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What its like to participate in a plein air competition...

Many of you ask me about competing professionally and how to get into the plein air circuit of events. Here's a blog to get you going, or give you more info if that's all you want.

Just starting out...

If you think you. may be ready for a plein air event, start small. It's better to be a big fish in a small pond than to be over your head the first few times you do it. Try a small community event first, then branch out to a larger one. I have organized all types of these events, and participated in ones offered by other organizations as well.

Types of events-

  • Plein Air Paint Out-is usually just a group of artists painting, with an exhibit attached to it. No awards or competition (although some may offer these). Look for one that is local to you, and organized by an arts center or organization, and costs under $50 to enter. Join local organizations to find out about these. In my area, Tarpon Springs offers a yearly event, and Pastel Society of Tampa Bay offers one in the spring.

  • Plein Air Competition-usually offers prizes and a week-long painting event that is juried (highly competitive) and costs around $50 to enter. There will often be a form you must fill out online and digitally submit your work. Closest one to me is Light Chasers in Sarasota usually in March or April. You can find out about these here:

  • Quick Draw-usually a 2-3 hour event where you are expected to paint a particular place, frame it, and turn it in within a set timeframe. These events usually have prizes and are part of a larger plein air competition. They are an entry point if you want to get juried into the competition in the future. Many people attend the Lighthouse Quick Draw in Tequesta, FL to try to attract the eye of the jurors for the following year. These events are great practice and get you accustomed to working quickly, which helps build your plein air skill all around.

I just finished a week of painting in the New Smyrna Beach Plein Air Paint Out which was a juried event, with no awards or competition. This event is very well established and organized, and many artists return yearly because sales are so high. For professionals, you need sales to cover expenses (still paying rent back home plus travel expenses!) either through sales or awards.

Another way to make these competitions work for you is to lower your costs to compete. NSB did this by finding hosts in the community willing to provide a place to stay for visiting artists. NSB also lined up community restaurants to supply lunch every day, and two restaurants to host nocturne painting dates with reduced price dinners which helps immensely. If your costs are reduced, you don't have to make as much $ to make ends meet, and makes the event more accessible to more artists.

To get into this event, I needed to pass through a juror using either Show Submit or Call For Entries both have directions to walk you through the process.

It helps to have 6 really great plein air paintings before you begin this process. I usually tailor each application to the area (submit beach scenes for Florida events, mountain scenes for NY events, cityscapes for Virginia events, etc.)

Make sure you read through the prospectus thoroughly before you apply. Each place has it's own rules and particularities that you need to be aware of ahead of time. I made the mistake of skimming the prospectus and missed the fact that I was to bring enough frames to cover sales for a whole week in NSB. I sold 8 pieces but could have sold many, many more if I had been more prepared with frames. This is a rookie mistake. It does me a disservice, but also the organization that had plenty of interested buyers looking for work who had to pass me by.

Once you are in, they usually send you an acceptance letter and connect you to a host for housing (if offered). Touch base with the host before you come, so you can find out about pets, hours, keys etc. My host was a local realtor who had a small guest cottage that was nicer than the house I live in! It was like a luxury vacation rental for me. I've stayed in many homes during plein air events and it's usually a guest bedroom, or spare room, but this was the nicest by far! When an organization goes to this much trouble, I try to make it worth their while by doing the following things to be a good guest:

  • NEVER disturb the host, alway come and go quietly, and do not expect to be waited on in any way. Bring your own food, towels, and everything you may need.

  • ALWAYS talk up the event to the host, encouraging them to come see your work and the other artists. Events often reach out to wealthy people in the area to act as hosts as way of engaging them in the event. You may be the key to this, and may help bring in new funders to event and organization.

  • ALWAYS leave a small painting as a gift (I usually let my host choose one of my paintings from the week) and a hand-written thank you note when you leave.

  • ALWAYS leave the place cleaner than when you came-I plan on cleaning for an hour or two before heading home and wash the linens, towels, clean the space so that you leave it in pristine condition, like you would want a guest to do in your home.

Having a good relationship with your host will enrich the experience for everyone involved. In NSB, my host loaned me her husband's vintage pick up truck to take to the beach and paint. I made the painting for her as a gift for her husband. She also loaned me her bicycle and use of her pool. This generosity made me feel like I was on vacation instead of working.

When you pack for the event, remember to bring things like chairs, umbrellas, rain gear, and things you will need to protect you from the elements while painting. My plein air kit contains lights for nocturnes, gloves for cold weather painting, rain coat for painting in the rain (yes, I do!) and I can lift the hatchback on my van to use as a shelter if needed. I also bring trinkets like fresh avocados, flowers, or other goodies for the organizers. These hard-working folks are almost always volunteers who have to hear a lot of complaining and ungrateful artists, so be the one they remember for bringing them flowers or chocolates. They work hard to make this fun and profitable for you so treat them well and with respect.

What a typical event looks like-

  • Usually you check in and get canvases stamped (this proves that all the pieces were made at the event. You may have to show this stamp through the framing so make sure to read the prospectus to find out). At this time, they usually give you a "goodie bag" which may have some coupons, give aways, and an itinerary of the event. I snap a cell phone pic of the itinerary right away because it is usually the first thing i will misplace and then be late for every event because of it!

