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AS A FATHER OF FOUR, WISCONSIN ARTIST KEN DEWAARD KNOWS HOW TO COAX RESULTS FROM CHALLENGING CONDITIONS. HES ONE OF THE COUNTRYS LEADING PLEIN AIR PAINTERS.
Painting en plein air – in open air – is work created outdoors with unpredictable weather conditions and interruptions, including everything from curious bystanders to blaring sirens.
DeWaard, like many plein air artists, gets a thrill out of adapting to the moment. Plein air adds an element of spontaneity because you have no idea what the experience will be like, he said. Its the excitement of being on the edge.
THE EASTON FESTIVAL
July 2010 marked the sixth year that nearly 200 artists from around the country, including DeWaard, arrived in Easton, Maryland, a historic town on the eastern side of the Chesapeake Bay, for the Plein Air – Easton festival.
During the past decade, plein air art festivals, which focus on work created outside in natural light, have sprung up around the country. Eastons festival is unique in that its juried. Artists must submit their work in advance to a judge who chooses which 58 artists will participate in the weeklong competition.
Small, often sleepy, Easton thrummed with activity the third week of July as 6,000 visitors strolled the towns charming narrow streets. Dress included white linen, flowing summer dresses, and straw hats.
This year, the blistering 101-degree heat on the prime weekend of the festival sent visitors dashing in and out of air-conditioned galleries and restaurants. But the weather didnt keep the artists from their work, though the competition did begin to take on the aura of an endurance sport.
Producing in that kind of heat, trying to keep your stamina up was more than a bit challenging, said DeWaard, who produced 19 paintings over the course of the week. In previous years at the festival when extreme heat wasnt an issue, he produced an average of 24.
Artists find inspiration in the diversity of subject matter in Easton, from historic architecture dating back to the Colonial era to painted picket fences to lush in-town gardens. The surrounding area is blessed with 600 miles of waterfront, which provides endless fodder – from piers to yachts to small sailboats. Artists are also drawn to open spaces that are punctuated with stands of trees, country farms, wildflower fields, and tiny crossroad villages.
As a visitor, one of the most satisfying experiences is stumbling onto artists at work: In the forlorn corner of a parking lot, a trio of artists painted crabs atop a tower of baskets. In an alleyway next to a restaurant, a painter captured toppled trash cans on canvas. Nearby, another artist perched himself on a ladder on a busy street corner.
People are drawn to the painters. Theres an inexplicable energy around an easel, explained Camille Przewodek, a plein air landscape artist who hails from Petaluma, California. People love watching an artists interpretation of whats right in front of both of them.
I call it outdoor performance, said Nancy Tankersley, one of the founders of Plein Air – Easton and owner of South Street Art Gallery.
AN ELEVATED EVENT
Plein Air – Easton is widely recognized among the arts community as one of the most important plein air events in the country, where artists not only compete and meet one another, but also do what keeps working artists alive – sell paintings. Its a running joke among artists that Plein Air – Easton is Disneyland for plein air painters, said Al Bond, executive director of the Avalon Foundation, a nonprofit arts organization based in Easton that manages the festival. They get to paint, hang out with other artists, meet collectors, and exhibit their work in an accredited museum.
Plein Air – Easton is unique among festivals in that its connected to a museum. The Academy Art Museum, located in a 19th-century white clapboard schoolhouse, boasts a small but important permanent collection that includes works by James A. M. Whistler, Robert Motherwell, and Robert Rauschenberg. During the festival, the museum exhibits and sells the work of featured artists.
The museums involvement elevates the event, since it exhibits and, in some cases, acquires our work, noted DeWaard.
Przewodek was a festival judge for the past five years before participating this year as a juried artist. The caliber of artists is very high, and you have Americas top painters in the competition, she noted. (Przewodeks Gambrel Barn, a landscape of a lonely red barn surrounded by yellowing fields, won this years Vanishing Landscape prize.)
Many artists stay with local families during their week in Easton. For Milwaukee-based Shelby Keefe, bunking with a local family was the highlight. You get such wonderful insight to what life is like on the Eastern Shore, which helps inform your paintings, she said.
One of the most popular events of the week is called Quick Draw. During this two-hour open competition, 190 artists with all levels of ability – from professionals to amateurs – take their easels to the streets of Easton to swiftly create plein air paintings. At the end of two hours, the paintings are judged and sold. Quick Draw canvases generally sell for between $300 and $600.
This summer, Scott Patterson – a Maryland states attorney – and his wife were at the local farmers market when they came across an artist doing a Quick Draw painting of the market stalls. We were just shopping and saw the artist working on the painting about the very experience we were having and had to buy it, Patterson said.
What makes plein air work so appealing is that its visceral. You can feel the emotion and atmosphere on the canvas.
THE RIGHT WAY
While there is no right approach to plein air, this work is generally created using quick, broad strokes. Plein air artists forego the traditional method of building up paint on the canvas. These works are usually, but not always, done in a single sitting, although many artists tweak the work later in their studios.
Any competent artist can create an image that looks like a photograph. But to become a great artist, you must take what you see and add to it, explained Tankersley, who began her artistic life as a portrait painter. Plein air work forces you to interpret and bring vision to whats before you.
Artists become passionate about plein air because working outdoors with natural subjects in shifting light forces a focus on the present in a way no other experience can.
Plein air requires great flexibility from the painter because, unlike studio work, you have absolutely no control of your environment, noted Tankersley. Its invigorating and inspiring, but also risky.
And plein air work becomes riskier still when artists are asked to do it publicly, at a festival in front of thousands of people.
So, what drives artists to eschew the comforts of their studios and attend a grueling weeklong plein air festival? It is the pinnacle of what you want to achieve as an artist, DeWaard explained philosophically. Youre out there trying to see if you can capture a fleeting moment of life before it changes on you.
For more information on Plein Air – Easton, go to www.pleinaireaston.com.
EN PLEIN AIR
A Brief History of the Plein Air Movement
The concept of plein air painting was launched by French Impressionists in the 1870s. Twin inventions made plein air work possible. Premixed oil pigment became available in tubes for the first time, and the pochade, a portable box easel that folds to the size of a briefcase, was created.
The list of original plein air painters reads like a whos who of great 19th- and early 20th-century European painters: Degas, Manet, Monet, Gauguin, Pissarro, Van Gogh, Renoir, and Cassatt.
In America, plein air work blossomed in response to the Industrial Age. American Impressionists like Winslow Homer, Childe Hassam, and Edward Redfield developed a distinctly American style of plein air painting that remained popular until the late 1920s, when modernism came into vogue.
California led the countrys early 20th-century plein air movement and also its revival in the late 1990s. In fact, the Laguna Beach Plein Air Festival, which began in 1996, was the first juried plein air festival in the United States.
En Plein Air Events
Today, there are dozens of plein air festivals around the country. Over the past 10 years, an increasing number of plein air festivals have cropped up around the country. They give artists a chance to paint the vast tapestry of landscape that is America. Here are a few of the best plein air festivals in the nation: