En Plein Air: Painting the American Landscape

by Allison Malafronte

Kenn Backhaus painting on the shores of Resurrection Bay, in Seward, Alaska.

Part of my job as an editor at American Artist and the “En Plein Air” blogger is to inform you of any events, exhibitions, or products that cross my desk that I think may be of use to you as artists in general or inspirational to you as plein air painters in particular.  I recently came upon the website for a new PBS series titled “Plein Air: Painting the American Landscape,” and I feel it my civic duty as your Plein Air purveyor to bring this program to your attention. What a wonderful presentation of not only the joy and history of plein air painting in our country but also of the technique and style of some of today’s top American landscape painters.

The series includes six different plein air-painting sessions with six talented plein air artists—Matt Smith, Frank LaLumia, Jean LeGassick, Kenn Backhaus, Charles Sovek, and Ron Rencher—and was conceived as an almost documentary of America’s most popular landscape-painting locations as interpreted by both past and present masters. “I have been an avid outdoorsman and artist for most of my life and found plein air to be the perfect fulfillment of both of those passions,” says the series creator and executive producer Greg Bombeck. “The more I learned, the more I realized how much more there was to learn, and I began studying the work of contemporary masters such as Matt Smith and Jean LeGassick. I knew there was a story to tell about this uniquely American genre, and so in 2000 I approached a director-friend to help produce a PBS series about the plein air-painting experience. In the fall of 2007, with tremendous support from sponsors and other enthusiasts, the series aired on 356 PBS affiliates and was quickly made available on DVD.”


“Plein Air: Painting the American Landscape” is broken down into two main series, with the first exploring two locations in Alaska—including the Tongass National Forest and monumental Mt. McKinley, in Denali National Park (you get to see the artists scurry in a hurry when an uninvited grizzly bear shows up to listen to Matt Smith’s pearls of wisdom!)—and the second covering Cape Cod, Taos, and Trinidad Colorado, where plein air painter Charles Sovek takes viewers on a tour of his summer home and studio on Cape Cod; Ron Rencher relates the rich and colorful history of the Taos, New Mexico, plein air movement; and Frank LaLumia shows his command of both watercolor and oil while painting on-site in beautiful Trinidad, Colorado.

Jean LeGassick and Kenn Backhaus painting on location in Denali National Park.

In every location the crew also visits local museums or historic locations to discuss some of the great local plein air painters of the past. For example, while in Alaska, the artists stop by the Anchorage Museum to study the work of the great mountaineer and artist George Brown while Professor Kesler Woodward comments on the work of Eustace Ziegler, Ted Lambert, and iconic Mt. McKinley painter Sidney Lawrence. In Cape Cod the rich history of Charles Hawthorne’s Provincetown artists’ colony is explored with commentary and examples provided by Chris McCarthy, the director of the Provincetown Art Association and Museum, and James Bakker, an author and art expert. While in Taos the crew heads to the historic Taos Pueblo (still inhabited after 1,000 years!) as well as to the E.I. Couse Studio, where the original Taos Society of Artists worked; and in Trinidad, Colorado, Frank LaLumia paints some of the historic buildings of the region while Jean Stern—the executive director of the Irvine Museum, in Irvine, California—provides historical insight into the California plein air movement, showing the work of William Wendt, Guy Rose, Alston Clarke, and others.

To see a preview of “Plein Air: Painting the American Landscape,” click on the Quick Time player above. For more information on the series or to purchase the program on DVD, visit www.pleinairamerica.com. Once you’ve had a chance to watch it, please come back to this post and let us know what you think!

Allison Malafronte
Associate Editor
American Artist

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Plein Air Painting Blog
Allison Malafronte

About Allison Malafronte

Allison Malafronte is the senior editor of American Artist magazines, and the project editor of  Plein Air Painting and Workshop With the Masters magazines. She is also the creative manager of the Weekend With the Masters Workshop & Conference (www.aamastersweekend.com) which was launched in 2009 and is now in its third year. She is author of the Art for Thought column in American Artist magazine (also on the Artist Daily site under The Artist's Life blog) and the 2008-2010 Plein Air blogs on Artist Daily. 

5 thoughts on “En Plein Air: Painting the American Landscape

  1. thanks so much, Allison, for the alert re PBS “Plein Air”. I’m a beginner in the artist domain and love plein air painting! I’ve got alot to learn and American artist has been invaluable in my quest…but I’m really excited re the Plein air BLOG. I enjoyed the “Anatomy of the Landscape” on trees but missed the one on Clouds. Is there a way I can catch up on that one? Thank you, Barbara Lambert

  2. the First Plein Air workshop, infact my first taste of paintig out of doors was with Kenn Backhaus in beautiful Hood River Oregog a few years back. What a great guy and a fabulous teacher for sure. I thought my brain would explode after a week of watch and listening to him. I would strongly recomend his workshops to anyone that wants to get serious about the fun and challenges that plein air offers.

    All the best,
    Michael Orwick

    Orwick Arts