What Percentage of Work on Location?

Questions are often raised about standards, rules, and limitations that might be applied to the definition of “plein air.” Those usually arise during festivals when organizers and/or participants need to level the competitive playing field by establishing rules for eligibility for prizes, boundaries for painting, and expectations of participation. For example, group organizers often need to certify that all the juried paintings were created during the days of their event so they stamp the backs of canvases and panels to certify they were blank on the first day. They will also restrict artists to painting within a specific geographic area so people attending the event can find them while they are working.

But the larger question of what constitutes a plein air painting is raised within online community pages, in art clubs, and among collectors. Unfortunately, there is no definitive answer to that question, except that some amount of drawing and painting has to be done directly from nature and not completely from photographs, sketches, or imagination. The debate about that definition becomes complicated when one considers that many artists now use their smart phones and tablets to photograph or video tape scenes.

Can part of the work be done in a studio or from photographs? If so, how much ? And can still life or figure painting be included if it is done from a live model? Among the editors of PleinAir magazine, there is an agreement that artists need to be given the widest possible latitude for their creative explorations, so we don’t measure the amount of time an artist spends painting outdoors, nor do we place restrictions on what or where they may paint. We are more interest in promoting the spirit of outdoor painting and the fresh, immediate quality of paintings created during a relatively short period of time. It is simply impossible to judge a small painting created completely outdoors in 90 minutes against a 40” x 60” work begun en plein air but developed over weeks and months in a studio. Both may be great works of art, but it is difficult to make meaningful comparisons.

In the prospectus of many plein air festivals, there are rules about all work being done during the days of the event and within geographic areas. Those defined areas often change from day to day in order to give artists a variety of subjects and, hopefully, to grab the attention of passersby who might become interested in buying paintings. If the event schedule includes a timed painting session — often called a “quick draw” competition — the boundaries are made quite narrow so the public can easily move around to watch the artists work.

When a gallery or art center organizes an exhibition of plein air paintings, they often define the term very precisely because they can’t control the painting activity or make the assumption that everyone is operating under the same set of standards. In those cases, the prospectus for the show might say that paintings have to be created “mostly” en plein air, or they might go so far as to rule that 70-80% or the work must have been done outdoors.

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What’s In It for Them?

In the past year, several important artists have died after long careers of accomplishment and influence. Almost immediately after their passing, people posted comments and tributes on Facebook and Twitter about Nelson Shanks, Aaron Shickler, and Ken Auster. Many of those posts were heartfelt expressions of admiration, sympathy, and loss; but others came across as shallow grasps at publicity for the person sending out the tweet or the post.

The overwhelming number of people making unsavory claims about their association with the deceased has me struggling to determine where I draw the line between shameless self-promotion and helpful sharing. For example, Mr. Shanks’ death elicited a range of postings on social media from “I’m important because I am friends with important people like Mr. Shanks,” to “I’ve lost a mentor and friend and I am deeply saddened.” Many of those who wrote comments could only describe when and where they watched Mr. Shanks demonstrate or when they participated in one of his workshops, while others wrote about a larger than life character who was a complicated mix of extraordinary talent and distressing anxiety.

My struggle to deal with the comments surrounding the death of famous artists reminded me of the question I always ask myself when I write or edit an article for a magazine. I’ve learned that the only way to really engage subscribers is to address an unstated question that brings them to the publication: What’s In It For Me? That is, how will this article help, inform, or entertain me? Potential readers have limited time, multiple sources of information, and specific interests to satisfy. They are not likely to read articles that are only press releases for painters who want to boast about their past achievement … or their shallow claims about past accomplishment.

Quite often artists will direct me to the biographies posted on their websites when I begin to write about them. In most cases, very little of that data will help me answer the question on the minds of potential readers. Those folks will find very little benefit in a long list of awards, signature memberships, or exhibitions. Collectors might find that information helpful in validating a painter whose work they are considering for purchase, but most of those people don’t know which of the listings is actually significant and which is pure fluff.

Now you may be asking yourself, what is Doherty saying that might be helpful to me?  I want to suggest that the question you are asking me, the question I need to answer for magazine readers, is also the same question that can help both of us make better use of our postings on social media. What’s in it for those who follow us on Twitter or have become our friends on Facebook? Will they be informed, amused, or helped by our words and images?

At the end of the day, I suggest to you that pushing out a lot of promotions about your own importance, your connection to the famous, or your lofty status doesn’t accomplish what you intend. It is more likely your friends and followers will be bored or, worse yet, totally annoyed by your shallow and egocentric claims.

