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What I learned at this years Plein Air Convention and Expo that will make YOU a better painter right away. #PACE24 #Drawing

Karen and I recently returned from the Plein Air Convention and Expo 2024 in the Great Smoky Mountains (, where we attended a week of intensive classroom training and four days of intense, fast painting in the Smokies with 1,000 of our best friends. We love going to the convention each year wherever it's held, but during this year's convention I was asking myself a lot of questions about where my art was going (if anywhere) and how I was going to inspire all of my painting friends to do better in the next year.

Two classes that I attended really hit me hard as I evaluated where my skillset is now and what I need to do to improve. Karen and I did a full-day workshop with Joe Paquet ( and my mind was blown, and I left feeling both inspired and somewhat dejected because I have been ignoring my greatest weakness in favor of what I already do well. My weakness is drawing. Mr. Paquet hammered into me throughout the day-long class that I needed to draw well to paint better and that I needed to prioritize drawing over everything else because it is the thing I do least well!

I am a self-proclaimed nerd. I have tons of art knowledge crammed into my puny little brain - color mixing, values, composition, form, color temperatures and approaches to style.

But what good is all of that art knowledge if I am applying that knowledge on top of a poorly done drawing or no drawing at all?

I knew Joe Paquet was correct. I had to do something about it.

I then stumbled into Kyle Buckland's class on a different day ( and didn't know what to expect. To be honest, I was only vaguely familiar with his work, but Karen assured me I was going to enjoy the class with him. So I went - and was inspired! What do you think he was hammering on during the class? Not specifically drawing, but certainly finding your greatest weaknesses and then rank ordering them and tackling your worst skill until it is no longer your worst, then switching to whatever your newest greatest weakness is.

It was sound advice and now from two artists?

Incidentally, I sat in his class and he has won me over. I love Kyle Buckland's work and he stopped by with me and Karen twice during the week to check our progress on our paintings out en plein air and was just such a friendly, inspiring coach. We appreciated him a lot.

Throughout the week I was paying attention to the drawings of every artist's class we attended. What did they ALL have in common? Their drawings were sound on their canvas before they ever applied paint to canvas. I rarely sketched on my canvas in the past. Growing up as a Bob Ross lover, I learned to paint without sketching. Oh, boy, was I ever limiting myself! I still love Bob and I think that is a great way to paint for fun, but if you want to make major gains in your artwork then draw! Do it now and you won't regret it!

I came back from PACE inspired to do better, and I immediately implemented what I learned at the convention. I learned how to use the grid system to draw on my painting surface. I chose an easy topic (an outhouse!) and immediately set to work.

This grid system is super simple to use. I'll make a video to show you how easy it is to use at some point, or you can attend one of Karen Saunders's Drawing Fundamentals classes whenever they are scheduled. See schedule at to see if classes are available. You can also schedule private lessons.

By the way, here's a shot of the finished painting.

I was hooked on drawing after I saw that my paintings instantly improved.

I live on Kent Island in the Chesapeake, so I am surrounded by boats. But I had never drawn a boat in my life, so I knew it was a drawing weakness.

So I drew a boat and painted it en plein air.

I haven't finished this painting yet, but I will. The red one is the one I am painting.

While my drawings are FAR from perfect, it has given me so much confidence in my paintings that I am tackling a ton of paintings simultaneously that I never would have even considered painting before, including this birdhouse that I adore down the street from my house.

You can still see the remnants of the grid in my drawing. This one was a fun challenge because the birdhouse was leaning heavily to the left and I wanted to capture that in the drawing. Look at the topmost roof and you can see how much it was leaning! I hope the birds didn't have any dishes sliding off their kitchen tables in there!

and this beach scene from Matapeake Beach on Kent Island, a beach just down the street a few miles from my house.

Here's the beginning about ten minutes in with just the drawing and underpainting in.

and the nearly finished version of it.

Certainly plein air paintings are more difficult to complete than a studio version where you have unlimited time, so plein air paintings like these are meant to inform the artist to come back to the studio and possibly paint a larger piece using the plein air version as a guide for color, light and composition.

But having good drawing skills, as I am attempting to develop here, certainly makes the paintings better whether en plein air or in the studio.

There is a second, equally practical reason why becoming a better drawer is important as a painter - getting paint to surface is so much faster if you take the time to learn to draw better. Your drawings go on faster and you can complete your paintings way quicker.

All too often when Karen and I are out painting together, she is nearly finished with her painting before I get my drawing completed (Karen is an excellent drawer), so she gets to the paint much faster than me.

I LOVE this painting from Karen. It's my favorite of hers from our trip. She captured the charm of Darnell Farms in Bryson City, North Carolina. The photo above the finished painting is Karen beginning this painting. I think at this point I was still getting my gear set up. That's how fast she is and how slow I am! :D

That's because Karen loves to draw and has taken the time to draw in a good composition before she paints. It has paid off for her.

Here's a quick video of her painting at the Charles Webb Overlook inside Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

Abraham Lincoln was famously quoted as saying that if you gave him six hours to chop down a tree, he would spend the first four hours sharpening the axe.

And that quote is my new philosophy on painting. The drawing time you spend before you paint makes the painting so much easier to complete. Sharpening your drawing axe will make your paintings faster and better in no time. I can't be in such a rush to "paint a pretty painting" when I really need to slow down and get the drawing in accurately first.

Karen spends the time sharpening her art axe. I am now a believer and am spending time sharpening mine!

Are you sharpening yours? Are are you languishing in your paintings with little to no improvement?

The solution for you, as it is for me, might be in getting the axe sharpened before you try to chop down that tree.

The quote from Lincoln will appear again and again on our blog and in our videos. It's a philosophy that can apply to anything in your life, and definitely so in your painting.

If Lincoln were painting, would he jump right in or would he learn the skills necessary to become good at it?

Don't hesitate on drawing. Don't tell yourself that you can't do it or that it is too difficult. Find a good teaching source and get to it! You will likely see good results within a week. You can do it!

It only takes a few minutes each day!

p.s. In future blogs I'll discuss some tools you can use to help you sketch quickly in the field. We discovered some helpful drawing aids that you can bring along with you outdoors. You'll love them. We'll test them out a bit more before we introduce you to them.


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