Miles on the canvas: The Mountain Valley Plein Air Painters have paint, will travel

CHAMBERSBURG – “You can find something to paint anywhere,” says Jean Frey of the Mountain Valley Plein Air Painters.

We are at the opening reception of the group’s exhibition, which will be on display at the Council for the Arts (103 N. Main St.) through September 3. According to the council’s social media page, the three-week exhibit features more than 100 paintings by 20 artists that were painted “outside all around the area.”   

The exhibit hits the local art trifecta: a local gallery showing local artists’ depictions of local scenery.

The official description on the exhibit placard defines plein air as an adjective “denoting or in the manner of a 19th-century style of painting outdoors, or with a strong sense of the open air, that became a central feature of French impressionism.”

Frey keeps it simple: “It’s painting outdoors.”

In Franklin County, a plein air exhibit will – unsurprisingly – consist largely of bucolic fields and pastoral scenes.

More surprisingly, however, is the ability of the pieces to convey a natural beauty that seems centuries away in time (even though it is the present moment), and suggests locations so remote that we could never hope to tread there (even though they could literally be in your our own backyard).

The exhibit demonstrates that the real strength of the Mountain Valley Plein Air Painters lies in their ability to imbue these landscapes with a sense of nostalgia for a moment that is still occurring.

Six or seven years ago, the Mountain Valley Plein Air Painters group consisted of three to five people who met at a different location each week to paint. During the COVID-19 pandemic lockdowns, the group swelled to more than 20 painters “because it was something you could do outside, it was safe, it was social.”

Every Sunday, Frey sends an email to the group mailing list letting them know where they will be painting that week. Then, on Tuesday the participants arrive at that designated location. There are no teachers, and there are no critiques, but out there in the fields there’s a lot of cross-pollination. Frey works predominantly with pastels for instance, but if she chooses to work with oils one week, there are other oil painters who can offer advice and casual input on the fly.

There is no need for additional pressure because they are each locked in a race against their common enemy – the ever-moving sun.

“You need to have some understanding of your materials before you go into the field,” says Frey. “You get about two to two and a half hours – if you’re lucky. On a sunny day: two. The light changes, and you’ve got a different painting.”

That sounds fast, and Frey confirms that it is.

A lot of the painters start with a sketch so they can lock in where the darks and lights are supposed to be.

“Then you start to refer to the sketch at a certain point because the scene in front of you has changed.”

The Mountain Valley Plein Air Painters hit all of the obvious public spots – Caledonia, Cowans Gap, etc. – in their first years. Today, the locations are primarily found on private properties, and they are suggested by members.

“Some people want to paint vistas, and some want flowers, and I would go and try to find a place that a lot of people would like,” says Frey. “But now, they’re all artists, if they say to me, ‘I went by this place, and I think they’d have us,’ – Okay, great! I don’t go preview them anymore. I trust them.”

Paintings of the same location can differ greatly on account of variations in time, perspective and the artistic interpretations of the individuals.  

They start at 9:00 a.m., and they go until they’re finished or tired – or as long as the property owner doesn’t mind them hanging around.

“Mostly they don’t care,” she says. “They’re happy to have us.”

When the session ends, they pack up their canvases, each instilled with a captured slice of time and space.

This day may be gone, but next week they’ll have another chance in another place.  

“I like to have a building or a little trace of the hand of man in my painting,” she says. “That doesn’t mean everything here has it, but I tend to like a little bit of a barn or a house or a shed.”

She adds: “I’m willing to try most anything just because it’s all good experience to get out and get miles on the canvas.”

Learn more about this exhibit and how you can see it on our Events page.

[Main image caption: A detail from a larger watercolor painting by Mountain Valley Plein Air member Anne Finucane.]

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