During these times of social distancing, painting “en plein air” (French for “in full or open air”) is, in some ways, the ideal activity. One imagines the solitary artist standing in a field, alone and at one with nature, squinting her or his eyes to better discern blocks of light and holding a paintbrush at arm’s length to gauge proportion.
Although this imaginary Portrait of the Plein Air Artist might be accurate in many cases, it leaves out an important aspect of plein air painting: that it involves so much more than the lone artist. For 15 years, the Door County Plein Air Festival, presented by Peninsula School of Art, has served to support and encourage the tradition of plein air painting by gathering a community of plein air painters from around the country, connecting them with each other and introducing them to the people and landscapes of Door County.
The county’s community of plein air artists, collectors and fans cannot gather in the same way this year as they have in the past, but the 2020 (mostly) virtual Plein Air Festival will still provide artists and art lovers with an opportunity to appreciate plein air artwork together. Thirty-eight artists, selected by a committee, will submit up to five works for sale to the public and for award consideration. At least one painting must be painted en plein air. Because artists are participating from around the country, this year’s festival will include scenes from all over, whereas all artists painted on location in Door County during past festivals.
“I’m excited to be able to see some of the artists we’re familiar with paint different scenes from around the country in different styles,” said Peninsula School of Art’s executive director, Catherine Hoke.
In addition to the plein air painting, artists can submit paintings created using reference photos. This provides artists with the opportunity to paint Door County scenes, even if they can’t be on location.
Participating artist and American Impressionist Society President Debra Joy Groesser is participating in this year’s festival for the 14th time. For her plein air submission, she chose to paint a barn scene near her home in Nebraska for two reasons: First, the barn looks like a barn you would see in Door County, so it’s familiar. Second, she was especially drawn to the subject matter when she saw morning light illuminating the scene.
“When painting on location, you can really capture so much of the feeling of the place and the spirit of the place and the light and the colors,” she said. “Usually for me, it’s all about the light.”
Groesser is also submitting four Door County scenes: three full-size paintings created using reference photos and studies from Ephraim and Fish Creek, as well as a miniature depicting three blue-sailed boats in the waves.
This year, the festival’s live auction will take place virtually, July 27 – Aug. 7, and will feature more than 150 works of art that are available for purchase. On Aug. 1, Peninsula School of Art will livestream the award announcement. Although these two events will take place in virtual space, there will be one in-person event this year: On July 25-26, Peninsula School of Art will host an in-person, socially distanced small-works sale at its Fish Creek campus.
“I hope that people will see this as an opportunity to make a contribution to the artists and the school. Truthfully, it has been an incredibly hard year for practicing artists,” Hoke said.
During the mid- to late 1800s, plein air painting increased in popularity because of a key advancement: John Goffe Rand’s invention of the portable paint tube in 1841. Just as plein air painting was then made more portable and accessible, so this year’s festival is made possible thanks to our ability to create community in virtual space.
Although many aspects will necessarily be different this year, the Door County Plein Air Festival will still be doing what it does best: bringing artists and art lovers together to keep the tradition of plein air painting alive and thriving.