One of the pieces Larry Schultz painted at the Wisconsin State Fair’s booth last year

It’s hard to imagine a more populist event than a state fair. So it’s heartening that state fairs across the country are including plein air painting events among their contests. It’s a perfect example of the precepts of the Plein Air Force. How? 

Larry Schultz painted the winning poster at the Wisconsin State Fair. This year artists are invited to work on site in a plein air contest.

The goal of the Plein Air Force is to encourage people to try plein air painting. But first they need to know what that means. The Wisconsin State Fair has an exemplary program to introduce fairgoers to painting outdoors. This is the first year the state is featuring plein air painting among its contests, but the fair organizers got the idea for it last year. Milton, Wisconsin, painter Larry Schultz was named the Grand Champion of the fair poster competition in 2014, and he took some photos at the 2014 Wisconsin State Fair and immediately painted from them at the official booth. He drew crowds of curious fairgoers. “People just loved it,” says Jill Albanese, the Wisconsin State Fair’s competitive exhibits coordinator.

This year the Wisconsin State Fair will host a one-day plein air painting contest, on August 10. The date was carefully selected to not conflict with other area plein air events, and the logistics of the contest were settled with the advice of Wendie Thompson, the president of the Wisconsin Plein Air Painters Association. Albanese says the contest will be limited to 60 artists, and the contestants must work in a ticketed area of the fair — but not in show rings or in heavily trafficked areas.

Larry Schultz’s setup at the 2014 Wisconsin State Fair

“We’re excited to have this new contest this year,” says Albanese. “It’s going to be neat to have all those artists on location. It will be exciting for the fairgoers.”

The organizers of the event recognized that the neon-lit rides will offer a great subject matter for nocturnes, so the artists will have until 1 p.m. the next day to turn in their paintings.

Animals, people, colors, lights — state fairs seem like a natural for plein air painting. Indeed, other states have recognized the opportunity. The Ohio State Fair had a plein air contest last year but hasn’t announced plans for 2015. California, a state always on the forefront of plein air painting, has had some sort of plein air component in its state fair since 2005.

Another painting Schultz executed at last year’s Wisconsin State Fair

“The California State Fair’s Plein Air at the Fair program began in 2005 as a part of our Celebration of the Arts, produced in collaboration with the California Arts Council, and featured almost three weeks of daily events of visual, performing, and literary arts,” reports Carol Buchanan, exhibits representative for the California State Fair. “That year we invited plein air painters from around the state to participate in a ‘for fun’ paint-out any day of the fair. Paintings submitted were not judged, but most were offered for sale. The paint-out and resulting special exhibit proved very popular with fairgoers. In subsequent years the Plein Air at the Fair program has changed, and it is now a special contest with a two-day paint-out and cash prizes offered to first, second, and third place winners. The special contest requires online registration and entry of up to three paintings that can be submitted during the weekend paint-out period.”

The public likes it, and artists are making sales — and pocketing 65 percent of the proceeds.

“Plein Air at the Fair is popular with fairgoers who delight in discovering an artist capturing our beautiful farm, the quiet Forest Center, the animals at the livestock pavilion, or the colorful midway rides and food stands,” says Buchanan. “Sales of plein air paintings in the special exhibit in the California Fine Art building are good, as fairgoers are often pleased to discover that they can purchase and take home an original painting of their favorite part of the fair.”


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