Ready… Set … Paint!
Artists who work in a studio have subjects that are fairly static, controlled and predictable. The still life, the nude or the photograph– not much will change as they work. But for artists who take their easels outside, en plein air, it’s not so easy. They face changes in weather, sometimes dramatic, that affect the quality and character of the light. They must deal with critters or people who wander into and out of their scene. And, adding the elements of competition and time limits, the overall challenge is even greater, requiring intense concentration and physical stamina.
For the past two years, North Bennington has hosted its own version of a Plein Air Competition, attracting over 20 seasoned plein air artists to experience a week of painting in the Vermont outdoors. The first year, artists focused mostly in the North Bennington area around the grounds of historic Park-McCullough House. Last year, the event was expanded to include a Bennington Day, where artists set up easels throughout the downtown area. This year, the event, which takes place September 4–9, is still growing.
Painting venues will include all of Bennington County, from North Bennington to Manchester, with around 40 artists participating. And the “grand ambition,” according to Bennington artist Tony Conner, director of this year’s competition, is to make it a Southern Vermont event by next year, heading east toward Wilmington, Mount Snow and Brattleboro, with 50 artists. “We want to make it less of a local event and more regional,” says Conner. Plein air competitions are held all over United States, in all seasons, but “ours is the only multi-day event in New England, so it’s a good opportunity for artists.” And if they get 50 artists, he points out, they will need more space. Painting en plein air, a French phrase meaning “in the open air,” is not a new movement. Artists have always painted outdoors, but in the 17th and 18th centuries, it began to be recognized as an important style of landscape painting in Italy, France and England. Its popularity grew in the mid-19th century with the introduction of paints in tubes and the invention of the portable “Box Easel,” with telescopic legs and built-in paint box and palette that made it easier to trek up hillsides or into forests. With these developments, the artist could, as Impressionist Claude Monet wrote, “Paint the air in which are situated the bridge, the home, the boat.” Oil paints remain the primary medium for the plein air painters, but watercolors and acrylics are also used.