All the plein air events, at your fingertips

Thinking about competitive plein air painting? Here’s a useful tool.

Beach Erosion, 8X10, oil on canvasboard, $652 framed, available through Ocean Park Association.

I met Chrissy Pahucki at a plein air event. She was standing in line with one of her children waiting to have her canvases stamped. Chrissy’s branding came naturally—she always had a kid trailing along. I once asked a show organizer how many years we’d been doing his event. “You can tell how long it’s been by how much Ben has shot up in height,” he answered.

All three Pahucki kids are grown now and Chrissy’s still doing the plein air circuit. In her spare time, she’s a full-time, award-winning middle school art teacher in Goshen, NY. About a decade ago, she created a website to direct-sell paintings called the Plein Air Store, and she still maintains it.

Quebec Brook, 12X16, oil on canvasboard, $1449 framed.

She also made this spreadsheet for applying to events. It’s a useful tool because it lays out application, notification and event dates in tabular form. That means a busy person doesn’t have to hunt through reams of material looking for a show. Unlike a magazine, it’s searchable. And it’s free. Thank you, Chrissy.

The plein air circuit is where I first met Mary Byrom, Bobbi Heath, Poppy Balser, and many other talented, hard-working and like-minded women. Like Chrissy, they’ve become valued friends. These events are much like the rodeo circuit; the same artists show up at them over and over. Artists compete with each other for prizes and sales, but at the same time, they’re supportive and friendly. That’s a good life lesson right there.

Plein air events teach you to search out beauty. There is something otherworldly about grey, soaking weather that you don’t realize if you only go out when it’s fine. The painting Sometimes It Rains, below, was painted during a complete washout at Ocean Park, ME. I tucked myself into the vestibule at the Temple and painted down Royal Street. Ed Buonvecchio set up right behind me and painted me with my little red wagon. Sometimes It Rains turned out to be one of my favorite paintings. Ed’s painting sold, although why anyone would want me on their wall remains a mystery to me.

Fog Bank off Partridge Island, 14X18, oil on canvasboard, $1594 framed.

Sometimes there’s very little to work with. I once did an event in a coastal resort comprised of boxy modern houses shoved cheek-by-jowl along a strand. We were forced to find something beautiful, and the only way forward was to search shapes for a transformative angle or trick of the light. “You can make a good painting out of anything” is a good painting lesson and an even better life lesson.

Plein air events teach us to finish work. That last bit used to be my undoing. I once perseverated for years over a commission, to the point where it became a standing joke among my students. “Is that thing still there?” they’d ask as they trooped into my studio week after week.

Sometimes It Rains, 9X12, oil on archival canvasboard, $869 framed.

But plein air events allow for no such noodling. There’s an immutable deadline. You hand in work whether you think its done or not. A buyer or judge loves it for its unrefined energy. The adage that we spend 90% of our time doing 10% of the work is true in painting. It’s also true that we sometimes spend 90% of our time overworking that 10%.

Plein air painting is, simply, the most important art movement of our time. If you’re interested in it, I encourage you to dip your toe into the competitive process. Start with a regional show near you and see how it goes. Chrissy’s table is a good way to start.

Monday Morning Art School: stop comparing yourself to others

Art is not like the Super Bowl, where there are clear winners and losers. It’s not necessary to be the most adept, brilliant, or incisive painter for your work to profoundly influence others.

Deer in snow, by Carol L. Douglas

“You can’t be somebody else,” I heard my husband tell a young person. “You can just be the best you can be, and not worry about everyone else.” He was talking about music, but his advice is just as applicable to painting.

I will sometimes ask students whom they most admire among artists, but the answers—while fascinating—seem to have little to do with where they end up as painters. I’ve fed myself on a solid diet of masters from the northern European Renaissance to the 21st century, and I don’t see much continuity between these influences and my own painting. I love them, but I can’t paint like them.

Downdraft snow, by Carol L. Douglas

That doesn’t mean I don’t sometimes fall into the pernicious trap of comparing myself to others. As much as I’d like it to be otherwise, I’ll occasionally succumb to the green-eyed monster of jealousy. It’s very difficult to watch someone else do something easily that you’re struggling with, or sail into honors and accolades that elude you.

That can be especially difficult for women artists, who labor under a system that is, in fact, more sexist (in terms of dollars) than society as a whole. So, sisters, cut yourselves some slack.

After teaching for so many years, I know that early success doesn’t always equate to winning the race. Students start at different levels of competence. Some take to painting faster than others. Sometimes these good students are trapped by their facility, because they cannot let go of their cheap tricks to plow through the hard work of learning good technique. At that point, ‘talent’ becomes a trap.

Snowsquall, by Carol L. Douglas

Conversely, there will be students who, for some reason, don’t get it right away, but who, with diligence and effort, will end up painting very well indeed.

