Plein air painters
Artists, left to right: Geoffrey Allen, Stock Schlueter, Ryan Jensen, Mark Kerckhoff, Natalie Richards, Jim Wodark, Nita Harper, Natasha Isenhour, Jason Li, Jim McVicker, Ellen Howard, Joe Mancuso, Margaret Larlham, Toni Williams. All photos by Kay Levie

A bit of wind did not deter the 14 artists who gathered in the Southern California desert recently for the 18th Annual Plein Art Invitational hosted by the Borrego Art Institute. Nestled in the small town of Borrego Springs, renowned and emerging artists come for the competition, but the scenery and community spirit remain long after.

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“I like the diversity of landscape, the people and I feel at home here,” said participating artist Natasha Isenhour.

Each year event curator Kay Levie offers spots to today’s most exciting plein air artists. The remote and wild landscape that inspired early Southern California Impressionists remains a draw for the same reasons—big sky, lots of light, rugged canyons and washes, and Borrego’s showcase wildflower bloom.

Nationally known California coastal and landscape artist Rick J. Delanty served as juror. Delanty looked for excellence in quality of light, contrast, and shadow among this year’s entries. First prize went to Mark Kerckhoff for his oil painting “Arroyo Palo Verde,” which was remarkable for the way it captured light and the desert atmosphere.

plein air painting - 1st Place: Arroyo Palo Verde by Mark Kerckhoff
1st Place: “Arroyo Palo Verde” by Mark Kerckhoff

Watercolorist Geoffrey Allen took second place with “Peas & Carrots.” The artist’s intensity, dedication, and skill merge in this watercolor, although the way Allen applies paint makes it seem breezy and natural. Allen also won the Quick Draw with “Whispering Labyrinth.”

plein air painting - 2nd Place: "Peas & Carrots" by Geoffrey Allen
2nd Place: “Peas & Carrots” by Geoffrey Allen

Jim McVicker’s emotional “Palms, Shadow & Light” picked up third place for its interpretation of the light and spirit of Borrego.

plein air painting - 3rd Place: “Palms, Shadow & Light” by Jim McVicker
3rd Place: “Palms, Shadow & Light” by Jim McVicker

Pastelist Natalie Richards received an award of excellence/pastel for her work, “Borrego in the Nude Wash.”

Award of Excellence / Best Pastel: “Borrego in the Nude Wash” by Natalie Richards
Award of Excellence / Best Pastel: “Borrego in the Nude Wash” by Natalie Richards

Awards of merit went to Ryan Jensen, Jim Wodark, and Joe Mancuso. The People’s Choice was awarded to Jim Wodark’s “Canyon Sparkle.”

People’s Choice: “Canyon Sparkle” by Jim Wodark
People’s Choice: “Canyon Sparkle” by Jim Wodark

The final award of the event was the Artists’ Choice Award, with Jim McVicker receiving the majority of votes.

“What an incredible group of artists,” said Levie. “I so enjoyed the camaraderie among the artists, and what a tremendous body of work they produced. The expressions of amazement from visitors plus the gratitude for presenting a show of this caliber in our community makes it worth the tremendous amount of work it takes to put on a plein air event.”

When the Plein Air Invitational began, the Borrego Art Institute was housed in a strip mall. For the last 15 years, the Borrego Art Institute gallery has anchored the center of town in a state-of-the-art mid-century modern building.

“The gallery looks like New York City in the middle of the desert,” said participating artist Toni Williams. “The high quality of the artists, the professional gallery, and a fantastic desert make this a special place.”

The lively week wrapped up with a reception and the award ceremony. In addition to the paint-out and quick draw, watercolor artists Geoffrey Allen and Jason Li offered workshops to the public.

Next year’s Invitational will be held March 3-8. Learn more about the Borrego Art Institute at


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