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'En plein air' exhibits come to the Firehouse

Painting expeditions in the Sierra mountains, watercolors from Jade Fon enthusiasts on display

Thirteen years ago, two friends from Moraga trekked to the eastern Sierra Nevada mountains with camping gear on their backs and paintbrushes in hand.

Paul Kratter and Bill Cone, both avid outdoorsmen and illustrators at the time, wanted to pass time in the mountains, just focusing on their painting. They invited some fellow artists to join -- just artists, Kratter said. They didn't want to end up distracted following the fish, for example, which might happen if they included fishing fans in their group.

They hired a cook and stayed put for a week.

"It's really immersing yourself in the environment," said Kratter, a Bay Area native.

This adventure became an annual summertime tradition, and they came to call themselves the "Granite Group" -- so-dubbed because the Sierra are made of granite. And over a decade later, a collection of the group's artwork is now the subject of an exhibit at the Harrington Gallery at Pleasanton's Firehouse Arts Center.

The exhibit is called "En Plein Air," a French phrase that refers to painting outdoors in the daylight. The display will include artwork from 26 artists who have joined Kratter and Cone on their expeditions, along with to additional materials collected from the treks like sketch books.

This particular display will be featured in the Harrington Gallery, while another collection -- watercolors also in the "en plein air" style -- will adorn the hallways at the downtown arts center. The watercolors were created by students and fans of late watercolor artist Jade Fon, who have continued to paint together in his tradition.

Both exhibits officially open to the public Friday, following Thursday night's opening reception at the Firehouse.

The artists from the Granite Group have morphed over the years, but Kratter and Cone have remained constants. They always go in mid-August for about six days, Kratter said, and usually bring about eight artists -- and a few pack mules to carry their gear.

They've traveled around the Sierra for their treks, though they have returned to some of the same sites multiple times. This year they spent a week at Gem Lake, near Mammoth Mountain.

Painting subjects vary. "As much as the mountains are the calling card," Kratter said, sometimes artists choose to focus on coffee pots on the pack mules. The all-encompassing experience.

By remaining in one place for several days, the artists are able to dive into the landscape on a micro and macro level.

"Because you're in one place for six days, you really get to know the area," Kratter said.

It teaches them to work fast too, in a landscape where scenic moments are more ephemeral than within a contained studio.

"There's nothing like standing somewhere -- especially in the mountains -- and seeing the first light come up and light the mountains," Kratter said. But a sunrise is fleeting, and after about 15 minutes, the rosiness fades to a more brownish hue, he said.

"(Nature) is temporary," added Cone, who works as a production designer at Pixar Animation. "The light is changing, you're trying to capture something that is constantly moving."

Trying to capture the complexities and fluidity of nature on paper is an "almost futile" task, he said. But one that has helped him in his current profession, as he works on set design for Pixar movies.

"You're forced to look for patterns and break things down in a time constraint," Cone said. "It helps you understand what's important in a painting."

The Jade Fon exhibit is also "en plein air," mostly comprised of watercolor pieces. Fon was a renowned watercolor artist and taught at Diablo Valley College, among other places. He was nationally recognized for his popular Asilomar Watercolor Workshops, which he conducted for over two decades in Pacific Grove, in Monterey County.

The Firehouse display will feature the artwork of 11 Jade Fon enthusiasts, including his former associate and partner Pam Della and local Pleasanton artist Charlotte Severin.

The Granite Group exhibit will be on display until Feb. 17, and the Jade Fon enthusiasts collection until Feb. 14.

Kratter and Cone will be presenting a dual painting demo and guided exhibit walk-through next Saturday (Jan. 20) from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m., and a special youth event "The Outside Arts" will take place on Feb. 8 from 4:30-5:45 p.m., costing $15 for residents and $18 for non-residents.

Regular gallery hours are Wednesdays through Fridays from 12-5 p.m. and Saturdays 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. in the Firehouse Arts Center, 4444 Railroad Ave. in downtown Pleasanton. Donations are always appreciated.

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