Back in the late 80s and early 90s my husband and I became familiar with plein air painting. This is due in most part from our love of the artist Kevin Macpherson, who is one of the preeminent artists working in plein air today. But also to an art magazine we subscribed to at that time, Plein Air Magazine, published by Eric Rhoads at Streamline Publishing. We enjoyed it for a few years and then one day a different magazine showed up in our mail box with a letter saying due to lack of interest Plein Air Magazine would no longer be published. Even though we were not actively painting plein air at the time, we were so disappointed. We found the magazine to be very inspirational!
Fast forward a few years, Eric started publishing the magazine again and it is one of the top selling art magazines in the country. Plein air is not just a genre of painting anymore it is a movement. Compare the number of plein air artists painting today and the number of plein air events worldwide, to those in the 80s and early 90s and the difference is astronomical.
My foray into plein air painting started by urban sketching. (That’s a whole other movement worthy of a different article.) The portability of having a small bag, with a sketchbook, a small watercolor kit, and one brush was all I needed. The drive to start doing it was our move to Hong Kong back in the mid 2000s. I wanted to record in sketch form my surroundings, and my travels to document my experiences and the cultures around me.
A few years later, both my husband and I are plein air painters, he primarily in oils and me in watercolor. We both sketch in watercolor too. Once the popularity of this plein air thing caught on, Eric Rhoads started organizing Plein Air Conventions. After years of wanting to, and it not working out for one reason or another, we finally attended one this year in San Francisco. They are in a different location every year.
Being a board member of the Florida Watercolor Society and organizing the FWS Annual Exhibition, Convention and Trade Show for 600-700 people for a few years, I thought I knew what to expect. The Plein Air Convention was similar to what we do, but on steroids! You could go non-stop if you chose to. There were many wonderful and insightful activities to take part in each day.
My Convention started on Wednesday with a workshop with watercolor artist Joseph Zbukvic. While we didn’t get to actually paint in the workshop, it was inspiring and informative to watch Joseph explain his techniques and watch him paint. There were also Basic’s Courses and a workshop offered by oil painter Joseph McGurl prior to the Convention.
The Convention officially kicked off Wednesday afternoon, Day 1, with an Opening Ceremony given by Eric Rhoads, the Plein Air Salon winner was announced for the year, Life Time Achievement Awards given, a painting demo and a Cocktail Party capped the evening.
Thursday the next full day of the Convention, Day 2, started with Eric’s Art Marketing Boot Camp for the early birds. They did get the worm. If you are a professional artist trying to sell or make a living from your work, the three days of this were worth the price of convention. Everyday after Boot Camp Eric kicks the day off with Home Room. This was brilliant, not only does he give away prizes, including top dollar ones, he informs you of what’s going on that day with pertinent things you need to know. Then you are off on your own to explore hourly demonstrations, in watercolor, oil and pastel given by professional artists from all over the country. If that weren’t enough his team has scouted out the best plein air spots for afternoon painting sessions. Attendees either pre-paid for bus transportation, car pooled, or used Lyft or Uber to get to the paining locations.
Thursday, we went to Crissy Field where I chose to paint the Golden Gate Bridge. The few days prior to convention when my husband and I arrived in San Francisco we had been in this area for gorgeous weather and full sun. Ironically when the Convention started, the weather took a turn and we were painting, in cold, wind whipping foggy, overcast weather. I persevered and got enough information on the paper, with some notes to finish later. The struggle I had working in watercolor was my washes were not drying so that I could continue, because it was so damp and cold! While you are painting there are faculty members easily identified wondering around which you could solicit for feedback if you liked. Arriving back to the hotel after the painting session, you could still stay busy attending more demos or evening critiques until 10:00 pm.
Day 3 was pretty much a repeat of Day 2, brand new demos and presentations and a painting session in the afternoon. At all times during convention there is a huge Trade Show with vendors selling the latest and greatest in art materials, and of course those that have wares and services pertaining exclusively to plein air painting. On the way to the Trade Show, were easels that attendees could rent to display their work as well as an area, where the Plein Air Convention faculty artists could display their work too. The painting session that afternoon took us to Golden Gate Park, where we chose to paint the Conservatory of Flowers. The weather again a cold, wind whipping, sunny when we first got there, but turned overcast kind of day. After the painting session, there are more activities in the evening, demos and critiques until 10:00 pm. I went to an organized National Watercolor Society Meet and Greet, where it was great to see old friends and finally meet some social media friends in person!
Day 4, the last day of festivities at the hotel, with more demonstrations and presentations was capped off with a Closing Ceremony and your last chance to buy things at the Trade Show before heading out to paint in the afternoon. I liked that the schedules were interspersed with demos as well as thought provoking presentations. Jean Stern, the Executive Director of the Irvine Museum Collection, gave one on “Historic Artists of Northern California.” Another, “Plein Air and the Movie Industry,” was a panel discussion with artists from Pixar and DreamWorks. Many of the presentations Eric recorded for the Plein Air Podcast are available to listen to here.
We didn’t have much luck weather wise the last afternoon’s painting session was just like the previous two. We were troopers though and gave it our best shot. It was still wonderful spending time at the scenic locations in San Francisco. Instead of evening sessions on Saturday, everyone had a chance to blow some stink off at a dance party.
Day 5, Sunday, gave everyone the opportunity to paint all day! Our last painting location was at Viansa Winery one hour north of the city in Sonoma. Lady luck was with us that day, the weather was gorgeous!
There were so many takeaways from my 5 days at the Convention! Would I do it again? In a heartbeat! I liked that there were demonstration sessions in a variety of mediums giving artists that paint in more than one, like myself, a variety. I met artists that inspire me in person, and by attending two demos using gouache, I am anxious to add that to my repertoire. If it sounds like a lot, everything is optional, you don’t have to do it all and I didn’t. Most importantly one of the biggest take-aways was making connections with those that have the same passion and learning and sharing experiences. At the Convention I met an artist I feel will be a life long friend from New Zealand. Yes, she traveled the farthest to get there! I also made personal connections with Facebook and Instagram friends.
If you are on the fence about attending a Plein Air Convention, I highly encourage you to go at least once. There are those that attend that have never done it before. What better place to try it for the first time? You would not believe some of the stories shared. One unique cirmustance this year involved a woman who was reunited with her son who had been taken away from her when he was young. He had been doing Google searches for her and finally found her her as an attendee of the Convention! He came they were reunited after years apart. It has been life changing for many and it may be for you too!