At the Art Students League of New York, students are crowded into fairly small rooms. It is impossible to avoid seeing others’ canvases as you work on your own. A fellow student had a sign in his paintbox that read, “Don’t copy.” It was very good advice, but equally helpful would have been one that read, “Don’t compare.”

So how does the artist develop self-confidence based in their own abilities? “Passion plus competence equals self-confidence,” I readthis week. It’s a neat, economical explanation.

Toys in snow, by Carol L. Douglas

It doesn’t mean you have to wait until you’re completely competent to be happy. Instead, it gives you a roadmap to get to a point of self-confidence. Yes, painting is sometimes very frustrating, but that’s just a sign that you need to work on your skills in that area.

Art is not like the Super Bowl, where there are clear winners and losers. It’s not necessary to be the most adept, brilliant, or incisive painter for your work to profoundly influence others. But you can’t use the crowd’s applause to tell you if you’re on the right path. You simply have to work from your own gut. And that’s perhaps the hardest lesson in painting.

Monday Morning Art School: applying to a plein air event

Judging art is very subjective. You can’t take the results personally, or the process will chew you up.
Tom Sawyer’s Fence, by Carol L. Douglas

This weekend, a reader asked for help in choosing slides to apply to her first plein air event. She recognizes that her favorites might not be a juror’s favorites. Every artist feels like he or she could be better at this, including me. I’ll share what I’ve observed, but I’d welcome your input.

Apply for shows that match your level of experience. Think of these events like applying to college: there are dream, target and safety schools. Later on, you can throw money away applying to dream schools, but for your first event, a safety or target school is a smarter choice. How can you tell what level the event is geared to? Look at the prize money. The bigger the prize money, the fiercer the competition to get in.
Look at last year’s participants. Are they painting at a level you feel comfortable challenging? If not, find a different event to start with. There are many of them out there, and you’ll have a much better experience if you’re not thrown at the first hurdle.
Parrsboro Sunrise won a prize but I can’t seem to make it photograph well.
Take good photos of your work. One of my best paintings from 2018 won’t be in my submissions because I don’t have a decent photo of it—it was gone before I got a color-balanced picture. It’s very difficult to take a good photo of a very wet oil painting in the back of your car, but try your best. The photo should meet the minimum pixel requirements of  the application. If all you have is a low-res cell phone photo, send something else.
I did a few paintings in 2018 on very smooth boards, just to experiment. One of them won a prize at PIPAF, so the board has nothing to apologize for, but it has no tooth. That meant that my paintings have little impasto, and that in turn makes them look out-of-focus in photos. It’s maddening, because they’re beautiful in life, just not so nice in the digital world.
Jonathan Submarining apparently made me happier than it made anyone else (except Jonathan’s grandmother, who bought the painting).
Ask a trusted friend to look over your submissions. I have a painting from a few years ago that I adore, Jonathan Submarining. It was of a bunch of kids in a sailing lesson on a riotous day, and it was painted very fast, standing in the tide, with a fierce wind threatening to knock over my easel. But nobody scanning hundreds of photos will ever know what was involved in getting that painting right.
It took a disinterested friend to point that out to me. Sometimes, we’re the worst judges of our own work. We see the struggle instead of the finished product.
Santa Fe Sunset, by Carol L. Douglas.
Look at your work as thumbnails first. If a juror has a hundred applicants and has to look at five slides each, that may be all they ever see of your work—unless something about it really stands out to them.
Familiarize yourself with the entry juror, if that information is public. I’m not saying you should paint like him, but you ought to understand what’s important in his work. If every painting he does is carefully drafted and includes buildings and canyon walls, don’t send three structure-free marsh paintings and expect to be his favorite. If he’s a luminist, he’ll respond to light, and if he’s a brilliant compositor, he’ll respond to design.
Even so, I think it’s a mistake to pitch too closely to the entry juror. A lot of shows don’t identify the entry juror at all. Some use a committee. In any case, try to mix it up. If you can handle radically different subjects well, you demonstrate your versatility and your drawing chops.
Best Buds is a favorite from my 2018 season. While it was within the parameters of the show it was done in, it wasn’t actually done outdoors, so I won’t be using it for my slides.
Consider the order of your images. Online jurying systems allow you to define the order in which slides are viewed. If the entry juror is looking at your slides in sets, he’s going to read them left to right, just as he reads text. Make the first and last images particularly compelling—the first one to catch his interest and the last one so you’re remembered.
For heaven’s sake, don’t cheat. There are all kinds of carefully formulated ‘rules’ about what constitutes plein air, and most of them are hot air. But if you didn’t do the painting outdoors, on location, don’t include it among your slides.
Don’t feel bad if you don’t get in, even if you’re a much better painter than some of the people who did. There are often factors involved in jurying that you don’t know about, such as a need to have more watercolorists, or geographical representation. Or, the juror just woke up hating sunsets that morning. Judging art is a very subjective experience and you can’t take the results personally, or the process will chew you up.

