Amid the lunchtime bustle of Annapolis' waterfront, with toddlers scurrying about and tourists snapping photos of the historic plaques and statues, Mary Pritchard worked at her easel on the brick sidewalk.
"It kind of gives you a rush," the Chestertown artist said, capturing a boat's hull and dinghy in pastels. "You have to break loose."
Art lovers and the curious huddled around her. A young man photographed Pritchard as she rubbed the chalky colors against the paper.
In plein-air - a French phrase describing the act of creating art outdoors - was how she and about 30 others artists worked in oils, pastels and watercolors in and around the city's waterfront, taking advantage of its striking architecture and storybook scenery.
Culminating today with a reception at Maryland Hall for the Creative Arts, Paint Annapolis 2008 brought artists from around the region to the city, starting Thursday, for the seventh annual competition.
Each painter would have three days, during which they painted as much or as little as they liked from sunset to sundown, to create their works.
Painters must submit two works to be judged in the competition, with first-, second- and third-place winners to be selected this afternoon.
The grand prize winner will receive about $3,000.
Yes, winning is good, the artists agree, but selling the works is what everyone hopes for. That is why they scour the narrow streets along the city's downtown, wooden easels and canvas bags full of paints in hand, for the perfect spot - a place that inspires, and maybe more importantly, with natural sunlight that shines just so.
Paul Joseph Casale, an oil painter from Cranford, N.J., found his perch just off the sidewalk of a jagged street with the State House dome in full view, the salmon-colored storefront of a tea house his subject.
"Plein-air art makes a more painterly painting," Casale said. "It's more loose handling. Sometimes you'll do things you just can't replicate in the studio."
Friendly competition abounds, with artists urging spectators to seek out other painters they admire. They paint for just a few hours, abandoning one painting to seek out another subject. They would return to the cast-aside work another day, again in search of the right lighting. On the opening day of the competition, most of the painters said they hoped to have four or five works from which to choose.
"Plein-air painting is like an athletic event," said Lee A. Boynton, the creator of Paint Annapolis. "You've got to be fast, know your stuff and be ready to answer people's questions. The reason the impressionist paintings that hang in the National Gallery of Art look hurried, that's because they are. The public is kind of jazzed. Look how they improvised. It makes it much more exciting for the public to watch."
Indeed, many passers-by stopped to watch. Some pressed the artists for explanation. Others offered compliments.
Claudia L. Brooks dabbed her paintbrush into a swirl of creams and browns in oil, applying the details of a stretch of impressive homes along East Street in downtown Annapolis. The painting included both the American and Maryland flags affixed to the fire station across the street, a mix of reds and yellows and blues on her canvas.
A man walking by carrying a newspaper under his arm stopped and offered, "Very nice."
"It's just great fun," Brooks said, her smock streaked with paints in hues of rose and pink.
While part of the exhilaration of plein-air painting is being outdoors, amid the vagaries of nature, sometimes that same cause for excitement can get in the way.
Along Maryland Avenue, John Brandon Sills had begun to re-create the exterior of a home on a small canvas. But soon his work was cut short.
"I was doing great until a big plumbing truck parked in front of the house," Sills, of Cockeysville said. He planned to return the next day to finish.
Will Williams sketched the lines of a Prince George Street home, its blue clapboard exterior, red shutters and ragged white porch a seemingly American scene. He soon plunged into deep greens, capturing the trees flanking the street.
"As long as there's light in the sky, we're going to be painting," said Williams, of Towson.
He worked steadily, though the sun had not yet peaked.
He was waiting for the moment when "little shafts of light will hit the cars and the sidewalk," he said.