Last week, I participated in Easels in Frederick, a plein air competition held annually in Frederick, Maryland. I don’t normally participate in competitions, I don’t really like the concept of competing when it comes to art. So, why did I do it? I teach a lot of drawing and painting classes, and I felt I needed a break for a week to just get away and paint without doing demos, explaining what I’m doing and why, and painting with the intent of teaching instead of just painting. As anyone who is self employed knows, time off from work does not come without a price–lost revenue, so I decided that a plein air event would be a good way to justify a week of just painting, while not completely giving up the opportunity to earn some money from sales. Let me say upfront, I did not at any point consider myself a serious contender for any of the big prizes, doing so is a great way to set yourself up for disappointment. And no, I did not win any awards, which is not the reason I did this in the first place so I was not bothered by that. I did however sell 2 paintings at full gallery pricing, which means two new collectors who may become repeat customers.Perhaps even more importantly though, I learned a lot–mostly about what does and does not work for me as an artist, and how to carefully evaluate the events that present themselves as opportunities. Here is a summary of what I took away:
- Make sure the event you are considering is well organized. Easels in Frederick was a pleasure to attend because the organizers were on top of everything 100%! They had an army of volunteers who did everything from setting up the exhibition, taking professional photographs during the event and publicizing it on social media. I had heard good things about this event and that is one of the reasons I decided to apply.
- Bring a variety of media and use it! I made one mistake, I only worked in oil all week, which did not give me the opportunity to create some slightly lower priced works on paper. While I’m happy to have sold 2 small oil paintings at full price, it would have been smart to have a few slightly lower price points to generate more sales.
- Paint generic subjects. It’s wise to paint a street rather than a specific house or garden–there is a broader chance of sales if the subject is non-specific.
- Paint only what interests you. This one is important to me–although I paint on location whenever I have the chance, I don’t call myself a “plein air painter”. Just as I don’t refer to myself as an oil painter, a watercolorist or a pastelist–I’m a painter. Plein air painters generally focus on light and atmosphere, whereas my primary focus is always composition and design. That is not to say that plein air painters don’t focus on composition, but I am most motivated by composition rather than light and atmosphere. I like to capture motion and movement, rather than tell a story, I think of shapes and forms rather than narrative.
- Don’t worry about what everybody else is doing–have a good time, relax and enjoy yourself. I enjoy being by myself and rarely get the opportunity to just go out alone and paint. I did not force myself to paint with others or become too involved with social activities, I looked at it as a semi-vacation where I just did what I felt like and didn’t worry about much else. This may be the most important thing I took away from this experience–the realization that I absolutely need to spend some dedicated time just painting for myself. If participating in an event is only way I can do it, I might have to give it another try.