In the early 20th Century, California still had vast areas of untouched nature. The state's abundance and variety of natural beauty — coast, mountains, flatlands, hill country and deserts — attracted domestic artists who were charged with the Impressionist pallet and way of rendering color in relation to light. Chief among them was painter Edgar Payne (1883-1947), the subject of a wonderful new retrospective at the Pasadena Museum of California Art.

Landscape painting is as old as painting itself, but the California Impressionists sold the natural virtues of the state in a way that no other medium could. The vibrant colors and the breathtaking scenes told the rest of the country that there was still a western frontier that hadn't been tamed. What plein air (working in nature) painter Payne brought to the genre was a visceral intensity where seemingly every rock, tree, peak and ravine positively hummed with spiritual energy. His animated brush strokes gave directional movement to inanimate objects. These implied properties of his work found favor with the Transcendentalists of the day.

A Missouri native, Payne grew up in the Ozarks. He apprenticed with his carpenter father and first tried his hand at painting as an adolescent. A cup of coffee at the Chicago Art Institute seems to be the extent of his formal training, but Payne gained the most practical experience of brush-handling through his work as a sign-painter and itinerant theater company scene artist.

The prolific Payne traveled through Europe, painting the Alps and French and Italian harbor scenes. He also spent time in the Southwest, though his main focus was California.

Time is the enemy of the plein air painter because outside light changes continually. Artists struggle to capture as much as possible before it changes altogether. Returning the next day to the same spot at the same time of day is a solution — as long as the weather doesn't change. Clearly, some of Payne's more sublime gradations of Southwestern sky were done in the studio.

Payne skirted the problems of transitory light by developing a kind of technical shorthand that allowed him to accurately depict surfaces, volumes and water in a short time. He cut his paints with a medium, allowing for more fluid applications. A couple of early pieces have cracked areas, indicating too much medium. He'd also load his brush with several unmixed colors, and then drag it along a contour to a multifaceted result. The undated “Timber Line” blocks out large areas with bold strokes, almost flattening them out. Viewed from a distance, the accents, light and shadow all pull together beautifully. Up close, it's quite abstract.

Skies dominate the large Southwest canvases, their clouds sculptural and colors softened by dusk light. Indian figures may occupy middle ground, but they're dwarfed. Movie director John Ford used Monument Valley as the star of his westerns, and likewise Payne's people are almost superfluous.

Though largely self-taught, Payne was no naïf. His short strokes and pastel colors in an untitled 1918 Laguna Beach piece are rendered like Monet's haystacks. The lozenge-shaped color bits of “Matterhorn From Zermatt” (1923) bring to mind early Mondrian.

A curious entry in the survey is a facile 1937 floral still life. Presumably painted in a studio with controlled light, time wouldn't have been an issue. The result isn't much better than a motel wall decoration. Payne was clearly a gladiator who thrived on all of the artistic challenges of the outdoors.

KIRK SILSBEE writes about jazz and culture for Marquee.

Edgar Payne: The Scenic Journey

Where: Pasadena Museum of California Art, 490 East Union St., Pasadena

When: Through October 14. Open noon to 5 p.m., Wednesday through Sunday.

More info: (626) 568-3665; www.pmca.org.