Sunday, August 14, 2022

Behind the scenes of the Adirondack Plein Air Festival

artist sandra hildreth

It looks like this year, 2022, I can finally put aside all the paperwork and endless planning, and just take part in the 14th Adirondack Plein Air Festival as an artist. Like the event, I have evolved and matured, both as a painter and as the event organizer.

I came up with the idea to have Saranac Lake ArtWorks host a plein air festival back in 2009. I had heard about an event in Easton, MD that had been very successful, though I’d never been to one. Lots of artists took part and lots of paintings were sold. The Saranac Lake area has an abundance of scenic views, though a much smaller regional population – we should host such an event. It must be easy – select dates, let a bunch of artists know, have an exhibit. Easy….

That first year, in August of 2009, it was easy. I got the word out to regional artists, secured the John Black Room at the Historic Saranac Lake Laboratory as the exhibit site, and it happened. 27 artists showed up, some who had never even painted “en plein air” before. I can’t recall if any paintings actually were purchased that year. Since then, our event has grown from 2 days of painting to 5, we now have a national reputation and artists apply to participate from all over the country.

Here’s some of the back story to our remarkable success. First of all, plein air painting, which means paintings of scenes that are done outdoors, at the actual location, has been in a renaissance of sorts for the past 15 years, mainly due to the efforts of Eric Rhoads, the publisher of Plein Air Magazine. The magazine, plus the internet, provided the means of communication between artists. It’s how we learned about events and saw pictures of the amazing paintings that were being done. Contemporary “modern” art has dominated major galleries in major cities since the 1940’s. Artists who liked to paint more traditional landscapes kind of existed in the background, considered old-fashioned and out of style. But we kept on painting and Eric Rhoads shared what was being done with the world. It also was helpful, to Saranac Lake ArtWorks in particular, that he spent his summers in the Adirondacks. He generously provided a lot of free advice and insights that we used to grow our event.

2020 painting by Rochester artist Kathy Armstrong

2020 painting by Rochester artist Kathy Armstrong.

One of the first things added to the 2nd Adirondack Plein Air Festival in 2010 was prizes. I invited Saratoga artist Anne Diggory, a fine plein air painter herself, to be our Awards Juror that year and she selected Gabriels artist Diane Leifheit as the very first grand prize winner. I believe Diane has attended every single one of our events. That was also the year we started the “Paint the Town” Silent Auction, asking each artist to produce and donate a small painting. We donated the proceeds that year, $1242, to BluSeed Studios.

By 2011, I had a subscription to Plein Air Magazine and saw an article about Stewart White, a Maryland artist who had won first place at the Easton event that year. I sent hime an email, told him about our event, and asked if he would be our Juror of Awards. By then we had started trying to find lodging for our artist participants with host families, and when I told Stewart we could provide lodging, he accepted. I remember Stewart calling me about when he got to Albany, wondering how much further it was. He arrived around 9 pm and I then escorted him out to the remote camp on Osgood Pond and his host family. I saw him often during the event, with his easel set up on a Main Street sidewalk, painting village scenes. It didn’t occur to me until later that he was probably more of an “urban” artist. I don’t know if he’d ever experienced landscapes like the Adirondacks before – he seemed more comfortable painting street scenes. I also learned later that he is really a very accomplished artist, winning awards in many events, so I guess I was lucky to have been able to attract him to come to Saranac Lake. 40 artists participated in 2011 and we held the Show & Sale in the Town Hall.

Over the next few years we lengthened the event, adding more painting days to the week, and we moved the final Show & Sale from Sunday (the day many tourists pack up and drive home) to Saturday. We added more prizes, donated by local businesses and supporters. The Silent Auction was always a huge success, giving many people opportunities to start their own private art collection and we donated over $10,000 to local arts organizations. 2012 saw 56 participants, 75 in 2013, 82 in 2014. We brought Award Jurors in from Canada (making it an international event), Tennessee, and Massachusetts. We were getting many artists now from beyond the northeastern states.

Nocturne by Quebec artist Patrica Bellerose, who is also coming in 2022.

Nocturne by Quebec artist Patrica Bellerose, who is also coming in 2022.

The event was beginning to max out – too many artists, too crowded. So the first thing we tried was to limit registrations to the first 50 artists. We used an online system and it filled up in 24 hours. By the time I could login and shut down the registration process, 10 or 15 more artists had signed up. Then I tried announcing that registration would open at midnight on a specific date. That helped a bit, but we still hit and surpassed 50 artists in a couple of hours. Plus one of the regular participants was a school teacher. She complained she couldn’t stay up on Sunday nights until midnight, so she missed out on registering. It was a crazy time, trying to figure out how to limit attendance to manageable numbers while not limiting enthusiasm.

