Learning How to Paint en Plein Air, Together

Picture this: A cool, burbling river running alongside a forested valley trail; or a golden, open field at the base of tree-covered mountains leading up to a perfect white-cloud sky. Which would you choose to paint? This was the choice our attendees had at Day 2 of the Plein Air Convention this week.

Joining the hundreds of us there was also a fly fisherman (perfect for adding a figure to the landscape), roaming chickens, and even majestic elk at the Oconaluftee Visitor Center of the Great Smoky Mountains in Cherokee, North Carolina.

Many painters found a cozy place to set up along the bank to paint, including our "Plein Air Basics" group
Many painters found a cozy place to set up along the bank to paint, including our “Basics of Plein Air” group
Other painters lined up along the edge of the open spaces of the park.
Other painters lined up along the edge of the park’s open spaces.
Smoky Mountains elk
We were lucky enough to be on-site when several elk came out toward the end of the paint-out. NPS.gov reports that elk are the second largest deer species in the world and the third heaviest mammal in the United States. Look in the center of the field to see the elk – we kept our distance!

Studio painter and PACE first-timer Debi Timko walked the grounds and watched as everyone painted so she could get a feel for how to paint en plein air. “I’m learning how to get equipped at this point,” she said, adding that earlier in the day she took helpful painting workshops from Kathie Odom and Jacob Aguiar. “I’m really glad I signed up,” she added. “It’s just been a wonderful event.”

Painters also lined up along the Visitors Center; one of the benefits of painting en plein air together is seeing the wide variety of artistic choices everyone makes.
Painters also lined up along the Visitors Center; one of the benefits of painting en plein air together is seeing the wide variety of artistic choices everyone makes.

“I’m overwhelmed with the love and acceptance that we have here,” said PACE first-timer and faculty member Michelle Held. “Everyone is so kind and everyone is so passionate about painting. It’s nice to see a lot of artists who speak my same language.” She added that her favorite part so far has been shopping in the Expo Hall, aka Candy Store, and taking the hours-long pre-convention workshop with Joe Paquet.

Plein Air Convention expo hall
The Expo Hall is filled wall-to-wall with art suppliers and manufacturers here to answer questions about which product is right for each person.
Our faculty members are also available for guidance during the paint-outs.
Our faculty members are also available for guidance during the paint-outs. Here, Fen Rascoe helps a fellow artist.

Earlier in the Day at the Plein Air Convention …

PACE prize wheel
Day Two began with a Homeroom session that included the popular prize wheel.

We started the day with five stages of painting demos, featuring the likes of Kenn Backhaus, who received our Lifetime Achievement Award on Monday, Stephen Quiller, Suzie Baker, Zufar Bikbov, and many more. Here’s a recap of the incredible sessions you may have missed:

Kenn Backhaus says good work habits start at the very beginning stages of selecting and composing the scene, understanding the light effects, and defining the color harmony. With a good, orderly working process, these elements come easily.

“I could tell there was about 50 years between us,” said student artist Adam Hansen, who served in the U.S. Navy and is here on a PACE scholarship. “[Kenn’s demo] was masterful. Just hearing him talk about the Russian painters and the importance of grays and different types of lighting … it was just coming out of him from literally decades of being in the field and looking at light.”

Kenn Backhaus - Plein Air Convention
When he’s almost finished with a painting, Kenn puts it into a frame to judge how it will affect the presentation of the painting and to help him see what may need further development.

In a presentation led by Molly Schmid, we celebrated Richard Schmid’s legacy, remembering the wisdom he imparted and the spirit of creativity, curiosity, and reverence for the natural world he embodied. Through his art, he touched the hearts and minds of countless individuals, leaving a legacy that will continue to inspire and enrich the world for generations to come.

Warning: The Next Paragraph Contains a ‘Four-Letter’ Word

Let’s face it, green can be a scary color when it comes to painting. Using only one true green tube of paint (viridian), along with blues, yellows, and other colors, it’s possible to create an almost infinite number of greens that are found in the natural world. In his demo, Richard Oversmith showed how he mixes and layers different varieties of green, which he jokingly referred to as a “four-letter word.” Richard also included color temperature and how it relates to the illusion of sunlight using the alla prima technique.

Richard Oversmith - Plein Air Convention
Richard Oversmith used a cropped reference photo from the Biltmore Estate, which is where our group will paint together on Friday this week.

We brought our lunch and our art marketing questions to a “Lunch & Learn” marketing session with Eric Rhoads for his popular Art Marketing Boot Camp® session, which featured an audience Q&A. Eric said to understand your goals, one question to ask yourself is: Do you want to be rich, famous, or happy?

In Jill Carver’s oil painting demonstration, she illustrated how, by first focusing on intention/concept, and then exploring variations within shape, value, and color, you can create stronger, more personal paintings. Jill showed us how design extends beyond division and placement, and, by encouraging exploration of the “what ifs,” she helped us expand our creative design vocabulary.

