Everything an Artist Could Want

Larry Rudolech, one of almost 40 painters who will descend on the peninsula for the Door County Plein Air Festival, enjoys the festival atmosphere where artists can interact with onlookers throughout the course of the week. Photo by Tom Groenfeldt.

Cherry pie for breakfast is apparently the key to Shawn Cornell’s success as a plein air painter in Door County.

“It started the first year when I had bought a cherry pie,” recalled Diane Miller, who has hosted Cornell and his wife Elizabeth for several years. “He ended up eating it every morning for breakfast. One morning Elizabeth insisted he needed protein, so he ate an egg and that day he couldn’t paint worth a damn. Everything he painted he had to wipe off.”

The Cornells will be back for this year’s Door County Plein Air Festival organized by the Peninsula School of Art in Fish Creek. Now in its sixth year, the event draws nearly 40 artists from across the country who paint for a week beginning July 23. The event ends with auctions on July 27 and 28.

Reached in Colorado Springs, where he was participating in another plein air event, Cornell said he loves painting and he loves being outdoors, so this work is perfect for him. “There is truth in plein air, you are capturing the moment,” he said. In Colorado he had wiped down more canvases than he had kept – perhaps the distance from Door County cherry pie was a factor, although he didn’t mention it.

“But I have a few that are keepers,” he added.

Unlike the first year when many artists had never heard of Door County, the event has built up a reputation within the plein air world as well organized and friendly, with beautiful locations and good sales.

“That first year the artists were just amazed at how well organized everything was,” said Miller. “We had a whole program very professionally done and that kind of got the word out.”

Once the festival became known for being well organized and profitable, Door County itself proved to be a big draw for both artists and art buyers.

“I was just blown away by how pretty it is,” said Mary Garrish, who lives in Merritt Island, Florida, near the space center. “This was my first time in Door County and being surrounded by Green Bay and Lake Michigan was just spectacular.”

Stuart Fullerton, a painter from Chicago, describes Door County as fantastic. “It’s an ideal location for this sort of thing,” he said. “You have the lake, the beach, the harbors and the little cute towns. I also like the interior scenes with the fields and the barns.”

Shelby Keefe, a painter from Milwaukee, agrees that Door County has everything an artist could want to paint – water, maritime themes, and sweet little cottages along the bay and lake. “It has things that speak of days gone by – old trucks and boats that have been marooned,” she said.

Now in its sixth year, the event draws nearly 40 artists from across the country who paint for a week beginning July 23. The event ends with auctions on July 27 and 28.

Keefe stays with Marianne Porter in Sister Bay who has become a good friend, one she visits on trips to Edgewood Orchard Galleries, which carries her work.

Porter, who usually has two women artists staying with her, enjoys listening to them talk about their work and bounce ideas off each other.

“It makes my plein air experience so much better because I get a feel for what the artists are going through and what they are feeling,” she said. “I love having them coming and going. I always buy a piece of their art, which costs me a bit, but that is my biggest delight. I feel like I am a part of their work by having them here in my home.”

The Door County Plein Air Festival has done a great job of selecting good artists to participate, Fullerton added. “The quality this year is probably the best field since I have been involved. Every year it has gone up,” he said.

He attributes that to the attraction of Door County and the festival’s ability “to move merchandise. They have had good sales and artists hear about that. The county has a strong collector base and artists want to go where the work sells. It helps that this is a good field with big shot artists who could go to any event in the country.”

Paintings do well in the $1,500 to $2,500 range and top out around $3,500; prices are lower for some smaller works. Participants produce from six or seven paintings up to 24 in a week.

“It is pretty stressful to produce salable paintings,” said Garrish. “You don’t start painting until Monday and by Tuesday you have to have a painting to hang, and it goes on until Friday.”

The painters are asked to work in at least one location listed on the program, such as Fine Line Designs or Edgewood Orchard.

Larry Rudolech, an Indiana painter, however, plans to do several of them. “It was really interesting to meet people, and then they followed you around for the rest of the week,” he said.

The painters try to avoid the mid afternoon, not just because it is hot but because the bright sun flattens colors. So they often start around 5:30 or 6 in the morning and then set up again in the late afternoon.

Bonnie Paruch, from Ellison Bay, said the competition in a plein air festival is invigorating. “You want to do your best work within a certain time frame,” she said. “You can either dislike the competitive aspect or embrace it. You may be standing next to 10 people in the same spot with the same constraints and light, and I just do my best in the little world in front of my easel. But you have to be prepared for it – it is intense.”

The pace is a significant change from painting for a gallery and waiting to see if the work sells. Here the time from creation to sale is measured in days, or in the Saturday morning quick paint, in hours.

“You really get excitement when people can go home with the paintings,” said Rudolech. “I enjoy these things so much, it just tickles me to death when they go home with a painting because then they will be back next year to buy another one.”

For more information or to view a schedule of events, visit