*Special Note: The Plein Air Convention is not a sponsor. Just a great event that I’m happy to share my experience from!
The Plein Air Convention in San Francisco was quite an adventure. The demos were fantastic and the new relationships I formed made it even better!
Before I tell you about the painting demos and products I saw at the Plein Air Convention, let me share some of my journey getting there.
Packing, AirBART, and Getting Lost
Packing for a week-long painting trip is complicated and my large suitcase quickly exceeded the 50 lb. weight limit. I had to do some fancy rearranging with my carry on and my leather bag to get everything to fit. That ended up cutting into my sleep and I got to the airport with 2 ½ hours of shuteye.
After flying into the Oakland airport I caught the AirBART train shuttle with my 110 lbs of luggage in tow. I hadn’t been to San Francisco before, so it was a bit tricky figuring out how to get to my hotel while pushing my bags around.
Juggling my phone and pushing my luggage wasn’t working, so I took a quick glance at Google maps and saw that my hotel was only a few blocks walking distance. I thought, “no problem, I can walk that far.”
Unfortunately, I forgot that San Francisco is infamous for hills. . . and I got lost.
Hey, Google Maps is NOT easy to navigate in walking mode. It ended up taking me about an hour to get from the shuttle station to my hotel, which again was only supposed to be a couple of blocks worth of walking.
You’re probably wondering, “why didn’t you just catch a taxi or something?”
For one thing, I love being outside where I can experience so many wonderful sights and sounds. For another, I’m cheap – at least when I’m on my own!
But mostly it’s because I kept thinking “I’m almost there, just one more gigantic hill.”
If you make it out to San Francisco I’d recommend an Uber or taxi, unless you just really want to get your step counter higher (I wasn’t wearing a smartwatch though, so I can’t say how many steps I got)!
The Plein Air Convention Agenda
Fortunately, I got there a day early so I didn’t miss any important events at the convention.
I did take some time before I left to research all the featured artists and set up my agenda. I learned from the previous conventions that there isn’t time between demos to figure out where to go next. The painting demos leave maybe 5-10 minutes to get a seat at the next one.
Plus, they have several artists scheduled at the same time, so you want to know ahead of time which artist’s work matches something you’re working toward. For instance, maybe you’ve been struggling with water reflections and one of the presenting artists is a whiz at reflections. The convention would be weeks long if we went to every individual demo.
The artists are all top-notch so it’s a tough decision. I take consolation in knowing I can at least catch some of them when the videos come out a few months later.
I’m constantly striving to grow my own understanding and skills, especially since Master Oil Painting has grown to include tens of thousands of artists.
The Artists’ Demos & Lectures
A couple of years ago Kathleen won the $15,000 Plein Air Salon award and she’s been on fire ever since. I purchased her training DVD because I love the way she paints soft atmospheric light in her landscapes.
Hers was the first demo I watched – kind of. Her demo began at the same time the expo hall opened and I had to grab a Masterworks frame right away for one of my paintings in the art show (the frames tend to sell out quickly).
I was bummed to miss much of Kathleen’s demo and didn’t have a chance to take notes.
Although, I did get a flyer about the light she uses above her easel. She says that you can compensate for poor light when outdoors or in the studio with an ArtEscape battery operated attachment. It looks like a pretty handy tool that I might be trying out in the near future.
Joe gave the keynote presentation titled Finding an Authentic Voice.
- “Paint it like it feels, not how it looks.”
- “Most art doesn’t connect with us because it wasn’t created with love – the artist loving what they were doing at the moment of the art’s creation.”
- “Authenticity is organic. It comes through as we let time teach us.”
- Joe doesn’t use any photos – everything is painted from life – usually over several sessions on location.
- “It may sound strange or possibly even precious to some of you, but at this point in my life the idea of simply ‘making pictures’ does little for me. The pull of my life now guides me (whether I like it or not) to the conclusion that painting without some deep connection is simply a waste of my time. What is it about a particular place that calls us back again and again?”
Joseph is considered one of the best watercolor artists in the world. His demo was spellbinding to watch, and even though I’m an oil painter I was able to walk away having learned from him.
- “One of the biggest mistakes artists make – professional and student alike – is not listening to the painting. They become so locked into the image itself they ignore what the painting wants.”
- “There was an American, a Russian and an Irish painter talking about their future plans. The American boasted he would be the first to paint on the moon. The Russian stated she would be the first to paint on Mars. The Irishman said, “I will be the first to paint on the Sun”. The other two laughed – “you’ll burn up!” The Irishman smiled and winked – “don’t be silly, I’ll do it at night”.
