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Past Exhibition:

Sunlight and Shadow: The Tradition of Plein Air Painting

June 2-September 24, 2015


Jeff Horn
Island Solitude
Oil on canvas
From the Rebecca Welch Collection


Click on image to see larger view

In the early years of the twentieth century, California produced a unique artistic style which combined several distinctive aspects of American and European art. This style, which is often called California Impressionism or California Plein Air painting, after the French term for "in the open air", concerned itself with light and color. As a variant of the American Impressionist style, it focused directly on the abundant California light.

All visual experiences begin with light. The intent of representational art is to render physical objects, and that in turn is solely the portrayal of the effects of light on those objects. Color is the way light is either reflected or absorbed by an object. The land became the principal subject of this style, and it was represented as clean and unspoiled, with strength and grandeur. The sun shone its light on the land and gave it color: greens of spring, browns of late summer and fall and everywhere, the deep blue mantle of the sky.

Land and light had always been an integral part of American art. The Hudson River School, a group of early nineteenth century artists led by Thomas Cole (1801-1848) and Asher B. Durand (1796-1886) ventured into the "wilderness" of upstate New York. They were in awe of the beauty and grandeur of nature and developed a popular and long-lived style that centered on landscape as a primary subject. In a very real sense, they were the environmental activists of their day.

Today, plein-air painting has found a resurgence among contemporary landscape painters, not only in California but throughout the country. Since 1980, the number of artists who choose to paint outdoors in the manner of their predecessors has increased dramatically as more and more people find renewed appreciation for the natural world. Included in this exhibition, displayed among their predecessors, were contemporary plein air painters; Peter Adams, Saim Caglayan, John Cosby, Dennis Doheny, Jeff Horn, Gregory Hull, Mark Kerckhoff, Kevin MacPherson, Jim McVicker, Michael Obermeyer, Billy O’Donnell, Jesse Powell, Mian Situ, Jeff Sewell, Bryan Mark Taylor and Jeff Yeomans.

It has been said that landscape painting is the most noble of the pictorial arts. If that is so, then plein air painting is its truest expression.

Suggested Books

  • Impressions of California
  • All Things Bright and Beautiful
  • California Impressionists
  • California Light, A Century of Landscapes
  • Selections from The Irvine Museum

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