Part of the reason these boasts will fail to ring true is that most people see painting as a struggle that results in greater challenges, not gold medals. They are suspicious of anyone who brags about their greatness or their association with greatness because their experience tells them painting is much more complicated and uncertain. In many ways, it is a process of telling viewers what’s in it for them and, at the same time, telling ourselves about the value of our own experiences.IMG_8808_2








The End Game of Plein Air Festivals


At my easel during Plein Air Easton (MD)

I have new reasons to ask myself about my objective in participating in a plein air festival. Others seem to be asking themselves the same questions, so it might be helpful to review some of the statistics, published opinions, and inner workings of events.   Being a participating artist gave me an entirely new way of evaluating whether or not such events are profitable, career building, and fun. My 35 years as an art magazine editor, juror of selection, awards judge, and critic didn’t prepare me for actually competing in this kind of painting event.

I recently had the privilege of participating as an artist in several of the top plein air events in the country.  I was joined by artists who committed a significant amount of time and money to compete, even considering that most were provided free housing and several banquet meals. Many of those men and women were left wondering how to measure their efforts and results.

I’ve been a dedicated plein air painter for 30 years, but until recently I have only painted with friends or participated in events in which there was little pressure for awards and sales. I painted what interested me and didn’t concern myself with achieving specific objectives except for an infrequent exhibition in which I included my outdoor paintings. The recent events have been much more competitive, especially since in previous years I was rejected by the jurors of the same competitions. I thought more about the three digital images I submitted, and I put more time and effort into the two, three, or four paintings I exhibited in the awards shows. That raised the stakes for me, as did the information I was receiving about other artists spending 15 – 20 hours on each of their competition paintings, sometimes from dusk till dawn.

There are many positive aspect to being a participant in a plein air event, both on a personal and a professional level. One has the chance to talk with other artists; learn about materials and techniques; compare one’s paintings with others created in the same location; and gauge the reaction of those other artists, collectors, and observers. There is also the possibility of winning awards, selling paintings, receiving commissions, and making progress in one’s skills and style of painting.

Before I question any aspect of these kinds of events, I should first recognize the staggering amount of money and effort that goes into making these opportunities available to me and other artists who join the events. Volunteers and staff members spend months in advance trying to increase award purses, smooth the daily procedures, prepare for an exhibition, promote participation and sales, and offer every comfort possible to the artists. Families open their home and provide accommodations, meals, snacks, and warm hospitality to the participating artists. Those volunteers and staff members offer a valuable service to artists and I wouldn’t want my comments to suggest otherwise.

I should also point out that I sold from one to four paintings in each of the recent competitions, and I won an award for Best Composition in Plein Air Easton. I don’t think my comments reflect a frustration about not being recognized by awards judges or collectors.

All that said, the harsh reality of competitive plein air events is that the applications of many top artists are routinely rejected by jurors because of the number of applicants; only about 25% to 33% of the paintings created will actually sell; three or four of the artists will generate a disproportionately high percentage of total sales and revenue; and only 5% to 20% of the artists win awards. That means it is likely that even the most talented and accomplished artist can expect rejections, poor sales, and no awards. Numbers provided by The Avalon Foundation that runs Plein Air Easton tell part of the story. The number of paintings sold between 2009 and 2014 has ranged from a low of 124 to a high of 201; the average selling price ranged from $1066 to $1519; the median selling price landed between $795 and $1200; the highest price paid was from $3500 to $7,100; the total number of participating artists is now 58 individuals; and the total number of paintings created was roughly 600. A quick review of those numbers shows that about one-third of the paintings sell during the annual event in Easton and two-thirds go home with the artists.  

Plein Air Easton is arguably the most successful of all the plein air festivals with two awards of $5,000; a potential of ten days for artists to paint and sell (including the pre-festival events); and now a top-selling price of 9K or 11K (unofficial results to date). Other events have grown in size and stature, and the auction of quick draw paintings at the Door County (WI) event is an unbelievable phenomenon to witness. So too is the sales activity in Telluride (CO), Laguna Beach (CA), and Forgotten Coast (FL). However the percentage of sales and the average price paid is likely to be the same or lower as in Easton.

The cost to participating artists can be substantial when one considers that artists who are on the plein air circuit routinely fly from California to Maryland, from Vermont to Wisconsin, from Tennessee to California, and from Oregon to Colorado — often rushing from one event to the other with no time in between to stop at home. They must arrange to have their painting supplies, outdoor equipment, clothing, and 15-20 frames available at each venue, frequently relying on friends and family members to replenish their supplies.

