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The Plein Air Movement Has Found a Home on the Main Line

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Jamie Wyeth’s “White House” is a classic example of the plein-air form.

As water fell from the sky, artists sought shelter under store awnings and in various nooks throughout downtown Wayne. It wasn’t the weather they’d hoped for, as the outdoor Plein Air Festival got underway. 

Knowing how to work around the weather is a given among plein air artists, and those who gathered last May for the Wayne Art Center’s 10th-anniversary festival are masters of the movement. Among them was Robert Bohne, who knows that showers can clear as quickly as they begin. He, like most of his contemporaries, has painted through it all—glaring sun, bitter cold, biting insects and drenching rain. 

The 30 or so artists who earned a spot in the center’s highly competitive spring event were given a list of suggested painting sites, indicating gardens, architectural interest, scenic vistas or other assets. Participants had six days to create their works within a 20-mile radius. But many stayed close to downtown Wayne. 

Plein air—or open-air painting—is perhaps the only competitive outdoor event for artists. Most contests last several days, ending with an exhibition and modest prizes. Locally, the movement is long-established but informal, attracting both amateurs and professionals. At least two area competitions are open to photographers, though it’s historically a painter’s genre. For those who want familiarize themselves with the form, work from the Wayne Art Center’s Summertime Paint-Out series will be on display in its Vidinghoff Gallery through Oct. 8.

Waiting out the wet weather, Bohne took shelter in a vehicle he describes as a “studio on wheels.” Parked close to a patch of grass that would serve as his vantage point over the next few hours, it offered an interesting perspective of the historic Anthony Wayne Theater. Later, after the rain ends, Bohne is propped in a beach chair, casually sketching on tinted paper. It’s an unconventional material for plein-air artists, who mostly work on sturdy panels or prepared canvas. “I’m really a big fan of James Abbott Whistler—especially of his early sketches that were done in charcoal with hints of [colored] pastel,” Bohne says.

Plein-air events take place all year long and are hosted by a range of organizations. Bohne leads a group of artists twice annually in the Philadelphia area. On Feb. 2, 2017, the Chadds Ford Historical Society will hold its annual winter event, considered by many participants as a time to explore Andrew Wyeth-like landscapes of (hopefully) bright snow and earthy underbrush along Brandywine Creek. 

“Plein air forces you to paint. Whether you’re in the mood or not, you know that, once you’re outside, this is the day to work.”—West Chester artist Denise Vitollo

This past October, it was a curious sight to watch dozens of artists spread out over the vast Granogue estate near Centreville, Del., for Plein Air Brandywine Valley. Heather Davis was one of the few participants who chose to paint the estate’s sprawling mansion. Focusing on a side entranceway, Davis was out to capture “someone’s home and private space,” minus the grandeur. Weighed down with portable easels and folding chairs, Davis and the other artists made their way across the hills, seeking the so-called “rust and decay” easily found amid Granogue’s working farm buildings. 

The neighboring residence belongs to artist Jamie Wyeth, who’s generally in Maine when Plein Air Brandywine participants scour his property every October. Wyeth is one of the area’s most celebrated plein-air artists, though his work extends beyond the movement. He’s well known for his habit of painting inside a three-sided, four-by-seven-foot wooden bait box. “I kneel or sit sort of cross-legged to fit in,” Wyeth says with a laugh. “I even use [the box] in the winter. I just stick in a heater with a pipe out of the side.” 

Although the box is mostly for privacy, it also enables him to paint where he might discover the unexpected. “Half my career is built on accidents,” he says. “To me, plein air is plain accidents. I love it when they occur.”

Back in Wayne, the artists’ reception for last spring’s plein-air event was held at Berkley V Farm on Brooke Road. Among those on the guest list was Philadelphia’s Arcenio M. Campos, who would earn first place for his abstract view of a shrouded lane in the Chester County village of Yellow Springs. Over dinner in a converted barn, Campos talked about the use of white lead paint to create a traditional finish on his panels.  

Al Barker, an established plein-air and wildlife painter from New Jersey, brought more than 20 Masonite panels to the Wayne competition. For him and the others, the challenges of working outdoors are accepted facts. Indeed, the genre has given rise to a new type of artist—one who lives with a backpack at the ready, waiting for a free moment to paint.  

And for procrastinators, plein air is a problem solved. “It forces you to paint,” says West Chester’s Denise Vitollo. “Whether you’re in the mood or not, you know that, once you’re outside, this is the day to work.”