A moment in time

Artists of the new plein air exhibit opening at the Depot capture the 'Allure of Light' throughout their paintings

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— Every good painter has probably had a similar epiphany about light, plein air painter Frank LaLumia said.

"What you are really doing is not painting a tree," he said. "You are painting the light on the tree. ... Really, your subject is light."

That defines one of the staple elements of "plein air" painting: the study of light to capture a moment in time.

Plein air is a French phrase -- pronounced "plan-ar" -- that directly translates as "open air." Otherwise known as "painting from life," plein air is defined as any painting or drawing done outside.

Plein air painters are seen seated with their easels with tubes of paint in scenic places around the world. In the United States, many are members of the highly respected Plein Air Painters of America.

More than 50 pieces of new work from the group's 29 members are adorning the walls of the Eleanor Bliss Center for the Arts at The Depot in an exhibit and sale called the "Allure of Light." The show, which opens today, marks the first time the Plein Air Painters of America have had a complete exhibit in Colorado.

"It really is kind of (exciting) to have all of them doing this," show chairwoman Susan Jackson said. "It makes us more of an established artistic community."

The roots of plein air painting are in 19th century Europe. In England, John Constable said artists should trust their own vision in finding truth in nature, instead of depending on a formula -- that truth could only be discovered by drawing outdoors.

Around the same time in a small village outside Paris, a group of artists, later known as the realists, focused its attentions on peasant life and the natural world surrounding it.

Later 19th century impressionists, such as Edouard Manet, Claude Monet, Edouard Degas and Auguste Renoir, also believed in trusting the eye rather than a formula and painted the world using their portable easels and tubes of paint.

Today, painting from real life is something that has experienced a bit of resurgence, LaLumia said.

He said artists are realizing that painting in the outdoors, as opposed to painting from photographs, provides them with all the material they need.

"Photographs are not as subtle as the human eye," LaLumia said.

Plein air painters learn to drop their preconceptions about form and color and look deeply into the scenes they paint, ultimately finding more information in the subject than a photograph can convey, he said.

Because outdoor light changes so quickly, skilled plein air painters learn to work equally quickly, seizing the core of a painting in just an hour of work.

"It's really striking into the most important relationships with color," LaLumia said.

An opening reception for "Allure of Light" is from 5 to 7 p.m. today at the Eleanor Bliss Center for the Arts at The Depot. The show will run through March 23.

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