Early this year, I set a goal for myself to attend more plein air events. I really get inspired by the dedication and motivation of other painters, and now that my daughter is getting a little older, my husband and I agreed that the time was right for me to try and participate in plein air painting in a more intentional way.
I also really just wanted to see if I would enjoy a taste of the festival “lifestyle”. I have met quite a few painters who “do the circuit”, traveling from event to event, and participating in as many as 10 or more a year across the country. It’s pretty impossible for me to do that, and frankly, I’m not sure I would really want to even if I could. Even so, I wanted to test my own limits and see what I was capable of, in an environment that really motivated me to push my boundaries.
Painting at these festivals can be pretty intense, and some are quite competitive. Even in the less competitive ones, there is still a feeling of underlying urgency, a compelling sense, at least to me, to seize the moment while I have the chance. It is a time of high focus and concentration. Not only are you often living out of your car and suitcase a lot of the day, you have to have a certain amount of physical stamina to stand on your feet from morning to night and survive on a subsistence of power bars and electrolyte drinks if the situation (and the best light of the day) calls for it. You also have to fight off the mosquitoes and ticks and various other critters (like snakes or even black bears, in some instances!) all the while trying to paint something peaceful or inspirational or exciting or otherwise awesome. Even so, I had seen my friends and associates post on social media about their fabulous trips to this place or that, all of the people they met and networked with, and I started to wonder what I might have been “missing.”
Because my daughter is still in primary school and my husband only has so much flexibility with work, I focused on applying to the regional festivals within a few hours’ driving distance of my home, in case I was urgently needed on the home front. Luckily for me, each year there seem to be more and more festivals to choose from; Virginia alone has more than I could reasonably attend in a season.
There are many very well-publicized festivals where the focus tends to be on competitions and big prizes. The festivals I attended were less focused on competition. Though a couple did offer prizes, the overall mood was easy-going, with a focus on community and the promotion of the art of plein air painting. I really loved this kind of festival.
These events are not without cost. Time away from family is a big one for me. And, whether your “day job” is parenthood or a job outside of the home, there is a lot of time spent piecing your work and personal life back together when you return home. There are also out-of-pocket costs to consider. Travel costs out of state are an obvious big one. Also many events carry application fees, and quite a number of the smaller ones do not include lodging (though thankfully some organizers have recognized the importance of that and recruited very generous hosts in the communities to house artists during festival week—which is HUGE for me, and for most artists I know.) Sales may happen to offset these expenses, but they are by no means a sure thing. There are also physical costs to those of us who are no longer spring chicks.😬 I spend about a week after I get home just resting and recovering, putting my house and studio back in order, and getting daily life back on track.
But the payoffs are many. Some events have really nice dinners and get-togethers during the week, and a show that culminates at the end with outreach to the community. Some offer cash and other prizes of value as well, which is a nice bonus for the lucky winners. But you don’t have to win a prize to reap the intangible and more lasting bonuses. I am endlessly inspired by the amazing artists I meet, seeing their dedication to their work, and the community that is sparked by painting together and celebrating the beauty of this precious earth of ours. I have also met some incredibly generous supporters, from event organizers who dedicate so much time and energy to making the entire engine run, the generosity of the event sponsors and hosts, and of course, the collectors who support our craft.
Compared to some of my artist associates, I am still a novice at these events. I will likely never “do the circuit” as a primary lifestyle, and that’s okay. But I am setting the intention to make some of these festivals a part of my artistic experience throughout the year as much as possible. In terms of personal growth they seem well worth the effort. All things considered, the payoffs that win the day.
P.S. Plein Air Magazine is a good resource for learning about the when and where of these events all over the country. Every winter they publish an Ultimate Guide to Artist’s and Collector’s Plein Air Events. You can see last year’s edition here.