Plein to see

SARANAC LAKE – All over the village Thursday, visitors were painting the town red – and green, blue, yellow and whatever other colors seemed appropriate.

About 60 artists are in town for the fifth annual Adirondack Plein Air Festival, a four-day celebration of outdoor art organized by Saranac Lake ArtWorks.

“Plein air,” or outdoor, painting became possible in the 19th century when oil paints became available in tubes. The French Impressionists are largely credited with sparking its popularity.

The festival began Thursday with a mandate to “Paint the Town,” so participants set up their easels around the village, from busy downtown sidewalks to lonely, breezy Lake Colby.

They warmed up on a small scale, making 5-by-7-inch pictures which took up only a fraction of even the smallest easel.

The weather was sunny, but roving clouds made the light a moving target.

“Whenever you paint plein air, you wish you were faster – because of the changing light,” Susan Whiteman said as she used pastels to depict her view from Riverside Park, looking through tall white pines toward Lake Flower. “One art teacher I had told me there were eight light sources in a Monet painting, so I don’t feel so bad.”

This is Whiteman’s first art event in Saranac Lake but far from her first visit. Although she and her husband primarily live in New Jersey, they have owned a house here for nine years.

“I’m exiled to New Jersey until I retire, and then my husband and I can move here full-time,” she said.

Saranac Lake has become an artists’ haven in the last decade or two. Sandra Hildreth is one of many who moved here to paint – in her case, after retiring from a 31-year career as an art teacher. Now she’s deeply involved in organizing ways for other artists to visit, if only for a few days. She’s been the lead organizer of the Plein Air Festival since its birth, and also of the six-year-old Artist at Work Studio Tour. She works hard to promote art through local organizations like the Saranac Lake Area Chamber of Commerce Saranac Lake, of which she’s a board member; Saranac Lake ArtWorks, which sponsors the Plein Air Fest and other events; and the Adirondack Artists’ Guild, the gallery of which (at 52 Main St.) is the Plein Air Fest headquarters.

“Sandy has really been the engine, with the studio tour and this,” Nancy Brossard, another guild member, said as Hildreth painted her 5-by-7 on the sidewalk in front of the guild.

The Plein Air Festival participants mostly come from around the northeastern U.S., and new this year are a few Canadians.

“We’ve got some who’ve come every year – all five years – and then we’re getting lots of new people,” Hildreth said. Some of the new ones came through her connections; others she had never heard of, “so the advertising and the PR paid off.

“They all seem to talk about how much they love our community – they really do,” she added.

Each event like this helps Saranac Lake’s growing reputation as an art destination. Having between five and 10 downtown galleries doesn’t hurt, either. Mary Woodcock Johnson recently opened her Spectrum Fine Art Studio & Gallery on Academy Street, and an even newer one – well, sort of – opened Thursday as painter Georgeanne Gaffney opened in a previously empty store beside the I.B. Hunt insurance agency. Gaffney previously had a studio/gallery, moved it into her house and just moved it back to Main Street, half a block from her old place.

“People are beginning to know they can come here and find quality art,” Hildreth said. “I think they like that it’s local art. It’s not that we have a lot of galleries that import art. We have a lot of local art that’s very good quality.”

Carol Kravitz is here from Weehawken, N.J., for her second Plein Air Festival. She has traveled to a handful of other art events in the past but mainly limits herself to Saranac Lake’s because it’s relatively close to her home and because “mostly I just paint by myself.” She said she loves it here.

“The town is wonderful,” she said. “The scenery is beyond compare. The high Adirondacks are breathtaking. Last time I was here, I did five paintings; they’re all on my wall. The people here are so friendly.

“Any artist who takes part in this gets a lot more out of it than they put in. And we do work hard.”

Today is “Paint the VIC” day at the Plein Air Festival. Participants will set up and paint on the trails at the Paul Smith’s College VIC in Paul Smiths between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m., followed by a free reception from 5 to 7.

Saturday they’ll spread out for “Paint the Adirondacks” day, picking whatever scenic locations they wish.

Sunday they’ll show and try to sell paintings they did here at the Harrietstown Town Hall, 39 Main St., from noon to 4 p.m. Admission is free. More than $4,400 in awards will be given out, judged by New Brunswick artist Bruce Newman, plus a $100 People’s Choice award.

For more information, call the guild at 518-891-2615 or visit

Contact Peter Crowley at 518-891-2600 ext. 22 or