It's a bit before 9:30 a.m. when they begin to arrive, lugging easels, art supplies, chairs and umbrellas from the trunks of their cars to the banks of Orange Lake in downtown New Port Richey. There they unpack, some settling into last week's spot to continue their work in progress, others starting anew with a blank canvas and a different vantage point.
Shade is good, especially on this bright and humid morning. But so is the rising light that casts shadows through a cluster of palms and forms illusions of shimmering diamonds along the gentle waves in the lake and the backs of baby ducklings in tow.
"I just love this view of the water," said Anneke Hulstein, an artist from Tarpon Springs who has a knack for coloring canvas with pastels, her favored medium. "It's a nice challenge to do the water because it's ever-changing."
Capturing the morning's movement is a sacred practice for these artists led by their captain of sorts, Jenna Star Friedman. A passionate painter of nature and longtime special education and art instructor, Friedman once taught youngsters in New York, Connecticut and Florida and now teaches art at Pasco-Hernando Community College in New Port Richey and at the Pasco Arts Council in Holiday. The best place for her to paint is outside — as the French would say, en plein air, "in open air."
"You walk around and look till you find that inspiration, that thing that hits you and makes you say, 'I can paint that,' " Friedman said.
In 2005 she founded the West Coast chapter of Plein Air Florida, organizing weekly "paint-outs" in local venues with the support of the statewide umbrella group, which offers support and a website listing events for 23 chapters throughout the state.
About 40 members have joined the West Coast group at one time or another, but only six to 10 show up regularly.
"A lot of people try it, but find out it's not for them. They're more comfortable with the structure of the classroom setting," Friedman said.
Those who come back are painting their way through parks along the North Suncoast, one month at a time, meeting from 9:30 a.m. till noon each Friday in the same outdoor venue before breaking for lunch and good conversation at a restaurant — maybe Christina's, Mezzaluna or Miss Vicki's on the River.
"I love to paint outside," said Eva Allen, a retired graphic artist from New Port Richey and co-leader of the group. "I appreciate the different plants, trees and the birds. There's so many beautiful birds, especially at the shore. In the summer we always end up painting the shore because it's breezy."
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When the weather cools, they typically move inland to some lesser-known woodsy hammocks.
"I've been to a lot of places I'd never been before," said Spring Hill artist Jana Withers. Her first experience was an outing held six years ago on the river bank at James E. Grey Preserve in New Port Richey. "It was gorgeous. I was very impressed. It was like a hidden treasure."
Even familiar spots like New Port Richey's Orange Lake can be discovered anew with the artist's eye from a different spot, in a different light.
"This park is so special. There's so many vignettes, so many places you can paint," said Phoebe Chidester. A decade ago she moved from Vermont where "everything is 28 shades of green" to Clearwater where she has discovered a more vibrant palette.
"There's so many lovely colors here," Chidester said. "So much to stimulate the artist. The sunsets are breathtaking. The winters are paradise. What's better than that?"
"The great thing is, this is good for the soul. You forget about what's going on in the world, the problems in the family. It helps you remove yourself," she said as she returned to her canvas. "And the camaraderie of it all is pretty priceless. We all have the same interest and passion for landscape painting, but if you look at all of our paintings, you'll see they are quite different."
Even so, each shares the same fondness for morning in the park.
"We can't wait for Friday," Chidester said. "It's the highlight of the week."