A scene from the PACE art gallery, where artists display their work (open to the public).
A scene from the PACE art gallery, where artists display their work (open to the public).

And here are highlights from the four additional stages at PACE:

With years of easel miles, Lyn Diefenbach showed us how she constructs a painting from a fairly ordinary photo by using methods she developed en plein air. She talked tactics for composition and the importance of values, edges, and color relationships, as well as translating the energy seen in the subject into a painterly rhythm.

Jacob Aguiar took us through his process for painting atmosphere and distant mountains. Beginning with a local color underpainting, he discussed color choices to achieve particular atmospheric effects, and finished with specific mark-making approaches.

From “Inspirational Lessons and Motifs from Nature” with Bill Cone
From “Inspirational Lessons and Motifs from Nature” with Bill Cone

Bill Cone led an inspirational session where he described the basic elements of light in nature that intrigue him and how they manifest themselves in his work.

We are often confronted by so much information when we are learning to paint that it can be confusing and intimidating, says Ober-Rae Starr Livingstone. He explained that fewer large shapes create more impact in a painting than more, smaller shapes. The play of warm colors in combination with cool colors creates atmosphere and depth. We can create dynamic paintings when we use shapes and temperatures to interpret what we are looking at in its simplest form.

Iain Stewart’s reliance on the sketchbook as his primary means of plein air painting allows him to lighten his load and take a bit of stress out of the “need” to create something worthy of his day’s outing. Iain taught the value of using a sketchbook to capture memories of places.

Jerry Smith demonstrated a bold approach to using acrylics on paper to create expressive water media landscapes. He discussed various aspects of the process including idea development, sketching, composition, painting procedure, and working in a series.

Stephen Quiller demonstrated with transparent watercolor, providing information that can be used for any medium, including acrylic and oil. He showed us many different ways to create neutrals and semi-neutrals, then selected the neutral that best fit the harmonious color family choices for his demo composition.

From “Let’s Get Undressed” with Kathie Odom
From “Let’s Get Undressed” with Kathie Odom

We joined Kathie Odom to see that there is a visualization that must first take place before picking up a brush. We learned how she looks beyond the top layer and surface of her subject matter, and learned the importance of underpainting.

Mary Garrish taught a lesson on how to develop a harmonious and close-valued nocturne, and learned about the different palettes that can be useful for these wonderful paintings.

In very simple steps, Efren Gonzalez explained how to transfer any image out in the field or from a photograph to your canvas in record time: Measuring subjects from big to small, filling in from dark to light, from dry to wet, and from loud to quiet. He says this is a method designed to help any artist accomplish quick, effective, practical, and spontaneous paintings.

The temperature of light can be the key to a thousand joys and mysteries in a painting, says Gavin Glakas. Warm direct sunlight, cool indirect ambient light from the sky, the golden hour, twilight, electric lights at night, sunrise — everything can affect the process and the mood of a painting. In his demo, Gavin Glakas showed us the hallmarks of warm and cool light and how they exist in relation to one another.

From “Source to Studio” with Suzie Baker
From “Source to Studio” with Suzie Baker

Let’s face it: We can’t (or don’t want to) always be on location for a painting. Suzie Baker shared plein air and camera techniques, along with a demo from a Smoky Mountains location, to illustrate how to get the most out of your studio time.

A moment from Ulrich Gleiter's demo
A moment from Ulrich Gleiter’s demo

The first thing we notice in a painting is the mood in the sky, says Ulrich Gleiter, who led a “Shadows in a City Scene” demo. Whether it’s a cold winter day or under the scorching sun, we feel the weather and the time of day. Painting is comparing, and that means we have to determine value, color, and edges.

We joined artist extraordinaire Lon Brauer as he showed us the simplicity of finding shapes to describe the world around us. His method of drawing the shapes and filling them in with paint gives new and exciting ways to approach plein air in what he calls “Expressive Realism.”

Painting at night doesn’t have to be tricky. In his “Moonlit Coastal Landscape” demonstration, Zufar Bikbov guided us through the entire process of creating a stunning coastal nocturne. This includes: preparing for a night landscape painting, specific layering techniques, and creating the ethereal glow around the moon and its reflection.

In addition to all of the amazing painting demonstrations and sessions above, Christine Lashley and Lon Brauer critiqued paintings submitted by attendees, Cheap Joe’s Art Stuff led a special demo, the art show and sale continued to fill up with available (and sold!) works, and the Plein Air Convention expo hall buzzed with shoppers getting special discounts on their art supplies. The vendors even lead in-booth demos throughout the week.

We wish you were here! Stay tuned for when we announce the location for next year’s PACE, and reserve your spot ASAP: PleinAirConvention.com.

See more highlights from the Plein Air Convention here at OutdoorPainter.com.


  1. Looking for someone to paint (watercolor) with in Maine in September. Instruction or just companionship. Beginning/ intermediate… fairly new to plein air… Shore or mountains


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here