I’m bouncing along over boulders, heading into Black Star Canyon in the bed of a Toyota pickup, feeling very Indiana Jones.
My driver is artist Monica Edwards. Her parents were doctors, and she planned to be one too. But then she fell in love with her biology illustration class and waved goodbye to med school.
Now she paints full time, exhibiting at the Festival of Arts in Laguna Beach. A collection of her plein-air paintings is currently showing at the Hilbert Museum of California Art. Plein-air means “outdoors” and refers to a style of outdoor painting that focuses on color and light.
Two or three times a month, she takes other artists out to her favorite place to paint: Orange County’s canyon country. Edwards is a docent for “Art on the Landmarks,” an Irvine Ranch Conservancy program that is free to the public.
I signed up for one of her recent Friday morning treks. She met me at the Black Star staging area in a truck that has been custom-fitted with 10 seats bolted to the open flatbed, and off we went.
The sun shined warm on my face, and the scent of sage filled the air. A hawk swooped overhead as we rumbled deeper into the canyon, past a trickling creek and red rock walls straight out of an old Western.
Ten minutes later she killed the engine. A handful of artists jumped out and scattered in all directions. After a short hike, they stood at their easels, bringing this shrub or that hill to life with their paintbrushes.
Edwards does a recon mission before the trek to suss out locations.
“I try to find a good spot to paint,” she says. “And make sure I can get the truck in and out of there.”
All nine artists on the Friday outing were plein-air painters, but Edwards says people sometimes skip the art and bring a book to read. I was happy just taking in the scenery. It’s so pretty that, in 2008, more than 40,000 acres of The Irvine Ranch was designated the very first California Natural Landmark.
In all, more than half of The Irvine Ranch – over 57,500 acres – has been preserved by Irvine Company as public open space.
Black Star is just one of the canyon painting treks you can sign up for. Limestone Canyon, Bommer Canyon and Weir Canyon are also on the schedule.
“There’s a subtle magic and vast diversity of life and color in Orange County,” Edwards says.
“Standing still in quiet observation is much different than hiking through it. Wildlife becomes curious, and it’s like you’re in the middle of its dance,” Edwards says.