WALNUT CREEK -- The beauty of this city, both the obvious and the obscure, will be on display at the city's Fourth of July Centennial Celebration at Civic Park, in the work of 27 plein air artists participating in Valley Art Gallery's "Paint-Out Competition."

Various visions of the 100-year-old city will honor the area's golden hills, ancient oaks, public parks, hidden namesake creek the city's downtown and more.

The Walnut Creek-based gallery is recognizing its 65th birthday and the city's centennial by time-stamping the canvases of local artists. It gave the artists one week -- to create and submit paintings; a $400 cash award will go to the creator of "best in show," as selected by popular vote on July 4. Nationally recognized plein air artist Bryan Mark Taylor has been invited to jury the gallery show that will continue at 1661 Botelho Drive from July 8-26.

Painting outdoors on location, or "en plein air" -- even without the guise of a "paint-out" -- is inherently competitive. Racing to capture fleeting light, battling elements like wind, rain and freezing or sweltering temperature, plein air artists compete with nature as much as capture it. Inherently, the clock is king; the eye, its servant. The results can be breathtaking ... or end up ransacked by the wind, as has happened to Walnut Creek artist Catherine McCargar.

"While painting on an old bridge over a river in Nevada, a sudden strong wind whipped all my equipment off the easel, and I lost two or three nice brushes through a crack in the bridge down to the river below. I learned a lesson the hard way that day," she said.

McCargar has learned to select small canvases, recording swatches of important colors and sketching preferred shadow shapes before finishing a piece in the studio. Photos aid her memory and she rarely finishes a painting entirely outdoors. Because gardens, birch trees and trails she has hiked for over 40 years inspire her work, she selected locations in Heather Farm Park, Veterans Memorial Park downtown and Sugarloaf Open Space as subjects for the competition.

Shirley Nootbaar, a Walnut Creek resident and third generation Californian, often stages her paintings in three rounds -- establishing the work's dark/light areas, refining the painting during a second visit, and applying "final tweaks" in the studio. She says seasonal weather changes make it possible to paint the same location more than once. She's focusing her efforts on Walnut Creek Open Space, with views from multiple local hills and ridges.

Warned that painting outdoors can be addicting, Concord's Scott Bevan is working on a 12-by-24-inch canvas at Lime Ridge. A lover of early morning hikes, Devan says the location "represents a new day on the eastern boundary of the city." Using a camera and his mind's eye, he caught a sunrise's subtle-to-explosive colors and will paint in his studio.

An experienced and skilled brand identity designer, Bevan says his quick draw, marker-wielding capabilities are a good fit with the deft-handedness and dash-to-the-finish pace required for plein air technique.

Ironically, Martinez watercolorist Salvador Valencia is most attracted to subjects that require years, if not decades, to declare themselves complete: oceans, trees and rusted junk. He plans slowly, methodically thinking through a painting before ever dipping a brush into pigment. But on scene, he's a wizard of speed and says he's dashing off 15-by-22-inch depictions of an old railroad bridge, Mt. Diablo as seen from the freeway and a view of Nordstrom's from Mt. Diablo Blvd.

Ruth Beeve began her paintings in her Concord home, applying neutral colors to two canvases, before heading to Civic Park. She chose Walnut Creek -- the stream she says "deserves to be appreciated," because it is partly underground and mostly overgrown with vegetation.

"In recent years the city has cleaned up some areas and they are lovely. It can be seen from the bridge in the park," Beeve says.

Geoffrey Meredith, an artist and Valley Art Gallery's spokesman, said the competition includes artists from Clayton, Lafayette, San Francisco, Pittsburg, El Sobrante, El Cerrito, Walnut Creek and Concord. The majority paint alone, but Meredith planned to join a small group headed to Borges Ranch for a "dry run."

The public may vote from 3 to 6 p.m., near the Civic Park gazebo, for their favorite "Paint Out" work.

The winner will be announced before the final song of the one-hour concert that begins at 6 p.m.

---