‘Plein air’ painters arrive with brush and easel for festival on the Main Line

A band of nomads is dropping by the Main Line in what has become a yearly visitation.

The 30 plein-air (“open air”) painters arriving Sunday for the 7th Annual Wayne Art Center Plein Air Festival hail from up and down the eastern seaboard, Maine to Florida, and as deep into the Midwest as Missouri.

What do they seek? I’ll presume to answer.

The flux of light and air. “For me, a landscape does not exist in its own right, since its appearance changes at every moment, but the surrounding atmosphere brings it to life—the light and the air which vary continually.” So said Monet, for whom the effort of rendering what he saw was both ecstasy and torment.
A following. The festival awards are modest: $6,000 over several prize categories. All the contestants gain enduring exposure, however, for their paintings are exhibited for sale at the art center through June. Last year the show drew some 5,000 people.
A reunion. These itinerant talents make up a loose-knit community, at once comrades and competitors. They find one another at festivals and share their understanding of the demands of their art.

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One demand is quick work. Unlike most other landscape painting, which is started in the field and completed indoors, often with the aid of photos, plein-air work is completed on site and in all weathers. It is a sprint to capture moments soon to vanish amid quicksilver shifts of light and shadow, an act of sustained concentration. The insects be damned.

“Sometimes it takes me a while to find that certain place that catches my eye,” says Michele Byrne, a veteran of the Wayne festival. “But once I find it and start painting, it is easy to lose myself in the process.”

Speed serves another purpose: A big show for art-center patrons. Last year, 32 contestants roving from Wayne to Valley Forge to Philadelphia turned out 311 paintings over four and a half days. A child in a creative frenzy with crayons is no more prodigious.

The Wayne festival is a well-established stop on a growing circuit. Being jury-selected for the event is itself a form of recognition. The 30 painters chosen for this year are among 129 from 23 states who wanted in.

Exactly how many plein-air painters roam the nation is anyone’s guess, but the number has surely grown with the spread of festivals in the past 10 to 15 years. PleinAir Magazine counts about 200 such events in all.

Wayne residents open their homes to the painters, who will be plying their art in the vicinity from May 6 through May 10. This hospitality is more than repaid when the visitors go to work in Main Line towns and their environs. You can have lived near these places for a quarter-century and yet see them anew as they appear on canvases outdoors, the skylines with their steeples and gables, the countryside with its specks and blushes of color.

Byrne has competed in the Wayne festival every year since its start, thrice winning awards. Though painting was always her passion, she had been making her living as a free-lance graphic designer from her home in Wyomissing until 2001. Then came changes. Some clients shrank their design budgets. September 11 impressed upon her that life can be cut short in a moment.

She was ready to move on, and she has been painting full-time ever since. With her youngest son now off to college, she is traveling broadly, too. November of 2012 found her painting in Paris; February of 2013, in Key West. This summer she will be off to Colorado and California.

NewsWorks caught up with her before she arrived in Wayne.

Plein-air painting has become your focus. Why?

When I am standing outside painting plein air I feel like I somehow absorb all the energy, emotions, sights, sounds, and feelings … My best paintings are done out-of-doors rather than in the studio. I had struggled for years with my paintings being too tight and realistic. However, I found going out and painting plein air seems to solve the problem. There is no time to fuss over small details. You must simplify things and paint only what is most important.

When you arrive at a plein-air event, what are the subjects that immediately attract you?

I usually take some time to walk around, drive around, and just take in the sites … What usually catches my eye are outdoor restaurants and cafés with umbrellas, anywhere people gather.

One of the scenes in Wayne that you’ve painted more than once is the old Anthony Wayne movie “palace.” It was the subject of one of your paintings that won an award. What’s the attraction?

I guess what attracts me to it is that it is a place where people convene. And the facade of the building brings me back to another place and time. Painting it at night is the most exciting — when the colors are more vibrant and the action is more blurred.

Your website links to a video that presents time-lapse sequences of your brushstrokes as you painted in Key West. How fast do you paint in real time?

Most of my plein-air paintings take anywhere from two to six hours. I prefer to get them done in two to three hours, because after that the light changes too much. If the sun is not shining or it’s at nighttime, sometimes it can take longer.


Do passersby ever make remarks to you while you work?

Many times passersby stop to chat and have suggestions about what exactly I am painting or when exactly I should stop. In Paris in November a French woman stopped to tell me that I was painting too many details. We talked for a while, and she suggested I do 10 more paintings of the same place. After she left, I realized that she was right. I put away the painting I was working on and began another one. The second one was so much better. It was loose and free and had a wonderful atmosphere about it. She later returned to chat some more, and we both agreed I had to return again to paint that same alleyway in Saint-Michel.

How much gear do you take to plein-air events? How do you travel?

When I am going to an event with my car I take many extra things, but when I am flying, it is much more difficult. I have been doing the Telluride [Colorado] event for six years, so I have become better at packing. It is difficult to decide beforehand what sizes you think you will want to paint. But now I kind of have that down pat.

So I ship all my frames, canvases, and many of my supplies into large boxes via FedEx ground. It is not my favorite thing to do, and I usually schedule one whole day to pack things up. I take my backpack with tripod and pochade box [a box with a hinged lid to function as an easel and compartments to hold paints and brushes] with me on the plane. They are very valuable to me, and I like to have them with me!

Richard Koenig is a NewsWorks contributor. He lives in Newtown Square, Pa.

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