Despite all these draw backs, hundreds of artists still pay entries fees and hope for acceptance into plein air festivals. But is it wise for them to continue indefinitely or should they consider plein air festivals a short-term means to a long-range goal? The answer may be found by examining the long careers of the best known painters. Most have stopped participating in plein air festivals because their prices are now well above the average, they keep all their sketches to use in the studio, or they no longer have fun hanging out with large groups of outdoor painters.

Connecticut artist Paul Bachem recently confessed that he was about ready to reduce the number of events in which he might participate. Here’s the comment he made when artist Lori Putnam posted a question on Facebook: “I’ve just finished my sixth year at Easton (writing this from my host’s house in fact) and while I agree about the friendships, getting to see what everyone else does and how they go about doing it, sales, awards, etc., I’ve come to feel that it is time for me to take a break. With all there is to enjoy about them, these events have at the same time always felt like grueling endurance tests to me and I know I don’t do my best under those conditions. I’m not trying to say anything bad about them…it’s just how I’ve come to feel about how they relate to/effect me.”

Colorado artist Dave Santillanes offers a more amusing reason for jumping off the plein air merry-go-round: “I’ve just been doing them in hopes of meeting my future wife. Mission accomplished. (smile emoticon) Now I’ll probably move on to other shows. But in all seriousness they are a fantastic venue for networking. All my current galleries “discovered” my work at plein air events. And I’ve met some of my best painting buddies at them.

Unlike most of the artists now on the plein air circuit, Californian Jim McVicker pursued a completely different career path even while relishing the opportunity to paint outdoors: “I have painted plein air for the past forty years but just recently, last October, participated in my first plein air event. I never realized what a great experience it would be. To meet all the great painters I now know, makes me realize how connected we all are and how many of us are out there. To share a passion with other like mined people is so rewarding. It’s also opened up connections with new collectors and the chance of sales and awards adds something different to the experience of painting with other painters. I will say, there is nothing like working plein air or in the studio on your own.”

So the point I want to make is that plein air festivals can be very competitive and stressful, and a relatively small number of participants actually win awards and sell enough paintings to make their participation profitable. The only guaranteed benefits are learning and developing friendships, and while those may be worthy rewards, they can be achieved under less stressful circumstances. The conclusion professional artists have come to is there is a point at which they will stop or greatly reduce the number of pleiin air festivals they join. Hopefully the events will position them to be better at selling through galleries or websites, enriched by the friendships they have made, better known to students and collectors, and more visible within the art community.

Clyde Aspevig’s Professionalism

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I was fortunate to see Clyde Aspevig’s exhibit, Nature & Nuance: the Art of Clyde Aspevig, at the Booth Museum of Western Art in Cartersville, Georgia (January 29 – May 10, 2015). Aside from enjoying the rare opportunity to see a large collection of Clyde’s work, I thought a great deal about aspect of the show that reflected the decisions he has made over the past 30 years as his reputation grew internationally. Over those decades, he took charge of his art career and focused on a few worthwhile professional goals. In doing so, Clyde achieved the kind of creative independence most artists hope to realize.

The aspects of the Booth Museum show that prompted my thoughts included the fact that almost all the paintings were created in 2014, most likely from plein air sketches executed over several years and in various locations around the country. In that respect, the museum exhibit was much like a solo show at a commercial gallery, except that there wasn’t a dealer involved who would take ownership of the show and would take half the money from any sales. The paintings were recent and many were available for purchase, at least when the show was initially hung. Friends who attended the opening said the wall tags indicated paintings were available, but when I viewed the show a few weeks later, all were in private collections.

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The second thing that struck me about the Booth Museum show was the size of the paintings and the way the large gallery swallowed the big canvases. The smallest plein air pieces were 12 x 18in and the largest were 30 x 40in. In most art galleries those would seem like big paintings, but not so on the massive walls of the museum. The lesson for me was that in order to command attention in a museum space, paintings have to be bigger than what most collectors can hang on the walls of their homes. In other words, Clyde long ago stopped painting for the average art buyer and started thinking about selling to major private and public collectors.

The related message I got from looking carefully at those large paintings was that a museum space calls for major works of art that express a personal point of view that is clear,  consistent, and thought provoking. Some of Clyde’s paintings were simplified prairie scenes and others were monumental mountain views, but all addressed the issue of harmony between human beings and nature. Each canvas revealed a respect for the landscape and a concern about out stewardship of those resources. The artist didn’t call attention to himself with quirky painting techniques, exaggerated lighting effects, romantically soft edges, or illustrative messages. The museum space demanded the best of the artist, and he delivered.

