I participated in the 3rd annual plein air painting competition in the Chestnut Hill section of Philadelphia on Saturday, June 10. Here is what happened…
Chestnut Hill is a neighborhood about 15 minutes from my house. Though part of the city of Philadelphia, it very much thinks of itself as an entity and has an active business association that puts on lots of events such as this one. The main street is Germantown Avenue, lined with all kinds of shops. On a Saturday, it’s very busy with shoppers and pedestrians all day long.
We arrived a little after 8 AM and went to our spot in the 8500 block of the avenue.
I chose a spot in front of the Wells-Fargo bank. I thought it would be nice because of the trees (offering shade) and the fire hydrant, which meant no one could park in front of me and block my view.
The bank was closed, unusual for a Saturday, so I knew that I wouldn’t have to contend with traffic behind me, either. Also, we got quite a bit of amusement all day, watching how people went about figuring out the bank was not open – shaking the door handle, pretty much every person, plus a lot of peering into the interior through the door. We started off trying to warn people, but most did not hear us, and so we just let events take their course.
But I digress. I brought a table to work on, two 12″ x 18″ cradled boards that I had gessoed the day before, a selection of paints, water, brushes, rags…sun screen…
As you may know, I don’t mix paints, I work straight from the tube, so it pained me to have to cut down my color selection just to these favorites, but I had to do it in the interest of space.
I chose two views from my vantage point.
I planned to work on two pieces at once. I do this every time I paint – since I work in layers, and I work quickly, I have to make sure the layers dry before I paint over them, or the result is – mud. I find that if I work on a couple of pieces at a time, I don’t get myself into trouble.
Plus, I like the focus-switching it takes to do things this way. I think it helps me step back mentally, even if for just a little bit, and then when I return, I have the benefit of coming back with increased freshness. Even that small amount of time is meaningful.
All right. I set things up on my table. (Several people asked me during the day why I did not use an easel like the other painters. I got used to working flat on a table when I did fabric and collage work, and that’s that I like to do, was my answer.)
And I started right in.
I’ll show you the progression of each work as it went through the day. Here is the first one, the view to my right:
And here is the second one, the view to my right:
And the pieces as finished – these are same as #4 in the above groups, but larger.
The event was also a competition, and so the judge came by during the afternoon. I did not end up winning anything, but I appreciated it that he spent time talking to me about my work. I think that’s very important, for the judge to interact with the artist; I do not like a judge who stalks in, silently sweeps a gaze over the work, and then goes out, without a word.
When I finished, my husband and I sat back in the shade for a while and looked over the work, shown here with our every-faithful picnic cooler, a staple of every show we do. By this time I had moved the table into the shade – for the last parts of the painting, I didn’t need to look at the scenes but at the painting itself. It becomes self-referential as it nears completion – it needs to look right as its own entity, I find, rather than referring back to what inspired it from the outside.
At the end of the day, there was a nice reception inside a branch of the local bank who was one of the sponsors.
When I started the day, I had a couple of goals.
- Stay unflustered while working in front of people, especially when they stopped to talk to me. I am used to dealing with people in relation to my art from my selling experiences, so it is not that I shy away from their notice. I do not have stage fright!
No, it is that when I paint, I really fall into a deep focus, and for me to come out of it takes some effort before I swim back up to the surface. Doing it again and again all day has bothered me in the past. I was determined to stay on track and yet enjoy talking to the people who stopped. And I was able to do so on this day. I had a lot of visitors and good conversations, and I was also able to complete my work. That was good.
- I wanted to edit the scenes I saw so that I stayed with the feeling that inspired me to choose them, to find the details or aspects in them that interested me, and to feel free to discard or distort the rest of it.
In the past plein airs I have done, I have gotten caught up in trying to depict the scene at the expense of enjoying painting. Since I don’t really care much about how much my paintings resemble reality in my usual work, I’ve been puzzled as to why such a thing becomes important in plein air painting. Pursuing that end has frozen up my fingers and mind in the past. I was determined not to go down that road again today.
I am pretty sure the majority of the other plein air painters would say that representing the scene is the major goal of the exercise. At least that is what I think from my observation of the work the other participants displayed at this and other events I’ve painted in. But for me, I wanted the scene to inspire me and to let me take it from there. In looking over my paintings, I feel that this year, I did meet this objective. And I felt more relaxed and happy while I was working. That was good, too.
I sold one painting right off my table – some people who had bought from me in the past came by, unaware that I would be there. I had not seen them in some time and I enjoyed catching up. We came to an arrangement for “Chance Meeting”. I named it for the occasion, and they took it home from the reception.
It is the experiences of such an event that matters. I rediscovered this truth at this plein air event.
Looking forward to next year!