IMG_0579 KCRWThe High Desert Plein Air Artists is an informal group that meets the third Saturday of the month at various locations in and around Joshua Tree National Park.

We are a mix of full-time and part-time professional artists, retirees, and hobbyists. Some of us have years of experience painting outside, while others have had their first experience painting “en plein air” with us. We work in oils, pastels, charcoal, pencil, acrylics, watercolor, and casein. Some of us have elaborate setups with easels, palettes, umbrellas, and chairs, and others just bring a sketchbook and a pencil. What we all have in common is that we have chosen to work en plein air—French for “in the open air”—instead of in the relative safety of a studio.

I started The High Desert Plein Air Artists in January 2014 for community and companionship. I had been plein air painting for a few years by myself, but I wanted to meet other plein air artists in the Morongo Basin. Today there are around 30 artists on our email list, some from as far away as Riverside. On any given Saturday, as many as eight people come out to paint together at a location I’ve chosen.

IMG_0232Creating art is often a solitary activity. When I head out to paint alone, it is a very introverted, meditative experience. I become immersed in the landscape, consumed by my thoughts, interpretations, and reactions. Painting with The High Desert Plein Air Artists is a social experience. We share ideas, talk about potential sites in the day’s area, view others’ interpretations of the same landscape, and have someone to chat with when we need a break. The group also forces me to get out at least once a month—it’s a sacred appointment on my calendar that I can’t miss.

Our gatherings—“paint outs”—look different depending on the time of year. The Mojave Desert weather can be anywhere from gorgeous to utterly unbearable—and those extremes can occur all on the same day.

During the winter, we start around 9 a.m. The artists usually spread out and find their own areas to create. One person will set her easel up to capture the light and shadow on some rock formations, another might be painting a vista scene of a desert expanse and mountains, and someone else might be focusing on a bush in bloom. Some people work in a tight, detailed manner, others are more impressionistic, and some create strongly abstracted pieces. One artist in our group does miniature works on a canvas no larger than 6-by-8 inches. Martha, a professional artist from Palm Springs, joined us last year. The first piece she did with us, a lush impasto oil painting, was accepted into the Joshua Tree National Park Art Exposition last November. Holly, a retired teacher, does colorful, beautifully textured pastels of mountain vistas.

If the weather is cooperating, we will meet up for lunch and share the results of our morning efforts. At that point, some artists will continue to paint, and others will head home. As temperatures rise in the spring, we start earlier. The winds also pick up later in the year. Mornings are apt to be calm, but the winds can really whip up as the day goes on; they have been known to dump easels to the ground and blow works on paper across the desert.

As we head into the summer months, only the true die-hards venture out. We have to start at first light, as close to 5:30 a.m. as possible. We usually only paint for a few hours, and don’t have any group time. By the time we are done painting at 7:30 or 8 a.m., it’s usually approaching 90 degrees, and all everyone wants to do is retreat to the air conditioning of their automobiles. The autumn months are the most unpredictable, with everything from gale force winds and chilling rain to blistering heat. Sometimes we are blessed with an absolutely perfect day, and that makes it all worthwhile.

IMG_0581Joshua Tree National Park covers 1,234 square miles, so we have many potential “studios” and subjects on any given day. I try to find spots with good parking, a restroom, and potential subjects that don’t require a lot of walking. The park is full of Joshua Trees, boulders, junipers, piñon pines, mountains, and more, and it even has a seasonal body of water at Barker Dam. I don’t know if it is possible to exhaust its possibilities. I’ve been plein air painting there for the last six years or so, and I still find new and exciting scenes every time I go.

On one occasion, I was struggling to find a spot to set up. A fellow artist mentioned how the light was hitting the cotton woods a little way down the path, so I headed over there and found my subject for the morning.

A session with The High Desert Plein Air Artists results in artworks that have immediacy, vibrancy, and energy that is difficult to achieve in a studio environment. Outdoors, we take in the subject matter with all our senses, and feel the camaraderie of facing the same challenges (and experiencing the same beauty) as a group.

But perhaps most importantly, The High Desert Plein Air Artists keeps me getting outside to paint and be inspired by the incredible desert beauty, and the incredible artists that join me to create and be inspired themselves.

Krista Wargo is a painter and high school art teacher. Her blog at has tips and information about getting started on plein air painting.

“Living the Arts” is an arts engagement project of Zócalo Public Square and The James Irvine Foundation.

*Photos courtesy of Krista Wargo.