Greater Harrisburg's Community Magazine

Chasing the Light: In central PA, the spring season has become plein air season.

Screenshot 2015-04-29 00.53.58It’s all about the light.

Capturing sunlight and shadows is the crux of plein air art, which means, in French, “in the open air.”

Plein air painting is about “leaving the four walls of your studio behind” and experiencing the creation of visual arts in a natural setting, according to the website

It’s not a new idea.

Plein air art goes back centuries but became a true art form in the hands of the French impressionists of the 19th century. Their desire to paint light and its changing, ephemeral qualities, together with the creation of transportable paint tubes and a box easel, gave artists the freedom to create outdoors.

The approach of the impressionists was, at first, considered “outré, even scandalous,” said Carrie Wissler-Thomas, executive director of the Art Association of Harrisburg. “They weren’t doing finished studio pieces and weren’t painting gods and goddesses but a washer woman or people drinking in a café.”

The Joys

Locally, the annual Plein Air Camp Hill Arts Festival, now in its fifth year and to be held later this month, is one example of the popularity of outdoor art.

The festival is increasingly drawing artists from outside the area, such as Delaware resident Jim Rehak, a caricature artist who sometimes works on boardwalks and at outdoor events.

“I love the outside, the solitude,” he said of plein air.

There are, of course, challenges like wind, rain and bugs. But most plein air artists seem to see these as less significant than the joys.

Nowadays, plein air consists not only of painting but also of photography. Jim Whetstone has his own photo business, but has joined the plein air movement.

“A lot of photography is done outdoors anyway,” he said. “Part of the beauty of the Camp Hill Festival is that artists come together to share ideas and creativity.”

Don Uvick is an artistic photographer with a special interest in diner and street photography.

“I like nostalgia and focusing on structures rather than landscapes,” he said, though the latter is much more typical for plein air artists.

It’s up to April Tichenor-Holtzman to inspire younger generations of plein air artists.

An art teacher, she oversees the youth activities of the Camp Hill festival, which include a Youth Paint-Out for kids in preschool to fifth grade; Youth and Young Adult Quick Draws; and a Youth Quick Shoot for budding photographers.

“The competitions, which began five years ago, are fast becoming more regional,” said Tichenor-Holtzman. “All schools in the Capital Area Intermediate Unit can participate.”

Among the special events at the Camp Hill Festival is the Collectors Preview Party on May 29, a catered event with live music. Winners of the juried painter and photographer competitions, as well as student competition winners, will be announced.

Back to Realism

In central Pennsylvania, plein air painting actually dates back quite a bit.

It has been a hallmark of the Seven Lively Artists, a group that has been an integral part of the area’s art community for more than 50 years. Although the Lively Artists’ work encompasses a variety of subjects and styles, they are best known for their plein air passion. In addition, the Art Association of Harrisburg offers classes for drawing and painting outdoors.

“They’re intrepid,” said Wissler-Thomas of the participating artists. “They go in all kinds of weather.”

The Gettysburg Festival, entering its eighth year, includes a component called Plein Air Paintout, which takes place the first day of the three-day June event. And the Harrisburg Symphony Society Showhouse & Gardens, which bridges May and June, includes a robust plein air component.

The region also has an organization devoted to the needs of plein air artists, the Susquehanna Valley Plein Air Painters.

Julie Riker, an active member, is an interior decorator painter, doing faux finishes and murals. But, in between jobs, she loves to paint plein air, sometimes with a group, sometimes alone.

“I took classes at the Art Center and Galleries of Mechanicsburg with Earl Blust (a member of the Seven Lively Artists) and loved it,” Riker said. “I love how the subject makes the colors alive, and I love the challenge of working quickly.”

Indeed, after many years in the wilderness, painting landscapes and other outdoor subjects seems to be back in vogue.

“A lot of artists today want to go back to realism,” said Wissler-Thomas.

The Plein Air Camp Hill Arts Festival will be held May 29 to 31. Most festival activities take place at Willow Park, 24th and Market streets. Plein Air headquarters is at Cornerstone Coffeehouse, 2133 Market St. More information is at

The Susquehanna Valley Plein Air Painters will paint at the Harrisburg Symphony Society Showhouse & Gardens at Lindenwood each weekend from May 23 through June 14. Visit

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