- Joseph paints every day out on location or plein air. He’s not against using photos, but he loves to be outdoors and has painted from life almost daily for decades.
Title from her workshop – What to do When the Workshop is Over: Becoming Your Own Instructor
Kathleen is an excellent teacher as well as a fantastic painter (the two don’t always mix). She used a painting she previously started during a plein air trip to teach us how to critique our own work and refine it in the studio.
- “Keep a critique notebook.” Kathleen keeps detailed notes about each of her paintings to help her recognize the weaknesses and strengths in each painting and become a master at critiquing her own work. She writes down anything that bothers her before she attempts to finish the painting when she’s back in the studio.
- Watch out for critiques from other artists – don’t paint the way they would paint it. Make sure their critiques are about principles of art, not about their preferences.
- Create focal paths, not focal points. Focal points are targeted to one spot while focal paths lead the viewer through the painting.
- Before you paint an animal, draw it from multiple views. You have to know the character of the animal to paint it convincingly and to know when the camera is capturing an uncharacteristic pose.
- She paints on Wind River Arts’ AC 14 – acrylic primed linen.
Title from his workshop – Simplify the City
I’ve watched and admired Brian’s paintings for years. I was excited to see him take a complicated city scene and show us how he eliminates unnecessary details.
- “The most important perspective line is the eye-level line.”
- He left the breaking up of large masses of smaller distant buildings for last – working trees, roads and cars around them first to help him know how much detail the buildings would need to in the end.
- He uses a larger 6 or 8 size flat bristle brush for most of the painting.
- He used horizontal strokes of warm bright tones to break up the large middle masses of buildings – using lots of variety in color and value, to give the illusion of lots of buildings – without adding too many small details.
- Perspective is an important element to secure a convincing painting.
- Squint and learn to see big shapes and patterns, not small confusing architectural details.
Mike uses gouache for most of his plein air paintings. I don’t paint with gouache.
You might be wondering, “Then Bill, why did you watch his demo?”
Because he is a master at creating the type of lighting in his paintings that tugs at our hearts when we watch movies. Animators and film producers are crazy good at designing every shot in a film to draw us in and keep us hooked (have you seen How to Train Your Dragon?).
Mike is a brilliantly articulate instructor. Besides being a director with DreamWorks, he has been teaching classes at the famed ArtCenter in Pasadena for years. Consequently, I took a lot of notes during his demo.
- Stage the lighting in our paintings to increase the impact on the viewer. Give the viewer something worth looking at using dramatic light and shadow effects.
- We have about 45 minutes of painting fresh before we get too much color memory. When we’re painting on location or in the studio we need to paint quickly and capture our impressions or stop painting on the same piece after about an hour.
- Learning how to apply oil paint beautifully can be a big roadblock for new artists. It takes a lot of time to learn to do it well. Gouache can bridge the gap between watercolor and oil – giving artists the opportunity to paint quickly like watercolor while capturing opaque texture and light like oil painting.
- It’s tough to translate the freshness of small quick paintings into larger studio pieces because one brushstroke in a small painting can create a whole shape.
- Our memories function on hierarchies – in stages 1, 2 and 3. We simplify because it actually gives the viewer more info since that is how we see and remember in real life.
- Pay attention to how much life is lost through photos. For instance – if we go to the Grand Canyon, we are overwhelmed by the immensity of it all. When we take a photo of it and show it to our friends it loses the impact we felt while we were there. That’s why we need to paint outdoors – to give our memories the feeling of the scene that photos lose.
- He only uses warmer colors to paint with on location. No ultramarine blue is on his palette. He uses spectrum violet, permanent white, permanent green, burnt umber, cobalt turquoise light blue, linden green, spectrum yellow, flame red, olive green, yellow ochre and burnt sienna.
- He undermixes and marbleizes his colors on the palette for texture.
- Incorrect values and design are usually the root of problems in student work – not the color they think isn’t working.
- He tends not to be procedural – he is more of an intuitive painter.
Title from his workshop – Gouache and Field Creativity
Yeah, I realize he is another artist using gouache (opaque watercolor). His studio paintings are done primarily with oil, but he likes the versatility of gouache when painting plein air.
I love his textural studio paintings and dramatic designs.
Larry turned out to be another incredible instructor who knows how to describe why he is doing something. Many painters will tell students ‘what’ they are doing – “I’m now adding a bit of orange to that tree” – but few artists are skilled at telling ‘why’ they are adding orange to the tree.
