Jill Stefani Wagner will tell you how the students teach the teachers and the teachers explore with the students in the drama-free, prima donna-averse atmosphere of the Plein Air Convention & Expo (PACE). It’s one of the reasons she loves being on the faculty there.
“I haven’t done too much teaching, because I am so jealous about my time,” says Wagner. Although she has a degree in painting, she owned an advertising agency for 25 years, and returned to painting just six years ago — and has already become a force on the plein air circuit. “I hadn’t painted for so long, I didn’t want to give up painting time to teach,” she says. “But as any teacher will tell you, you learn more from the students than they learn sometimes. For me, that’s in the form of reaffirming what I believe in. As I’m offering advice, I am reminding myself of what I need to keep in mind while painting.”
Additionally, anyone can learn from another artist. And at PACE, one is likely to gather pearls of wisdom from masters of their craft — as Wagner did last year, thanks to Albert Handell.
“Mr. Handell stood behind me for a long time and didn’t say one word, just looking at my work, and I said, ‘Tell me what to do,’” recalls Wagner. “He said, ‘May I?’ We were out in the desert and the colors were all golds and tans, and he picked up a bright psychedelic pink and he put a little stroke on my painting. And it made all the other colors snap. He picked up one pink pastel, made a mark, and it changed everything about the painting. Sometimes you get so wrapped up in all the colors you see that you forget how the colors work together and can make it sing.”
This is Wagner’s second year on the PACE faculty. Last year, she offered a pastel demo; this year, she’s concentrating on helping people in the field. She has a method for this. “I try to go in areas where I didn’t see other demonstrators so I would be available to the painters there,” says the Michigan artist. “I would ask them what they are trying to achieve as opposed to simply suggesting what I would do. I ask what their focal point is or what emotion they were trying to get across. There are 50 billion different ways to paint. I want to help them meet their goals. It’s not telling them what to do.”
Especially in the representational art world, artists are not cookie-cutter similar. They come from various backgrounds, and many plein air painters had a professional career before coming to paint. In each case, they bring something of their “former lives” to their art. Wagner talks about how her past in advertising shaped her. “I think advertising helped me in a lot of ways,” she says. “Just out of school, I wasn’t buttoned up yet, wasn’t professional yet. I learned to meet deadlines, to provide more than somebody asks for. The business part of the advertising world really helped me. And I’m not afraid to market myself because of my background. Some artists are shy about it or feel it is not proper for them. I don’t have that problem.
“But specific to plein air painting, advertising gave me the ability to make quick decisions. In that field, you have to be constantly creative, you have to come up with a bunch of ideas. Then you choose one and move forward. Decide, commit, and go forward, and don’t be afraid to make mistakes. In a brainstorming session at our agency, we’d come up with 60 ideas and 59 would get thrown away. You learn to not be precious, to not be a prima donna. And you learn to work hard.”
The painter, who paints in oil but is known for being a pastelist, recently was named a brand ambassador for Savoir Faire. “They sent me a whole set of pastels selected for seaside painting, so I completely redid my palette for this trip,” says Wagner. “I’m sure I’ll still want some different colors, but that’s how it goes with pastel. You can’t bring everything.”
Wagner can hardly wait for April 24, the first day of the convention. “It’s a real giving atmosphere,” she says. “Nobody’s full of themselves. Everyone knows that we can all learn something. I loved it last year; it was everything I dreamed of, and more. Some of the presenters were people I had looked up to for so long, so to be there and listen to them and get their tips was amazing. I was able to go back and forth and sneak from room to room. It’s heaven for plein air painters. You don’t have to ask what your sickness is because we’re all infected with the same affliction — wanting to be out there painting. It’s great. PACE gives you a burst of energy and new ideas right before the event season begins.”
Time is running out on the chance to join this experienced artist at the biggest gathering of plein air artists in the world. Wagner will be teaching at the Plein Air Convention & Expo, which will be held April 24-28 in San Diego, California. Have you seen the list of faculty members who will be instructing participants? It also includes Jeremy Lipking, Quang Ho, James Gurney, Charlie Hunter, and dozens more. The convention is almost filled. Go here to learn more and to register for PACE.