By Christina Whiting
Homer artist Rita Pfenninger has a passion for painting outdoors. Her work in plein air — a French term that refers to creating art in the “open air” — gets more than a little help from Alaska’s dramatic changes in light and shadow. They are the perfect mix for painting in the natural environment.
“Alaskans are intrigued by plein air painting because of our beautiful landscape, which is also a largely frigid and therefore a challenging subject to paint outdoors,” said Asia Freeman, Director of Bunnell Street Arts Center. “We remain intrigued and hungry for opportunities to develop plein air painting skills.”
Pfenninger has always been excited about painting, but she loves painting outdoors specifically.
“When you are painting plein air, you have to paint fast, otherwise all the shadows change,” Pfenninger said. “I love the challenge, if not always the results.”
Pfenninger has dabbled in the arts throughout her life, including painting in watercolor and pastels and drawing in charcoal and pencil. But her favorite medium is oil, because of the vivid quality of the colors.
Pfenninger minored in art in college, but majored in special education and taught at McNeil Canyon School for 11 years. She worked for Homer’s Project GRAD for seven years.
Pfenninger retired from teaching three years ago, and in 2012, she participated in a three-day painting workshop with master plein air painter Diane Pike in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina. During this workshop, she was inspired to paint full time.
“I couldn’t stop painting,” she said. “I have been painting since I was a kid, but never like this.”
Pfenninger invited Pike to present a workshop in Homer, sending her a photograph of the Dixon Glacier. Pike responded by saying that she better go and buy some more blue paint.
“There’s just something about the way Diane paints and the way she teaches that really resonates with me,” Pfenninger said. “She’s a colorist and is like an American Impressionist. Her paintings are very vivid, her sense of color is spot-on and it’s exciting to look at her paintings.”
Pfenninger recently completed a semester-long painting class taught by Freeman, and said she plans to take as many classes as she can. She also plans to show her work at Bunnell this summer.
“It is thrilling to be in a community where people are so supportive of the arts,” Pfenninger said. “We all experience this joy of painting.”
Encouraged by her husband Larry Hoare, a jeweler, Pfenninger is painting full steam ahead.
“I have waited so long for this time where I can just paint,” she said. “It didn’t seem fair to my family while we were raising our boys, but now they are older and I’m retired, and I’m just going for it, tapping into this life force.”
Diane Pike had been a graphic designer for 12 years and had never painted. In 2002, she took a class at the Denver Art Museum and was hooked.
“This class lit a fire in me that I didn’t know I had,” Pike said.
For four years, Pike painted in pastels, studying the art of color seeing, as developed by Henry Hensche of the Cape Cod School of Art.
“Hensche studied light and how the atmosphere influences our perception of color, seeing the large value masses as color spots,” Pike said. “In other words, light affects color and those different notes of color then convey the light.”
Hensche’s approach to learning how to see color was based on painting outdoors, so Pike started packing up her easel and pastels and was soon painting in and around Boulder, Colo., where she was living at the time.
“Painting plein air is the best way of understanding light and color in the landscape,” she said.
Soon, she discovered oil painting.
“I found out how rich and juicy oils are and how much easier they are to paint with outdoors because it requires half the gear to haul around,” she said.
When Pike and her husband moved to North Carolina in 2008, she began to paint full time. She also started offering studio classes and teaching plein air workshops.
“Many artists see the landscape based on a tonal system of local color and value,” she said. “I hope to pass along an introduction into the art of color seeing, believing that it will change an artist’s views of color forever. Painting plein air is the best way of understanding light and color in the landscape.”
Bunnell Street Arts Center will host an artist talk with Pike on Friday, June 20 at 6 p.m. Pike’s workshop, Capturing Light and Color in the Landscape, is sponsored by Homer Council on the Arts (HCOA), and supported — in part — by Alaska State Council on the Arts. The events begin June 26, 27 and 28, from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. at HCOA.
Suitable for beginning and intermediate painters, the cost is $260 for HCOA members and $280 general. Details and registration are available at homerart.org. Or stop by the office at 355 W. Pioneer Avenue, call 235-4288 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
“Bring a sense of adventure and an open mind,” said Gail Edgerly, HCOA Director. “Learning the art of color seeing will change the way you paint forever.”
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