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Grab your easel for an afternoon of art in the Laurel Highlands


This story was created in partnership with the National Road Heritage Corridor.

On May 16, visitors to the Laurel Highlands will feel as if they’ve been transported to the French countryside of a past era. Picturesque Christian W. Klay Winery in Chalk Hill will be dotted with artists and their easels, busy documenting the scenery and immortalizing the vines.

Touchstone Center for Crafts, in partnership with the National Road Heritage Corridor, is hosting this unique plein air event. Artists of all ages, skill levels, and experience are invited to set up and capture the beautiful rural setting using whatever medium they choose, be it oils, watercolor, pastels, pencils, clay, or photography.

En plein air is a French expression that means “in the open air.” The artistic practice is all about leaving the four walls of the studio behind and painting, drawing, or otherwise creating in the natural light of the landscape. The centuries-old tradition was embraced by French Impressionists and is often associated with that style. Their desire to paint light and its changing, ephemeral qualities — along with the creation of transportable paint tubes and the box easel — allowed artists the freedom to paint en plein air. 

William Pfahl paints Pittsburgh en plein air / photo: William Pfahl Fine Art

So while the vision of an artist with his brushes and easel on a pastural hillside may recall Claude Monet and Provence, the painters and other artists at this particular event will be coached by two of southwestern PA’s premier plein air artists: Ron Donoughe and William Pfahl.

Both Donoughe and Pfahl are award-winning professional artists with years of experience documenting the region through their plein air paintings and drawings. Both men have taught and led workshops at Touchstone and elsewhere over the years, and have participated in, won, and served as judges in previous plein air invitationals throughout the U.S. 

Donoughe, who recently published Brownsville to Braddock: Paintings and Observations of the Monongahela River Valley, looks forward to the energy generated by a general admission event, as compared to a juried invitational. 

I learned to paint outside and there is nothing like it.William Pfahl

“Exposing amateur artists to professionals in a friendly setting such as this one gives both an opportunity to learn,” he says. “It adds to the spirit and excitement.” 

“I learned to paint outside and there is nothing like it,” adds Pfahl. “It is so fresh and immediate. Some artists like to finish their work all at once — a la prima — others go back to the same vantage point three or four times, while others finish in a studio. It gives the artist a lot of freedom.”

photo: William Pfahl Fine Art

Donoughe and Pfahl were recruited by Dean Simpson, marketing manager for Touchstone, to offer their knowledge, encouragement and tips to the participants, while also demonstrating their techniques. An artist himself, Simpson enjoys working en plein air work. 

“I learned so much from painting outside,” he says. “I have wanted to do a large plein air event for Touchstone ever since we did a smaller workshop with the Mon River Towns in Monongahela. So I reached out to two of the best plein air artists in our region — and here we are.”

“Christian Klay Winery provides the perfect venue for an event like this one,” he continues. The 215-acre Winery boasts 14,000 vines, rolling hills, and charming buildings — all classic subjects for artists working outside. “The space allows for social distancing but still allows for a shared experience for all the participating artists.”

Pittsburgh artist Ron Donoughe finishes a painting of the caboose at the California Public Library to be featured in his art exhibit, Brownsville to Braddock.

The rain-or-shine event is part of the National Pike Days festival held each year along the National Road. While most events are curtailed this year due to the pandemic, the plein air gathering, due to its outdoor nature, was able to move forward. The event leads into the Touchtone Center for Crafts’ upcoming 50th anniversary in 2022 and the final days of Remake Learning Days Across America‘s initiative in southwestern Pennsylvania. Funding came partially via grant from the Laurel Highlands Visitors Bureau.

Registered artists are encouraged to bring finished work to Touchstone’s campus, located five miles from the winery, to be judged by Donoughe and Pfahl. Winners will earn prizes and be included in a virtual exhibition. With its original mission of preserving traditional crafts now expanded to include contemporary disciplines, Touchstone offers classes and workshops where artists of all skill levels can learn from America’s finest artisans.

“One of the National Road’s goals is to bring public art and educational opportunities to the area in unique ways,” says Cathy McCollom, chair of the National Road board. “Working with Touchstone, a valued partner in the region, and with two such renowned artists, we are able to do both.”

Participants must bring their own supplies, registration is required, and all children must be accompanied by an adult. A discounted registration fee is offered for those under 18. Spectators are expected as well and are welcome to watch the artists at work. 

“Even folks who aren’t creating art will learn a lot just by observing,” says Simpson. “It’s hard to imagine just how much you get from a day like this.” 

For more information or to register for the event, click here or call 724-329-1370.

Lead image: William Pfahl paints the barn at Christian W. Klay Winery / photo: Touchstone Center for Crafts

Region: Southwest

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