Watch Impressionist Painters in Action

You can see their landscapes unfold before your very eyes during the annual Plein Air Easton festival in Easton, Maryland.

Artists and onlookers during the Quick Draw competition. Photo by Mark Sandlin (courtesy of Talbot County Tourism).

Plein Air Easton was first established in an attempt to lure tourists to landlocked Easton during the dog days of summer. Since then, it’s grown to become the largest and most prestigious juried plein-air painting competition in the U.S., drawing more than 6,000 visitors annually. The core of the festivities center on 58 juried artists (selected from an applicant pool of nearly 300 in 2016) working on location. Over the course of a week, each produces at least 11 paintings, all of which are for sale. That includes a 6-by-8-inch gem for “Small Painting Sunday,” a last-day event featuring mimosas, Bloody Marys and live music, along with small (read: more affordable) works.

PAE’s painting marathon starts on a Monday, but my daughter, Sam, and I time our visit to coincide with the culminating events on the weekend. We arrive Friday morning, just in time to spy a few painters dashing into Easton’s Academy Art Museum with their canvases to meet the 11 a.m. competition deadline. At this point, they’ve spent the past four days painting outdoors in a perimeter that at first spanned the entire Delmarva Peninsula, but then narrowed to Talbot County and ultimately shrank to the even smaller radius of the Easton town limits. Charles Newman, a recent art school graduate from New Jersey, leans several of his industrial landscapes against the fence and asks a festival volunteer for advice on which two he should enter.

In addition to those two competition pieces submitted for judging, each artist will show at least eight other works in The Armory next door (open to the public starting at 9 a.m. Saturday). Many restock as they sell, so it’s worth circling back for more than one look. Sam and I stop in and admire the lustrous works of Olena Babak, an artist based in Maine whose scenes capture the interplay of light and reflection where land meets water. “I have the biggest smile,” Babak tells us. “I am sleep deprived, it’s very hot, and I’m having the best time ever.”

Later that afternoon we head over to the eponymous studio of local painter and gallery owner David Grafton to watch a painting demonstration. Grafton no longer competes in the PAE competition (“too hot, too long,” he says), but he likes to be on hand to offer veteran advice to participating artists, some of whom are his students. I’ve long been a fan of his luminous rural landscapes and quickly grab us seats in the front row. His clouds, in my opinion, rival those of the English master John Constable.

After completing roughly one-third of a moody sunset over a pond (using a photo for reference), Grafton turns to his audience. “I’m pretty tired,” he says. “Does anyone want to finish this for me?” Everyone laughs, but he repeats the question.

“You’re serious?” asks Sam, who paints for fun, and in her A.P. art class. Grafton gives her a brush and coaches her as she hashes out a section of the canvas, following his acrylic blending technique. (Of course, I had to buy that landscape, which now hangs above our piano and makes me smile—partly because my daughter had a hand in it, and also because I can now say that we have a Grafton original.)

The big event on Friday evening is the Collectors’ Preview Party, a sellout soiree that offers the first peek at the competition exhibit in its entirety. At $250 a head, it’s a must for any serious collector who hopes to snap up a prize-winning painting. In 2016, one painting sold every 45 seconds in the 90-minute period after the winners were unveiled, according to festival organizers. Among the offerings was an imposing work by Arkansas artist Jason Sacran (he was the previous year’s grand-prize winner) priced at $12,000.

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