For the public, a plein air competition lends an air of excitement to the process of painting. All around town, one sees artists with their easels, some with broad-brimmed hats, some with umbrellas, their faces focused intently on the canvas before them, which visitors are welcome to view and discuss. “It has the element of performance, which builds excitement for people who get out and about and watch,” says Conner. “It’s a good forum for the artists; it gives them a new audience. It also gets them out of the studio. An actor, dancer or musician will have many locations and audiences. But an artist working in a studio is out of the public eye. People don’t realize what they do, so this is a way to educate them. And of course, they might buy.”
For the artists, it’s an exhausting, but ultimately exhilarating experience. The artists work very hard to produce excellent work under trying conditions, says Conner, including unfavorable and unpredictable weather, performance anxiety when there are onlookers, distractions everywhere including in the subject matter, unwanted guests (flies, mosquitoes and other biting things), wanted guests who also want answers to questions, not to mention trying to manage their gear, equipment, mediums, etc. In addition, they are generally working from dawn to dusk and beyond, trying to capture as much as they can during the event. Even with all of that, the most exhausting part is the mental focus required to keep the particular vision of the chosen subject or scene as they paint, with all of the above listed requirements and distractions around as well.
Like athletes in a sports competition, the artists have to make sure they have all their equipment and that it’s ready to go. They find their spot, set up quickly, mentally prepare, plan their strategy—and they’re off and running, until the bell rings or the environment intervenes. And afterwards, they attend an awards ceremony.
Massachusetts artist John Caggiano, who won the Bennington Center for the Arts purchase prize last year, says it is sometimes exhausting to compete in an event if the weather is inclement day after day, or if one participates in many events, especially when they are close to each other in time. “The body and mood are more tense,” he says. Also, he mentions the traveling and preparation required, i.e., replenishing frames, canvases, supplies, clothes, food, etc., as well as gallery business and home matters that must be attended to. Nonetheless, he acknowledges that the events are exciting and fun— “Who can really complain when one is painting all the time!”