I don’t think I’ve ever witnessed 1000+ painters gathered together under one roof before. Certainly I’ve never been one of 1000+ painters gathered together under one roof before!
But that’s exactly where I recently found myself, when I attended a convention of painters.
Wait a minute…. A convention?
Yes, and not just any artists, but those quirky, wildly passionate painters who get their kicks venturing out in wind and rain and screaming temperatures to paint en plein air.
This particular community of outdoor painters has been convening annually for 7 years, to learn, inspire and commune with each other.
Now I don’t really consider myself a “convention type.” Nor am I really a “joiner” when it comes to clubs and associations and such, treasuring my solitude probably to a fault. But I do paint en plein air from time to time and when I heard that a plein air convention was going to take place right here in Santa Fe, I figured I’d be a fool not to go. So I choked down the hefty sum, as I reminded myself it’s a business expense, as I typed in my credit card number and muttered under my breath please let this be worthwhile.
The Plein Air Convention & Expo — or PACE18 as it’s commonly called — took place at Buffalo Thunder Resort, about 15 minutes north of Santa Fe. The gathering comprised four days of seminars, painting demos, with group “paint-out” sessions where scores of painters descended en masse to scenic locations in the area to paint together. The final day was a full day paint-out in Georgia O’Keeffe country, up at Ghost Ranch near Abiquiu, an hour northwest of Santa Fe.
Upon picking up my fat packet (which was contained in a pretty cool canvas messenger bag), I looked over the convention program and schedule of seminars and demos, and my temples began throbbing. Starting at 6:30 each of four mornings was a marketing seminar led by Eric Rhodes, CEO of Plein Air Magazine, Fine Art Connoisseur and the mastermind behind this whole event. I really kind of wanted to attend these.
Then, “Home Room” at 8:00 am, where all attendees gathered for updates, special presentations, and general good vibes.
8:30 and BAM!! The demos started, with four scheduled at a time in different rooms, with at least 16 per day. How to choose?! I knew none of these artists (shame on me, I’m just not very up on the movers and shakers of the contemporary plein air world….) So I based my choices on the demo descriptions, circled three to attend each day, and that first morning headed into a large dark room to watch some young woman named Kathleen Hudson paint a rocky coastal scene for her demo Light & Atmosphere in the Landscape.
Is it just that I haven’t really watched someone else paint in so long?
Or was it that Kathleen was so clear and articulate in explaining what she was doing and why?
That she painted with such alacrity and effortlessness?
That every color choice and paint mixture was perfect, every brushstroke a breath of vibrancy?
That she exuded utter and cheerful confidence?
That she didn’t seem at all to be pummeled by the negative speak that visits me during dang near every plein air painting session?
Nor did she ever wipe the whole thing out muttering “THAT’S THE WRONG COLOR!” “WHAT THE HELL IS THAT COLOR?! I HAVE NO IDEA WHAT THAT FRIGGIN COLOR IS!” “THIS SUCKS!”?
My hand cramped taking notes.
I was so inspired by her demo and her insights that all I wanted to do was run home and paint.
Doing so would mean blowing off the afternoon’s demos…. but ACK!! I didn’t want to clutter my head with yet more, potentially conflicting, information. My mind was spinning.
So I went home and painted, putting KH’s tips to the test — but only after hemorrhaging my life’s savings at the art supply expo.*
And the next day after attending the marketing seminar and home room and watching the first of three demos I intended to watch that day — Capturing Atmosphere by another dazzling artist whom I’d never heard of before — artist Dave Santillanes — and hemorrhaging more of my life’s savings at the art supply expo* — I promptly went home and painted.
And the third day, after attending the marketing seminar and home room and watching the first of three demos I intended to watch that day — Starting Off Right with Underpainting by yet another gifted painter whom I’d never heard of before — John MacDonald — and after hemorrhaging more of my life’s savings at the art supply expo* — I promptly went home and painted.
What’s really interesting to me is that all three of these artists emphasized the importance of paying attention to something that I get really lazy about. Something that I too often overlook.
They emphasized values.
Beginning a painting with values.
No, I’m not talking about the philosophical moralistic kinds of values.
I’m talking about the tonal relationships of lights and darks.
If you were to remove the color from a scene and look at it in black and white, noting the varying shades of grey: some are nearly black, some are nearly white, and then you have a whole slew of greys in between.
Each one of these artists starts with a a sketch (something else I get really lazy about and too often don’t bother with). But of course the point of the sketch is to figure out the composition of the painting — where the largest overall shapes are, where your eye leads you through the composition; what to leave in, what to leave out, what to emphasize, etc.
In their sketches, be they in a sketchbook or on the canvas itself, these artists are also — and most critically — working out the values, especially figuring out especially where the darkest darks and lightest lights are,
Their initial painting of the scene is only with grey, as they create a value study. Thin washes of paint, working with a paper towel as much as a brush, and a whole lot of Gamsol (solvent), all the while emphasizing that if you get the values right, and then translate those values into color, the painting will sing.
And of course as they were painting, they were spewing all kinds of painterly wisdom:
Vary your brush strokes/marks
Think of shapes and their relationships to other shapes.
Color diminishes as atmosphere and distance increases. Same with hard edges.
Tone down a color’s intensity by adding grey.
Contrast attracts the eye.
Wipe out lights; paint in shadows.
Remember lost edges.
Values! Values! Values!
All three of these artists paint in a very traditional, classic representational manner. And they do so brilliantly.
I don’t know that moving toward more closely honed realism is my ultimate goal for my landscapes, but I wouldn’t mind improving my ability to more accurately convey a sense of light.
What I realized watching these demos is that there’s so much I’ve been lazy about when it comes to painting, so much more I simply don’t know about the craft of painting. The realization that too often I’ve been “settling” rather than pursuing excellence.
The realization that I can be working a lot harder….
All in all, what would I call a gathering of 1000+ painters?
I’d call it HUMBLING.
I’d call it INSPIRING.
I’d call it HUMBLING.
I’d call it MOTIVATING.
I’d call it HUMBLING.
Mostly though I’d call it pretty WONDERFUL.
And all just in time for me to — one week later! — participate in my first ever plein air painting competition, the Santa Fe Plein Air Fiesta! TALK ABOUT STRESSFUL! In fact, I’m in the midst of that right now, as we speak!
More about that soon — assuming/hoping I survive the week!
* I’m pretty sure I just paid a year’s worth of tuition for Michael Harding‘s kid to go to college. Ditto for the founders’ kids of Gamblin Paints, Rembrandt Paints, Ampersand, Rosemary’s Brushes, Gitzo & Prolific Painter.
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Very Artfully Yours ~