A history of Plein Air painting on Gasparilla Island

March 21, 2021
By Marcy Shortuse

BY TONYA BRAMLAGE – Although one can never fully know the daily sights that will be seen while spending a day outdoors here on Gasparilla Island, encounters with butterflies, birds, fish, turtles, flowers and exotic plants are quite common. A less common sight was spotted recently under a potted tree at the Boca Grande Post Office, local Plein Air painter, Christina Tugeau. Christina has been painting Boca Grande ever since the first time she came to the Island almost 20 years ago. “It’s always a pleasure to talk with people who stop and inquire about my painting,” she beamed. Christina founded the CATugeau Artist Agency in 1994 as a pioneer in the children’s illustration industry. She has always been part of an active artist’s illustration community so when she retired, it was natural for Christina to begin her daily Plein Air painting practice.
Plein Air is a French term meaning, “outside.” Plein Air can be pronounced with a soft “e”, or “plane” with a long vowel sound, as in hydroplane. Either pronunciation is acceptable and both are commonly interchanged. Plein Air painters of days past never would have considered themselves as trend setters. Statistics show that Plein Air painting has grown in popularity by more than 35% in the past year. Artist supply companies and Amazon sellers alike have an extended waiting list for certain Plein Air products such as outdoor easels. The backorder conundrum is an unprecedented surprise for the manufacturers and the retailers alike. Novice painters have demonstrated an increased demand and desire to express themselves through Plein Air painting by attempting to take creativity and curiosity outdoors.
Sharon Yarbough is the Director of the Peace River Painters who recently met here on the Island to paint at the Port Boca Grande Lighthouse. Painters meet for Plein Air painting at various locations from October to May. The group meets each week on Monday and they paint from 8:30 to 11:15 a.m. “We all disburse and come back together at a designated site location for a time of show and tell. This allows a time for each artist to critique and collaborate after each session,” she shared. All mediums and all levels of experience are welcome. Membership is free. No dues or fees are required to join. Prospective Plein Air painters can learn more by visiting the website at peaceriverpainters.com. Painters can sign up for weekly news blasts that announce the whereabouts of local meeting locations. The Englewood Plein Air Posse is organized by local Plein Air painter Gail Heidebrecht. The group often participates in combined outings with the members of Peace River Painters.
Plein Air painters are most typically artists who enjoy adding physical dimensions to an ongoing evolutionary process of developing any work of art. Outdoor painting appeals to artists because it presents a challenge to understand and synthesize artistic venues. While photography freeze frames nature’s appearances, Plein Air allows for the artist to utilize every potential arrangement of shapes, pattern of light and dark, and variable momentary gatherings. Painters must learn to capture what is seen in a timely manner. “Nature’s light has a unique way of unifying specific color palettes in any given location,” explained local Plein Air artist Kaytee Esser. Knowing how to mix the color you want to use involves taking into consideration the way light invades all that it touches. Restricting the use of paint to just 3 primary colors and white, enables the quality of light to illuminate unique color to the artist’s palette. Painting in Plein Air allows for an integration of the physical and creative realms to come alive with the use of light and color.
The appearance of nature and its plethora of natural realms is richer, more varied, and highly complex in comparison to painting in a studio setting. “Painting from life is essential to every artist. It sharpens the memory, dramatically improves draftsmanship, and gradually enhances painting proficiency,” is the proclaimed unofficial mission statement of the Plein Air painters at Peace River. Dealing with all the changes and the unexpected delights that arise while painting outdoors and translating that onto her canvas continues to inspire local artist, Christina Tugeau. The best time to paint outdoors is in the morning and the late afternoon. “The light is best at these times because you have contrast, strong color, and shadows aren’t changing quickly. For the beginner simple, basic approaches make for the best experience.”
Sharon Yarbough claims, “It takes 10-12 paintings to get 1 good one.” Artists need to make advance preparations for a Plein Air painting session in order to insure the best possible outcome for creativity. Portability of supplies is key when assessing the necessary mobility for painting a specific scene. “Knowing how to improvise and make the best use of your resources on the spot is paramount to the Plein Air experience,” Sharon advised. The painter’s supply list must include individual art supplies such as watercolors, oils, pastels, acrylics, drawing pencils, sketch book, brushes, canvases, paper, etc. Additionally, artists bring umbrellas, hats, sunblock, bug spray, paper towels, rags, a chair or stool, drinking water for hydration, and food.
Frances Boardman Crowninshield was perhaps the most notable Plein Air painter in Boca Grande’s history. Frank was known for painting scenes from his various homes. Los Olas in Boca Grande, was his home during the winter. Seventy-one of his watercolors are known to exist today. In total, 22 of them show different aspects of Boca Grande. Eight of these paintings were given to the Health Clinic by Mr. Crowninshield’s niece, Toddy Hammond. Frank was a self taught artist who developed “an increasing expertise in the use of color and sophisticated brush work and used a three-point crown within a shield, literally a “crown-in-shield,” as his signature.
“Frank’s Boca Grande watercolors depict a way of life and a time when the island was much smaller and less complicated. They celebrate the beauty of the outdoor world of tropical gardens and Gulf views that characterize this community,” purported former island resident and art historian Dr. Sara C. Junkins, of Boston University.
Aaron Johnson, assistant professor in the College of Art and Architecture’s Art & Design program at the University of Idaho takes an innovative approach with his Plein Air students.
“I virtually take my students to my favorite spots and host live videos of myself painting a scene. The beauty of using social media platforms like YouTube and Instagram is that they already host artists.” Live demonstrations allow students and accomplished artists alike to collaborate and connect from a multitude of live locations. The modern day use of technology definitely adds a layer of unique dimension to the artist community. A vast wealth of unimaginable resources are literally at the fingertips of every Plein Air painter. There are invisible lines connecting everything together. Perhaps your next chance encounter with a Plein Air painter will bring a new awareness of artists. Observe how they mix with all the natural resources around them, transcend creative limitations, color the world with light and contrast, and continue to bring us inspirational beauty of the outdoors.”