Fox Valley Plein Air Painting Competition

Posted on August 27, 2011 in Blog Post, Editorial, News, Plein Air Painting

Last weekend was the Fox Valley Plein Air painting competition. This is a new event, hosted by both the Jack Richeson corporation in Kimberly, WI, and the Bergstrom-Mahler Museum in Neenah, WI. I want to say outright that I was pretty excited for the opportunity to paint in a new area of the state, and glad of the generosity of Richeson. After visiting the museum a few weeks ago for the Wisconsin Plein Air Painting exhibition, I thought this event would have potential. Unfortunately I was wrong, the trip was largely an expensive disappointment.

I am sure I’m going to step on some toes with this post, so I want to say outright that organizing events like these is an enormous job. The Richeson company is also generally very supportive of artists, especially painters, as their collection will attest. That being said, this was anything but a successful event, and not just because I didn’t win an award or sell anything. But more on that later.

The event ran from Thursday thru Saturday, I was buried in work that week, and only managed to get out of Milwaukee after 2 pm. Given that it was a 2 hour drive, I didn’t get to Richeson’s until close to 4 pm. After getting my panels stamped and driving back to Neenah to check into my hotel, it was already quite late. I decided that I would skip the artists reception to get in a late painting. Sometimes the best light is late in the day.

“The Manor” 10″ x 24″ oil on panel. I decided to return to a park I had painted in the last time I was in Neenah, there were some remarkable homes, mansions really, in the area of Riverside Park. I drove around for an hour or so to see what I could find, and decided to use a long rectangular panel for this particular property. I was drawn to the woodwork, and the shape of the spire and the roof line.

After wrapping this up, I found a Chinese restaurant near the hotel and got a lot of food, enough for breakfast the next day. Two beers I brought from home and some TV after cleaning my brushes, then I was out.

“Roley’s Boat” 16″ x 20″ oil on panel. This next one I did the following morning. I was up before dawn, but didn’t manage to get out of the hotel until around 7 am. I drove right to High Cliff State Park, a location I was advised might offer some great vantages. After some confusion on the road (detours!), I was pleased to find that admission was free. I drove around a bit, then settled for a view of some boats in dock at the marina there. It was quite secluded, well oriented to the sun, and rather quiet. There was a boat launch/load area behind me as I painted this piece, and I had a handful of onlookers, but for the most part I got a lot done. This took me about 5 hours. By the time I was done I was quite hungry.

“Horvat Family Carriage House” 11″ x 17″ oil on panel. After driving back to the Neenah, I had a sandwich, framed the paintings I had to date, then called my friend Brian, who had invited me to paint at his home. He has a rather old carriage house/garage on his property in Appleton that is gradually falling into the river behind his home. They may well have to demolish that structure soon, given how unstable the hillside has become. I knew this would be a sentimental piece for their family, so I set to work, hoping to wrap up before the light died.

Brian was kind enough to supply me with some green tea, and as I worked, the piece just fell together. I stayed for a bit to catch up, but was by this point dead tired. After saying my good-byes, I drove back to the hotel and found I was too tired to sleep. I hate that.

The following morning was a short day for painting. We had until 3 pm to turn in our work, set up our own easels and hang up to three pieces. We were limited on this day to the Neenah/Menasha – Appleton area. I decided to stay very close to the venue at which we had to turn in our work. I also decided to go small, hoping to get in two paintings in that time. I had two 8″ x 10″ panels stamped. By 9:30 I was painting.

Riverside park has a small marina, with a couple dozen small sailboats docked at floating buoys. I knew from a previous visit that this part of the water had a very strong current, but when I set up, the air was very still and the weather was hot and muggy. I started working on the first one, a view of the marina. This was the first one I did, “Marina Study, No.1″ 8″ x 10” oil on panel. As I was painting this one, the sun came out and blew out all the values of what I was painting. I stuck with this one for another 30 minutes or so, then decided to call it. There was more to paint and still time remaining.

For this one I found a piece of shade, under a tree from which to paint. The sun was quite direct by this point. I decided on a view of the dingies resting on shelves at the edge of the marina. I have always found the shapes presented by the sleek forms of the boats and the sharp shadows as they rest one above the other to be interesting. Being by this point warmed up, I approached this one in a strictly Alla Prima manner, laying down each stroke with just the right color, value, and intensity, in just the right spot. I took a lot of time between strokes, mixing color, trying to determine the best way to build the surface of this piece to bring the painting to life. It was largely a study in rendering, I made great use of my Mongoose brushes and a couple of liners. The sunlight was so strong, the shadows were acutely dark, and the foliage made for interesting shadow shapes on the wall behind the racks. If I were to do this one again, I would have spent a bit more time considering the edge quality, trying to build a more specific focal point, that being said, it turned out very close to what I intended at the time. “Marina Study, No.2″ 8″ x 10” oil on panel.

