Yesterday I was the judge of a plein air show in a community near where I live. I rarely get the opportunity to judge shows these days because my time is spread so thin, and because more travel is difficult when raising a family. But I was in town, it was only an hour away, and two of my kids were away on a Scout trip, so I had a free Saturday for a change.

I started my day by walking through the town before the quick draw, chatting with the artists, many of whom I know from some of my painters’ retreats, like the upcoming June Adirondack retreat or our Fall Color Week event in Acadia National Park or our Plein Air Convention, coming up this month.

It’s always great to see old friends.

New friends also emerged as I walked through the town and met people who are subscribers to PleinAir magazine, but whom I had never had the opportunity to meet. And to my surprise, I met a lot of people who told me they were there because of the Plein Air Podcast. It turned out that several painters had started painting just in the last year because they discovered the podcast on iTunes. In fact, one artist told me, “I was just listening to you in my car on the way here,” and another took off his headphones and said, “This is weird. Listen, that’s you I’m listening to.”

I get happy chills when I think about how many people are discovering plein air painting and starting out their new lives as artists. As you already know, art changes our hearts; it opens our eyes to colors and shapes and changes how we interpret the world. I don’t know about you, but I’m always “painting” things as I look at them — even if I’m not painting. I’m always trying to figure out how I would approach a difficult subject.

I’d like to share a couple of things I learned by attending this event, and something new I tried that worked really well … but also backfired a little.

I left before the quick draw started so I could get over to judge the paintings for the awards that would be presented later in the evening. The show organizers had done something a bit different that made my job a lot easier.

Usually when I judge a show, I have to look at five or 10 paintings for each painter, so it can be as many as 500 paintings. This can take all day — and can be exhausting. This show, however, asked each artist to enter just one painting to be judged. Therefore I only had to evaluate about 50 paintings. So much easier.

All the paintings to be judged were hanging on portable walls, and the lighting was good on some paintings and bad on others. Some paintings got “floored,” meaning they were very low, below eye level. That gave an immediate disadvantage to those paintings. Some paintings ended up in poorly lit corners — another disadvantage.

So I had one well lit wall cleared, and we brought the paintings in one at a time and placed them on that wall. I could step back, view them in good light, and determine if they were finalists. Then all the finalists were hung on that wall, and I was able to instantly see which paintings stood out as the best.

The best paintings do leap out at you. In a second I could tell which were the top two because they were head-and-shoulders better than everything else. This has happened at every show I’ve ever judged. Best of show paintings stand out.

What do best of show paintings have in common? Though there are never any absolutes, the best paintings tend to be very simple compositions that draw you in. They have big shapes, and are not overly busy or cluttered with extraneous details and distractions. One painting I selected did not fit into that description at all — it just worked — but overall, in a sea of paintings, I noticed that simplicity stood out.

After I selected the winning paintings, I went through the show and discovered 50 or 60 great paintings that could have, and maybe should have, been entered into the judging. I felt as though they deserved honorable mention, but there was no such category in this particular event.

As I looked at all the other paintings, just for my own enjoyment because I love paintings, I remembered the organizers saying, “If you have any ideas on how we can improve our sales, we would love to hear about them.” I believe that it’s important that shows sell well, because the future of plein air events, and artists traveling to events, is predicated on sales. Plus, people bring joy into their lives by filling their homes with original paintings.

It hit me that I could do something to honor the other great paintings and help sales. So I grabbed a bunch of BLUE dots (red dots, as you know, mean a painting has been sold) and went through the show and “dotted” about 75 paintings I thought were of exceptional quality. I then asked the organizers to make tags that said “Judge’s Collection Recommendation” and put them around the show.

The artists were thrilled because most received recognition on at least one painting. Some artists had such strong work that they got several recommendations. Plus, I explained what I’d done later, in my speech onstage, and it appears to have helped sales.

Of course, there was a downside to doing this. I was approached by one woman who told me her friend was doing her very first plein air show and that she was hurt because the judge hadn’t given her any blue dots.

I went and looked at her friend’s work one more time, and it simply did not live up to the standard of excellent quality. Though I wanted to help her and did not want to discourage her, I also didn’t want to be the “coach” who gives the losing team a trophy because he doesn’t want to hurt their self-esteem. An artist who does not win an award simply has to keep trying, keep painting, and work on growing their career by attending workshops and events like the Plein Air Convention, where they can elevate their painting skills, and by watching instructional videos.

Of course I asked to meet the woman whose work did not get anointed with any blue dots, and she was clearly shaken and discouraged. I felt awful. Maybe the blue dots were a bad idea. After all, I hate to hurt or discourage anyone.

I approached her, told her I heard I had upset her, and apologized to her. She then asked if I would tell her why I hadn’t given her paintings any blue dots, so I spent a half hour talking to her about each painting, and why I felt they did not work.

Her painting skills were good enough to get her into the show, but as I walked her through a critique of each painting, it was very obvious to me that she needed some further instruction (we all do, at all levels). She was thankful, and, hopefully, a little less hurt.

The good news is that there was another painting she had done that I had not dotted — I had just overlooked it — and it got a dot.

Overall, the feedback on the concept was strong. I’m sure that the few artists who did not get a dot were feeling a little blue, and for that I feel bad. Most artists were ecstatic to have been blue-dotted, though some wondered if people would purchase only blue-dotted paintings. My feeling was that paintings will sell because the viewer has an emotional response, and, though a recommendation may be a tie-breaker between one painting dotted and another not, people buy what they love.

