Catalina Island News

Plein Air Painting in Santa Catalina Island

Plein Air Painters

Impressionist painters of the late 1800's, such as Monet, Renoir and Cezanne, made a giant leap from the art form currently in vogue which featured sharp outlines, fine brush work, lavish landscapes with dominant human figures, and endless hours of exacting work in the studio. Instead they ventured outside with their newly-invented tubes of paint and created paintings which showed an "impression" of the scene, concentrating on the play of light and using brilliant colors and quick strokes to convey the subject. This came to be known as painting "en plein air," or outside.

Various American painters of the time came to adopt this impressionist style and created works which dealt with scenes in their country, often traveling far and wide to catch just that perfect moment when the light was right and inspiration struck. Some of the better known in the field, such as Granville Redman, William Wendt, and Edgar Payne, ventured out to Santa Catalina Island and there created pieces that depicted life on the island at the time. Plein air painting reached its zenith here in about 1925 and then slowly diminished until the 1940's and 50's when little interest could be generated in the art form.

Various other types of art flourished in Santa Catalina for the next few decades and then in 1986, local artist Denise Burns invited a few friends who were also interested in plein air painting to come over to Avalon and paint. The art show which resulted from this get-together was the first Catalina Show. Over time, this nucleus of artists was expanded and formalized by Denise as the Plein Air Painters of America (PAPA). PAPA has grown to be a nationally recognized group of artists, and the ties to Santa Catalina Island have been preserved through the members' participation in the Catalina show each year. Other artists are also annually invited to spend "Plein Air Week" on the island and show their works for sale.

The first Catalina Show was held over a three-day period at Solomon's Landing in Avalon, Santa Catalina Island, in the fall of 1986. Approximately 20 artists exhibited their work and a cocktail party/fund-raiser was held at the home of one of the organizers. Over the years, corporate funding was obtained and generous support from interested individuals kept the program solvent.

As the years went by, the show attracted more artists and larger crowds attending the event necessitated changes in location to larger venues. Artists got in the habit of coming to the island for the week before the show and painting together; a condition that led to wonderful camaraderie among the artists and the added benefit of offering fresh works to the public attending the show. In 1988, the Saturday night exhibition and sale was staged in the art-deco ballroom of the Casino building. This setting proved to be the ideal place to hold the event as the glitter of the building was reflected in the glitter of the still-wet paintings hung on easels around the circular ballroom.

By 1991, interest in the event had grown to the extent that a second show was staged on Sunday. That year the whole show was moved on Sunday morning to the local yacht club, but from 1992 onward the Casino Ballroom was engaged for both days of the exhibition.

Due to various logistics problems, the show was not held in 1993 and was in Carmel, California in 1994. Since 1995, however, the Catalina Show has found a permanent home in the Casino Ballroom. Yearly, thirty-five to forty artists have their works displayed on approximately 150 easels ringing the elegant ballroom; truly an amazing sight. Attendance at the evening dinner and sale is limited to 400 so that everyone can easily see the paintings displayed.

In 1996, Denise Burns began the process to formalize the group of volunteers that coordinates the show each year. A non-profit foundation dedicated solely to the appreciation of plein air painting was formed and registered with the federal government. The Society for the Advancement of Plein Air Painting was born.

The all-volunteer board of directors of SAPAP has served as the core of workers who put on the Catalina Show each year, plus planning activities for Society members such as field trips, artist/patron mixers, and lectures. Scholarships and support for local school-age students and art classes in plein air technique taught at Avalon school by visiting artists have also been undertaken as part of the mission of SAPAP,which is:

"To educate the public in the art of Plein Air Painting, both its historical roots and the living artists who work in the field, in order to increase the appreciation of fine art and also to encourage young artists to enter the field of plein air painting. The organization desires to preserve the traditions and methods of plein air painting."

In 2003, the 18th annual Catalina Plein Air Exhibition and Sale generated a lot of attention as it was a reunion show of artists who have painted in Santa Catalina Island over the previous 18 years. While the popularity of the show continued to grow the all-volunteer board of directors and workers decided the 18th show would be the last.

The release of a major art book, Enchanted Isle: A History of Plein Air Painting in Santa Catalina Island, will took place during the 18th show. A 256-page volume with 255 color illustrations, many full-page plates, this volume traces over 100 years of painting the outdoor beauty of Santa Catalina Island. The works of over 90 early and contemporary plein air painters depict delightful street scenes, distinctive architecture, charming harbors and plenty of wild, rugged coastline. Color and light reign supreme. Major essays by noted authors enhance the illustrations along with a bibliography and index.

Barbara Doutt, President
Society for the Advancement of Plein Air Painting
Photos provided by Roy Rose