[Note: Article appeared originally in Outdoor Painter.]
In its third year, the Lighthouse Plein Air Festival featured expanded painting locations along Florida’s Atlantic coast. Fifty juried artists from across the United States and abroad converged on Martin and Palm Beach counties to paint the beaches, public parks, a formal sculpture garden, a historic fishing village, and a vast inland park with characteristic Florida flora and fauna.
The festival is on the shorter side, with three days of painting plus the Sunday Quick Draw, so several artists arrived early to scope out the painting locations in advance. I used Google Maps with a satellite view in order to take in the terrain beforehand — I can usually tell where I’ll find dense foliage, see sunrises or sunsets over water, or where there might be an interesting bend in a river.
The artists made the most of the painting time. We braved strong El Niño-year winds (including some 35mph gusts!) at Juno Beach on the first day and many artists carried through dusk each day to paint nocturnes.
George Van Hook, who won the Grand Prize with his painting from Juno Beach, said the sight of the beach and pier above it immediately caught his eye. “I grew up in Pennsylvania, in love with Reginald Marsh’s beach scenes of Coney Island,” he said. “I wanted to combine the geometry of the pier’s structure with the chaos of all the figures.” The artist reported that it worked in his favor to have limited time at the location. He completed a quick study, then created the larger version by buckling down and painting for five hours straight. “It was fun to know I had to do it all at once,” said Hook. “I painted the background, then put in identifiable figures.”
Van Hook found the volunteers from the Lighthouse ArtCenter indispensible during these marathon painting sessions. “I’ve never been to an event so delightfully organized, both the gallery and the field volunteers. They were at our beck and call the whole time, at every location.” This was true — while I painted a giant banyan tree on successive mornings at Riverbend Park, volunteers found me and trekked through thick undergrowth every couple of hours to offer me water, oranges, and croissants. One even drove framed paintings back to the gallery to save the artists a trip.
Other winners included Carl Bretzke, First Place; Shelby Keefe, Second Place; Jason Sacran, Third Place; and Don Mondloch and Ken DeWaard, Honorable Mention. In the Quick Draw, Richard Sneary won First Place, Nyle Gordon took Second, and Susan Lynn won Third.
Jason Sacran created his award-winning painting in Riverbend Park just a few hundred yards from where he painted last year’s Grand Prize-winning piece. “I love Riverbend Park,” he said. “It just screams ‘old Florida,’ and has a wild nature to it that I love. The scene captivated me from the moment I saw it. I enjoyed the contrast of the morning sun hitting the shaded bundle of palm trees, with that great bunch of lit-up foreground dry grass.”
The most popular painting location seemed to be Port Salerno, a fishing harbor initially built in the 1920s by Italian immigrants. A boatyard near the marina inspired Shelby Keefe and Carl Bretzke by day and several more artists by night. John Caggiano was so enamored with a nocturne scene illuminated by the yard’s motion-detector light that he ran over to his subject every few minutes to trip the sensor and continue painting. Carl Bretzke initially joked that he was drawn to the subject of his First Place painting “Fish Truck” because of its smell. “Actually I liked the composition of the truck and shadow together,” he added. “The palm tree still signals a tropical setting and the truck shows an element of real life.”
On the final morning I painted a larger piece from a Port Salerno dock, where a flock of pelicans waited expectantly for the fishing boats to return. I wanted to do a silhouette so I could simplify the shapes of the boats and emphasize the glow of the light reflected on the water. (Simplifying those shapes also meant I’d be in less trouble if the fishermen returned early and needed to use their dock!) An onlooker who had stopped by periodically to watch me paint and talk with me about my creative process ended up buying the painting at the gallery right after I delivered it that afternoon; I was deeply honored to learn that it was her first purchase of a plein air painting.
In the hours before the packed collector’s gala on Saturday, the Lighthouse ArtCenter staff hung upwards of 300 paintings in their well-lit gallery in Tequesta. The scale of the exhibition was a testament to the artists’ intense focus and the volunteers’ tireless support — and it helped ignite the interest of local residents in plein air painting. “I’m going home to get out my paints!” said one lady to me during the Quick Draw on Sunday. A young woman approached and told me that we looked like we were having so much fun she was going to overcome her fears and sign up for a plein air painting class that she’d contemplated for several years.
Festival Chairman Ted Matz looked back over the event and seemed well pleased. “We expanded our marketing efforts to include television interviews, newspaper inserts, and private VIP parties for collectors, which all proved beneficial as we increased our attendance well over last year,” he said. “Our judge, Jim McVicker, added the credibility to our event that we wanted, and many artists were drawn to our event because of the respect and plein air painting knowledge that he brought to the whole judging process. Who’s going to argue with Jim on his decision?”
Matz concluded by asking for feedback from participating painters. “We are always open to what the artists want and solicit how we might make our festival better each year,” he said. “Their input is very important to us to help them make the best work they can produce.”