When I finished, took a walk to see what some of the other artists were working on, then framed my paintings and took them to the museum. I found a spot out front that was close enough to walk them in. I had three easels with me, between my camera tripod and the two display easels I keep at the school. I ended up loaning my main painting easel to Jenny Anderson so she could display one of her pieces off the floor. I set up in a foyer that was well lit by natural light, then caught up with some friends. By this time (2:30 or so) I was quite exhausted and in need of some food and a couple of beers. Some fellow painters and I decided to go to a sports bar that was in downtown Neenah, and ~god almighty~, they were serving 23 oz. frosted mugs of Guinness. Two of those and a grilled chicken sandwich later and I was feeling much refreshed. We headed back to the venue to find that we missed the announcements, which was probably for the best, given how disappointing the judges’ decisions were. Then began the long wait for visitors and potential sales.

After a lot of consideration, I’ve decided that I’m going to be very frank about my opinions of this event. I believe there is a reason why events in Wisconsin are sub-par to events in other communities around the country. I’m sure I’ll not make any friends with this post, but the fact is that this event was really a disappointment, and unless the artists involved speak up, it won’t get any better. If you feel your sensibilities might be offended, turn back now.



I want to start my criticism by talking a little bit about what Plein Air painting means to me. Looking back at the last three years, I’ve been involved in over 17 different events, in addition to a handful of juried exhibitions. I’ve won some awards, sold a handful of paintings, and learned quite a bit about this form of painting. I’ve invested quite literally thousands of dollars in travel costs, entrance fees, framing, and supplies. There are limitations and an expediency to this form of painting that makes it unlike any other tradition. Two significant inventions created this genre of painting — the invention of the paint tube, and the invention of the portable easel. The advent of these dates back to the early 1800’s, although there were probably artists who would sketch and paint from life under natural lighting conditions, dating back much earlier.

The reality of plein air painting is that you have a very limited amount of time in which to paint before several things happen. First and foremost, the light will change drastically within the space of 3-5 hours, no matter what time of year it is. Second, there will be an innumerable number of distractions. From bugs to spectators, to subjects that move or change position, or outright leave the scene, to changes in weather, to the burden of the environment on the focus of the painter. Regardless of how complex your subject matter is, (unless you’re painting in Alaska or Norway) you only ever have 3-5 hours in which to do it. This calls for some serious decision making. Certain skills have to be absolutely second nature, and refined, efficient drawing or rendering skills are assumed.

With this in mind, Plein Air painters have the unique opportunity to capture the character of their subject matter. Character which is affected by the exceedingly temporary light and weather conditions that exist at the moment the artist begins working. They highlight the significance of the location, a sense of place, and often record things that will never be quite the same again. In this sense it’s a process very much like painting a portrait, where the artist captures something in time.

Which is why it is so disappointing to see artists who consistently use a formula for contrived sentimentality in their work, painting scenes that could be just about anywhere, and are awarded for it. If you’re going to drive for hours to get to a location, and spend the money necessary for travel, hotel, food, supplies, etc., plus the entrance fee for an event that states as an objective, the goal of highlighting things unique to that region, why not actually do the work of looking around for something specific to that area, and make an honest attempt at capturing it?

Here, in my opinion, is one such painting. This piece took first place in this event. You can see a larger version of this photo here. The artist is an accomplished painter who has been winning a lot of awards lately. The design of this piece is relatively simple, there are some anatomical issues with the cows, which can probably be excused for the sake of simplification, and there is the color of the sunset. In my opinion, although this is a pretty piece, there were other paintings there which were much stronger in terms of design, value structure, edge quality, rendering, and which had subject matter that was much more specific to the areas in which we were to have painted. There’s really nothing about this that says “Appleton” or “Green Bay” or even “Wisconsin.”

This is the piece that took second place. You can see a larger version of this photo here. The rendering of the house is a solid sketch, accurate lines and deliberate brushstrokes, there is an interesting sense of space created in the front porch area, and the shapes of the roof line and facades of the property are interesting. Given the way the house is situated in the picture frame, you can tell it’s a much better composition than the first place painting. But the greens lose it for me, they’re just a bit muddy and flat and similar, and seem like an afterthought. It’s a decent painting, but I would not have given this more than a third place, given some of the other work that was exhibited.

With the time constraints involved in plein air painting, sometimes we have to simplify matters, and sometimes, due to the exhaustion, we phone it in or fake it. This painting lies somewhere between those two extremes.

This is the painting that took third place, and in my opinion, it was perhaps the strongest in the show. You can see a larger version here. First, the design is truly remarkable. A square format is unusual, and this one presents an ominous sense of space and atmosphere. The handling is loose and expressive, yet sensitive to the shapes of the subject matter. The color is also well handled, thick opaque knife marks where the light is strongest, and thinner brushwork where the light dies off and the color gets darker helps to give make the subject matter more substantial. Further, there is a definitive focal point, which lends a sense of drama.