Friends helping friends

We’ve all done our best. Now we sit back and wait.

Not what you like to see an hour before you’re handing in.
I opened my box of frames when I arrived last weekend, but I didn’t take out the items and unpack them; they were still in the manufacturer’s packaging. Anyway, I like the US post office as a shipper, so I wasn’t worried.
That meant I was blindsided on Thursday morning when all three frames turned out to have cracked corners. I called Jane Chapin to ask her if there was a Michaels in Santa Fe. Instead, she directed me to a shelf to the left of the door in her own studio. It was such a smooth solution that I barely had time to worry. It will save me money on the return shipping, since she can just pop out any unsold work and mail it back to me in a padded envelope.
Occasionally someone will challenge my characterization of these events as ‘competitions.’ They prefer to think of them as sales events. But whenever there are prizes, there is competition. Unlike ice-skating, however, there’s very little knee-capping in the plein air world. For one thing, it’s a small community. Even if we’re not friends yet, we have friends in common.
Apple tree swing, by Carol L. Douglas, courtesy Kelpie Gallery. I’m gonna try the Pecos apple tree again today.
One of the painters at this event has Parkinson’s. (How she paints as beautifully as she does is beyond me.) She is a tiny thing, and she has been helping me up and down steps all week. She’s appointed herself my keeper. We were at a party in town Wednesday when she realized that she’d forgotten her meds. If you know Parkinson’s, you know that missing a dose is like falling off a cliff. Now I’ve appointed myself to remind her about her meds. We just met on Friday night, but now we’re friends helping friends.
Yesterday I intended to spend my spare time painting an apple tree down the road. However, I spent it unsuccessfully trying to file the claim for my damaged frames. This morning my husband, back in Rockport, managed to file it online.
This view from my studio window has gone to live in New Mexico.
As for which paintings I submitted, it ended up being El camino hacia el pueblo, La casa de los abuelitos,and Castigando del caballo muerto. I probably received twenty messages about the choices after my post, with a heavy contingent favoring Dry Wash, but I’d already filled out the paperwork.
Every one of these messages were from professional painters and gallerists. The takeaway message is that even at a high level of expertise, ‘good,’ ‘great,’ etc. are subjective. That’s true for the juror as well as for anyone else. We’ve all done our best. Now we sit back and wait.

Unhappy in your art career?

Envy, covetousness, and false expectations are all ways to guarantee a rotten time as an artist.
Dyce Head in the early morning light, Carol L. Douglas

I haven’t been able to paint for weeks. It seems as if my peers have made fantastic strides in that time. I look at their work on Instagram and Facebook and it’s downright depressing to see the clarity, color, and compositions they’ve achieved while I’m lying on the couch with my feet elevated.

I’m competitive; I’ll admit it. It’s not a good trait. I have a dear friend who is capable of shrugging off the worst jurying news. She isn’t focused on the competition, but on her own development as an artist. If I ever grow up, I’d like to be just like her.
As Ecclesiastes reminds us, “all toil and all skill in work come from a man’s envy of his neighbor. This also is vanity and a striving after wind.” Envy leads to anger and covetousness, but it also burns up the envier. Being competitive is a rush when it’s all going our way, but more often, it just makes us miserable.
Lonely Lighthouse (Parrsboro, NS), Carol L. Douglas
Another great way to kill your joy in painting is to tailor your work too closely to a niche a gallerist has identified for you. Yes, lighthouses sell on the coast of Maine, and they’re fascinating to paint. Do you want to spend all your days churning out pictures of them?
Fitting work to the marketplace is wise. Fitting it to anyone else’s expectations is very foolish. What will sell is not just a matter of content; it’s a combination of that and your approach to the content.
If you’re a young person, you probably seek advice from your parents. Neither of mine were entrepreneurs. Their advice, while grounded in love, was the product of their own experiences.
Cape Spear Road (Newfoundland), Carol L. Douglas. That’s not one, but two, lighthouses.
Even though my father taught me to paint, my parents were hardly enthusiastic about an art career for one of their children. I remember my first complete bust of a show. I’d sold nothing and a pastel fell off the wall, damaging the frame. “Well, you gave it a good try,” my mom sighed, thinking I’d get over the idea of a career in the arts.
This isn’t because families are not supportive; it’s because they believe the lie that it is impossible to prosper in the arts. To a degree, they’re right; it’s a lot easier to make a living as a computer programmer. But the arts are not a one-way ticket to poverty, either.
Owls Head Light, Carol L. Douglas
Still, once you decide to follow a career in the arts, you’ve made the decision that money isn’t your paramount value. Why, then, would you let money dictate every small decision you make thereafter? The marketplace is too intelligent to reward this, anyway. Trying to produce work that looks just like someone else’s is a guaranteed path to insignificance.