Like the Olympics, it's physically demanding. The competitors hike hillsides, comb sandy beaches and climb rocky terrain bordering Crystal Cove State Park, Crown Valley Parkway and Laguna Canyon Road.
Equipped with loads of gear including umbrellas, hats, swim trunks and sunscreen, they can be spotted particularly at Laguna's Main Beach, Heisler Park and Laguna Coast Wilderness Park and Preserve.
The contest? The annual Plein Air Painting Competition in Laguna Beach. It's art as spectator sport. And with painters toting portable easels and slinging paint on canvas as fast as they can, the heat is on.
"Everyone is out and around wishing us good luck like it's the Olympics or something," joked John Cosby, a plein-air painter from Laguna Beach and founding member of the Laguna Plein Air Painters Assn.
Cosby is one of 50 artists from throughout the nation invited to participate in the weeklong art competition, now in its second year. The artists--12 from Orange County--are out in force, hoping to clinch $21,500 in prizes with first, second, third place and eight honorable mentions awarded. The event started Monday and continues today with a "quick-draw paint-out"; participants must finish an entire landscape painting in two hours.
The contest ends Sunday with an exhibit at the Laguna Art Museum. But all day today visitors to Laguna can see the artists in action, roving from one scenic spot to another in search of the perfect subject.
"I'm tired," said Jove Wang of Alhambra, hard at work on his seventh painting.
"Every day--work!" Wang, 38, said. "It's a hard competition but it makes me happy. The beach, cool. Laguna is beautiful. The sky, blue."
The competition stays true to the tradition of the Impressionists. In the early 1900s, established artists traded their studios for a spot in the great outdoors. The close relationship with nature came with the invention of the portable easel and moisture-rich paints. Plein-air, French for "open air" was born.
Laguna Beach started as an arts colony and was a hub for plein-air painters such as Edgar Payne and William Wendt, and some even immigrated from Europe at the turn of the century.
"There are other plein-air competitions," said Bolton Colburn, director of the Laguna Art Museum, a host of the event. "However, this is the only one that happens in a place that is steeped in plein-air history. This is where California plein-air Impressionism came into being with a larger concentration of plein-air artists living and practicing here than anywhere else."
With history comes plenty of challenges. Working quickly with broad brush strokes, artists hope for good weather.
"I don't paint well in gray, and it has been gray in the mornings," said Gil Dellinger, of Stockton. Dellinger, 57, is on his sixth painting of a prominent rock in Divers Cove.
"I had one image I've done four times and ended up throwing it out," Dellinger said.
The bottom line for these performing artists is to keep moving--plein-air painting is a race against time.
"The light changes so fast, and if you want to capture a particular scene and moment, you have to work fast. But you lose a lot of the details," said Mian Situ, a competing artist from San Dimas who is flanked by his family and two onlookers.
"I couldn't finish this painting yesterday because the light kept changing," Situ, 47, said. "The way the paint dries, it's hard to work on the same painting again. You have to wait one or two days. It's challenging but fun."
Though the event is steeped in history, it also calls attention to a new art movement to capture a vanishing natural habitat.
"These paintings are documenting the history of the area that's being lost to development," said Sandra Anderson, a volunteer with the event.
Plein-air has grown in popularity with an increasing awareness of the environment. And the process of plein-air has become more popular with artists. It's a chance for them to get out of their studios and interact with the public.
"Plein-air exposes the public to art. And, it makes the artists more accessible," Anderson said. "People who have never set foot in a gallery will come upon an artist in the park. It's less intimidating."
The charms and frustrations of painting outdoors include countless surprises, namely insects, birds, animals, bad weather, dirt, cars, sand, heat and curious passersby with too many questions.
"I'm trying to concentrate and be nice," Dellinger said. "I'm used to talking while I work, but I typically try not to talk too much when I'm trying to focus."