A Big Surprise at the Plein Air Convention in San Diego

A few weeks before the start of this year’s Plein Air Convention in San Diego, I received a cryptic phone call at 6pm on a Friday. The caller was PleinAir Magazine’s editor Steve Doherty. He suggested that I try to make it to San Diego since I was one of the finalists in their annual Salon competition. (The previous month, judge Erik Koeppel had given a nod to two of my paintings in the final bimonthly competition, making them eligible for the annual competition, too.) I remember doing some quick math as I wondered whether Steve was calling all of the finalists who hadn’t yet registered to attend the convention...or if I'd possibly won an award of some sort.

I went ahead and booked a flight thanks to a Frontier Airlines sale, thinking I didn’t have anything to lose by going—and plenty to gain even if I did go home empty-handed after the Salon awards. I’d wanted to experience the convention since I’d attended my first regional plein air festival in 2014. With around a thousand attendees and faculty, the Plein Air Convention is the largest gathering of plein air and landscape painters in the world.

It didn’t disappoint! I arrived a day early and painted at Pacific Beach and La Jolla Cove. The latter was particularly fun thanks to the presence of sea lions barking on the rocks right below my easel. I took a pause from painting to video call my two-year-old son, who was transfixed by the scene.

  La Jolla Cove  (2017) Oil on linen panel, 9 x 12 in.  plein air

La Jolla Cove (2017) Oil on linen panel, 9 x 12 in. plein air

The real shock came at the opening night of the convention on Monday, which culminated in Eric Rhoads reading off the annual Salon award winners. I was sitting next to Melanie Thompson, a brilliant painter from eastern Washington, as she was called up for her award. As Eric progressed through the 3rd Place and 2nd place announcements, I remember thinking, “Ah well—I’m glad I didn’t get my hopes up too much!”

  Bright Morning, Timberline Falls  (2016) Oil on linen panel, 18 x 14 in.  plein air

Bright Morning, Timberline Falls (2016) Oil on linen panel, 18 x 14 in. plein air

All told, I was in genuine shock a second later when an image of Bright Morning, Timberline Falls flickered onto the screen as the Grand Prize winner. (Melanie had to bump me to get me moving towards the stage.) I don’t believe there are words to adequately describe how moving it was to look out at the crowd—a sea of immensely devoted fellow artists—and see them applauding my work. Just know the moment was surreal enough that I left the stage without the awards package and then had to jog back for it.

 With Eric Rhoads and the requisite "big check"

With Eric Rhoads and the requisite "big check"

I was on cloud nine for the remainder of the week, but not just because of the Salon prize. I got to watch several lectures and demonstrations each day by artists whose work I’ve followed for years. Jill Carver, Quang Ho, James Gurney, Roos Schuring, and Jeremy Lipking all spoke or demonstrated on the main stage—and I’m glad I took extensive notes during their presentations since I’ll revisit them often.

 Jill Carver controls values in light/shadow areas by drawing a line on her palette.

Jill Carver controls values in light/shadow areas by drawing a line on her palette.

In terms of immediate application, Mike Hernandez’s demo was among my favorites since he emphasized using warm shadows rather than cooling shadows as artists are wont to do. (Guilty as charged!) He also showed how he doesn’t overmix his colors, which means his brushstrokes feature colors that are marbleized and vivid.

 Mike Hernandez demo

Mike Hernandez demo

Those two things (warm shadows and marbleized brushstrokes) really stuck in my head as we all headed out to Point Loma on the last day to paint at Cabrillo National Monument. Here’s my painting of the tide pools there:

  Morning, Point Loma  (2017), Oil on linen panel, 11 x 14 in.  plein air

Morning, Point Loma (2017), Oil on linen panel, 11 x 14 in. plein air

This painting—one of my favorite plein air paintings I’ve done—sold right away to my roommate at the convention, a fellow painter from North Carolina. It marked a great end to an unforgettable week.

 Painting at Point Loma (Photo: fellow artist Jack Dant)

Painting at Point Loma (Photo: fellow artist Jack Dant)