“The things that inspire me are atmosphere and light,” reveals Laguna Beach Impressionist Cynthia Britain. Take one look around the artist’s studio on Laguna Canyon Road and find abundant clues that Britain spends little time with brush in hand in this cloistered environment. As one of Orange County’s most renowned en plein air (French for “in the open air”) painters, Britain takes her inspiration from the play of light and shadows in nature’s grand amphitheater, where she’s been capturing the luminous magic of rolling vineyards, pastoral villages and windswept coasts for more than a decade.

“I knew I wanted to be a painter since I was three,” says the lanky California native. After taking drawing lessons at the Orange County Art Institute as a teen, Britain pursued formal studies in painting, art history and interior design at California State College at Fullerton, UCLA and Putney Art Institute in England. But she put dreams of making a livelihood as a fine artist on hold and detoured into the corporate world in her early 20s.

“People told me I had to make a living,” she recalls, looking back at a 20-year career as an interior designer for offices, hotels, banks and model homes that included a five-year stint as director of commercial design for Lusk Homes, where she supervised seven designers. Putting the business skills she developed at the Orange County homebuilding firm to good use, she struck out on her own with the founding of Spectrum Design, a commercial design firm in Newport Beach. After exhibiting her paintings in the mid-’90s at the Sawdust Festival, then the Festival of the Arts in Laguna Beach, old dreams of making a career as a fine artist resurfaced.

“I traded high heels and a briefcase for jeans and boots,” Britain muses, adding that appropriate gear for painting in the great outdoors can include rattlesnake guards. “Plein air painting is not for the faint of heart. In the wilderness, I’ve encountered snakes and even spotted a mountain lion.” Britain recalls one painting excursion to Venice, Italy, during which it rained every day. But neither rain nor sleet nor gloom of day can mar the experience of being outdoors, capturing the nuances of light, shapes and tonal values, for this stalwart California Impressionist.

Whether she’s painting vistas in Crystal Cove, California’s wine country or France’s bucolic villages, Britain works with a quick brush stroke, using slow-drying oils. On finely textured linen canvases, she focuses on recording the quality of light with precision a camera can’t catch before a scene shifts. Like the French Impressionists who fled their studios in the 1860s to create works of art in the fleeting light, her intent is to document atmospheric mood. Typically, that’s accomplished in less than two hours—the brief window of time normally available before a different quality of light moves in.

With the eye of an Impressionist painter, Britain will tell you that about the “pinky-golden quality” of the light in Giverny, Claude Monet’s beloved village nestled in the lush Normandy countryside northwest of Paris. On annual excursions orchestrated with ArtStudy Giverny, she conducts painting workshops to the home of the renowned artist credited with starting the French Impressionist movement. Limited to 10 students ranging from beginning artists to accomplished painters, the pilgrimages provide daily access to Monet’s garden and lily pond for on-site painting, as well as the historic Baudy Hotel and Gardens where the American Impressionists gathered, painted and lived.

In locales closer to her Laguna Beach home, including California’s Napa-Sonoma Valley, Britain finds that the tonal quality of the light is tinged with blue. “Moisture hangs in the air here,” she explains, “and that’s why grapes grow well.” In scores of evocative paintings depicting undulating vineyards, solitary barns, errant cows and atmospheric seascapes, she demonstrates both vision and formal training. Since the early ’90s, Britain has studied with such masters as Ted Goerschner, Kevin MacPherson and Kim English.

Complementing her artistic sensibilities are environmental concerns for the landscapes she loves. A docent at Laguna Coast Wilderness Park, Britain takes time from painting to share information with other nature lovers about the sycamore-shaded canyons and spectacular ridges overlooking the Pacific Ocean that inform some of her art. Most recently, she’s also utilized her talents in art auctions aimed at raising funds for the endangered San Mateo Creek watershed area adjacent to San Clemente.

Britain is one of five signature members who co-founded the Laguna Plein Air Painters Association in 1996. In October 2006, she’ll participate in the group’s 7th annual Laguna Beach Plein Air Painting Invitational, presented in cooperation with the Laguna Museum of Art. Her work is represented in numerous California galleries, including The Esther Wells Collection in Laguna Beach, Chemers Gallery in Tustin and The Desert Art Source in Palm Desert, as well as The Long Gallery in Scottsdale, Arizona and Van Hull Arts & Antiques in Lahaina, on the island of Maui. Her paintings have hung at The Laguna Art Museum, Orange County Museum of Art and San Diego Museum of Art, where she was awarded a Gold Medal. And she has received dozens of awards and honors in juried exhibitions throughout the United States.