Plein Air Event Confidential
It’s like the Nascar Circuit. Plein air painting competitions take place all across the country, all year long, with painters crisscrossing the land trying to win awards, sell, establish a reputation, and get Plein Air magazine to write about them.
Here’s what my mind does when I get the email that I’ve been accepted into an event (yay!): Within minutes, I’m on the internet combing through the websites of the other painters. Then to Google and the tourist bureau sites to check out the scenery. Where will I paint? I’ve driven many miles on unfamiliar terrain trying to find a “Scott painting.” How will I make best use of my time?
What will I paint? I can’t do tree paintings as well as painter X. Painter Y does masterful shorelines. Can I compete? The old jock in me is never far from the surface. I wrestle with him. “This isn’t a competition,” I tell myself, “Paint to your strengths. Do what you do.” But what if people don’t get my unique sensibility?”
Second thoughts lead to third thoughts.
Am I out to lunch? What if my work ain’t as unique as I think it is? Is there such a thing as a strategy at these shows? Should I just paint the local “postcard” scenes in a bid for broad appeal? Should I go for a variety of subjects or stick with a theme? I’ve seen a lot of “sold” stickers on walls of painters who appear to do the same painting over and over. If they go home in the black, but I don’t, who’s the fool? Is this business or The Great Artistic Journey? The phrase “starving artist” didn’t come from nowhere. Artist biographies don’t say much about marketing strategy.
How many plein air event painters obsess like this? Judging from the banter with artist pals—at the receptions, over beers, and while standing around at the sales events—quite a few.
Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy the events and I’ll still apply for them. I get to explore new places and light effects—and the best part is I get to spend time with highly skilled artists from a wide range of backgrounds with amazing stories to tell. And thankfully, I usually sell enough to make it worthwhile.
In my early years of painting, I remember meeting a couple of old bitter dudes who warned me about trying to make a living at this thing. What if I had taken their advice? Most certainly, I wouldn’t have been happier, and I doubt I’d be wiser. The events aren’t easy; I won’t be able to do them forever. So I’ll just keep trying to relax, do what I do, and enjoy the ride.
Photo above: Trying to find a “Scott painting” on Chimney Rock at Point Reyes, California. I thought painting in Minnesota was tough. The wind at Point Reyes was so strong I had to sit so I wouldn’t get blown off the cliff.