By Andrew Webster

Imagine John Singer Sargent getting arrested for painting a Venetian scene, or Albert Bierstadt being fined for mentioning to someone that he sells his work, while in a wilderness area. These days, it might happen. Lately, plein air painters are discovering that working on public land can get you in trouble with the law. The newest spot to limit the freedom of plein air painters is a Florida town known for supporting artists: Winter Park.

Winter Park recently criminalized painting in designated areas of its downtown, evidently as a way of keeping street musicians from discouraging tourists from spending their dollars in the business district. When a similar ban on street musicians was implemented in St. Augustine, Florida, a court ruled that it was a matter of free speech, and that painters were exercising their right to free speech when painting en plein air as well. The St. Augustine ban was thus extended to painters, closing off some of the most scenic and historical spots from plein air painters. Winter Park’s mayor, city manager, and city council have evidently structured their ordinance with the St. Augustine prohibition in mind.

A Winter Park scene by Stephen Bach
A Winter Park scene by Stephen Bach

Artists in the area are less than enthused. The town is on the radar of regional plein air painters in large part because of the Winter Park Paintout, an event associated with the Albin Polasek Museum and Sculpture Garden. The ordinance grants an exemption for this event, but folks at the museum — strong allies of local plein air painters — are not placated by this exemption, and local artists are mobilizing to fight the ordinance, or at least the inclusion of painters in the ban.

According to Randy Knight, the city manager of Winter Park, “Section 70-10(d)(2) of the new ordinance states that ‘Street performers may perform in the public performance zone(s) which includes the entirety of Central Park and such other public performance zone(s) as are designated by the City Manager or his or her designee.’ So, any artist whose subject matter requires him or her to be set up in an otherwise prohibited public area can request that area to be temporarily designated a Public Performance Zone. We will look at the location and if it can be utilized without unduly restricting pedestrian or vehicular traffic or creating any of the other objectionable issues discussed in the ordinance, we will permit it on a temporary basis. This would only apply to ‘street performances where the specific location is critical to the performance’ such as an artist painting a specific subject matter in the Prohibited Public Area.”

A Winter Park scene by Priscilla Coote
A Winter Park scene by Priscilla Coote

Orlando artist Stephen Bach addresses that notion succinctly. “So we find the spot, apply for a permit, and wait a couple of days — or a week — and if they approve we can come back? Who knows, maybe there will be good light then, right?” he says.

Bach started a Facebook page titled Illegal Paintings of Park Avenue to highlight the issue and share some of the work painters have created in the area in the past. Bach can’t recall hearing of any complaints about painters causing a problem in Winter Park, and he notes that plein air artists are uniformly respectful of property and cognizant of the space their easels and persons occupy in any situation.

A Winter Park scene by Cory Wright
A Winter Park scene by Cory Wright

Several artists discussing the ordinance on Facebook said they would abandon Winter Park in the face of this ban. Others preferred to remind city officials and merchants about the value of what plein air painters do in charming touris­ts, illustrating the beauty of the town, and helping make the area seem alive with the arts. Forget the insult perceived by a few of equating a plein air painter with a balloon artist hustling for some bucks, say some; this ban doesn’t make sound financial sense for a town that has benefited from visual artists working on location.

“Banning artists from recording present-day historical sights hurts tourism,” states Morgan Samuel Price. “Personally I have had many fans e-mail or even write letters who see these scenes and wish they could visit or live here.”

A Winter Park scene by Natalia Andreeva
A Winter Park scene by Natalia Andreeva

Rumors are that the next city to criminalize plein air painting in certain areas will be Asheville, North Carolina. As in St. Augustine and in Winter Park, it starts with dissatisfaction with the behavior of music buskers. Plein air painters get caught in the middle, and towns don’t seem to care much about that. “This is ridiculous, and no one in Winter Park is considering the consequences of the city ordinance,” says Price. “This can happen anywhere.”


  1. This doesn’t surprise me in the least. These aren’t the only places to do this. From what I understand, you can’t paint in the city of Barcelona either.

  2. A group of us were talking about how Winter Park has made plein aire painting illegal at a luncheon this past Tuesday.

    This is not the international press Winter Park wanted out there for all their subscribers to read. Not so flattering.

    Here’s hoping the city gets enough negative feedback to revise their thinking regarding artists.

    In the interim, Winter Garden with wonderfully attractive scenery can quickly reap the benefits of Winter Park’s abandonment by the people who make an annual art festival a huge monetary success for these obtuse ordinance creators.

  3. Back in the day, painters working outdoors were accepted, although perhaps thought of as a little odd. With permission and an explanation of what you were doing, you could pretty much paint wherever you pleased. (Area 51 excepted.) Thanks to the explosion of plein air painting, are we now as much a plague as buskers?

  4. Most serious plein air painters would only consider setting up without obstruction to the public – and should reasonably be offended by this city bylaw. But not all plein air painters are acting reasonably.
    At our recent Plein Air event in Gibsons Landing BC – I had to admonish a couple of painters who brought several several previously painted panels to display and sell – as if they had a booth at an art fair.

  5. I wish they would make more plein air painting illegal all over. Every time plein air “artists” come to my city they are nothing but rude and obnoxious, arrogant and act like they own the town. Property owners will ask them politely to move on only to be verbally abused. One so called “painter” has begun to exhibit stalking behavior towards me. You all need to learn a little common courtesy and have some respect for property owners. Perhaps the above mentioned scenarios are why you are beginning to be banned in places. All I can say is hallelujah!!!!! I hope more bans follow!

  6. I find this very interesting for a number of reasons. I live in New Hampshire and some of our cities have been overrun with pan handlers to the point where it can be a nuisance, yet in several recent court cases it has been determined that one can’t outlaw panhandling because it is an infringement of First Amendment Rights. Could this not also apply to buskers and plein air painters. If one is on public property it would seem to me that all would fall under that same protection of rights. I would much rather see people painting or hear music than be constantly bothered by people asking(begging) for money.

  7. There’s a difference between plein air painting and busking and even panhandling. And the rules are different for every city. Panhandling is begging. The person is not offering anything or selling anything. Busking includes street performers, like musicians, magicians, chalk artists, etc. They are performing for tips. Plein air painters (as long as they aren’t displaying works for sale), are usually just painting for themselves. And as long as they aren’t impeding traffic on a sidewalk or walkway, or spilling paint all over, they shouldn’t be banned. Any city that does is truly shooting themselves in the foot.


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