Ready, Set, Paint

Artists Leave the Comfy Confines of the Studio to Create in Outdoor Competition

By Mary Thayer Haugen | Photography by Harriet Wise | Posted on 06.08.13 – In the Studio, Lifestyles

For anyone who loves the idea of a stroll along the streets of Pairs in search of painters at work behind their canvases—but who may not have the time or money for such an endeavor—the Easels in Frederick plein air painting contest is just the ticket.

Plein air is a French term for painting outdoors in the natural light. And with all of Frederick’s charms, hosting such a contest like Easels in Frederick seems a natural fit. The main event gives 30 artists four days to create two paintings for award consideration and two more for exhibition. This year, the contest has been expanded to allow participants to paint anywhere within the county, not just Downtown, as they compete for more than $14,000 in prize money.

The contest begins Tuesday morning, June 18, when the competing artists receive their blank canvases and culminates with a public exhibition on Saturday afternoon, June 22. It’s a juried contest, with the participating artists having been selected from a record number of entries. Eleven of the painters are from Maryland with the remaining coming from the Northeast, South and Midwest.

With only four days to paint, the artists will likely be buzzing about the county like bees in search of a particular brand of nectar. That could be anything from a stately brick townhome dripping with flowerboxes to a weathered barn alone in a field whispering of its sturdy past. The trained eyes will know “it” when they see it.

Mick Williams of New Market will be one of the chosen 30. He has competed in the contest since it first began in 2011. He chooses his locations carefully. “I’m not only looking for subject matter, I’m looking for a shady place I can set up to paint that subject. I’ll work up to 15 hours a day during the contest and it can get really hot. Also, I work in watercolors and they can dry too fast if I’m painting in direct sun,” he says.

Williams believes the time constraint streamlines his work and forces him to approach the details differently. “In the studio, I might take two weeks to finish a painting. During this contest, I’ll be working on multiple paintings during those four days. The paintings will be a little different than what I normally do. And that’s not good or bad, it’s just different,” he says.

Accomplished plein air painter Ron Donoughe of Pittsburgh, Pa., will serve as judge. He has vast experience painting both rural and city scenes.

Winners will be announced at the Collector’s Preview Party on Friday evening, June 21, a ticketed event to be held at the William R. Talley Recreation Center in Baker Park. Attendees will enjoy wine and appetizers while having the first peek at the paintings. They will also have the opportunity to talk with the artists, purchase paintings and vote for the Collector’s Choice Award. Tickets are $50, but the cost of the ticket can be applied to the purchase of a painting.

Fortunately, one doesn’t have to be a professional artist or buy a ticket to get in on the action. On Saturday, June 22, from 9:30 a.m. to 11:30 a.m., is the Quick Draw Contest. For a $15 fee, anyone age 16 years or older can participate. This Downtown event includes amateurs and professionals alike. Last year, more than 70 artists filled a sixblock area of Frederick to paint against the clock. Several awards, totaling $1,500 in prize money, will be given away and all entries will be displayed.

“If the weather is nice, we hope to set the paintings up all along the sidewalk near the Talley Rec Center for judging. It will look like a sidewalk art market. And in fact, some artists sell their work right off their easel,” says Marita Loose, who co-chairs the event with Ginger Edington and Connie Schlee.

This will be the third year Artist Deborah Lovelace Richardson of New Market has participated in the Quick Draw contest. “I don’t do it to win prizes. I just love painting outdoors. However, I did sell my painting last year and that was nice,” she says.

Participating artists check in at 8 a.m. and get their canvas stamped with the time. They can then set up their easel in order to be ready to paint when an audible sound signals the start of the contest at 9:30 a.m. At that point, they have two hours to complete their piece.“It’s definitely doable,” says Richardson. “But the important thing is to work a little smaller than you normally might so you have time to finish.”

This is a great day for being a spectator, as dozens of artists work in close proximity to “paint the town.”

Winning artwork from the Quick Draw Contest will be taken inside the recreation center to be included in the grand exhibition on Saturday from 1 p.m. to 6 p.m. The public exhibition is free and gives everyone a chance to view the paintings, make a purchase and cast their votes for the People’s Choice Award.

In its third year, Easels in Frederick is produced by an all-volunteer staff that works in partnership with the Frederick Arts Council. Creators of the event hope to foster appreciation for painting en plein air. “We also hope the event will help the community understand how valuable the arts and art businesses are to the local economy and culture,” says Loose. “Plus, an event like this adds to Frederick’s reputation as a destination for the arts.”

But there’s something else of value, according to Loose. “These artists are capturing a local snapshot in time. They are recording a scene, that in the future, may disappear,” she says. “I can foresee people buying these paintings to enjoy and as something to be handed down generation after generation.”

To register for the Quick Draw Contest or to get more information on any of the Easels in Frederick events, including the youth program, visit


Leaving the studio behind to paint outside became popular during the mid-19th century with the invention of the collapsible paint tube and portable easel.

Until that time, easels were heavy and not adaptable to multiple venues. In addition, paints were made by mixing ground pigments with a medium such as oil. It was a messy process done by a painter’s assistant and not conducive to painting on a city street or out in the midst of a meadow.

Therefore, it was typical for painters to make rough sketches in the outdoors and then bring them in to the studio for completion. The plein air movement is often associated with impressionist painters such as Monet and Renoir.