Lori Putnam mentors a student.

The Plein Air Force initiative — an effort to help painters spread the word about plein air painting and encourage people to try painting outdoors — is something many organizations and events already do to some extent. Like, for instance, the morning set aside each year during the Forgotten Coast Plein Air Invitational

Mary Erickson and the student she mentored this year at the Forgotten Coast event’s student art day

The brunt of the Plein Air Force program is informing the public about plein air painting — explaining what it is, how it’s done, and what it does to the artist and to the viewer. A light-hearted video was produced by PleinAir magazine to introduce the program to plein air painters at April’s Plein Air Convention, and another one was made to introduce the concept of plein air painting to the general public. Both are available on YouTube, as well as on a DVD that enlistees can use in their own programs. PleinAir magazine publisher Eric Rhoads says his request is that enlistees in the Plein Air Force devote one hour a month to this cause. “Convert one person a month,” he says. “We don’t want you to work too hard; you already have enough to do. But we want to help you get out in the world and spread the word about plein air painting. It’s all free, compliments of PleinAir magazine.” 

Charlie Hunter considers a student’s efforts and offers encouragement.

The Forgotten Coast Plein Air Invitational has been addressing this need since the event’s inception 10 years ago. “It’s been part of the whole concept from the start, giving back to the community, and giving artists a chance to give back as well,” says Natalie Shoaf, a member of the event’s board of directors and the prime mover in its educational component. “It’s been immensely popular with everyone — the artists, the kids, and the community. We need art and culture in our schools. When something has to get dropped because of budget issues, it’s usually art classes. The superintendent of our schools is at all of our functions and is very supportive. Everybody wants arts education, but the budget gets cut, and something has to go.”

Shoaf says the Forgotten Coast’s efforts have borne fruit. Local high schools do have art programs, thanks to grants funded by the Forgotten Coast event, and students from past mentoring mornings have gone on to have art careers.

Dawn Whitelaw and her charge during the student art day

The Forgotten Coast event spans several communities, from Alligator Point to Mexico Beach. The gala held each year moves from community to community, to share the opportunity to host it. Whether activities occur on St. George Island or in Apalachicola, Carrabelle or Port St. Joe, Mexico Beach or Windmark, the artists encounter enthusiastic support and charming views reminiscent of the Florida of old. It may take almost 90 minutes to go from one end of the Forgotten Coast to another, but the population is still small. Mary Erickson, a Florida artist who has been involved with the event from the beginning, says it’s locals who make it work — and who buy the paintings. And it is their children who are getting excited about plein air painting, in part because of the annual student art day, which was held on May 8this year.

“Children are always attracted to you when you paint on location,” says Erickson. “When they come up to us, they are familiar with the program and have a keen interest in what we are doing. Students interview us for assignments. The ones who participate that morning in the student art day are really fired up — it’s a big deal for them to be selected.

A professional artist and a local high school student paint together on the beach on St. George Island during the 2015 Forgotten Coast Plein Air Invitational’s student art day.

“And the teachers do a great job selecting the students. I have had 10 really great people as students over the years at the event. I approach them and do a little interview, and say, ‘Paint your passion.’ One year I had someone who really loved Van Gogh, and darn it if her painting didn’t look a bit like a Van Gogh. That’s where her passion is. Another liked fast cars. We didn’t find a fast car, but we did find a Mini Cooper and painted that. The event has fostered so much in terms of appreciating and collecting fine art.”

Erickson says plein air painting is crucial in introducing art to young people and getting them excited about painting. “It’s good for any painter, but for them, the idea of painting outside, and traveling around the country and participating in events — that alone might inspire them, expand their possibilities. They are like, ‘Wait — maybe I can become a professional artist if I work at this.’ And the time limit of plein air painting gives them some structure — for some students, two hours might be the limit of their attention span anyway.”


  1. Steve,I just now had an opportunity to read your very nice article on a superb painter and human being. We were privileged to have Gillian as our Artist-in-residence this past spring at William and Mary and she did a terrific job. The book is a marvel ,thank you for giving it and Gillian’s work some well deserved attention.


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