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Sonoma Plein Air – Raising Money for Art Education

by George Murphy on May 30, 2011

One of the things I love about photography is that through it I often get to meet interesting people and learn about cool things that I previously had little awareness of. This past week’s Sonoma Plein Air Festival in the wine country town of Sonoma, north of San Francisco, was one of those. Shooting for NBC Bay Area, I met the president and founder of Sonoma Plein Air, Keith Wicks; a professional artist and Sonoma resident.

Keith explained that the term plain air comes from the French phrase meaning “to paint in the open air.” This past week’s Plein Air Festival in Sonoma attracted artists for all over the country to participate in the six-day long event, creating original art around Sonoma to be auctioned off at the end of the week. While the artists get to keep sixty percent of the revenue their paintings bring in, the remaining forty percent of the money raised by the event goes directly toward help to fill the gaps in art education in Sonoma Valley schools caused by all of the budget cutbacks these schools have experienced due to the tight economy. Keith believes that artistic development needs to begin early in life and is committed to helping the children of Sonoma County have that opportunity. “Last year we gave way about $80,000 to the schools [of Sonoma Valley] and we’ll probably do the same again this year.”

We were at Sonoma Plein Air on Tuesday to cover a special feature of the festival: the “Quick Draw” event where artists were given two hours to create a finished painting of scenes around Sonoma Plaza and the afternoon farmer’s market. Our focus was Keith Wicks, himself, who who was creating a composition of the Sonoma landmark, the Sebatiani Theater, located on the east side of the plaza where it caught the rich, warm light of the late afternoon sun full on. When completed, Keith’s painting would be given away in a special drawing being held by the television network, NBC Bay Area, one of Sonoma Plein Air’s sponsors.

Keith explained, “In plein air painting you really have to paint very quickly. You have to make up your mind what your going to do and decide, because the light changes so quickly. Most paintings in plein air are painted in an hour-and-a-half to two hours. After two hours the light’s completely changed so your chasing the light. Your going to change the whole light of your painting if you continue on.”

With that in mind, Keith quickly began to block in his blank canvas with rudimentary shapes of muted color. It was amazing to watch Keith’s painting so quickly take on the form and tones of the scene before him; how simple shapes and strokes of color so readily began to suggest details, despite the abstract nature of the paint he was laying down. Keith was constantly stepping back from his canvas to see how the patterns and tones read from a distance, sometimes even painting with his arm outstretched to it’s full length. In the early stages, in particular, it seemed important not to get caught up in the details.

Eventually, Keith moved in to place more careful strokes of his brush. For these he even braced his brush hand against his other, meticulously applying just enough carefully placed lines of oil paint to let your eye connect the dots and fill in the implied details.

In the two hour span of the Quick Draw event, in addition to Keith Wicks’ work, forty other paintings had also rushed into being amidst the hub of music, food and crowds of the Sonoma farmer’s market. As we surveyed the line-up, I was stunned at their quality. Clearly this was a particularly talented group! Wicks explained that 300 artists applied this year, of which only forty-five were selected to participate–internationally known painters from all over the country. There was a very high level of artistry present on the Plaza that evening!

By the week’s end there would be 500 new pieces of art that hadn’t existed at the weeks start. Keith told us, “We’re bringing the best artists to Sonoma to create art of this surrounding area. So in the future, in the history books, not just Carmel and Laguna will be represented in Plein Air work; the best artists will have painted thousands of pieces of work of just Sonoma. If my legacy is anything it’ll be all these beautiful paintings that have been created of this area because of this event.”

Perhaps Keith’s legacy will also be the hundreds of children who will have an opportunity to pursue and develop their own artistic talents at an early enough age that they too can become master artists, able to share their own creative visions with the world. Now that is something.



• For more information about Sonoma Plein Air go to
• For more about Keith Wicks and his artwork go to
•  For more information about NBC Bay Area go to

This was an interesting event to cover, as I was shooting HD video, still photos and capturing audio as well. Since the primary need was for the HD video, I focused on capturing Keith Wicks progression through the painting with a staggered series of angles. At each update I would try to include a variety of wide, medium and close-up perspectives to allow the NBC editorial folks some cutting options. There was just enough time to shoot stills in between the video progressions, which was nice because I knew in the stills I would have more ability to reconcile the extreme contrast of the sunlit building and the shaded artist. On the other hand, for the video, I had to choose at any given point if I was exposing for the building (creating a silhouetted) or for Keith and his painting (with a blown out building). In contrast, the reverse angles of Keith, where the theater was acting as a really big soft light, were much more straight forward.

I opted not to use a flash for the stills so that the general exposure choices would be consistent with the video I was shooting. Besides, I really liked the silhouette effect of the building and had just enough sky light coming in to bring out the shadows in developing, if needed. The stills in this article were shot with a Canon EOS-1Ds Mark III and a Canon 24-70 mm ƒ2.8 L series lens. The ISO was set to 160 and exposures were varied to achieve different variations of the background and foreground. For this event I mostly shot in Manual mode with spot metering.


2 responses to “Sonoma Plein Air – Raising Money for Art Education”

  1. keith wicks says:

    thank you so much for the blog, and all the information about sonoma plein air and me. your photos are fabulous you really captured the light of the moment. the changing light and warmth of the photos give a accurate depiction of what the plein air artist is up against. I would love to link this to the SPA web site.

    is that possible?

  2. Great Post! Thanks

    Please check out my website sometime. We have a photography Blog Photography Blog

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