For artists in the Plein Air Society of Southern Oregon, there's nothing like capturing the beauty of the Rogue Valley in natural light — even if it means a few distractions as passersby stop to chat and admire their work.

For artists in the Plein Air Society of Southern Oregon, there's nothing like capturing the beauty of the Rogue Valley in natural light — even if it means a few distractions as passersby stop to chat and admire their work.

The 23 members of PAS-SO go out every Thursday, weather permitting, to spots around Ashland, Talent, Jacksonville and Medford and set up their canvases for a few hours to draw and paint. Wineries provide some of their favorite locations, offering vineyards, architecture and mountain backdrops for creative interpretation.

Painting en plein air, or "in the open air," is a tradition made popular by French impressionist painters such as Monet, Renoir and Pissaro, said PAS-SO leader Norm Rossignol of Talent, who works in watercolor that he then covers with pastels.

"It's a setting where you can capture the natural light and it emanates from your painting," Rossignol said. "We encourage, enforce and support each other in our efforts."

Last Thursday, members were scattered up and down Fourth Street, between A and B streets, in Ashland, executing pictures of people quaffing espresso at sidewalk tables outside Noble Coffee Roasting and of buildings such as Peerless Hotel and Etienne Gallery, which sponsored the day's event.

Johnston and fellow painter and psychologist Bonnie Geiger both remarked that the pleasure of painting had always been inside them, but "life got in the way." Art finally blossomed when their children grew up and there was more time, they said.

"It's really fun to paint in a group. We critique and encourage each other. And the light is absolutely gorgeous," said Geiger, who works in pastels, except when it rains. Water makes pastels melt, she explained, as she tried to capture the brilliant red flowers in front of the Peerless.

"We have a real good time painting together and critiquing each other's work," said Carol Cochran, as she painted in acrylics. "You make good friends. Artists are a quirky group and getting them together can be like herding cats."

Strollers felt free to look over the artists' shoulders and offer compliments. A driver pulled up and parked a car 10 feet from an artist, right in the middle of the scene he was painting, but it soon moved out of the way.

"It's always changing," said Judi Johnston of Ashland, a registered nurse. "That's the challenge of plein air painting — you can't work as fast as the light is changing. But that's the fun of it, too."

"It's peculiar; I paint better when people are coming by and talking, distracting me," said Linda Evans of Phoenix. "We have such a good time. Southern Oregon is the perfect place to paint, with all the mountains, seashore, valleys —— nature galore and we have four seasons, too. When I'm out here painting, I never want to leave."

For information on PAS-SO, contact Norm Rossignol at 535-2609.

John Darling is a freelance writer living in Ashland. E-mail him at jdarling@jeffnet.org.