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Artists Paint Outside at River Farm

Plein air artists find plenty of sunshine and shadow.

Skies were cloudy when a group of artists gathered to paint plein air at River Farm on Tuesday. The painters were out to capture beautiful landscaped vistas and panoramic views of River Farm’s 25 acres along the Potomac River.

The first challenge for artists was to pick a good spot. Twenty minutes after greeting each other and scattering, some artists were still searching for just the right spot. The next challenge was setting up easels on uneven ground, for wide lawns slope steeply from the mansion down to the river.

Judy Heiser set up her easel beside the gravel path leading to the mansion to finish a picture of the mansion and the garden around it. Plein artists must carry all their equipment.

Artist Katie Woods said, “I try to pack as light as possible. Often I see a scene while in a car, but I can’t pull over.” Meg Walsh chose a leafy spot under an arbor to set up her easel and paint.

Half an hour after they had arrived, all artists had found places in the shade and were painting away in silence. Plein air artists have to deal with heat, wind and bugs. All of the artists wore head coverings — baseball caps or straw wide-brimmed hats.

Bobbi Pratte, who teaches at the Art Studio School at the Torpedo Factory, said so much inspiration comes when you are out in nature. “You have to frame your picture in your mind, then start to paint,” she said.

Fall classes at the Art League School begin the first week of September. Pratte teaches a class from 9:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. Saturday for painting outside.

By the second hour, Heiser, who had begun a new picture, joined Woods and Donnie Seale under one huge shade tree, and all were facing the river, all working away in silent serenity. Seale said he paints at several different locations along the Potomac.

Suddenly the sun poked through the clouds. The light changed, and there was a flurry of brush strokes for light had appeared where it was not before. In general, plein air sessions cannot last longer than two hours because of the changing light.

Lynn Mehta, who hails from southern California, said, “I like everything about plein air. I’ve been an artist all of my life. My mother was an artist. We painted outside all the time. It wasn’t called plein air then. Plein air is poetry.” 

Beverly Krista worked with pastels. Her spot was on the cool, breezy corner of the mansion’s porch. She said she thinks it might have been Claude Monet who said that a good day for plein air painting is a cloudy day, because the light doesn’t change.

River Farm was once the smallest of George Washington’s five farms. Washington acquired River Farm in 1760 but the land and the mansion have a written history stretching back to the early 17th century. The American Horticultural Society moved its headquarters to River Farm in 1973.

The plein air group is informally organized. There are no instruction and no rules. If readers are interested in joining the group, they can contact Jean Schwartz at jksland@cox.net.

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