There’s a special charm to watching artists work in the elements— and it takes a special artist to do it right.
I’ve never been able to make a painting. So to stand there and see a familiar scene anew, to witness the cuneiform of a brushstroke instantly become a believable ocean wave—for me, it’s magic.
This month, the same moment will happen many times over as 35 of the nation’s finest plein-air painters gather here and set out to capture Orange County in an outdoor painting competition. Top prize: $10,000. Competitions like this take place all over the nation, but ours—one of the oldest at 19 years and based in stunningly beautiful Laguna Beach—is among the most coveted invitations. As one artist told me, “You’d be a fool to decline.” The invitational, sponsored by the nonprofit Laguna Plein Air Painters Association, takes place daily from Oct. 7 through 15 and offers plenty of free opportunities for the public to see art in progress.
When I meet him at Main Beach in Laguna, event founder John Cosby, left, stands at his easel, moving globs of paint around before the oils dry. He’s blending the color of a “half-sunny” sky, a sooty wedgewood that looks like an afternoon marine layer blowing in darkly over a blue sky. He listens to science fiction through his white ear buds, and his eyes are shaded by a navy-blue cap bearing the name “Steinbeck.” He’s had no formal training, he says, except to follow his grandmother and watch her paint.
He soon learned this artistic endeavor gave him the chance to travel, and travel he has for more than four decades now, spending at least half of every month on the road. He’s committed to a long-term project in the Rust Belt of the U.S.
At 62, he’s considered one of the finest living plein-air artists, his works fetching anywhere from $3,000 to $35,000, depending on size. Some are tucked away in private collections. Cosby quickly wraps up the sky and moves on to a blob of buff-colored paint, capturing the change from light sand to dark sand.
Laguna Beach’s very identity is tied to painters who practice their craft outdoors. The Laguna Plein Air Painters Association website claims that these artists “established” the town. But Cosby recalls his grandmother saying that in the 1930s, they never called themselves plein-air painters. They were just artists who liked to paint outdoors. But the task comes with many challenges.
In the two hours I stand with Cosby, he is accosted by tourists a dozen or more times. Several ask the way to the bathrooms. A mother from France toting kids wants to know if there are outdoor showers. Three homeless people give their opinions on his work. He tells me that occasionally a homeless person will set up his own easel nearby and sell paintings to tourists—which I guess beats panhandling. It’s becoming clear why the ear buds, the sci-fi.
Bad weather is another issue. Cosby recalls a group trying to finish painting in a lightning storm on Cape Cod a few years ago. Often artists have only hours to finish, and time pressures force them to work through the bad weather.
“It was monsoon weather” in Maryland last summer, says Rita Pacheco, a Carlsbad artist in the invitational.
“It was 150 degrees outside and then boom—it starts raining,” she says with a laugh. “I think, ‘What the heck, I’ve got an umbrella. I’ll just stand here and keep painting.’ Then it starts coming in sideways. I’m soaked; my painting is soaked. My whole setup is soaked.”
It’s part of what draws painters outdoors—the changing conditions and the creative pressure it puts on them.
When I catch Pacheco, she’s heading to an invitational on the East Coast.
“There are people who go from one invitational to the next,” she says. “It’s exhausting. You go to this town, and you’re doing two or three paintings a day, you’re buying frames, you’re buying supplies, and then at the end of the week, you have to put up all your work and try to sell it. What you don’t sell, you have to pack up.”
When I lived in Laguna Beach 30 years ago, many of its artists were forced by housing costs to flee the village. I’m told that today, the bohemian artistic lifestyle is nearly impossible to pull off.
Some critics find it hypocritical that Laguna still takes its reputation to the bank, when the artists can’t afford to live there. There’s validity in that, but looking on the bright side, I applaud the city for carrying on the artistic traditions because ultimately it’s the art that counts.
“This is about celebrating the legacy and preserving a tradition for many more years,” says Rosemary Swimm, executive director of the organization since 2009.
I think she’s right that plein-air will be a Laguna Beach brand for years, if not centuries, to come. After all, the cliffs, the shores, the air, the birds, and the beach blankets are all free. And that lady over there on the sand, stuffed into the too-small red bikini—Cosby just painted her in one swipe.
The invitational is Oct. 7 through 15. A complete schedule is at lagunapleinair.org/2017-events.