He is also the Robin Williams of the art world. Meaning, he is extremely quick-witted and kept us all laughing so much we thought they would make us pay extra.
- Doesn’t use a center of interest – works with hierarchy within his designs to guide the viewer and keep their interest.
- If you fall in love with the process, you’ll have fun every time. If you paint for the outcome, you’ll be constantly disappointed.
- He likes to paint like he’s reading a book – he lets the painting unfold its full story as he goes.
- He said he keeps in mind what his grandmother often told him as a young boy – “stop touching it!” Don’t get carried away and overwork your painting.
- He covered what he calls the Components of Voice or what makes up the intent or individuality of the artist. I can’t go into detail, but here’s a pic of the major ideas.
Title from his workshop – Pastel and Watercolor Demonstration
Albert has been one of my favorite artists for many years. His use of color, texture, and shape are what draws me to his paintings. I wrote about him quite a bit in the blog post (click to read) about the Santa Fe Plein Air Convention last year so I will jump right into the tips he shared.
- Squint to see the whole shape – don’t look into the shape to see values.
- Work dark to light and cool to warm.
- Choose one direction and medium and then work it to death. Experiment, but do it within that one direction.
- Mauve creates beautiful effects when placed next to or over browns and greens.
- 298P is a marvelous green from Nupastel.
- He often starts with a watercolor underpainting and then works pastel on top.
Title from his workshop – Alla Seconda: Indirect Painting Techniques for Extended Plein Air Projects
I saw a blog post a few years ago about Marc creating a painting over multiple outdoor sessions and became an instant fan of his paintings. I also found it interesting that he never uses photos as references for his paintings.
During his demo, he taught us a lot about how he uses multiple outdoor sessions and glazes to increase the textural and atmospheric effects in his plein air work.
- There are some effects from glazing that are impossible to achieve using paint straight from the tube.
- For cool distant hills, he glazes with ultramarine blue and white and sometimes ochre. Then he will glaze with alizarin crimson to add a touch of warmth.
- For a darker shadow glaze, he uses ultramarine blue and cadmium red medium.
- Let the painting dry thoroughly before glazing. If you glaze to soon while the first layer is still drying the glaze layer may crack.
- He talked about painting into and out of an effect and how they require different approaches. For instance, painting into an effect would be a sunset – do the drawing first and then add color because the effect of the sunset lasts longer. Painting out of an effect would be a sunrise – the colors change quickly so paint the colors first and then go for details.
Title from his workshop – Analyzing and Painting Water
Bill has been a film designer for Pixar Animation Studios since 1993.
I first saw one of his pastels about 10 years ago and was immediately impressed with the texture and light in his work. What I didn’t know at that time was that he was heavily involved with Pixar. Attending his session was a no-brainer when I saw that he was doing a demo at the convention.
Bill’s humor caught me off guard, and I was so quickly drawn into watching how he applied the pastels that I forgot to take notes.
I did take some pictures of his demo though. Look at the variety of colors and marks he used to create reflections and rocks under water. He said that the ability to do this came from painting on location from life for 20 years.
I also got a photo of his pastels to show the great variety of colors he uses.
During high school, I used pastels extensively and I believe pastels helped me learn advanced color theory. With pastels, we place one distinct color next to another and immediately see the effect those colors have on one another.
Title from his workshop – The Unlimiting Limited Palette
John is such a wonderful person, artist, and teacher. He wrote an incredible book, Limited Palette Unlimited Color, with an accompanying video with Streamline Publishing that is one of the great modern feats of art instruction. It teaches color harmony using a limited palette and how to get a wide range of color and light effects using only 3-4 colors.
You can learn more about John, his journey, and his painting style in last year’s wildly popular Blank Canvas Interview: https://www.masteroilpainting.com/john-pototschnik/
During his session, he gave a fantastic lecture about his limited palette and how he has used it to create award-winning paintings for more than 30 years.
- It’s not a system – it’s a way of looking at color and making those colors harmonious in our paintings.
- Color supports the value structure – not the other way around.
- Understanding our own color biases will help us mix colors correctly
- A limited palette speeds up learning. It forces intermixing of our palette colors and naturally creates harmony in our paintings.
- Color relationships are more vital than matching colors that we see perfectly when painting plein air.
- A limited palette encourages experimentation with the color wheel.
- Apply the principles taught in the book and you will see immediate improvement in your paintings.
Title from his workshop – Transforming the Plein Air Sketch
Joseph McGurl is one of the most admired landscape painters in the world. I love the effect of light he achieves and his use of color and contrast. His work is phenomenal.
