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Mary Ruoff

Freelance writer Mary Ruoff of Belfast wrote the "Way Down East" chapter of Fodor's "Maine Coast" travel guide and has contributed Maine content to other Fodor's guides.

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Posted: July 18, 2017

Upcoming festivals reflect plein air painting’s rise in popularity

Written by: Mary Ruoff
An artist paints Dyce Head Light and the keeper's house during Castine Plein Air Festival. Photos courtesy of Castine Arts Association

An artist paints Dyce Head Light and the keeper’s house during Castine Plein Air Festival.
Photo courtesy of Castine Arts Association

On a recent summer day, artists were set up alongside the front lawn of Belfast’s grand Greek Revival “White House,” painting images of the cupola-crowned, balcony-fronted manse. Though I often pass the 1840 home, this was a first for me. But don’t rely on happenstance for a delightful double take of a classic Maine building or landscape.

With plein air painting’s popularity surging, there’s been an uptick in “paint the town” events nationwide and around Maine, long a magnet for plein air painters and artists of all kinds. Nonprofit Castine Arts Association’s fifth annual Castine Plein Air Festival (, one of the state’s premier plein air events, runs from Thursday through Saturday.

Smaller plein air events take place next week in Wiscasset and in mid-August in South Thomaston; others were held recently in Cape Elizabeth and Old Orchard Beach’s Ocean Park. These happenings typically raise money for the nonprofit host as well as participating artists. Plein air festivals go on rain or shine; the painters bring sturdy umbrellas!

Desiring to break from the studio’s confines and truly depict natural light and color, and spurred on by mid-19th-century advances like paint tubes and portable box easels, French Impressionists and other 19th-century artists promoted painting “en plein air” — French for “in the open air.”

Roberta Goschke painted Wiscasset's Main Street during 2016's inaugural Paint the Town Wiscasset. Photo courtesy of Maine Art Gallery in Wiscasset

Roberta Goschke painted Wiscasset’s Main Street during 2016’s inaugural Paint the Town Wiscasset. Photo courtesy of Maine Art Gallery in Wiscasset

During the next few days, 40 painters from Maine and several other states will paint outdoor scenes all around Castine. Saturday’s session ends at noon, in time for the artists to hang works (up to six each) at Maine Maritime Academy’s Alfond Student Center, where a public reception and art sale will be held from 4 to 6 p.m. (light fare, cash bar). Look for prize ribbons on paintings; the “Castine Captured” award honors the one that best evokes the Blue Hill peninsula town.

Jutting island-like into Penobscot Bay near the mouth of the Penobscot River, Castine is an ideal place for a plein air festival, as is Maine in general, with its juxtaposition of charming New England townscapes and stunning sea and mountain vantages. The village runs uphill from the waterfront, with wonderfully wide water views. The harbor remains in sight as Perkins Street passes summer cottages on its way toward Dyce Head Light.

Rare elm trees form a canopy over streets lined with well-preserved historic homes; public buildings frame the town green nestled off Main Street. Huge historic placards relate the area’s fascinating history, from competing French, Dutch and English control in the 1600s to a major Revolutionary War naval battle in the 1700s to Britain’s return during the War of 1812. There’s a good-size beach along the large cove on the town’s outskirts.

About 15 artists are taking part in Maine Art Gallery’s “Paint the Town” in Wiscasset, recreating outdoor scenes in the Sheepscot River town from July 27 to July 30.They’ll all be right in the town center Thursday evening for the monthly summer art walk. “Wet” works will be hung and sold in the gallery throughout the event. Painting wraps up before a public reception in the gallery at 5 p.m. Saturday; sales end Sunday.

During last year’s inaugural event, several painters were still at it on the town dock around midnight. Artists may be on the bridge, in a preserve or in a garden; the gallery can help direct you. Some will surely head to Nickels-Sortwell House and Castle Tucker. Both constructed in 1807, these historic New England museums are among Maine’s most distinctive dwellings.

Georges River Land Trust’s fourth annual “Wet Paint on the Weskeag” ( features an art auction and reception at 4 p.m. Aug. 13 at South Thomaston’s The Kelpie Gallery ($40 per person includes drinks, light fare and live entertainment). The 35 participating artists will paint along and near Weskeag River estuary and marsh over the previous two days. Buttermilk Lane in South Thomaston is a good place to spot them.

This summe,r keep your eyes out for members of Plein Air Painters of Maine, who often go out in groups to paint. Workshops are posted on the organization’s blog (


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