Plein air painting, by its very nature (pun intended) must be done quickly. The light is always changing, the weather changes, and so plein air artists have to record what they see as fast as they can. In 2016 we added a “Quick Draw” competition. This should be a highlight of the event, only it happens so quickly most people miss it. On the final Saturday morning of the Festival, after the paintings are done and the Show & Sale has been hung, we hold the “Quick Draw”. Two artists stand on Main St, face each other, and see who can set up their easel first…. no, that’s not it.  The artists gather at event headquarters, the Adirondack Artists Guild Gallery at 52 Main St., and receive their instructions. They can go anywhere they want, in the Village, set up their easels, and when the bells in the Town Hall chime 9 times, they can start painting. They only have 2 hours and when the bells ring out 11 times, they have to stop. Spectators are more than welcome, but probably need to be there right at 9 and then follow artists to their painting locations. Don’t expect a lot of conversation as they will be 100% focused on getting a painting done in 2 hours. At 11 am they stop, get a frame on their piece, and bring it to the sidewalk area outside the Town Hall. Easels and paintings are set up, a judge will covertly review all the entries, and a winner will be announced about 11:30 am. It’s a tight window, but the paintings produced are amazing. I initially thought the Quick Draw paintings would just be quicker, less “finished” versions of what an artist normally paints. But no, good plein air painters have not only learned how to work fast, they have learned to streamline the process. Everything of less importance is ignored. The focus is intense, intuition and skills are employed almost without thinking about them. There’s not time for standing back and admiring the work – you just have to paint for 2 hours and trust that your vision and hands work together! My strategy is to choose my location well in advance. Study it, analyze where the light will be between 9 and 11 am, and figure out the composition I will use. Then I’m ready to start painting right at 9 am.

In 2017 the Adirondack Plein Air Festival became a juried event. This was our solution for keeping the numbers manageable. We use an internet service called Online Juried shows. The event is listed, along with all the requirements and restrictions, and artists who enter will pay an entry fee and submit 3 examples of plein air paintings. Three “selection judges” are chosen each year, usually experienced plein air artists from different parts of the country and who work in different mediums. Each judge scores each painting submitted by each artist, scores are totaled, and we select the top 40 to participate. Each year brings a number of new artists as well as returning ones.

Another event added to the Festival schedule is the “Nocturne Contest”. Nocturnes are paintings done after sundown and before sunrise. Some of the most skilled nocturne painters will stay out all night, painting street scenes with small lights clamped to their easels, one shining on their canvas and one on their palette. Lights reflected in water seems to be a popular night time scene, so check out the Lake Flower and Lake Colby areas, plus downtown streets for artists working in the dark. This year there will be a separate exhibit of nocturne paintings in the Hotel Saranac. They will be in the 2nd floor lobby area – watch for signs. The winner of the Nocturne Contest will be announced Thursday evening around 8 pm, in the Hotel.

Lake Clear artist Nancy Brossard painting at the Deer River Flow. She is participating in 2022.

Lake Clear artist Nancy Brossard painting at the Deer River Flow. She is participating in 2022.

The Adirondack Plein Air Festival is now up to a first place cash prize of $1500, plus merchandise and gift certificates. There are about a 10 additional $250 prizes, all serving to recognize the most accomplished paintings. Visitors also get to cast ballots for their favorite artist. Two artists have won the first place prize twice: George Van Hook, of Cambridge, NY, won in 2013 and 2016. Crista Pisano, of Nyack, won in 2012 and 2014. George will be back in 2022 and has donated a framed Adirondack oil painting for a raffle.

The third week in August has almost always been perfect Adirondack weather, with twinges of fall color starting to show. But when it rains (which it did for 3 days in 2021), that’s when the ingenuity of artists comes out. Some have big sturdy umbrellas that they can set their easels up beneath. Some will stand under the tailgates of their vehicles and paint roadside views. A few might actually climb into the open end of a vehicle and paint the view they see. Porches, gazebos, and awnings get really popular and there will be more grey skies and clouds in the paintings.

Now, if you don’t get to see any artists at work during the week of Aug 15-20, then the Show & Sale in the Town Hall should be your destination. With 40 artists taking part, they might do 1 morning and 1 afternoon painting, sometimes more. With 5 days of painting, that means there will likely be more than 200 paintings on display! On Friday evening, Aug 19, there is a Special Preview Party from 6-9 pm. Tickets are $20/person, but attendees get to see all he new, freshly painted works of art and have the first opportunity to purchase their favorites. Food and beverages are also available. The prize winners will be announced at 8 pm. The Silent Auction also gets moved to the Town Hall and will end at 4 pm on Saturday.

On Saturday, Aug 20, the Show & Sale, with free admission, opens at noon, after the Quick Draw competition closes. Wander among the display walls and see what places you recognize. See how a spot you may regard as ordinary may have been turned into a powerful painting that stirs an emotional response. Even if you don’t purchase anything, you will be inspired to look more closely at the Adirondack landscape that surrounds us. Visit the 2022 Adirondack Plein Air Festival Show & Sale  – maybe bring a piece of “history” home. A full schedule of events and list of artists can be found at

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Sandra Hildreth, who writes regularly about Adirondack arts and culture, grew up in rural Wisconsin and is a retired high school art teacher. She lives in Saranac Lake where she was spends much of her time hiking, paddling, skiing, and painting. Today, Sandy can often be found outdoors Plein air painting - working directly from nature, and is an exhibiting member of the Adirondack Artists' Guild in Saranac Lake. She is also active in Saranac Lake ArtWorks. Sandy’s work can be seen on her website

2 Responses

  1. Linda Friedman Ramirez says:

    Bravo Sandy! What beautiful weather today to start off this year’s festival. I’m excited to see the artists arrive. Saranac Lake is fortunate to have the festival, Artworks, and you for all your hard work for the arts community.

  2. Janet Wakefield says:

    Thank you, Sandy, for all you have done for artists and Saranac Lake. I had no idea the Plein Air had such a history and evolution! I guess all art starts with an idea/vision/inspiration as has this festival.

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