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A Plein Air Painting Festival, art exhibit and sale is scheduled for the weekend of July 14-17.

“En plein air” literally means “in plain air,” as al fresco translates to “in the fresh.” In other words, both mean outdoors. But oddly, “plein air” tends to refer to painting out of doors, whereas “al fresco” always refers to dining outdoors.

Mark Cleveland, an accomplished plein air painter, at his easel on Dempster Street in Evanston. Credit: Photo by Gay Riseborough

Plein-air painting is thought of as French in origin, with probably the most widely known plein-air painters being Paul Cezanne, Claude Monet, Vincent Van Gogh, Pierre-Auguste Renoir and Camille Pissarro.

At the beginning of the 20th century, in California, the land of (almost) perpetual sunshine, a large movement emerged called California Impressionism, or California Plein Air. 

A regional variation on American Impressionism, the California movement promoted a bright, airy, impressionist esthetic that coincided with the population boom there.

It was prominent the first three decades of the century but faded with the Depression and Modern Art movements. Now there is plein air painting all over the West.

Evanston’s festival

Sponsored by Downtown Evanston, Evanston Made and assisted by the Evanston Arts Council, this is believed to be the first such event in the city.

Landscape painters will be working directly on site at different locations. The five most common sites will be listed for the public, but who knows what locations independent artists will choose to paint?

About 40 painters are expected and artists may sell directly from their easels.

The Evanston festival is the idea of Evanston artist Mark Cleveland, who is a plein air painter and festival director.

During the pandemic, Cleveland started painting his neighborhood and local sites. He was so successful showing the resulting work online that it led to a windows-only show at 1100 Florence. There, he sold six pieces out of paintings in seven windows. Cleveland will give a talk for artists, “Stepping into the Light – Getting Started in Plein Air” 9:30 a.m. Saturday, July 16, at Space 900, 816 Dempster St. 

A plein-air painting by Don Yang. Credit: Image from Don Yang

For those who would like to try painting outdoors, a full-day plein air workshop will be held on Saturday, July 16, at the Evanston Lighthouse campus. The workshop fee is $125 but the Evanston Arts Council is funding five scholarships for BIPOC participants. For information or to register, visit the event site.

The workshop will be taught by Chicago-based painter Don Yang, who is also exhibit judge. Yang trained at the American Academy of Art in Chicago, where he has been teaching since 2002. He is an accomplished portrait and figure painter as well as a landscape painter.

Yang will judge paintings entered on Sunday, July 17. Two prizes will be awarded: “Best in Show” and “People’s Choice: Fest Favorite.” Visitors can view the competing paintings and vote in Fountain Square from 12 to 3 p.m. on Sunday, July 17.

On Saturday, July 16, the Main-Dempster Mile association is offering music to complement the goings-on farther north. From noon to 4 p.m., they will hold what they call their Front Porch Concert Series. Three homeowners have offered their porches and courtyards where local bands will play for visitors.

Their performances will be at noon, 1:30 and 3 p.m., with no fee to attend. Further information is on the Main-Dempster Mile website.

Also on Saturday, at 4 until 8 p.m., the Main-Dempster Mile association will offer a traditional music festival in “Train Station Alley,” 600 Main Street, the alley between the two train tracks.  There will be music, vendors and a mini-classic car show put on by Evanston classic car owners. Attendees can also enjoy the map of Evanston bricolage mural there.

A call for plein air painters went out in March via the RoundTable and other local media, Evanston Made social media and newsletter, and the Downtown Evanston newsletter. The entrants were asked to submit two examples of plein air paintings/works. 

“There are many artists throughout the region that make the circuit of plein air festivals,” said Lisa Degliantoni, director of Evanston Made, who saw to all the marketing and promotion, the permits, the sign-up forms and the financial reporting. “The biggest issue has been getting businesses to open their restrooms to festival-goers. So, don’t worry, there will be a potty map.”

Painting must take place within the Evanston city limits and an entry fee of $25 was charged to those who registered. Event sponsors hope this will become an annual event. Artists will check in and register up to five blank work surfaces at Blick Art Materials at 1755 Maple Ave. Goodie bags will be given to artists who do so.

Only paintings with visible registration on the back will be accepted for consideration in the awards and display tents in Fountain Square on Sunday, June 17. All work must be for sale and subject to a 30% gallery fee. After the event, all paintings from the competition will be on view in the third floor gallery of the Evanston Public Library.

During the month of July an accompanying exhibit at Space 900, 816 Dempster Street, features mostly plein air cityscape paintings of Evanston and Chicago by artists Mark Cleveland, Sarah Kaiser-Amaral and Joe Taylor. Titled True Grit, the show is open from 5 to 8 p.m. Thursday to Sunday.

There is an active group of plein air painters in Chicago, Plein Air Painters Chicago, associated with the Palette and Chisel Art Academy on Dearborn Street. They meet every Saturday morning at a different location to paint. 

Many professional painters make the circuit of summer plein air festivals, of which there are many all over the country. Possibly the most famous in the area is in Door County, Wis. 

Gay Riseborough

Gay Riseborough is an artist, has served the City of Evanston for 11 years on arts committees, and is now an arts writer at the Evanston RoundTable.

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  1. Thank you Evanstonmade’ Lisa Degliantoni and Liz Cramer for doing the work to being this to life they are steadfast in their unwavering support of Evanston Artists