Shorewood Plein Air
There was a painting event this weekend. It seems I won an award.
My painting teacher Ron Bitticks was fond of saying that “life is strategically designed to keep you from painting.” This is true on so many levels. Among the trials and tribulations of this modern artist were students flaking out on their obligations, major investments in a new facet of my career (photography equipment), losing an assistant at my studio (and effectively doubling my teaching load), a consistent lack of sleep, and not least, car trouble.
I knew that this would be a tight year back in January, so I only pre-registered for two Plein Air painting events, namely Cedarburg and Shorewood. In each of these events I’ve previously done well with sales and I was counting on these as a source of income. Besides that, I enjoy the company of the artists who participate, and the way the events are handled.
Unfortunately Cedarburg didn’t pan out very well, I only sold one small painting this year (compared to 5 last year). They changed the manner in which paintings are sold, switching to a single purchase price, rather than the silent bidding system they’ve used in the past. Trying not to undersell my work, I believe I priced myself out of the market this year. Heading into the slow part of the year, I had a lot riding on the Shorewood event.
Of late I’ve been taking more photography and design gigs to pay the bills and keep my school afloat. The down side of course was that I had very little time for anything other than that kind of work. Frankly, it’s been a crap year for painting. In fact the last painting I did in Shorewood was only the 10th painting I did this year. I usually average 100 paintings a year. The only real benefit of having not painted this year was that I was still well stocked in paint and frames.
On Wednesday, after checking in and getting my panels stamped for the event, I began by heading back to the street where I painted two homes last year, paintings that sold. Knowing that awards are always a crap shoot, as a rule, I try to paint for an audience who might not only afford, but also be interested in a painting. This street has many large homes, manicured lawns, security systems, and expensive cars. I found several homes that had interesting facades, and good light during the time I was there. My first painting was of the Buck Home, done on a gilded panel.
This will sound very mercenary, but with limited opportunities to paint and limited resources, I must be practical. Subject matter is always a tricky question when attempting to paint in an event that is designed to showcase and highlight the character of a city or neighborhood. While there are many historic locations and storefronts listed as points of interest in Shorewood, the question for me is always – “would someone want to hang that in their home?” If not, then I can’t see the sense in investing limited time in painting that subject. I hate to shortchange the local businesses who might actually be in the market, but I’d rather be commissioned to do a painting after the event, than gamble on that and end up with a painting of a store or an old building that nobody wants.
When I finished the first painting, my eyes were burnt out. After a month of not painting, I was out of practice, and adding to this the stress of work lately, and that I had to teach at 5pm, I decided to call it a day after that painting. I did some scouting around, then headed home. As I headed to the school to teach for the night, I heard a clunk and a pop from my front right wheel. The steering was a bit jerky and I knew it was bad. I’ve yet to take it in, but it looks like the upper ball joint, possibly the upper control arm. I had no idea how I was going to make it to the rest of the event, and the two photo gigs I had scheduled for that weekend.
After some finagling with my family members, I was able to secure a vehicle for the rest of the week. That also meant leaving Shorewood during the day to give them a ride, then driving back on Thursday, and giving them an early ride on Friday. If there is anything that will contribute to eye fatigue it is a lack of sleep, and driving through rush hour traffic. The painting I started that morning suffered for it. This was of a home near the previous one I painted on Wednesday.
I packed up after about 4 hours and prepared for the quick paint Thursday night. I had to work on Saturday morning, so I knew I’d miss that Quick Paint event, so the Thursday night Quick Paint had to be it. Finding a spot took some effort. They limited our views to painting cityscapes from Oakland Avenue or Capitol Drive. As I drove around, most of the good spots were already taken. Parking is murder along those streets and traffic was an issue. Plus a late start at this time of year meant we’d have to race the light to capture our subject. I finally started an hour into the 4-hour window by painting the view looking West into the sunset over Capitol Drive. I won’t post the painting here, as I’m not fond of it. I actually ran out of light before I ran out of time.
The next day I returned to work on the painting I started Thursday morning. I somewhat resolved that and decided to get some food and see if I could get one more in before the 5pm deadline. I ended up turning in the two I did, just in case I didn’t finish before the deadline. If I liked the one I did better, I could always replace one.
I decided to set up next to my good friend Larry Seiler, who I don’t get to see outside of Facebook very often. For those who don’t know, Larry was one of the first painters I met when I started doing Plein Air competitions. We had a chance to talk and enjoy the weather and comments from passers-by.
The view I chose was looking North to an alleyway between two buildings, a school and a church. There was a brick crosswalk connecting the two buildings, which framed the playground and buildings beyond. At that time of day, the school was casting this area into shadow, with angular shadows on the crosswalk. I knew it would give an interesting focal point.
At this point I was pretty sure I would not finish the painting before time ran out, so the pressure was pretty much off. As I painted, things started to come together well, despite the many onlookers. Towards the end I decided to drop in a couple of figures, and then the painting really began to pop. With about 40 minutes left, I packed up and headed back to frame it and turn it in.
Comparing the new painting to those I had submitted I couldn’t decide which to include. I need to thank Mark Zelten and Mary Ann Davis for their advise on this, as they convinced me to include the new painting. And this is the one that the judges liked:
After a long day of shooting at Miller Park for the Marathon event there, I was absolutely exhausted. Getting up at 4:30 and working for 7 hours, I was wiped out. I only managed to get to the Awards ceremony just as they were wrapping up. As I walked in I asked my friend Bill Suys what I missed, and he shook my hand and said they just called my name. I made my way to the front of the crowd with no idea what was going on, only to find I had take the top prize.
This was the first time I’ve taken an event. I am very grateful for the award, the appreciation of my peers and the judges. But in the end this type of award is a lot like a lottery ticket. There are just too many variables that are based on subjective factors and the whim of the judges for this to truly be a mark of exceptional skill or accomplishment. Don’t get me wrong, there is a minimum amount of skill required to get such an award, and I appreciate the acknowledgement, but there is also a greater majority of luck involved, that things happen to go your way. I have been a part of events in the past where the awards neglected much better paintings, much better painters for inscrutable reasons. This week, I managed to have an on day, chose an decent subject, handled it well, chose a sufficiently interesting title that somehow resonated with these particular judges on that particular day. Say what you will, but I know there were better paintings in that event.
With all humility, however, I have many people to thank, starting with the event organizers and volunteers (especially the lady who brought a cold bottle of water on a warm sunny day), Sommer’s Subaru for fronting the award money, my Mother and Sister for helping me get around, and my many friends in the Plein Air community for inspiring me to continue painting against all odds.