He begins with the sight-size method of painting outdoors so he can capture exactly what he sees – exact colors and values. Then he uses those plein air works to guide him in creating larger studio paintings – but he uses his imagination to take them beyond his plein air approach.
His paintings look super detailed, but when you get up close there’s an incredible amount of textural paint application and thick brushstrokes.
He never uses photos – he paints strictly from life and imagination.
- Use tongue depressor craft sticks to while plein air painting to color match what you see in the landscape. Mix the color you see, brush it onto the end of the stick and see if it blends into the same color in the landscape. That will help us learn to match colors.
- He doesn’t use photos because he wants to feel transported – as if his painting is real – like he felt as a kid going to museums.
- As long as the weather isn’t too cold he uses an acrylic under wash to get the overall values and shapes established using the sight-size grid.
- He doesn’t want to make a painting out on location – he is getting the colors and values as accurately as he can. Design is unimportant on location. He designs the painting once he is working on larger pieces in his studio.
- Rocks are hard and heavy so he emphasizes the angular nature of the edges and shapes. If we make them softer they look light and fuzzy, not natural.
- Paint things you love, not what you think will make a good painting.
- He paints the ocean horizon line with a softer edge to emphasize the roundness of the Earth.
- He uses sand and glass beads to create texture in his paintings.
There were several standout panel discussions that covered topics ranging from plein air painting and its influence on the movie industry to the future of plein air painting (museum directors like Jean Stern and others believe it will continue to grow rapidly in popularity among collectors and artists for another 50 years).
An especially fun panel had a group of artists who took a train trip together and painted on location as they went – a trip of more than 2,700 miles. Charlie Hunter, Aimee Erickson, Randy Sexton, Larry Moore, Jason Sacran and Shelby Keefe rode the Endangered Southwest Chief train route and painted on location at several stops on their way to the Plein Air Convention.
They cleverly called their session En Train Air: When Painters Ride the Rails.
There were two critique sessions during the Plein Air Convention in which attendees could request input on their paintings.
This was awesome for me to watch because for the past three years we have offered LIVE critique sessions for Master Oil Painting Members every single month. Those sessions are recorded as well, so Members get to access years worth of critiques anytime they want.
I love to see other professional artists critique students’ paintings – I never know when I might pick up some insights that will help our students as well.
Painting on Location
Of course, the best part of the trip was painting outdoors with hundreds of other artists! They hired buses to take us to each location and back since most of us were without cars (parking was upwards of $70 a day in the downtown area).
San Francisco is much colder than I prepared for, so I did a lot of jumping jacks and running in place in-between paint strokes, but it was still a glorious experience.
We painted at Crissy Field looking out towards the Golden Gate Bridge. I painted just to the right of the bridge because I had about an hour and knew I couldn’t do the bridge justice in that short time. I concentrated on catching the overall colors and atmosphere of the cold, windy, cloudy day.
Painting at Golden Gate Park was much nicer for me – I found a fun spot near some trees that kept the air around me warmer and blocked most of the wind. I had about an hour and a half so I did a larger 12×16 painting and had fun with bravura brushstrokes and movement in the painting.
The final painting day was at the beautiful Lands End and Legion of Honor Park. It was cold again because we were right on the coastline.
Large rocks in the water combined with the atmosphere were amazing. I hiked with my 40 lb. pack for a while until I found a spot where I could clearly see a particularly interesting group of large rocks just off the shore.
Once again, with about an hour to paint, I concentrated on capturing the colors, values, and atmosphere as close as I could. I knew I could work on the details back at my studio as long as I got the elements correct while on location.
Quite a few of the elements from that plein air study have been used in a seascape painting I’m currently working on.
If you’re active on our Facebook page you probably saw me talk about this painting in a recent FB LIVE video:
The ending was just as fun as the rest of the conference. Artists are simply good-hearted people, usually, and love to be around each other.
The dance floor was packed the whole time, and everyone got into the hippie theme!
It was an exhausting and exhilarating experience and I loved every minute!
Something that made the trip especially memorable was winning a Heilman all-in-one Artbox. It’s a master crafted work of art itself. I will share more about it and John Heilman’s other ingenious painting products in an upcoming blog post.
Learn to Paint Your Own Masterpiece – no cost
At Master Oil Painting we know how passionate artists are about growing and improving their craft, which is why we create and sell the world’s best art training and lessons. To help even more artists accelerate their growth we’ve taken a selection of our paid training and created a completely FREE art training library for everyone to enjoy!
Visit our free art training library here: https://www.masteroilpainting.com/free-art-training/