Sunday, May 10, 2015

Augusta Plein Air 2015 Experience


At eleven days, the Augusta Plein Air Festival is one of the longest plein air competitions in the country. This was my first year attending, and my first time exploring the Augusta area. Having grown up in St. Louis, I knew how unpredictable the weather could be in late April/early May, but this year was almost perfect. It was an intense experience that I thoroughly enjoyed.

With so many great painters (over 100) participating, I was feeling very intimidated, so I was happy to run into Marcia Willman at the Wednesday evening meet & greet. Marcia is an excellent watercolorist whom I met when I started this adventure into plein air painting. She's always been welcoming and encouraging. We enjoyed a great dinner sponsored by Pop-A-Wheelie Ice Cream Parlor, while socializing with the other artists and the Augusta Plein Air Festival committee. I have to add here that the committee nailed it with sponsors and organization. Great food, numerous purchase award sponsors and featured events scheduled for every day of the festival.

Thursday morning started off bright and sunny for our first day of painting. I arrived by 7am and found a number of artists well into their first paintings. My first two didn't have a lot of zing to them, but I chalked it up to a warmup day.


I did make the local news as the background extra during the interview with event coordinator Kathy Kessler. Kathy and everyone on the committee were wonderful hosts for the entire event. Almost every event had a purchase award sponsor (I believe there were 14 in all), but artists were only allowed to win once. The first event went to Tatyana Robberts from St. Louis.

My turn as a background extra on the local news.
Friday was cooler, but still no rain as we painted in downtown Augusta. I had a much better morning after yesterday's "warmups," and even though I seem to have lost my head in the official photo, I took third place. A beautiful painting by Nyle Gordon was chosen as the purchase award winner.

Photo courtesy of Nyle Gordon

The evening event was held at Noboleis Winery, and the wind started to get vicious. Marcia and I set up next to each other, using a road sign as a wind breaker.


Just down the hill from us, Spencer Meagher from Mount Vernon, Illinois, painted a gorgeous watercolor that won the event. Every piece that I saw from Spencer the entire festival was a knockout, and I found his work very inspiring. 

Saturday was the one day with rain. The event was held at the Montelle Winery, with beautiful vistas of the surrounding area. I decided against painting the view, as the light was grey and uneven due to the weather. Instead, there was a painting event for children also taking place, so I just leaned over the railing and captured anyone that stood still for a few minutes. The composition worked for me, and even when the rain drove most under the awnings, I ducked under my umbrella and stuck with it. By the end, my easel was full of water and the legs had swollen enough that they wouldn't retract. I was lucky enough to win the purchase award for the day sponsored by the winery.

Kathy, Cindy, me and Tony
My painting now hangs in the Montelle Winery tasting room.

Later, there were two additional events held in nearby Washington, MO. A sunset paintout (sans the sun) and a nocturne. Top honors went to Michele Wells for the sunset purchase award. I had never attempted a nocturne before, but I've always wanted to try it. I realize now that I was not at all prepared. The trick it seems, is to somehow get some light on your painting so that you can see what you're doing. Kathy lent me a spelunking headlamp, which I'm sure looked ridiculous on me. Whenever I turned it on, I could see just how badly my painting was coming along. The light also had the unfortunate side effect of making my colors look far cooler than they actually were and lighting up the buildings that were fifteen yards away from me; so I could only view my painting when the light was on, and the subject when the light was off. For someone who constantly steps back to view the painting and the subject at the same time, this was not working out! To make matters worse, the rain picked up again. I won't share the painting here or anywhere else, ever...

Despite my failure, there were some great pieces that night. Marcia and Spencer painted excellent watercolors despite being rained on, and Manda Sophia from Dallas painted a fantastic wooden horse portrait from a store window.

Sunday was such a contrast to the night before, it was the most relaxing painting I experienced during the entire festival. I found this awesome car parked in an old barn. Despite the obvious smell of a skunk's recent visit, I fired up some tunes and this one flowed.




If you know me at all, you know that I can't do any of this without the support of my wife and favorite photographer, Kimberly. She's the one that inspires me, motivates me and keeps me honest about the quality of my work. We are a true team both personally and professionally. She couldn't make this trip due to other obligations, and five days without her seemed like an eternity. I was lucky enough to land a portrait commission, and thankfully, Kimberly was able to drive in for the day on Monday to take photographs. It was only an afternoon, but I don't think I could have gone the entire festival without seeing her.

Tuesday, it was back to work with a paint out at the Hoeft estate in Augusta. I chose some azaleas. An hour in, I was completely lost, but was able to pull it together in the second hour.





That afternoon, I went scouting locations. Michele Wells told me to check out Femme Osage, and it turned out to be a great tip. The tiny village of Femme Osage was settled in 1830, and a very cool place. I took a few shots of the area and made plans to return the next evening around sunset.

