A Breath of Fresh Air

Landscape Painter Kari Ruiz

by Nancy E. McCarthy

Landscape painter Kari Ganoung Ruiz grew up in Interlaken where her family’s backyard extended for 100 acres, nestled next to the Finger Lakes National Forest – another 30 miles of trails, woodlands, gorges, ravines and pastures. Her surroundings instilled an early appreciation of breathtaking vistas and natural landscapes.

Her parents kept horses for their three children and Ruiz’s ever-present sketchbooks were filled with horse drawings. Later images she drew reflected her changing interests: clothing, architecture, mural designs, set layouts for school plays.

South Seneca High School art teacher Fran Copp was a formative mentor who made connections for Ruiz to paint murals at school and in the business community. Ruiz, who was shy, gained confidence under Copp’s encouragement. Her other interest was science. Ruiz initially selected Ashland University in Ohio based on its environmental science program, but less than a month before classes began, she switched her major to art. The glut of math and science courses would leave no time for drawing or painting!

Ruiz, now a full-time artist, draws easy parallels between science and art. “Painting is science,” she explains. “It is the science of light and color, and the chemistry of pigments and mediums.”

Her art studies centered mainly on painting and drawing. She credits college professor Charles Caldemeyer for a “sturdy understanding of the fundamentals of drawing.” At that time, she was influenced by the works of esteemed English landscape painter William Turner (1775-1851), known as “the painter of light.” Ruiz also admired New York-based landscape artist Frederic Edwin Church (1826-1900) and others who comprised a venerable artistic fraternity, dubbed The Hudson River School (circa 1850 to about 1900).

Seeing the Light

Ruiz paints on wood panel, in oil, and primarily “en plein air” (the French phrase meaning “in the open air” and used to describe the act of painting outdoors). She keeps her painting gear by the door, ready to grab and go. Oil is easy to use under many weather conditions, even in winter temperatures.

“I love the immediacy of oil, the beauty of the pigments suspended in the medium and the versatility,” she says.

Working outside, capturing how light and shadow fall delicately or dramatically on objects, helps to convey what the artist sees and experiences. The emphasis of light is a distinctive characteristic of plein air paintings.

Ruiz’s award-winning work has been exhibited in solo and group shows in the Finger Lakes Region plus other cities in New York, Ohio and Virginia. Her work is currently on exhibit at The Jewelbox in Ithaca and can be viewed year round at West End Gallery in Corning. She also regularly competes in juried plein air painting competitions. Last year, during Canandaigua’s Finger Lakes Plein Air Competition & Festival, Ruiz took second place in a Quick Draw event. Her “At First Glance” painting was created in two hours and quickly sold. Ruiz will compete again in the festival (June 6-11) and later in the Mountain Maryland Plein Air Festival in Cumberland, Maryland (June 19-25).

Path to Plein Air Painting

It was 1997, the year before Ruiz graduated with a Bachelor of Science in Fine Art, when she met her future husband in her college town. Diego Ruiz, a stained glass artist and photographer, had relocated to Ohio from California to be near his brother. They married in 2000 with the plan to support themselves from what they created.

By 2007, they had opened Copperesque, a storefront studio in charming Union Springs, New York, on Cayuga Lake. The shop’s linchpin was picture framing (Ruiz had apprenticed under a framer in college) and Diego’s stained glass designs. From there, the couple expanded with her paintings, his photographs, books and hot glass jewelry, plus local handcrafts.

Ruiz says they met many wonderful people through their studio who influenced their artistic journeys. For her, one such fortuitous encounter was with Freeville, New York, artist Carlton Manzano whom she credits for introducing her to plein air painting.

Manzano, who paints exclusively en plein air, had impulsively stopped into Copperesque to inquire about selling his work there. Ruiz was taken with his paintings which she describes as “fresh and full of life.” She loved the energy of his brushstrokes, an approach polar opposite to her style then. “At that time I was working quite small, with tight detail (and) no brushstrokes to be seen,” Ruiz recalls.

Ruiz soon gave plein air painting a try but admits that her first attempt was a disaster. Her gear was heavy, she brought more than she needed, and struggled with how to simplify a scene while natural light moved quickly across the objects she was painting. “It was clear I had a lot of learning to do,” she says. She embraced the challenge.

“Kari is able to distill what is in front of her to produce an exciting painting,” says Manzano of her work now. “She is judicious with her brush strokes. Looking up close it is almost abstract, but step back 5 feet and the content is well-stated and not over-painted.”

Fewer brush strokes produce a quicker painting which is important when trying to capture the light and shadow of a scene in a short timeframe, but Manzano insists it also produces a better painting. His analogy of artistic brevity – capturing only what is necessary and important – is the difference between a long-winded speech versus well-selected words.

He says he can tell if a painting was created outdoors by the use of light, shadow and the authentic atmosphere an artist captures. Manzano, who characterizes Ruiz as a fun, energetic member of the plein air painting community, says her work – which “reflects her joy and appreciation of nature” – has developed exponentially.

While Ruiz pursued plein air painting, her husband was immersed in stereoscopic (3D) photography. Both pursuits required more time outdoors: Kari painting local landscapes and Diego photographing Finger Lakes waterfalls for a 3D book series. In 2014, the couple made the decision to close their brick-and-mortar location, but continued Copperesque online as a webstore. The website showcases and sells her paintings, his work, and handcrafted gift items. Free to travel to plein air competitions, Ruiz has snagged a dozen awards for her prestigious work over the past couple of years.

Coming full circle, the couple recently purchased land in Interlaken to build their dream home, with separate his and her studios. The quiet splendor of the surrounding fields and woods will serve nicely as an outdoor classroom for the plein air workshops Ruiz plans to teach there.


View and purchase Ruiz’s work at West End Gallery in Corning or at KariGanoungRuiz.com.
Contact the artist at kariganoungruiz@gmail.com.