The Play of Light: Plein air artist James Richards

James Richards captures the changing of light at a previous Door County Plein Air Festival sunrise paint out. Photo by Dennis Connolly.

When Georgia artist James Richards competes in plein air events, he does well. He recently took first place in America’s Great Paint-out in Florida, and last year won the Artists’ Choice Award in the Door County Plein Air Festival, a prize he had previously earned in 2008.

His success is not surprising: for some painters, working out-of-doors in front of a subject is a novelty, but for Richards, it’s a way of life.

“I grew up painting,” Richards said. “I never had a real job, as I was blessed at a young age to be able to sell things.”

He began working in watercolors, painting the figurative forms he saw around him, barns and trucks, boats and harbors, similar, he said, to the work that he does now.

Richards is self-taught; after half a semester in art school, he dropped out. “They were teaching me Modern art,” he explained, “nothing concrete to build on. I wanted to learn how to paint the paintings I saw in museums, not crazy abstract art.”

For his education, he “found books about old dead guys who had good information available,” he said, and subsequently, “the work I do is built on sound fundamental knowledge of painting: composition, color, value, style.” He tried to divide the art of painting into elements and study each one. “I wanted to get better,” he said. “That’s where it’s at.”

One disadvantage of being a self-taught artist was that in the early stages of his career he “never had anything to fall back on” as an alternative. “That has pushed and driven me,” he said.

“Full Sails” by James Richards.

“It’s been a plus now,” he continued. Many gallery owners “look for new things, and when they find you’re self-taught, that’s a plus, if you’re not too trained by one school of thought.”

Although early in his career Richards went through an abstract phase, he “discovered plein air and never changed direction since.” He began painting in oils in an Impressionist style with a focus on the play of light.

“As a painter, all we see is a reflection of some kind of light,” he explained. Because he is a plein air artist, he is attentive to the nature of light, “how temperature affects things, affects color.” Through understanding light and its impact, he can “create a sense of light in paint, give the illusion of light” and, subsequently, suggest a “spiritual side” in which he finds beauty.

While painting from a photograph in a studio might be a more comfortable way to work, a camera “focuses on light but loses a lot of information,” he noted. Indoors, the artist has to figure out what’s missing from the photo.

But by painting outdoors from life the artist can better connect with the subject, a “360-degree experience” that provides the opportunity to “edit and rearrange, orchestrate everything that flows in the picture. I always get a better painting,” he said.

Occasionally Richards will “take something I’ve done plein air and blow it up” in the studio, he said, “or it might inspire a whole new idea.” Some of his large paintings (up to six-by-eight-feet in size) are created using this technique, sometimes with the supplemental information of photos. He is able to capture emotion, relationships, and color, and “bring all essence of the outdoor quality to it,” he said.

“Coastal Pines” by James Richards.

Richards is not a regional landscape painter, though. “I try to schedule trips to places that inspire me,” he explained. He feels that if he stays in one place too long, he becomes “dead to it.” The interaction that goes on, the relationship between the artist and the subject, “comes out on the canvas.”

Trips have taken him not only along the East Coast, but out West as well. During the next two years he plans to travel to France and Italy. “What you see [in my paintings] is where I’ve been!” he explained.

This month Richards is returning to the Door County Plein Air Festival for the fifth time. “It’s one of my favorite places I’ve been,” he said, “the shoreline, the old barns. For me it’s familiar subject matter, but different, the only Great Lake I’ve been to, but it feels like the ocean.”

He finds the event “one of the best run that I’ve seen. The people organizing it are incredible,” and artists know exactly what is expected of them. “It’s a joy to come up here every year!”

Richards will be leaving behind him his studio in the Atlanta Fine Arts Academy, a school/gallery that he founded as a “venturing program to help developing artists to the next level,” he explained. Another of his goals with the project is to “bring more national recognition to fine arts in the Southeast.” Some of his artist friends teach workshops at his academy, now in its fourth month of operation.

“It’s really new,” he said, “and getting out of hand real quick!”

In addition to participating in the Door County Plein Air Festival, Richards will return to Fish Creek this fall (October 5 – 8) to teach a Plein Air Landscape Workshop at the Peninsula Art School.

Learn more about James Richards and view his work at

Door County Plein Air Festival

James Richards will be one of 40 artists painting outdoors from July 18 – 23 in the Door County Plein Air Festival. Participating artists might be found at work outdoors throughout Northern Door. The paintings will be exhibited and available for sale from July 23 – August 13. For more information and a schedule of events visit