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Lake Oswego resident Susan Spears ignites students' passion for painting outdoors

A plein-air painting class with strong ties to Clackamas County is celebrating its 20th anniversary of continuous operation.

PMG PHOTO: RAYMOND RENDLEMAN - Susan Spears (right) leads a plein-air painting class through rendering a combination of trees and historic architecture during a recent visit to Barclay Park in Oregon City.Lake Oswego resident Susan Spears had the inspiration for the "Eye on the Sky Outdoor Workshop" in 2000 when she wanted others to paint with her on the frequent occasions she went out into nature with her easel and brushes. 

At the time, Spears, who has a bachelor's degree in art and a teaching credential from California State University at Fullerton, had some students at the Gladstone Senior Center, where she had taught for nine years. She let them know an outdoor class was forming. 

COURTESY PHOTO - Susan Spears says that only by working outside could she have made this painting of lupine on Mount Hood.Spears chose to name the class "Eye on the Sky" because plein-air artists need to keep a close eye on the clouds. Every Friday from the middle of April through the end of October, the students will try to find a location outside to paint subjects ranging from historic architecture to majestic Doug firs to sea lions basking on a dock, not an easy task in Oregon's variable climate.

"If it's going to rain, we need to find an undercover location for that Friday," she said. "The real reason for painting outside is the depth that you can get into your paintings. If you paint from a photograph, the hills shrink, mountains lose their massiveness, and the resulting painting looks flat."

One of Spears' students, Sadie Reiter, said she loves her teacher, classmates and the challenge of outdoor painting.

"It's great to know the location was chosen to provide a good subject, parking, and of course, bathrooms. That isn't easy to do on your own," Reiter said. "The other thing that isn't easy is getting out there on your own. It's nice to be motivated to see your friends and what you can do with the choices in front of you."

Starting with her Gladstone-based students, Spears' class size grew when she taught at community centers in Oregon City and West Linn. A free class she taught at Willamette Christian Church found a few more students. 

"Sometimes people would bump into us painting at a park or nursery and ask if they could join," she said. "We draw in all kinds of venues from World of Speed in Wilsonville, to looking out the window at a golf course or a restaurant like Salty's on the Columbia."

This spring and summer, the class has painted at wineries, the Columbia River Gorge, Hood River, farms and along the Willamette River.

Painting classes

What: "Eye on the Sky Outdoor Workshop"

When: 9 a.m.-3 p.m. Fridays from mid-April through October

Cost: $500

What: Inside Line Drawing

When: 9 a.m.-noon Fridays, January-March

Cost: $190

What: Free class at Greater Portland Bible Church

When: 9:30 a.m.-noon Wednesdays

Contact: Sign up for the next class by calling Susan Spears at 503-636-4906. 

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