The air horn blasts. Around 35 artists, in the streets and paths of a five block downtown area, put the first stroke of paint on their canvas. Two hours later another horn will sound and the brushes must be placed down and the painting is finished at that point.
What’s going on?
This is the quick paint portion of Paint the Point competition held in Mineral Point, Wisconsin. A flurry of morning painting. A few hours later, awards are announced and the paintings are for sale.
The preceding three day competition allows you to use a larger area of the Mineral Point area and included over 50 artists.
En Plein Air
The entire Paint the Point event is plein air painting, one of many around the country. Plein air is painting outdoors directly from the subject matter.
En plein air is a French expression which means “in the open air” and is particularly used to describe the act of painting outdoors reproducing the actual visual conditions seen at the time of the painting.
French Impressionist painters such as Claude Monet, Camille Pissarro, and Renoir advocated en plein air painting, and much of their work was done outdoors, in the diffuse light provided by a large white umbrella.
Monet, in his efforts to capture the true effects of light on the color of landscape at any given moment, began to carry several canvases at once into the out-of-doors. On each he began a painting of the same subject at a different time of day; on subsequent days, he continued to work on each canvas in succession as the appropriate light appeared.
Plein air advantages and challenges
Plein air has a number of complications such as changing light, temperature and wind. Since I work in watercolors, the paint dries more quickly than indoors and this must be accounted for.
In contrast to studio paintings, Plein Air paintings tend to be more direct and vibrant, with energetic brush strokes. Time constraints either imposed by a competition or due to changing outside conditions prevent the artist from being overly fussy with the work and often creates a better result!
I had never done any outside painting or created a painting at a single sitting. So what was I doing out there? A question that I asked myself often enough during the four days.
I did do a practice run in my backyard. The windy conditions taught me to bring along some rocks to weigh down supplies. This is also where I learned how quickly watercolor could dry.
I also did some quick sketching around the countryside. Part of the pressure of plein air is to come up with a good design quickly. Even though you are painting what you see, there are still decisions on what to emphasize and what to leave out.
The real answer as to why I did this is to stretch myself, to do something outside of my comfort zone. It is there that we often learn the most.
I set up my table and supplies by the side of the road. I brought an traffic cone to place whenever I was set up around a bend or could not get far off of the actual road.
People would stop, lean out of their cars and ask “What’j doing?” Some knew about the event and wanted to talk to the artists. Photographs were taken. Overall, I felt comfortable and welcomed despite misgivings that it would feel weird painting in places that people are rarely even on foot.
I did find it to be exhausting. Standing in the sun for many hours during the day is a physical challenge. And the concentration during long painting days is a mental drain.
What to do during rain
Thunderstorms were predicted for Friday and at one point the dark clouds moved in enough to chase me inside of my car to finish a painting from my front seat.
Later that day I discovered another location on the way back to town. With the ominous clouds still in the area, I stood outside of my car but with my paper and board inside on the passenger seat. I probably looked like a prairie dog with my head popping up to look at the scene and then ducking inside my car to apply the paint.
Wear a long tailed shirt.
I have stripe of sunburn on my lower back just above the waist band of my pants. I usually paint standing up bent over the flat paper instead of an easel.
Bring an umbrella.
This same position exposes my neck even with a wide brim hat. So at one point I had my paint rag tucked under the back of my hat. Other more experienced painters used shade umbrellas or painted entirely in the shade (which may have limited what they could paint but made them much more comfortable than me.)
Chiggers live in the long grass
so it is best not to sit there even if this is the best view of a stream hidden behind trees on the side of the road. Chiggers bite people. My ankles look like a worn-out polka dot dress.
At the end of the Quick, one artist was clearly flustered and murmured “That was nerve wracking”. I was able to avoid any angst – about 30 minutes in, I convinced myself I had no chance to produce a finished and quality painting and decided to just to enjoy the fact that here I was on a pleasant morning painting in the street (as odd as that still seemed to me). People were taking my picture and checking out my progress. No other focus or worries or two hours – just painting.
Again it threatened to rain but did not – that would have put an end to my watercolor quick painting experiment. With about 20 minutes to go, it was time to put some finishing touches by adding some details and some excitement to the painting.
Horn blast! Actually a relief to be done. A quick check showed me that my work was presentable after all – not my best but impressive to me that I was able to mold a painting under this pressure. Then one hour to get this framed right there in the street.
I produced several paintings during the three day main event but I could only turn in 2 paintings. Which would you have entered?
On display at 103 Commerce St in Mineral Point until September 27. 2015