Keith Wicks will be leading his plein air painting workshop June 5–7, 2023 in and around Carmel, CA. In order to get to know him better, we talked to him about his painting process.
Carmel Visual Arts (CVA)
So where would you like to take the upcoming class to paint during the workshop?
Keith Wicks (KW)
Since I do a lot of street paintings, I chose Monterey. I don’t want to go out and sit on Carmel Beach and paint — that’s for everybody else. But if people want to paint street scenes of Monterey and the restaurants and buildings and people, I think that’s fun. That’s easy and fun stuff to do and easy to lay out.
There are some really good places in Monterey and Carmel to do street scenes. This will be a lot of fun.
Yeah. And it’s different than a lot of what everybody else is usually doing in your other workshops.
When you’re working in plein air, what surface do you like to paint on?
When I travel, I usually take multimedia boards, which are the real thin ones. That way I can get a lot of paintings in, and I can get them back. And so I have these little sliding things that will hold regular quarter-inch size gatorboard panels. I usually work on a 16×20 in plein air when I’m traveling and teaching as well. The reason I do that while teaching is because it’s bigger, it’s easier for me to explain things, and easier for people to see. I’m not a real noodler in my paintings. So I tend to like to put in broader strokes and clean color. And so in order to get all that, I need to mix it on a bigger palette. I can’t mix on a little tiny box that’s 6×8 inches. It just doesn’t work for me. Then I’m working with brushes that are too small. When I normally paint in my studio, I have a big rolling glass table. I don’t know how you work, but that’s how I work. And I’ve always worked that way since I was in art school. So I have this big palette.
You’ve been such an advocate of outdoor painting festivals for a couple of decades. What are some of the most important aspects of painting on-site? What are some of the best reasons to paint outdoors?
Yeah, it’s been 25 years now. Probably the biggest reason to take your paints and move out of the studio and go out into nature to paint is that you see the color, and the light much more clearly. You get to study the atmosphere. You get to study the slight variations of temperature—shifting changes—because of light, and so you can mix those colors and apply them. That’s why it’s really good to be able to go out and take your plein air rig and go out and do quick sketches. I look for something that I want to paint that I think would be dynamic or something that attracts me in terms of color and atmosphere. It’s moody things. Like, if I go to the coast, I want to be maybe somewhere near the rocks or water spraying over, and it changes the color or something. And I want to try to capture very quickly, within say, 20 minutes—all the slight variations in value and colors that I see. I might pick ten different spots. And then when I’m done doing my little oil sketch, I like to take a photograph of the scene. And then when I go back into my studio, I can go visit what I just did actually is really close to what I saw—versus what a photograph is never going to get. The photo is going to be too high in contrast. The highlights can go white in your imagery or the shadows go black. When you paint it from life, you can get a softer — much more realistic painting which helps when you’re working back in the studio. It also forces you to make quick decisions—decisions that you might go back and forth when you’re looking at it, you make a decision, and you’re going to move with it because the light is going to change. And then if you send a direction and a pattern of light shadows, those have to stay the same, even though you’re there an hour and a half later, and now the shadows are all you can’t change them.
There’s a spontaneity when you first lay down your big strokes—blocking in what I consider the shadow shapes, the midtones, and then the highlights—when you lay all that in, it’s a very simple painting. That’s the fun part—to get it kind of laid in, and then it’s knowing when to stop.
Yeah stopping. That’s always the question. So let me ask you another question. Do you have a limited palette when you’re doing plein air versus maybe when you’re working in the studio?
Yes. I definitely have a different palette. When I’m painting outdoors, I always have a limited palette to paint with, even though I have hundreds of colors. I usually work with about eight colors as my base. When I go outside to do plein air painting, I need to make sure that I can come up with some blue skies that are more correct. For instance, when I go outside to paint, in addition to Ultramarine Blue, I’ve got to have a cerulean blue, or I need a cobalt blue. So, I have to add that to my palette. I can make greens, but I also have to make sure when I go outside that I have a cool yellow so that I can actually make cool colors because there’s so much green outside.
Also, I like Portland Gray (a Gamblin oil paint). I’ve been it using a lot lately to tint down the colors of things as a second white. When you need to add white to something, — depending on the color of it — I might use Portland Gray.
Also, I don’t generally use black, but what I use instead is alizarin crimson, sap green, and ultramarine blue together, to make warm black, or a cool black, a green. Any of those dye colors—those transparent colors—make beautiful blacks or dark colors.
In the workshop, before working on a large painting, do you recommend people do some smaller sketches first for design, or do you just go right at it and go for it at a bigger size?
Well, to be honest with you, when I’m teaching, I do ask everybody to bring a sketchbook and work out their design issues in the beginning. So choose what you want to paint, know what the image is going to be, then let’s work out some compositional issues about how to take that image and fit it to the size of your canvas—and that should be done with a pencil or a pen on paper. And then I start painting directly on my canvas.
If you are looking for a plein air painting workshop that will help you capture the beauty of the Monterey and Carmel, look no further than this exciting opportunity to join Keith Wicks for three days of outdoor painting June 5–7, 2023.
For registration info go to https://www.carmelvisualarts.com/keith-wicks/
After getting his degree at the ArtCenter College of Design in Pasadena, Keith Wicks embarked on a journey that led him to San Francisco upon graduation. He dedicated nearly a decade to teaching at the Academy of Art University and delving into the realm of multimedia. Alongside his classes, he took on freelance projects for advertising and production companies until fate brought him to Industrial Light & Magic, helmed by the visionary George Lucas.
While Wicks achieved considerable commercial success, his true passion has always been painting. Eventually, he decided to break free from the bustling city life to devote himself entirely to the canvas. In 1997, he made the pivotal move from San Francisco to Sonoma, where he has resided ever since.
In 2002, Wicks experienced a slight shift in focus with the establishment of the Sonoma Plein Air Foundation, a nonprofit organization aimed at preserving art education in Sonoma’s public schools and art institutions. The motivation behind its creation stemmed from his daughter’s limited access to art classes, which were only offered once a month when she was in the third grade. Now, after 21 years, the Foundation stands strong, having raised nearly two million dollars in support of art education.
Today, Wicks paints and teaches on location, showcasing his art across the globe. His pieces grace galleries, various publications, and prominent collections, cementing his artistic presence in the world.