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Sonoma County’s beauty inspires local art groups to tap into their senses

Leave everything else behind you. Tap into your senses. Come to the blank canvas and meet yourself wherever you are.

These are wise words from Marsha Connell, one of many local plein air (the act of painting outside) artists, hobbyists and lovers who turn to Sonoma County’s landscape as a source for their creativity and expression.

“Nature is our starting place for self-expression,” Connell said.

At Pepperwood Preserve, which sits in the Mayacamas Mountains, you can find Painting through the Seasons — a workshop series held one day each season to capture Sonoma County’s landscape through sunlit summers, spring blooms, misty winters and the warm foliage of fall.

The series, led by Connell, a long-time Santa Rosa Junior College artist instructor demonstrates painting techniques with oil paints, pastels, acrylic paints and watercolors.

Painters in the workshop learn how to mix colors, how to change the expression of a painting through color, how to show perspective and how to balance observation and self-expression.

More importantly, Connell emphasizes “tapping into your senses.” Quieting the chatter of your mind and tuning into your surroundings. For instance, before each four-hour session, painters quietly walk around and listen or draw the sounds they hear outside, she explained.

“The act of painting outside and being still for a long time, you become sensitized to the small changes that are happening around you… the small sounds, the small movements,” said Connell, who lives in Santa Rosa. “Then you start to hear more and notice more. You begin to notice the micro and macro changes of your environment.”

Before painting, she suggests partaking in a warm-up called invincible drawing where people use their hands and arms to mimic movement of the trees and plants surrounding them.

“Your muscles take note of the movement. Then you can come to the blank canvas with your entire body and paint,” Connell explained.

Witnessing changes

The idea for the series was inspired by one of Connell’s former painting students, Bill Gittins, who in 2012 created a Painting through the Seasons project, a key requirement in becoming a Pepperwood Preserve Steward, which are volunteers who dedicate time to the preserve’s research, management, education and community programs.

At the time, Gittins invited Connell and a few other artists to participate in his Painting through the Seasons project for a year at the preserve, she said.

In May 2021, Connell brainstormed with Holland Gistelli, Pepperwood Preserve’s education program coordinator, to include in their monthly events an activity that could last all year. The series finally launched in January 2022, inviting painters from all walks of life to join.

“The joy people give themselves to paint outside in a special place is incredible,” Connell said. “Some people who come are professionals, students, some have not picked up a paint brush in over 30 years and say, ‘But here I am.’”

Each workshop can fit up to 14 people, Connell said. Painters are encouraged to bring their desired painting medium.

“Creating art on land is such an incredible way to connect with a place,” Gistelli said. “You’re spending time observing and deepening your connection with the landscape. You’re witnessing the sudden changes.”

Art lovers gather outside

It’s hard not to pull out your sketch book and create all the beauty that surrounds you in Sonoma County.

For one locally curated art group, Ready, Set, Sketch!, Sonoma County’s landscape is their muse and they can’t help but to meet in the name of art making.

The small group sketches, paints and draws together across Sonoma County from Jack London State Historic Park to Historic Railroad Square, Sonoma Plaza, Tolay Lake Regional Park and even local wineries.

“It’s a fun way to hang out with people outside and to quiet the mind,” said Phillip McDonel, 72, co-founder of the group. “It’s about concentrating on something that’s not going to upset you like the war, news, shooting and day to day stuff. It’s about letting all those things go.”

In 2018, a Windsor couple discovered the art group online after moving from San Francisco to Sonoma County in hopes of connecting with new friends and channeling their creativity.

“We’ve sketched in a cheese shop, in the mountains and coast,” Chris Saylor said. “We get to see all these awesome places. It was a great way to help us get settled into Sonoma County too as new residents.”

In 2012, founders McDonel and Richard Sheppard who were eleven neighbors living in Healdsburg, learned they were both artists who enjoyed sketching. The two joined forces and started sketching together and began posting their work on Instagram and Facebook.

Curious community members reached out to them asking to join the group before officially forming Ready, Set, Sketch! in 2014.

“It’s interesting getting to see everyone’s take on a scene since everyone uses different materials and mediums,” Rebecca Saylor said. “It’s different from a workshop or class. It’s a judgment-free zone and I’d say 99% of us are hobbyists.”

The group meets from 10 am to 1 pm the second Saturday of each month. The group comes together at 1 pm to eat lunch and share each other’s creations.

“It’s not just about the art work, it’s about coming out and having fun,” McDonel said. “People can buddy up or sketch alone. I encourage people to be comfortable and just have fun.”

You can reach Staff Writer Mya Constantino at mya.constantino@pressdemocrat.com. @searchingformya on Twitter.

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