What makes for a successful Plein Air Painting competition

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

After a lot of thought, I’ve decided to summarize some of the criticism I’ve heard from artists in my community towards local events in Wisconsin. I’ve also added some suggestions that I think would make these events better. I do this knowing that I may lose some friends among those who organize these events, but I also do this because I truly believe that if the artists involved don’t speak up, things will never improve.

What constitutes a successful Plein Air Competition:

  1. Promotion. That is: more than just wishful thinking.
    Of those who hear about the event, only a small percentage will consider attending. Of those who attend, only a small percentage will even consider purchasing a painting or hiring an artist for a commission. For a successful event, you need turnout. Attendees should at the very least outnumber the participating artists — by a factor of ten. To get this kind of a turnout, you need to get the word out, and in a clever way, across as many media as possible. A website/email campaign is hardly sufficient to get people to attend, especially when there are conflicting events that are better promoted. Postcards are a step in the right direction. Flyers for artists to hand out during the event are also necessary. Newspaper ads are even better. Radio spots and Television appearances are better still. Facebook is a must. This is where a gallery or museum or host sponsor earns its salt.
  2. A fair chance of success. Success is defined in two ways for artists: Awards and Sales. The Awards have to mean something, be determined by critical judgment from fair, competent jurors. The potential for sales has to be lucrative.
  3. Networking/Community opportunities. A chance for artists to catch up, share stories, meet collectors and gallery owners, and the public at large. Sometimes this happens at the exhibition. Sometimes, like in the case of Cedarburg, there are events scheduled (artists lunch, evening gatherings, rest stop, post-exhibition party, etc.) that allow for this throughout the event.
  4. Fair, Sensible, Clearly Defined Rules. If a rule exists, the question should be: Is it necessary? Rules should not be changed just prior to an event. Once the flyer goes out, they should be set in stone. Most rules in a plein air event have to do with deadlines. Having one’s panels stamped is a minimal effort to insure that artists don’t cheat and turn in a previously painted work, but it really does nothing to prevent cheating. If an artist wanted to, they could have their panel stamped, then glue a finished painting to the surface of that panel. I can understand this with regards to a 2-4 hour long quick paint event, where the panel is time stamped before and after. But for a multi-day event, I just don’t see the need for this type of rule. Size limitations are probably a good thing, as the people who run Easton learned. I have some other suggestion, however (see below).
  5. The venue. A clean, well-lit, secure space that allows for a good deal of traffic. A method of exhibiting the paintings that allows viewers to see the pieces without craning their necks, crouching, fighting glare, or squinting into a poorly lit area. If the venue is hard to find or in a crappy neighborhood, you’re likely not going to have much attendance.

After reflecting on the past 20 events that I’ve competed in, I’ve compiled a list of suggested rules for future events:

  1. Minimum Pricing Standards. There are few things more frustrating than wrestling with the issues involved with determining the fair market value of your painting, only to find some amateur next to you on the wall who has their piece for sale at 1/5 the price. In order to insure an atmosphere conducive to the appreciation of artists’ work, we recommend that no work be sold for less than $200.
  2. Juried Entrance into the Main Competition. If you want to compete in the main event, you will need to send in a digital image showcasing three of your best works. These works should demonstrate a standard of both technical skill and taste. If you don’t have three best works, might we suggest the beginners division?
  3. Flat rate gallery commission. I’ve never understood why a gallery should get a percentage of the sale of work, instead of a set amount. The amount of work the staff does for the artists does not change based on how successful their paintings are, or how hard the artists work. The gallery knows what it needs to make to have a successful event, let’s determine that number and divide it by the number of expected sales. Not only will this encourage artists to price their artwork in a consistent manner, but it also encourages artists to make their work affordable so it has a better chance to sell. More importantly, it will encourage the staff to do everything they can to provide an atmosphere conducive to sales.
  4. Last year’s winners are next year’s jurors. Stapleton Kearns had it right on this one. If you can’t commit to judging the following year, should you win, then you can take your work out of contention for the awards. Honorable mentions will serve as alternates, should a judge drop out. Not only does this keep the same people from winning year after year, but it prevents the same people from judging year after year, both of which can keep new talent from emerging.

What will always make for a poor event:

  1. Doing an ad-hoc event. Attaching a Plein Air competition to an existing festival simply for the novelty, while making the assumption that people will be there anyway, why promote it? Case in point: Pewaukee Boat Show & Plein Air Competition
  2. Poor judging. This includes not only biased or poorly considered decisions, but also unqualified judges (such as non artists, or artists who have no Plein Air painting experience), artists who represent a particular medium or sub-genre, and gallery owners and other self-styled experts.
  3. Unclear purchasing instructions. Silent auctions should be well explained to the viewers. Better still, auctions should not be silent. Good auctioneers create a sense of excitement and anticipation, which often leads to more sales and heated bidding wars.
  4. Attaching a plein air competition to an art festival. This falls under the assumption that if some art is great, more art must be better. Given the same number of attendees, what actually happens is that the chances of selling anything are cut in half or worse. People who do art fairs for a living resent this, and plein air artists who have to compete with more refined studio work displayed in booths resent this also.

A word about judging.

There are several truths about Plein Air painting that makes it unique, separate from all other genres. While it shares similarities with portraiture, figurative painting, still life painting, where the goal is to paint a representative image from direct observation, there are obstacles that are certain in Plein Air painting that may not exist in those other genres:

  • The artist is on location. Not just a general location, but a specific place at a specific time of year, time of day, painting a specific subject.
  • The light will change. Even during the longest summer days, light conditions will change completely within 1-5 hours (unless you’re in Alaska or Sweden or some other far northern location). This mandates that the artist make swift decisions, simplify where possible, and have the discipline to not chase the light.
  • The weather is a constant concern. This can affect the light conditions at the least, and place the artist directly into personal hazards at the worst.
  • There are constant distractions. From questions from passersby, to insects, unruly animals, traffic, the smell of food from nearby restaurants, and any number of other interruptions, we face issues that no studio painter will confront. The concentration required to overcome these is enormous.
  • The artist captures a unique and singular moment in time. The conditions present will never again occur quite the same way. Often, the subject matter itself will change due to weather, traffic, erosion, urban sprawl, fires, construction, and any number of other forces. Several of the places I’ve painted no longer exist. Buildings have been torn down, roads laid in, trees taken down by storms, etc.

So when evaluating the relative merit between two plein air paintings, in addition to the technical questions regarding composition, drawing, edges, color, value, paint handling, etc., the juror should be asking: “Why did the artist choose THIS location to paint?” “What was the impetus that compelled the painter to commit this scene to paint?” “What insight did the artist bring to this subject matter that is unique?” If the answer to these questions is unclear, then that is an inferior painting, compared to one where these answers are clearly demonstrated. Further, work that has a general subject matter that could have been done anywhere should be the least meritorious, since the artist has not told you anything about that particular place in which they painted.

In competitions, where “paintable areas” are set by the rules of the event, this is the challenge for the painter. Come to a place you’ve never seen before, and paint something significant that people have never seen before, but look at all the time. Work that achieves this is worthy of more merit than those that do not. The locals will know at a glance if they achieved this, or if they copped out to paint something that is merely recognizable, mundane, obvious, etc., or if they actually capture the character of the place.

These considerations should be first in the judges’ minds, as it will make their decisions that much easier. The problem is that judges are more often swayed by other considerations, either looking for a particular “style” or the pressure to pick an artist whose reputation is deserving enough to stave off the majority of criticism.