Wednesday began at the Daniel Boone Home in Defiance, MO. I walked around the site, which houses a number of historic buildings. What grabbed my attention was an old wash tub on the porch of one of the buildings. I had a nice shady spot, and really enjoyed painting this one.





Late that afternoon, I headed back to Femme Osage. The one room Femme Osage School was opened in 1888, built from stone salvaged from an 1830s Evangelical church that was destroyed in 1887. It's a simple building, but what struck me was the pattern of light and shadow created by the graveyard adjacent to it. There was a beautiful light and a great design balance to the entire scene.


I only painted for about an hour and a half before the light in the valley changed too much to continue, but I was happy with the start. Lucky for me, the light was the same the next day, so I was able to continue the painting.

Painting is a subjective thing, not just for the viewer, but the artist as well. That night, I took a look at the painting of the graveyard and schoolhouse and seriously considered scraping it all off and painting over it. The only thing that stopped me was Kimberly. I had been sending her images of everything I painted throughout the festival. She liked it. I held off on the destruction. Sometimes it's good to set things aside, but I'll get back to that one later.

Friday morning started at Frisella Nursery. Maybe it's strange for a guy, but I really like painting flowers. Must be the decade I spent at Hallmark Cards. The light hit these peonies just right, and the painting was complete in a couple of hours. Great way to start the day.





For the afternoon, I headed back to downtown Augusta. I had seen this cool antique store - Stone Ledge Antiques - while scouting on Tuesday, and I was interested in giving that a shot. When I got there at about 11:30, the light was hitting the east side of the building creating an intense red glow that drew me right in. This was yet another light sensitive spot, and I only had about an hour. I had the red wall, but had a lot more to do on the shadow side of the building. It would have to wait for the next day, and luck was with me on consistent weather.



Back to the Femme Osage schoolhouse/graveyard painting. I kept looking at it all day, and decided to test the reaction on social media. There's nothing like crowdsourced feedback. The consensus was positive. I decided that this would be my submission for the artist's choice award on Saturday.

"Stones, Femme Osage" (oil on canvas, 12"x16") by Patrick Saunders
Saturday morning, I dropped off "Stones, Femme Osage" for judging and was back at my spot for the antique store by 10:30. The challenge was what not to paint. By noon, I had decided that this was my personal favorite of everything I had painted over the last ten days.

"Uptown, Augusta, MO" (oil on canvas, 12"x16") by Patrick Saunders
There were two rounds of judging for the Artist's Choice and People's Choice Awards. At 11:30, everyone was asked to cast votes for their top 3 in order to narrow the field to 5. It was a tough choice. There were a lot of great paintings. In the end, six paintings were chosen, as there was a tie for 5th place.

"Sunrise Over the Katy Trail" by Michele Wells. 
"Chandler Mood" by Henryk Ptasiewicz. 
"How Now" by Julie Weigand. 
"Crossroads at Femme Osage" by Lon Brauer.
"Violet Symphony" by Pamela Newell.
"Stones, Femme Osage" by yours truly. 

The second round of voting lasted till 5:30, and I was surprised and honored that my painting earned the Artist's Choice Award sponsored by Kate's Coffeehouse.
Artist's Choice Award Winner
Michele Wells excellent piece took the People's Choice Award.

Finally that evening, it was time to decide which two paintings to submit for final judging at Sunday's event. I'd had such a nice response to "Stones, Femme Osage" that I decided to once again submit it. My other choice, and the painting I felt the most attachment towards was "Uptown, Augusta, MO." I was glad Sunday morning had finally arrived. Home was just hours away...but first, the show. The awards were announced at noon. There were five categories - Pastels, Mixed Media, Acrylics, Watercolors and Oils. When I arrived, they handed "Uptown, Augusta, Mo" back to me, but not "Stones, Femme Osage."

It was great to see Spencer take First Place in Watercolor for his painting of downtown Augusta - a truly fantastic piece. 
Marcia Willman took 3rd place in Watercolor for "Field Trip," another great painting. 
Oils were the last category announced. Honorable Mention to "Shifting Patterns" by Courtney E. Lee. 
Honorable Mention to "Augusta Vineyard" by Troy Kilgore. 
Honorable Mention to "Judgement Tree Bales" by Chris Sheppard. 
3rd Place to "Luscious Bales" by Julie Weigand. 
2nd Place to "Sunset Balducci's" by Paul Schaefer.
1st Place to ... "Stones, Femme Osage." 

I won! Are you kidding me? Wow!

 Next, it was time for Best of Show. I predicted Spencer. Once again, they called "Stones, Femme Osage." I was completely caught off guard, and I'm sure I looked like a complete fool. Three ribbons for one painting.
The triple crown.

Augusta Plein Air was a blast. I didn't expect to win anything on this adventure, and I'm honored that I did. The week was filled with amazing paintings and wonderful people. Everyone was welcoming and encouraging. I walked away a better painter with new friends. Looking forward to the next plein air adventure...but never again without Kimberly.