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The promotion for the exhibition was also tasteful and unobtrusive. In an age when many people believe that marketing is more important than content, it was refreshing to see an artist who depended on the quality of his work and his reputation for maintaining high standards. The few announcements that were mailed, posted on websites and social media, or passed by word of mouth were reflective of the Clyde’s high standards for his art.

As he has throughout his career, Clyde showed how a mature professional artist sets and achieves higher standards for himself and takes charge of the resources that will help him maintain those standards.

My 3/5 Challenge. Page 4

Today and tomorrow I will comment about six paintings I’ve done since moving to Virginia in December, 2012. I’m very interested in comments about ones you think would get the best response from jurors of plain air festivals. That is, which ones do you think I should submit, and why? It would really be helpful for me to get an objective reaction to the paintings. Thanks


View Towards Waynesboro From Rockfish Gap

This was painted from a parking lot overlooking the intersection of I-64 and Rt 250, and it’s near where my wife and I pick up Appalachian Trail hikers to drive them into Waynesboro or drop them off when they have restocked, cleaned, and rested themselves for the rest of their journey.


View Down 11th Street, Waynesboro

This is the view from the school board building and it was secretly purchased by the wife of the new superintendent who wanted to present it as a holiday gift. I subsequently did a second painting from the same location and gave that to my next door neighbor who held the superintendent’s post for twenty years.


Skyline Drive Rock Formation

My friend and mentor Jack Beal preached about dynamic composition and advised artists to use one diagonal shape to bring the viewer into a painting and another to take them out; and he also recommended balancing angular shapes, open and closed areas of space, and patterns of warm and cool colors. I thought about Jack when I did this painting in a parking area along Skyline Drive through the Blue Ridge Mountains.


Irish Cottage, Frontier  Culture Museum

I painted this at the wonderful museum of historic farms and houses while my granddaughter attended a summer camp. It seemed fitting that an artist of Irish decent should paint the cottage.

My 3/5 Challenge. Page 3

The Hudson River was a source of inspiration for 34 years, so I want to share a few more of the plain air paintings I did along the shoreline and from sites overlooking the broad expanse of the river


Rockwood Hall, William Rockefeller’s view

I gave this painting as a wedding present to a woman whose oldest son is now college age, so it is probably one of the first plein air pieces I made in the New York state park given by the Rockefeller family. At that time I was still following Tom Buechner’s advice and painting with alkyds on MultiMedia Art Board. I soon found that I didn’t like the matte finish and fast drying time of the Griffin alkyd paints, and the painting surface was extremely brittle and easily cracked.


View From Croton Point

My most dependable painting location was right below my home on a strip of land beside the railroad track that was eventually turned into a beautiful park where townspeople walked, rode bikes, fished, and watched the sunset. This painting shows the view south towards NYC as day is ending.


Hudson River Shoreline

This is one of the many paintings I did right next to the Hudson. During the years I lived in Croton-on-Hudson, I looked at a lot of Hudson River School paintings to help me compose and execute my plein air pieces of the local landscape, chief among them Frederic E. Church. Those paintings showed me ways of composing an otherwise horizontal scene into a more dynamic arrangement of shapes and spatial relationships.

My 3/5 Challenge, Page 2


Hidcote Manor Sheep

During our trip to Chipping Campden, U.K. with William Hook and Kate Singer, I set up to paint in a field just besides the famous gardens at Hidcote Manor. I picked a symmetrical view of the sheep, trees, and distant fields because that even balance seemed to convey the sense of harmony and peacefulness of the scene.


Chateau de Balleroy, Normandy, France

In 1996, Christopher Forbes and I agreed to host groups of artists at various properties owned by Forbes, Inc. The first such gathering was at the Forbes Trinchera Ranch in Colorado, and the second in 1997 was at the Chateau de Balleroy. I spent most of my time on these trips handling logistics and taking photographs for articles, but I always had painting gear with me. This is a view of the walled entrance to the chateau grounds looking towards the cylindrical garçonniére, a bachelor pad for the unmarried men of the family.


Entrance to Rockwood Hall State Park, Tarrytown, NY

When I lived in a suburb of New York City, I had several favorite painting sites, and Rockwood Hall was certainly one of them. The land had at one time been the site of William Rockefeller’s mansion and it offered one of the most expansive views up and down the Hudson River. I did this painting of the entrance into the park with a glimpse of the Hudson River and the western edge of the river. The painting was included in an exhibition about 15 years ago.

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North From Rockwood Hall State Park

I often painted this view on the north end of the park because it included Croton Point Park near my home. Moreover, there was a great progression of space from foreground to middle ground and into the distance, as well as an expansive sky. I would set up in the middle of a field that was cut once a year when members of the Rockefeller family would ride horse-drawn carriages through the park.