10 Things I learned from this years Plein Air Painting Festivals

Plein air painting of Canyonlands National Park, near Moab, Utah, submitted to The Red Rock Arts Festival Paint Out Competition

1. Don’t come with expectations, not just unrealistic ones, but any at all. Expectation only produces disappointment. You might not win awards, sell work, or make anything that you’re happy with, but this an opportunity to ask “why” and to learn ALOT. No opportunity is wasted if you learn something. Don’t go into this with preconceived notions, anywhere from This is going to be my big break, to I’m way out of my league, and every thought in between. 

2. Embrace networking. Let it happen naturally. If you really loved a piece, or have a burning question, introduce yourself to that Artist. Talk to the other artists, especially the ones whose work you admire. Talk to the judges, patrons ect. There are plenty of conversation starters at an event like this. Remain open and attend the social events. Make sure to bring your business cards, too. Hand them out to people you meet, stick them in your name tag, and set them by your paintings. I didn’t do this, but I saw others doing it, and took note.

3. Zen mind, beginners mind. Come as a student, ready to learn. Painting in this sense is a lot like mediation. Even the most experienced meditator has trouble with the most basic principle, sometimes, not getting attached to certain thoughts. So, you return to the breathe, the foundation of being present. With painting, sometimes overwhelm or mental formations that come up get in the way of seeing, of painting. That is when you must return to some basic excersises, the foundations. Learn from what you’ve done wrong, and learn from the other painters. Study their colors, study their marks, study the hints of process in the finished piece. Attend the free demos. Plein air painting has a way of keeping the foundational principles of painting and making a compelling image in general at the forefront. Everyday you have the opportunity to study the same light and landscape as the other painters…this is beautiful meeting of minds and catalyst for growth. 

4. Don’t compare yourself to the other participants and art works created. This, is easier said than done. Especially after looking at your work so much that you can’t even see it anymore. Nothing is accomplished by comparing yourself. Everyone has their own path, their own progression, moments of breaking through, and moments of feeling stuck. We are all evolving, as artists, as spiritual beings. You also can’t judge a book by its cover. Is this person a native to this place, and speaks the language of the scene? Did that person get in a fight with someone they love? Does this person paint 3 times a day as opposed to a couple times a week? We won’t know. Everyone has their own unique vision of the world, good days and bad days, as do we. So their approach and our evaluation is ultimately mostly subjective. 

5. Keep it simple. There are really complex scenes in areas that are well reputed for outstanding natural beauty, features, what have you. Pick one aspect to focus on, and don’t be afraid of painting something overlooked or mundane. Is it the color compliments in the scene that draw you in? The atmosphere? The linear perspective? The contrast? Paintings can get too heavy if we try to implement too many “new things” at once or take on something too complex in a short period of time. Pick one aspect, and simplify the rest. Do a good amount of cropping to help with that. Make sure your format (panel or canvas size) can accommodate that cropping. I would recommend super horizontal surfaces (exaggerated rectangles) for dense or vast scenes. Do a lot of squinting and finger framing, or if you have a view finder, that works too. I made some little wooden ones, but I think they sell small metal versions for this specific purpose. 

6. Make friends with the locals and tell them that you are participating. They may have a perfect little remote spot right in their backyard! We met a hot chili vendor at the farmers market in Escalante, and he invited us over to paint and pick apples at his property. 

7. Take pictures of the work that sold or won awards (that moves you too, obviously). Sketch their compositions. Place a black and white filter in them to see their values. Understand their process and perhaps what helped them to stand out against the others. It’s always helpful to take note of a compelling visual.

8. Keep your emotions out of it. As artists we are emotional beings, sensitive to every little thing. Getting rejected can really hurt, and getting attention can really swell the ego and create some serious blindness. So neither extreme is helpful. Learn to seperate yourself from your work, because it will be critiqued in some way by the public, by the other artists, and the by judges indirectly and directly. The worst is when nothing is said about your work at all. Don’t read into it. Accept constructive cristicm, ignore destructive criticism, and move on. 

9. Call it a plein air painting festival, instead of a competition. Set yourself up for fun, not winning or losing. Art is not about that. Words have so many implications, you can create abundance and so much positivity just with the words that you use and how they manifest out into the universe. Based in this principle, there is no room for bad vibes or negative self talk! So lift up the collective energy and be festive instead of competitive. Make friends not opponents. 

10. Critique your own work at the end. Create a plan of how you can improve where you think you may have fallen short. Write a list of your own strengths and weaknesses. Implement what you’ve learned and keep an eye out for what challenges you in your daily painting practice. Create excersises for yourself to address your own personal critiques and maybe even the criticism that others have offered to you. Examples of this include but are not limited to: value and compositional drawings before painting, painting thicker, adjusting medium ratios, adding or subjecting colors to your palette, painting monochrome.