Painting the Town

PAPO brings the outdoors indoors

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Driving through downtown Bellingham on a sunny day at the tail end of August, I almost lost control of my vehicle a couple of times. I’d come to the Holly Street corridor, and it seemed that every time I glanced to my left or right, I saw painters on the sidewalks or on street corners hard at work in front of easels and canvases.

I kept slowing down to try to see what their creative ventures were focused on but, luckily, my temporary inattention to the road didn’t cause any accidents. Soon enough, I realized the paintbrush wielders were part of Studio UFO’s annual Plein Air Paint Out (PAPO), and that they were there to bring attention to the art of painting in the great outdoors.

As the instigator of the annual event, Trish Harding says PAPO exists for a couple reasons: to help the artists hone their talents, and also to educate the public about what plein air painting—which has been going on since the invention of mobile tubes of paint allowed artists to leave their studios and paint in natural light—actually is.

“One of the most important components of PAPO is to make the community aware of how many plein air artists there are in Bellingham, and how passionate we are about it,” Harding says. “It is also to engage the viewer in the process so he or she can internalize the work a little more and understand how paintings ‘become.’

“As an instructor, I also feel it is my responsibility to encourage artists to paint en plein air as part of their training as an artist, just as a music instructor would ask a music student to practice scales if they were learning to play the piano or other instrument. PAPO exists because I need a venue for plein air painters to show their work.”

As in past years, the images that were created during PAPO have been framed and are currently on display at Mindport Exhibits, which also happens to be on Holly Street. This means that you can make your way inside Mindport to view the streetscapes, then, once you’re back outside, take a short stroll to identify what you’ve just seen—whether it’s a painting of a sculpture on the corner of Bay and Holly streets, a view of lush flowerpots in front of a nearby business, or a rendering of the Whatcom Museum’s Old City Hall as seen from an intersection.

Harding points out that part of the thrill of PAPO, and of painting outside in general, is reacting to what’s going on around you—including the elements. The event this year was seasonally sunny and warm, but past paint-outs have seen artists battling rain and wind, and have presented more challenges. Either way, at the end of the day, artists have emerged with paintings that record what they saw, and how they saw it.

“Painting en plein air changes the way an artist sees the environment and changes the way he or she sees light,” Harding says. “It changes the artist’s expectations of himself, and changes every painting after in a positive way, even studio work. An artist is never the same again.”

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