The 3rd week of August artists assemble in Saranac Lake for the Adirondack Plein Air Festival. This year, from August 18 to 22, fifty painters from all over the east coast and Canada are taking part. Registration opened online March 1 and filled in less than 48 hours, as both new and repeat artists were eager to attend. In order to keep the annual Show & Sale at manageable numbers, it was decided to limit participation to 50.
Just what is plein air painting? It is a phenomenon that has swept the country over the past 10 years. Like the Adirondack Plein Air Festival, organizers in places like Easton, MD and Sedona, AZ probably initially figured a plein air event would attract both artists and visitors to their communities. What seems to have happened is plein air painting, which means artists setting up easels and painting outdoors, through direct observation, began to appeal to more and more artists and collectors began buying the paintings. More places organized plein air festivals and there’s even a full color, glossy, bi-monthly Plein Air Magazine! It is a real art movement!
My own personal experience may somewhat mirror what has occurred internationally. As an art student in the 1960s, I don’t think I was ever exposed to plein air painting. It wasn’t a term that was used in my art history courses and no one talked about the contemporary abstract expressionist or pop art painters painting outdoors. I was aware however, that drawing and painting from observation was very important in the development of artists. That generally meant working from models or still lifes in the studio. Sketching outdoors was sometimes done as preparation for studio work and for the most part were just studies, not finished works appropriate for exhibit.
Later I learned that the development of paint sold in metal tubes (the kind most people are familiar with), hadn’t happened until the mid-1800s and was, in fact, what allowed artists like the French impressionists to do more painting outdoors. Prior to the availability of pre-mixed colors in tubes, artists were working with powdered pigments that needed to be mixed with a binder to create a useable paint.
In any case, I grew up, becoming an artist, thinking that working outdoors was just a practice activity and that ‘real’ art was what was produced in the studio.
It wasn’t until 1996 that I took a sketchbook and small set of watercolors with me when I hiked up St Regis Mountain with my 13-year-old son and his friend. While they played on the summit, I did a painting. It was nothing I thought about exhibiting – it was just a sketch. But I really loved the experience of doing it. The act of recording what I saw. Since that day, I’ve filled up many sketchbooks with watercolor views, bought a French easel and hauled it and oil paints and canvases up and down mountains and out in my canoe, and I fell in love with plein air painting.
The infatuation with painting the natural world, and even the urban world, outdoors, on location, is what I think has happened to many artists over the past 20 years. It’s a challenge and it can be an uplifting, relaxing, and rewarding experience all at the same time. It also seems to be a form of resistance to the whims of contemporary art and a return to more traditional subject matter. With the organization of these plein air festivals, going outdoors with paints and easel is suddenly no longer a solitary practice for studio work – it has become a career changing phenomenon. There are artists who travel the country now, participating in plein air festivals, and total sales at some of the major events are reaching record six figures. The appeal to the non-artist is in actually observing the artist at work and spectators are more than welcome to experience the same view the artist sees and watch it turned into a work of art.
The Adirondack Plein Air Festival, in it’s seventh year, has expanded to four days of painting and a $1,000 first-place award. The 50 artists will paint from Aug 18th through the 21st. The annual Show & Sale will be held in Town Hall at 39 Main Sreet in Saranac Lake from 10 am until 4 pm on Saturday, August 22nd. A special preview party takes place Friday evening.
The Adirondack Artists Guild Gallery, at 52 Main Street, is event headquarters. Information, maps to painting locations, and a schedule can all be found there.
On Tuesday, August 18, all the artists will be out on the trails at the Paul Smith’s College VIC. There are miles of hiking trails, a building with interpretive and art exhibits, a butterfly house and it’s all free and open to the public.
On Wednesday, August 19, the artists are free to choose any locations to paint. The event guide contains descriptions and a map of where artists are likely to be working. However, just watch for cars pulled off the road and easels set up at scenic spots – anywhere from the wetland views on Route 30 south of Tupper Lake, to the High Peaks views on Adirondac Loj road – that’s where the artists will be found.
Thursday, August 20, is the annual “Paint the Town” day and all the artists will be out and about the village of Saranac Lake painting historic buildings, life downtown, or lake, river, and mountain views. Small, donated plein air paintings will be set up at 5 pm in the Adirondack Artists Guild for a Silent Auction, which will benefit the local school district’s art programs. It also coincides with Saranac Lake’s 3rd Thursday ArtWalk, so the village will be bustling with other artists, craftspeople and live music from 5 pm to 7:30.
On Friday, August 21, the artists will have the morning to paint the Saranac River and mountains outside the village at the Saranac Lake Fish & Game Club. Then at 2 pm they will bring their finished, framed paintings for judging in the Town Hall.
Kirk Larsen, of Hicksville, NY, is the Juror of Awards for the Adirondack Plein Air Festival. He is an award-winning plein air artist who has been selling big at some of the major plein air events in the country. Anyone who came to the 2014 event in Saranac Lake may recall seeing Kirk painting the musicians at The Waterhole during the ArtWalk. He will be selecting the winning paintings, including the $1,000 first place award, from about 400+ works on display.
Saturday, August 22, is the big Show & Sale in the Harrietstown Town Hall at 39 Main Street, Saranac Lake. This is a different schedule from previous years when the show was on a Sunday. It will run from 10 am to 4 pm, Saturday, and there is no admission charge. Even if you have no intention of buying art, it’s an amazing experience to just walk through the doors and see the 400+ paintings, wet paint and all, that have just been created during the previous four days.
These paintings can open your eyes to vistas or viewpoints you may never have paid any attention to. Some will be grand panoramas, some will be intimate close-ups. There might even be some nocturnes – paintings done at night. They might contain people and buildings or be strictly a landscape. Watercolor, oil, acrylic, and pastels – different mediums in different styles. Whether is was perfect sunny weather or storms and overcast, these paintings offer new and interesting interpretations of the Adirondack region.
In addition to the Plein Air Festival, there are a couple other exhibits going on that deserve attention. Saranac Lake artist Tim Fortune, who participates in the Festival, will have a show, along with photographer Burdette Parks, in the gallery space at the Paul Smtih’s College VIC. At the Lake Placid Center for the Arts, artists Anne Diggory and Patrick McPhee will display their paintings in a show entitled “An Exploration of Landscapes”. Anne paints outdoors, often in the Adirondacks, and is a former Juror of Awards for our Plein Air Festival. Patrick is participating in this year’s festival. There will be an exhibit reception at the LPCA from 5 to 7 pm on Friday, August 21st.
Complete information about the Adirondack Plein Air Festival, Aug 18-22, can be found online.
Photos: Above, Kirk Larsen, 2015 Juror of Awards, painting at the 2014 event; and below, Fred Holman of Brant Lake.