They say that teaching is the best way to learn. I’d say that judging also falls into that category. When you look at a few hundred paintings and when you have to explain why you selected the ones you did, or when you critique work for artists, it’s a great learning experience. I’ve learned a lot about problems I cannot see in my own paintings by helping others with theirs. Sometimes we just cannot see our paintings objectively.

A few weeks ago I sent a photo of a painting I was working on off to a friend who is a very well known and successful artist. He took the time to go into Photoshop and give me an example of how to fix it. Suddenly my problems became clear, and the things he told me were the same things I was telling artists at this show, and the same things that leaped out in the winning paintings: Keep it simple. Big shapes. And don’t put a bunch of things in your painting that don’t add anything.

Also, don’t just paint what you see. Though we want to be as pure as possible about painting what we see, our primary goal is to create a great painting. That’s why sometimes we move trees, add shadows, or take elements from outside the view of the painting and put them in.

I noticed that the best paintings not only had big shapes, they had a clear path of composition that drew the viewer in without lots of clutter.

I also noticed that bright spots of light, or dark or colorful spots placed in certain areas, drew the eye unnecessarily without adding anything to the painting. This was a common problem; I saw it repeatedly at this competition. Also, busy brushstrokes that drew attention to certain areas but added nothing to the painting.

Of course, for every “rule,” there are artists who violate it and do amazing paintings. And of course, every judge has their biases about composition, color, subjects, etc., based on their own experience.

So that’s what I learned from judging last night.

The best part about judging is not just what we learn or are reminded of, it’s spending time with passionate people who love painting or love buying paintings.

I had a chance to speak to the audience for about 45 minutes about the plein air movement and the history of plein air, and one thing I said is that I’ve met and viewed collections built by people who had modest incomes but had great taste, and who built collections by going to events like this where they could get work by great up-and-coming artists at great prices. Some of those collections, years later, have soared in value.

I also mentioned that I’ve visited the homes or offices of some ultra-wealthy people, including some billionaires, who had cheap prints on their walls when they could own great paintings. There is nothing quite so wonderful as a home filled with original paintings, and you don’t have to have a lot of money to build a collection. It says something about you and your taste when your home is filled with original art.

I also learned something else about myself … I absolutely love educating people about art, collecting, painting, and the importance of the plein air movement and this special moment in art history.

We also talked about the importance of viewing a lot of art by visiting museums or doing things like our Fine Art Connoisseur  Russian Art Trip this coming September, because viewing art is a great way to develop taste and find what you love.

I tend to get out a lot, I speak a lot, and every time I do, I learn something about myself, about painting, and about people who are passionate about plein air painting. This truly is a special time, and I feel privileged to be able to participate in this amazing world of art.

Last night when I was checking e-mail, I got a note from artist John MacDonald, who was responding to my April Fool’s e-mail. He told me that he feels privileged to be a part of the world of art, to be an artist and spend his time surrounded by art. It was another reminder that this truly is a privilege, and we are all very fortunate to be a part of this world.

I’m feeling very grateful.

Have a great week!


  1. Very true; I think the influence that a judge or the curators etc of a show can definitely help, and I actually quite like the idea of the recommendations – it encourages people to scrutinise these works – and those undotted – a little more closely, and to engage a little bit more. More time stood in front of a work means more time to contemplate it hanging on your walls. I have a collective show opening in a week and so I found reading this to be extremely useful. Thanks!

  2. The Marble Falls event was well planned by a devoted, extraordinarily friendly group of art lovers. As a juried painter, I was excited to see all the work coming in from fellow painters. Many pieces were from local painters, and the quality was very good, with a variety of subjects. I felt happy to be in the company of these artists. As the week progressed, I was able to bag a few good subjects, and felt good about the approaching end of week deadline, and the weekend festivities. The committee worked hard to transform the exhibit space, a town facility, into a place worthy of showing off all the week’s work, and we were all to be feted with Texas wines and heavy hors d’oeuvres, plus an Eric Rhoads lecture! At the end of the judging, I did not make it up to the stage for an award, but did receive several blue dots and enjoyed Eric’s plein air history and motivational speech for collectors. Motivation to redouble my own efforts and look for continuous improvement. Thank you for this opportunity, Eric and HLAC.

  3. I’m new to your website. I very good friend shared the Watercolor Live Event notice with me on Facebook. I have spent the week enjoying the venues you offer and I am so impressed and fired up to paint. I moved last year and prepared for retirement. Somewhere I lost the desire to paint. NOW I am truly inspired. Thank You!
    C. Athey Jacksonville, TX

  4. I hope that this is the right venue to talk about an artist that I love how he paints and how he teaches. Roger Bansemer. He has a PBS program, but they are showing paintings from 2011 right now. Roger would be a good guest on the Art School Live that I have watched from the start during the pandemic. He is skilled in acrylic and oil. Especially like his landscapes, many of the swampy areas of Florida.

  5. Hi Eric
    I grew up in Ft Wayne also. Quick question for you. Having taken workshops c Joseph Zbukvic and Christine Lashley and Tom Lynch who I now consider friends, I am planning now that I
    am retired to do more Plein air painting. Traveling to Europe with easels, tripods and paint
    boards has been a challenge. In particular once there hiking c all the equipment especially
    the board to place WC half sheets on. I have done exhaustive search for ideal backpack for
    this and have had recs for Kelty redwing 50 (too big I think) or Tim buk 2 bps. Do you have
    a favorite backpack you have found for both watercolor and oil Plein air painting?
    thank you so much. Jim Ulm, M.D.


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