Standing at her easel on the bridge over the Patapsco River at the base of Ellicott City's historic Main Street, Sam Alger was pleased with the visual elements of the scene she'd staked out earlier in the summer.
Arched stone B&O Railroad overpass? Check. Dappled water with lazy interplay of light and shadow? Check. Cool shade on her back? Not so much. She hadn't anticipated the relentless rays of sunshine when she picked a spot to paint, but two out of three wasn't too bad.
As she brought the landscape to life in oil paint last Sunday morning, the Longfellow Elementary School art teacher said jokingly that at least she wouldn't have to worry about turning in a still-wet entry to "Paint It! Ellicott City," since the harsh and uninterrupted sunlight would dry the canvas quickly.
The contest that had set a weekend of creative energy into motion for Alger and 28 other juried artists was the first "en plein air" event to be held in Howard County. The phrase is French for "in the open air" and describes a popular style of competition in which artists gather to paint outdoors.
An exhibit of all 81 paintings that were adjudicated Monday will continue through Oct. 15 at the Howard County Arts Council's gallery in Ellicott City. The event was co-sponsored by Howard County Tourism and Promotion.
The intense heat that accompanied a cloudless sky proved an issue for some of the artists, who arrived earlier in the day to begin painting and returned later than they had planned to pick up where they left off.
One of the two top winners took advantage of cooler temperatures and captured the judges' admiration besides with his nocturnal oil painting titled "Fernand's," which is a reference to Chez Fernand, a restaurant that had operated in the same location as Tersiguel's.
Mark Coates, fine-arts coordinator for the county public school system, created his depiction of the 19th-century home that houses the restaurant after dark in an atypical 90-minute burst of inspiration, he said at the artist's reception Monday.
"You don't have visual information [at night], so details are muted and vast areas of a scene are completely simplified," Coates said after accepting his award from the judges, who spoke of the van Gogh-like quality of his painting.
The other top prize winner was David Diaz, an Annapolis resident and professional artist who submitted five entries and was singled out for his body of work. Diaz, who worked in oil on panel, was also cited for the beautiful light quality in one entry titled, "Court Ave."
Back on Main Street, artists were tucked into the many nooks and crannies scattered around town.
The changing angle of the sun over the course of the morning on Sunday succeeded in nudging Debra Moffitt toward a wall in an alley. A line of demarcation between shady and sizzling slipped ever closer as she painted the many structural planes that intersect behind Tea on the Tiber.
"I was attracted by the architectural angles and that umbrella on the patio," said the Catonsville painter as she pointed to a bright cherry-red canvas umbrella that stood out amid the muted colors of the stone, brick and siding walls like a rose growing between the cracks of a sidewalk.
"I go with what I see, though some people are really into color," she said, adding that she works from what is known as a limited palette.
Steve Stannard, an architectural illustrator with a Main Street studio, took an all-gain, no-pain approach to the competition by not only choosing a shady spot but sitting down to work besides.
As he began painting Howard House, a five-story stone apartment building dating to 1850, he said he often throws open his studio doors to let people view the 50 or so paintings he has hanging there.
"When the lights are on, you can stop in anytime," said Stannard, who had also completed two other paintings during the two-day competition.
In fact, most of the artists entered two paintings and some completed as many as six, said Coleen West, the council's executive director. Five paintings were sold at Monday's reception, she noted, even though the council's quarters don't normally function as a commercial gallery.
A Rockville couple, who had driven up Sunday from the Washington area specifically to watch the plein air artists at work, stopped to chat with Judith Estrin as she finished up, her husband Alex at her side.
"It's wonderful to see all the artists out here, plying their craft," said Laura Rodin, who walked along with Don Rubin. "It's inspiring to see people following a dream."
Estrin, who painted in the nonjuried community division of the event, chose her spot in front of Taylor's Antique Mall at Old Columbia Pike for its interesting view, but just as equally for its constant shade.
The 36-year Columbia resident and retired medical writer used acrylics to paint the landscape surrounding the steeple of Emory United Methodist Church, which rises above Main Street off Church Road.
"The light is always changing; you're painting a shadow and then it's gone," she said.
Before announcing their choices Monday night, judges Rebecca Weber, artist and owner of Still Life Gallery, and Michael Bare, plein air artist and Baltimore County art teacher, told the gathering of about 80 artists and onlookers that they actually agreed on the winners.
"I first thought there'd be one painting that would jump out at me," said Bare, joking that he'd "divide the prize money among all of you if I could, but then you'd only each get $11.14."
Weber said they admired the artists for taking risks and for creating art with strong composition and color that also said something about Ellicott City.
"It's community-building," she said simply.
West said she was very impressed with the quality and range of the work and pointed out that the paintings are also for sale.
"Most of them are in the $200 to $300 range, which makes them really affordable," she said. "These works of art aren't intended to sit in the artists' closets, but are meant to go back out into the community."
If you go
The exhibit of juried artwork from "Paint It! Ellicott City" will continue at the Howard County Arts Council, 8510 High Ridge Road in Ellicott City, through Oct. 15. Gallery hours are 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Monday through Friday, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday, and noon to 4 p.m. Sunday. All entries are for sale. Information: 410-313-2787.
Winners of "Paint It! Ellicott City"
Top prize: Mark Coates, David Diaz
Honorable mentions: Jaye Ayres, Rita Curtis, Eberhard Froehlich, William David Simmons.
Blossoms of Hope Awards for Best Depiction of Nature: Janice Kirsh, Hiu Lai Chong.
Directors' Choice (nonjuried artists): Maria Marino, Bill Wilson