air painting are obvious, the perils can be unexpected. By the end of the day, Mina Solomon, for example, had lost her new straw hat and even worse, newcomer Scott Wynn lost his canvas.

“I don’t know exactly how it happened,” Wynn mused. “I heard someone behind me shout, ‘Ohh,’ and I thought someone lost something. I turned to look and there it was – my painting floating along. And it floated for a long time.”

Wynn is philosophical about the loss, however, since he’s only been painting plein-air style for four months and what he has been learning from the experience is far more valuable, he said, than what he gets on canvas. And the good news is that he was only half done with his oil painting anyway.

Some of the upcoming events for The Allied Artists include a show at the Malibu Nature Preserve, which used to be the Malibu Riding and Tennis Club. The group will be having a paint-out there in October. Ryan is putting together a major exhibit including many of their artists.

“Also, National Parks is getting ready to celebrate its 25-year anniversary of the Mountains Recreation area,” Ryan added, “which goes all the way from Point Mugu to Marina Del Rey to Griffith Park. We’re going to participate in that in some way this spring.”

Trentham is organizing the next exhibit for the group, which will take place at the Toluca Lake Art Fair in Riverside on Sept. 14. More information can be obtained by calling the Toluca Lake Chamber of Commerce at 818.761.6594.

More information on the next Paint-Out in September can be obtained by calling 310.338.0333.