Deb Kranitz, courtesy Cedarburg Plein Air Festival
The phrase "plein air painting" brings to mind the 19th-century French painters - Monet and Renoir setting up their easels in the French countryside, portraying ladies with wide-brimmed hats and floaty white dresses. Plein air painting (it means "outdoors" or "open air") began in earnest with the Impressionists, who placed a high value on natural light. It also coincided with the invention of paints that came premixed in tubes and hence were easily portable. Also portable was the new "box easel," which folded up to the size of a suitcase.
These days, with digital cameras able to capture thousands of images for a painter to use handily back at the studio for reference, why would anyone bother to paint in the open air, dealing with heat and cold, wind and rain, and swarms of summer insects?
"Plein air pieces are fresh. There's an immediacy about them," says Wendie Thompson of the Wisconsin Plein Air Painters Association. They're also fast - no laboring for hours in the studio to get a detail just right.
Wisconsin is more than a fill-in for France. Red barns, cows, gravel roads, cornfields, the hills and valleys of the Driftless Area and the sandy beaches and marinas of Lake Michigan provide plenty of iconic scenery. It's a perfect place for a plein air competition.
Most plein air competitions work like this: Painters pay a fee to get a stamped canvas (this to avoid someone sneaking in a pre-painted work of art) and choose a landscape within a boundary specified by the event (say, defined by Highway 111 to the east, County B to the west, County G to the north and the county line to the south). Some of the longer events have specified painting challenges within the days of the competition. At the end of the event, all of the art produced goes on sale or is sold through silent auction.
For artists, plein air competitions are about more than just painting. "For me, the real meat of the event is that painters come from all corners of the state and out of state, and after 10 days [they] make real friendships," writes painter Larry Seiler on his blog, Painting from Life.
On June 12, Cedarburg's Plein Air painting event celebrates its 13th birthday. It now runs for 12 days, encompassing multiple opportunities for artists to paint from life at different sites, and culminates with chances for collectors to buy the participants' paintings.
"It started small," says committee chair Anne Schoenenberger. Inspired by a couple members of the Cedarburg Artists Guild who'd seen similar events in France, Schoenenberger remembers, "We thought, what a fabulous idea, we could do that." Publicity was by word-of-mouth.
For Cedarburg's 13th year, "We're trying to make it more engaging. Artists get tired of painting the same place," says Schoenenberger. To that end, the fest kicks off with a day in nearby Port Washington, on Lake Michigan, an opportunity for artists to depict sailboats and the lakefront. It includes a "quick paint," a 2.5-hour challenge that ends with artists dashing, wet paintings in hand, to the "finish line" (the Cedarburg Cultural Center). There's also a "paint the fest" event that gives artists the chance to depict the tents and crowds of the Cedarburg Strawberry Festival, which takes place during the plein air event.
However, for most of the 12-day event, painters have all day to wander an area around Cedarburg (circumscribed by the event organizers), find a scene to paint and set up their easels.
For would-be spectators, Schoenenberger suggests that the best opportunity to watch the artists in action is during the quick paint. While on any given day "you can't tell where they'll be," she says, the parameters of the quick paint practically dictate the artists will be near the Cedarburg Cultural Center.
"Every once in a while you see an artist out in a field, but it is catch-as-catch-can," says Schoenenberger.
Another good opportunity for spectators to watch painters in action is at Paint the Fest.
Schoenenberger also recommends plein air events for art lovers who don't, themselves, paint. Each event ends with a show where everything's for sale: "From a collector's standpoint, it's great. I get to meet the artist, and there's nothing better than having the artist right there. They can give you great insight. And it's fresh - they just painted it."
Schoenenberger, who's from the Cedarburg area, finds that a lot of the images produced during the fest resonate with her because she knows the area.
Some plein air events have more circumscribed paints on given days. During the Door County Plein Air Festival, most days have an "artists around town" painting session at a featured site; there's also a sunset and a sunrise paint-out at featured sites and a dockside quick-paint.
The Wisconsin Plein Air Painters Association (WIPAPA) began as an informal gathering in 2008 and became a more formal organization in 2009.
"It's a huge benefit to connect with other artists," says WIPAPA coordinator Wendie Thompson. "We make good friends through the group."
Social media have "transformed the community," Thompson observes. Before, painters tended to be "stuck in some studio" between events; now they use Facebook to share paintings and to communicate ideas.
At a plein air convention, painters "have to come prepared for anything and everything," says Thompson. "Raining, snowing, good light, bad light." Painters have to think ahead on a number of levels, from advance location scouting to having the frame for the wet painting prepped in advance. Thompson drives around an area to find likely scenes, "looking for something that will tell a story" and also anticipating what kind of story the light will tell. Thompson describes it as seeking "something a little bit more."
Besides camaraderie, events also create "that little extra friendly competition thing that pushes you," says Thompson.
At breaks for lunch, painters have the opportunity to meet other artists they've previously communicated with only on Facebook. "It's fun to finally meet in person," says Thompson.
It takes about two to three hours for a painting to be finished. Painting from life has to be quick because "after that amount of time the light story changes dramatically. You have to get it down," says Thompson. "People say, 'It took me 15 years to learn how to do this in two hours.'"
When painters arrive at a competition, it's not a violation of the rules for two or more of them to set up and paint the same scene. "Most artists would welcome that," says Thompson, "and a lot of time, artists will group together." On a practical level, it means "you can leave your stuff set up if you have to leave to go to the bathroom," laughs Thompson.
Cedarburg's event is the biggest, says Thompson, with participants producing over 400 paintings in a week's time. There's bound to be some repetition in choice of subject matter, but "they are all completely different works of art."
Each event has a different flavor. Green Lake's one-day event is fast. Artists show up, get their stamped canvas, paint it and turn it in. The Door County invitational is Wisconsin's premier plein air event. Forty artists are chosen to paint, and people come from all over to purchase art at its auctions.
As much as there is a community of painters around these plein air events, says Thompson, there is also starting to be a community of collectors who come from miles away to peruse the paintings for sale at the event-ending exhibitions.
Spectators do show up to watch the artists paint, too. Some "ride around in golf carts," reports Thompson, scoping out the paintings they would like to buy at the end of the competition. "For the artists, it's very validating, and it's fun and unique for the collectors to view the whole process."
Thompson finds most spectators to be polite, but sometimes a few need to respect the boundaries. "Sometimes people get between you and what you're trying to paint. Sometimes you hear 'My daughter could do that.'" And sometimes there are too many questions. "I'd love to be able to explain what I'm doing to you, but I'm in a timed competition," Thompson explains regretfully.
"I am thrilled about where we're at in Wisconsin," says Thompson. "We've worked hard to get [plein air] recognized as it is in other parts of the country."
Where the artists are
July 22-27; quick-paint 9-11 am July 27