But what really distinguishes this painting in my mind is the choice of subject matter. The painter found an event that was going on during this paint-out, made her way there and set her mind to capturing a very large painting of a very temporary scene. The story behind this painting is that while painting, the balloons were being deflated and re-inflated repeatedly, so she really did not have a lot of time in which to capture their shapes. Nocturnes (night paintings) in general are challenging, but a subject that is moving so much, with so much action below are truly difficult.

(The last three photos were courtesy of Wendie Thompson)

Now, my reason for being disappointed in this event is not only due to the lack of consideration on behalf of the judges. This whole process of being awarded for something so subjective is really a game, and it’s a stupid game, but it’s really the only game in town for artists in this genre. And the payoff is great. An artist who wins awards will be invited to larger and larger events, will draw more interest when they offer workshops, and will have an easier time finding representation by galleries or agents because the gallery owners will be able to sell their accomplishments as well as their work — even if the quality of their work is sub-par to other less well established artists. That’s the truly frustrating part.

There were some good paintings in this show. There were also a lot of mediocre paintings. The weather we had probably didn’t help this. It takes a high degree of concentration and deliberation to make an interesting painting when we have hazy flat light and warm conditions. The weather was in the high 80’s and humid for all three days, with lots of direct sun.

The fact of the matter is that for most of these events, the judges are looking for something in particular, and it’s not always good painting. Which is a shame, and in my opinion, one of the reasons why events in Wisconsin will always be a poor excuse when compared to those held in Indiana, California or Maine (hot spots for plein air painters).

It’s also my opinion that this will never change unless artists like myself speak up about how wrong it is to let it happen. The event organizers and judges need to be reminded that nothing will be served by playing it safe and picking the work of popular, established artists especially when the work is sub-par. Part of the responsibility of the judges and organizers is to educate the public on the significance of the work. A great opportunity to do so was lost here.

However, as I said, I had other reasons to be disappointed with this event. Artists can handle rejection, with regards to judging, particularly if there are opportunities to make sales at these events. But this event really didn’t do much to promote that. At the time I arrived at the exhibition, I counted perhaps 20 people who were not artists, event staff, or friends of the artists. Given that there were 38 artists who could each submit up to 3 paintings, plus an entire other show of similar work already on the walls (and better lit at that), this turnout was wholly unacceptable. In fact given that there were nearly 100 paintings displayed for the competition, and that only a small percentage of viewers will ever actually make a purchase, I think that anything less than 100 visitors would be disappointing. Of the 150 or so paintings on display between the two exhibitions, I found that there were less than a handful of sales between them.

Now I don’t know exactly what measures Richeson or the Bergstrom-Mahler Museum took to promote this event, but while I was painting, of the 20 or so people who came up to me, not a single one of them knew about either show, the competition, the date of the exhibition, or even where the Museum was located! I saw nothing in the papers, heard nothing on local television, nor the radio. We were given nothing to hand out to spectators until the last day of the event, mere hours before the exhibition was to begin, and by that point it was pretty much too late to garner public interest.

Pardon me, but that’s a sorry excuse for promoting an event. And what boggles me is that the organizers stood to profit from a good turnout, they had every motive for doing well here. I think what was at work was the “let’s just do it and hope they come” mindset, which never works.

Further, the lead up to this event was surrounded by uncertainty, they didn’t have maps of the area or a list of the amount of prizes to be awarded until just before the event. The event featured some truly annoying requirements with regards to getting panels stamped, only to change the rules regarding where we could paint each day the day of the event! The instructions regarding the labels for the work were also unclear and were changed as we were displaying our work. The event on the whole gave the impression that they were making it up as we went along and for that reason, it was one of the more poorly organized events that I’ve participated in. I think the organizers really need to put some more thought as to what it is like for artists to drive into an area they have never been to and do so much navigating. The logistical headaches this creates add a great deal of stress and take time away from making great paintings.

Now if these organizers are serious about hosting an annual event, there has to be a shot at success. And by success I mean exactly this: either fairly awarded prizes based on sound judging, or sales.

How else can they expect to attract talented, accomplished, dedicated artists to drive for hours, go to great expenses in time and travel and registration costs? It certainly won’t be with the cheap freebies they put in our artist packet, small panels and other things that nobody uses. You want a hot event each year? Make it lucrative and worthwhile, and above all fare.

While this weekend offered a welcome chance to catch up with some friends in this community, I personally lost $100 in private lessons that I could have been teaching, spent $125 on gas, $130 on the hotel, $65 on food, hundreds more on frames, supplies, panels, etc., and all for a piss poor showing and some poor judging. The Fox Valley Plein Air competition was definitely a disappointment.

Well, that’s my opinion on this event. I say this much as well — I’m not the only artist who participated who shares these opinions. If you have comments, I welcome them. In my next post, I’ll talk a little bit about what makes a good event, and what makes for a really bad one, from the artists’ perspective.