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With its coastal seascapes, rolling hills, lush forests and sweeping vineyards, Sonoma County is a landscape painter's paradise.

So it's no surprise that both amateur and professional artists flock to the county's scenic spots to pursue the increasingly popular pastime of "plein air" painting, creating landscape art on-site outdoors.

"When you paint plein air, you get the whole sensory experience of being outdoors and painting. You have to capture the light at that particular time of day. The colors change for everything throughout the day," said artist Linda Barretta, 63, of Healdsburg.

"So it gives a whole completely different look to your work," said Barretta, an experienced painter who came to the plein air movement four years ago. "The work is so much more alive. I can look at any of my paintings and it takes me back to the day I painted it, and remember whether it was cloudy or windy or hot."

While many artists produce skillful landscape paintings in the studio, working from photographs, notes, sketches and memory, plein air enthusiasts insist something's missing.

"Painting plein air is different from working in a studio," said Camille Przewodek, 63, of Petaluma, an internationally known, classically trained artist and painting teacher. "It takes years to develop an eye for the colors, or be able to capture the light."

But there are perks to keep beginners going while they learn the art of plein air. The air is fresh and the scenery is exceptional.

"I go painting all over the Sonoma and Mendocino coasts," said Will McGuinness, 71, of Sonoma, who started taking lessons about seven years ago. (Will's first name is short for "Willajean," which she never uses.)

"I love wide vistas and large landscapes, with fields and trees, and mountains in the distance. It's beautiful out there," she said. "I'm out in the parks and the open spaces, and sometimes I come across some characters."

Barretta said passers-by often stop to chat when she's painting outdoors.

"People are curious," she said. "The will come by and wonder what I'm doing there."

But she's never treated like a trespasser, mostly because she always asks permission in advance when she wants to venture onto private property. Otherwise, she sticks to public places.

Barretta admitted that painting on-site is a challenge, but it's also fun.

"I take a lunch, or sometimes I'll stop at a little local restaurant. Sometimes I spend all day painting with friends," she said. "When you paint plein air, you have the sensory experience of being outdoors and painting."

McGuinness said she's still learning, but enjoys the work.

"I thought I was good, but I just played at it," she said. "It wasn't until I retired, and found out where there were good lessons, that I got better."

Both Barretta and McGuinness study with Przewodek, who was trained by the famed American artist and teacher Henry Hensche, whose technique can traced directly back to master painter Claude Monet.

Przewodek has a painting in the current exhibit "Then and Now: 100 Years of Plein Air Painting" at the Irvine Museum in Irvine, Calif., and she just released her new book, "Mondays with Camille: Capturing the Key of Light in Color."

"I'm definitely a plein air colorist," she said. "I was painting plein air when it wasn't popular. Now everybody's doing it."

One proof of the art form's growing popularity is the increasing number of plein art events held all over California and the rest of country. Artists spread across an area for a week to paint new works and then display them at the end of the week.

The annual Sonoma Plein Air Festival in Sonoma Valley runs Sept. 15-19 this year, with a gala evening Sept. 19 at the Fairmont Sonoma Mission Inn and a day-long festival Sept. 20 at Sonoma Plaza. Information: sonomapleinair.com.

<i>You can reach staff writer Dan Taylor at 521-5243 or dan.taylor@pressdemocrat.com. Read his Arts blog at arts.blogs.pressdemocrat.com.</i>