  • Some events have a "Meet & Greet" for all the artists on the first night-don't skip this! Other artists are your biggest resource at these events. Use this opportunity to find out where the best painting spots are, who wants to come nocturne painting with you (women especially should find another artist to paint with at night) and give you a chance to make new friends. Some of the best artists are the nicest people and will help you immensely, just by asking them.

  • Read the awards list and make sure you have paintings for each category if possible, don't forget to register for the Quick Draw if it has a separate registration than the main event. You really don't want to miss this-its another chance at an award, but also the practice is valuable.

  • Public and private previews and shows are often part of the event. This is a chance for the public to meet you and peek at the paintings as they are being made. These events are often formal, involve raffles and other things to get people through the door, and can be painful for us shy artists. Make yourself do it, and stand beside your work, talking excitedly about your work to anyone who ventures near you. I practice elevator speeches about my painting (15 second conversations about what and how I paint) I also save anecdotal stories about each painting-"Yes, that mark was made by a seagull that landed on my shoulder and took the pastel right out of my hand and started drawing!" (no that didn't really happen but you get the idea)

  • Suit up and show up early for every event listed even if you are exhausted and even if you REALLY don't want to do it. You signed up for this, and the organizers are counting on you. Plus, it's really good advertising on your behalf. I did a demonstration for NSB which attracted more than 50 people! I was shocked, intimidated and surprised but I brought my A-Game and did my best. People stayed and asked questions for two hours after my demo. It was a great way to promote my workshops and classes. I'm grateful for that opportunity.

Producing under pressure-I find I do my best work at these events. I'm one of those artists that works well under positive pressure. Plus, I demonstrate quite a bit so I'm used to talking and painting. I look for places that are iconic-views and features that you can only see in this particular place at this particular time. It's easy to find as they are usually the top tourist attractions. I google it ahead of time, or ask the organizers what sites people want painted and I go there. The more crowded it is, the better. I'll hand out flyers for the event and talk up my work to anyone who comes in earshot. I pre-sell many paintings this way. People then go to the exhibit and purchase the painting because they saw me painting it and just had to have it! Never, ever sell off the easel and exclude the organization that worked so hard to bring you and the buyer together. It's unprofessional, bad form and bad karma!

I will often add people or cars, houses, etc. to scenes, and may notify the people ahead of time. This often sells paintings. Once I was painting a nocturne on a bridge in St. Augustine. The bridge opened to let a boat pass through, during that time, a shiny sports car was stopped right in front of me so I added it to the painting. The people in the car watched me paint them and honked to see the painting. They wound up purchasing it.

You need to do all you can to help the organizers sell your work. They earn their percentage which is usually 30-50% of the sale price by organizing the event. They are selling you every step of the way. It's important that you close the deal and get people to purchase your work at the final event. Learn how to close the deal if you haven't already. Be confident enough to ask someone to purchase your work, "Would you like to take this beautiful painting home? Are you going to add this to your collection? Should I get someone to ring this up for you now?" These are all unobtrusive sales pitches that may close a deal for you.

Tips during the event...

  • Shoot a "selfie" with each painting you make to post on social media and also to establish where and when it was painting in case that comes into question. Tag the event and organizers so they can repost. Many paintings will sell this way.

  • Never go painting without a PB&J. Pack a caffeinated beverage, water, and a sandwich so that you can spend your time painting and not looking for something quick to eat.

  • Bring plenty of your own promotional materials like flyers, business cards, etc.

  • take a high-quality photo of each painting and email it to the organizers for promotional purposes each evening. You never know when your work will wind up on a postcard because of this!

  • Shoot a cellphone photo of the scene as well so that if you need to make a minor adjustment later in your hotel, you have a photo to work from. Make sure this is not prohibited in the prospectus first!

A word about awards...Never take them too seriously. Awards are often just one person's opinion on that day. They really have nothing at all to do with anything. If you win one, Mazeltov! But don't take yourself too seriously! If you don't win one, welcome to the club, most of the artists didn't win anything, also don't take yourself too seriously. The awards are helpful in terms of putting cash in your pocket so notice what awards are being offered and make sure you have a painting for that category. For example, the Hudson Valley Plein Air Festival offers an award sponsored by the Montgomery Chamber of Commerce that has a cash value the same as first place! You would definitely want to paint the downtown scene for that event.

Lastly, if you get into one event, even if you flopped or didn't sell a thing, make sure to send thank you notes. It's good manners to show gratitude when people go out of their way for you. I send either a hand-written note, or a testimonial email to the organizers to express my gratitude. Remember that these folks are volunteers, and usually raising funds for a very worthwhile cause. I also play them up on my social media.

I try to get into about 8-10 events a year, and succeed in about 4. Competition is fierce out there so make sure you are at the top of your game, and your bio, work samples, and artist's statement are all polished and professional. I have friends who paint professionally on the plein air circuit and do quite well for themselves, and others who scrape by but love what they do. I am in the middle and don't rely on it for my main income. It is one leg of a four legged stool that is my financial foundation.

If you see me at an event, or if I can help you in any way, consider me a resource and I wish you the very best of luck!

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Great article, Shawn! Packed with useful info for a newly like me! 🤓 Willow


This is a terrific article for anyone interested in getting involved in the Plein Air circuit! You made several points I would not have thought of and now I feel saved from bad karma! Thank you for being so generous with sharing your knowledge and real life experiences!

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