The Art Life: Plein Air With Jim McVicker

Jim McVicker doing a painting demo in the garden of the Carson Mansion, home of the Ingomar Club. He’s painting the area on the left with the hedge, a pot of petunias and a white statue.

As part of  my regular routine I post to my blog on Fridays. I missed last Friday and for a very good reason….I was attending a local plein air painting workshop with nationally-known local artist Jim McVicker. I’ve known Jim for years and we own two small pieces of his work, but I’d never been able to learn from him before and this was a great chance right near home.

One thing I was very interested in was his start. He’s really a “pure” painter, having started with a brush in hand. I started out as a kid  who loved to draw and didn’t take up painting in oil until 1995.

I photographed two of his demos, one from the first day at a beach that borders Trinidad Bay adjacent to the small fishing town of Trinidad, about fifteen minutes from our place, and the second in Eureka at the garden of the Ingomar Club which is located in the Carson Mansion, known as the “most photographed Victorian in the country”.

I’ll start with Trinidad. It was an overcast day, but the sun did come out in the afternoon.

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Ok, so this kind of blew me away….Jim’s first marks on the canvas. And they show the difference between someone who takes a painter’s approach and someone like me who starts their indication in line to define shapes.


When he laid in that large area of dark for the base of the rock, my brain kind of freaked out…”OMG that’s SO DARK!” It was a LOT darker than the actual rock, even allowing for knowing that one brings lights in over darks as a general approach in oil painting. This is why it’s so valuable to get to see how other painters work and see.

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I want to thank the gull for adding a bit of additional interest…

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Jim talked about working all over the canvas, not going from object to object, an approach that I heartily agree with and practice myself.

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Adding tones to the water and last color notes in various spots.

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Final touches.

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The finished painting of fishing boats in the harbor.

And then the sun came out, of course.

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Yesterday, at the Ingomar Club in Eureka, it was overcast from the smoke of forest fires that are burning in southern Oregon, but there was still distinct light and shadow.

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This start really shows the abstract underpinning that the painting will be built on.

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Working all over the canvas.

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Laying in the dark of the hedge.

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Adding the background trees. He actually did very little with them after this first step.

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All the areas blocked in now. He can choose how far to go on any particular part or just leave it as is.

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Notice that he is painting shapes, color, values and edges, not objects. There is no need to paint the individual petunia flowers in the pot on the right.

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Bringing up the value of the grass, which is in sun light. It’s a warmer tone than what’s underneath, but still fairly cool. The hydrangas on the center left are pretty much as he first laid them in with the addition of some foliage around the flower shapes.

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The finished painting.

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Detail of the right side. I mentioned to him afterwards that I would have skipped putting in the background buildings, but that I know he also does cityscapes. I’m not personally that interested in man-made things as subjects so it was interesting for me to see his different choice.


Detail of the central tree. Oh, those “sky holes” . Necessary, but tricky to pull off. They require a solid knowledge of how tree trunks, branches and foliage are related. Random spots of sky color won’t do it. Jim also pointed out that sky holes need to be a little darker in value than the rest of the sky or they’ll stand out too much. It’s the little things…

So what did I do during the workshop? Well, the Trinidad painting was a bust. I had thought the sun would come out so set it up for that, but as the time went by and that didn’t happen, I switched to adding the fog drifting past the huge rock next to the dock which was my subject (and that of many other local artists). I was also using a canvas panel that became part of the problem. Talked with Jim about it and he said that if the panel surface is wrong and is not working it becomes a real battle. That’s what happened to me and the panel won. Won’t say what the brand was because all the matters is that it didn’t work for me.

Yesterday was much better. Nice light, a panel that I knew would work and a fun subject.

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There were big free-standing beds of roses and dahlias, a gazebo, the statue and other features, but my eye was caught by the intense red cana lilies next to a pot of deep cool pink dahlias and the warm foliage greens against the cool green fence.

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Jim likes to often use Rembrandt Transparent oxide red for a tone to knock back the white of the panel. I use it sometimes, but generally prefer Winsor-Newton raw sienna for the tone and my initial lay-in. You can see that I also do a rough lay-in with a brush.

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My finished first pass. I debated about when to put in the red cannas and opted to do it early on to keep the color as pure and saturated as possible and then paint the foliage around them.

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The finished piece, a 10×8″.


Some of the other participants in the beautiful garden.

Finally our painting time was over and we had a critique session. The man from the club was kind enough to offer beer and wine to any who were interested. Also, you can see from the warm light on the pavement the effect of the smoke from the Oregon wildfires.


Jim was very positive about my painting, which I greatly appreciated. He pointed out two things that were spot on. One was that I’d added a lot of white to the earth tone I used for the dirt and that had given it a chalky look. Also that the grass was too dark in value for the light and sun that were on it, also quite correct.

So this morning I put the painting back on the easel in my studio and made those corrections, plus a few other little things that bugged me.

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Now the ground is in tune with the rest of the piece.

I want to thank Claudia Lima, who put together the workshop and did a great job! And, of course, Jim McVicker. Thanks, Jim!

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