About two years ago, Diane Pike and her husband, Chris, took one of their last drives to their home in Boulder, Colo.
It was November. The sun was setting. While they traversed the s-curves of the foothills leading up to the mountains, they spotted a red, mint-condition 1950s Ford pickup driving on the highway. Pike pulled out her camera and took several pictures.
A month later, the 50-something couple moved to Denver, N.C., and Pike used the pictures to paint one of her favorite vistas.
"It's the last painting I did with a Colorado subject since I moved to North Carolina," she said. "I love that road into Boulder and the rolling foothills and meadows that meet at the base of the Flatirons (mountain range)."
Called "American Beauty," the 24-by-36-inch oil painting is characteristic of her vibrant, impressionistic style as well as her subject matter.
"We were just coming down the highway and it was that great time of day - one of the best times to paint - when the sun is low and the shadows are really long, and it was just magic time," said Pike. "Not only was the truck as red as you can get, it was beautiful and a cowboy was driving it. How perfect is that? He had on this great white, straw hat, and as the light came through the side of the truck, it just lit up a little corner on the brim. The whole subject matter had a lot of passion for me. And it kind of painted itself eventually."
Pike, a former graphic designer, took up painting in 2002 after being accepted into an art class at the Denver Art Museum. Now a professional plen air artist and instructor, she started using pastels but eventually got into oil painting. "En plein air" is a French expression that means "in the open air." Pike often paints outdoors but also works out of her studio.
She and her husband have three adult sons, and they all inherited their mom's creative gene: one's a chef and writer, one is into film and video and the other is a three-dimensional sculptor. The couple left Colorado because Pike's husband was relocated for a sales job.
Since moving to North Carolina, her work has been featured in the Elder Gallery in Charlotte, the Art League of Hilton Head's National Juried Show and at a solo show at Rockport Center for the Arts in Rockport, Texas.
Locally, she's received awards in the Lake Norman Art League's spring show, the 31st annual Mooresville spring show and at the Guild of Charlotte Artists Holiday Show.
Link to famous lineage
Pike studied for four years with Chuck Ceraso, whose painting lineage can be traced back through his instructor, Henry Hensche, to impressionist painters Charles Hawthorne and Claude Monet. They are all masters of light and color, and that's precisely what Pike loves.
"What draws me to paint is how light is hitting a certain subject," said Pike. "If I can translate what I'm seeing with paint onto canvas and somebody else comes along and gets a feeling from it or they connect with it, that's just fantastic. But it's truly the interplay of light and shadow and how light affects the different colors."
For the last six years, Pike has taken an annual trek to Ghost Ranch, N.M., to paint where famous artist Georgia O'Keefe lived for nearly 50 years.
"It is an incredible place to paint," she said. "Something about the dry air and deep blue skies and all of the giant red rock formations is just magical."
One such excursion berthed "Box Canyon, 7 a.m.," a 12-by-10-inch oil painting - completed within hours, entirely on location. Th work won Honorable Mention in the Plein Air Artists of Colorado 14th Annual Juried Members Show, held in June.
"I got up about 6 a.m., packed my painting gear and walked about a mile into this desert area to capture the light on these rocks as the sun rose from behind a mesa," she recalled. "It was breathtaking."
A lot of her works are reminiscent of a simpler time, she said, and she especially likes 1950s-style pickup trucks - whether they're in pristine condition or eroding in someone's yard.
Paraphrasing Charles Hawthorne, Pike said, "Anything under the sun is beautiful - and it's the seeing of it that makes it so. And that pretty much sums up my passion to paint. If you see nature as it really is first, then you can paint truthfully what you see."
But she admits picking up a brush in a studio or outdoors can be intimidating.
"Beginners should keep it simple, look for large, simple shapes and just paint - a lot," she said.
Pike offers studio and outdoor classes for beginners and those more advanced. Demand prompted her to teach locally, she said, but so did the success of her first outdoor workshop in Texas.
"It was so exciting to see people improve and I thought, I'm going to go back home and do this," she said.
Pike's reason for painting?
"It sounds so corny, but I paint because I can't help it," she said. "If I get up and I just push myself to paint, it is the greatest thing. I don't paint to sell. I don't paint for the critics. I don't paint for anybody but myself, and if somebody connects with how I seek light and color, that's what it's all about."