Jim McVicker interview

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Jim McVicker is a brilliant painter, one of the elite plein air painters, very versatile, yet clearly focused regardless of the subject. He loves life, nature and the visual experience and successfully communicates those through his work. He thinks of art in broad terms and does not define it except as it pertains to him and his work. He sees art as a way of defining life and one’s experiences. “Technical understanding of the medium is important, yet I don’t believe that’s what makes art. Why is it some primitive art is so powerful, yet lacking in the technique that many contemporary realists admire and strive for? I have been blown away by the effect some primitive has had on me. I love work that expresses beauty, passion and an honest approach to painting what one loves.”

McVicker isn’t interested in merely reproducing nature, however, he does try to paint what he sees, sometimes pushing color and light where he thinks the painting needs it. That said, he also strives for something deeper, something that also honors nature. “Nature is the king. I bow down everytime, yet I’m never really able to capture the stunning beauty out there.”

As wonderful as his art is, amazingly he gives little thought to composition except in a very intuitive way…based on what feels right for the subject and canvas shape. “I have never much liked any ‘art rules’ for composition. I prefer something more natural and less perfect…the way I see life. Nature is so beautiful in its natural un-artful state. The human mind messes with things too much…as though we have a better idea than nature.”

McVicker was the Grand Prize ($15000) winner of the 2015 PleinAir Salon. His “Plein Air Self Portrait” shows his mastery of the figure, landscape, still life, and plein air painting.

His advice to those wanting to take up the sport: “Look at great work from the past and not just contemporary plein air painters, plus paint out on the landscape as much as you can. Work with painters better than you are, find an artist’s work you like, and if they offer a workshop, take it. Learn some fundamentals first, don’t show up at a workshop without any or very little experience working outdoors. Observe nature and paint what you see. All the information is there.”

It’s a pleasure sharing with you this special interview with Jim McVicker.

jm- portrait-r


Painting is how I experience life. The act of doing the work is what I find important, exciting and always challenging.


"Plein Air Self Portrait" - 18" x 14" - Oil  (Grand Prize winner, PleinAir Salon 2015)

“Plein Air Self Portrait” – 18″ x 14″ – Oil (Grand Prize winner, PleinAir Salon 2015)

20 Questions

Why are you an artist?   Painting gives direction, purpose, reason and meaning to my life. It has always been an avenue of truth and reality that I can wholly embrace. I see so much visual information that I find interesting, compelling, beautiful and paintable.

How did the decision come about to become a professional artist?   It really wasn’t a very hard decision. Within about three years of painting I knew it’s what I wanted and would do everyday. I’m not sure why, but I also knew I would survive and make a living at it.

How would you describe your work?   My work is my response to my life and all the visual information I encounter and am compelled to paint. I paint from life and direct observation in a straightforward manner as painters have for a long time. I strive to paint as I see, based on all my influences and my very strong belief in the power and truth in nature. That’s where I go to find my art. I think of my work as being painterly realism.

"Front and Dickerson" - 12" x 16" - Oil

“Front and Dickerson” – 12″ x 16″ – Oil

"Horse Mountain" - 30" x 40" - Oil

“Horse Mountain” – 30″ x 40″ – Oil


Who are your major artistic influences and why?   Early on it was Monet, Pissarro, Sisley and Van Gogh. They were the painters that I saw that caused me to fall in love with painting. I wanted to paint after looking at their works. From them I discovered a lot of 19th century works, which led me back to earlier art, particularly the 17th century Dutch and Spanish. I also moved forward from the impressionists  to early 20th century works on up to the abstract expressionists in this country. All of it had a great influence on my work and kept fueling my desire to paint and grow as a painter. In contemporary art, meeting and painting with George Van Hook, James B. Moore and Curtis Otto in 1979 had a huge impact on my work.

"June Twilight" - 30" x 48" - Oil

“June Twilight” – 30″ x 48″ – Oil


What are you looking for when deciding on a subject to paint?   I look for beautiful light, shapes, relationships, color and something that I feel within moving me to paint. It often hits one upside the head by it’s stunning beauty. That beauty can be as simple as how the light hits the side of a tree or building, or as grand as looking across a valley to a mountain.

You paint landscapes, figurative, seascapes, interiors, still life, harbors, small towns, carnivals, the four seasons, and all times during the day; is there any subject you haven’t yet tackled that is still begging to be painted?   I’m sure there is and I’m always interested in finding new subject matter. I would like to do more with the figure out in the landscape. I always like the human element outdoors. I would like to paint more in the mountains, but I will be happy to just continue to paint whatever is of the moment. When we bought our home in 1989 I didn’t leave our yard for three years. There was so much to paint, it was new to me and it felt very intimate. I still paint in our yard every year but I venture out to many other places.

"Self Portrait at 62" - 72" x 48" - Oil (Gold Medal - Best Painting, California Art Club 2015)

“Self Portrait at 62″ – 72″ x 48” – Oil (Gold Medal – Best Painting, California Art Club 2015)


Your paintings really capture a true sense of atmosphere, regardless of the subject; how do you so successfully achieve that?   The atmosphere and space around us, and trying to express that within the painting, has always been very important to me. I think I achieve that by really observing what is really going on and not using an idea of how I think a painting should be made, but really observing.  I also think the right values are a key to capturing the atmosphere.


My goals are simple each year…keep painting and sell enough work to keep our life moving forward. I would like to get invited and involved in more shows with the many peers out there doing great work. We live in a very rich time for those of us that love representational painting.


When painting on location, particularly when doing the carnival scenes, do you approach your work very methodically and calmly, or is there an internal anxiety that drives you to paint less methodically, more quickly, and with more emotion?   Definitely the carnival scenes have an internal anxiety. It takes me a lot to step onto the grounds, set up and start painting with all that human energy going on all around me. Once I get going I’m fine for the most part. I do paint very quickly but only after getting my drawing right on the canvas. It’s not detailed, but it has the design, shapes, and perspective reading right when I start adding paint. I also worked on those pieces two to three times on location. Way to much info for me to get a painting that works in one go, with a short amount of time, and the changing light.

"Carnival Food Court" - 16" x 20" - Oil

“Carnival Food Court” – 16″ x 20″ – Oil

"Flooded Field" - 20" x 30" - Oil

“Flooded Field” – 20″ x 30″ – Oil

"Coastal Fog" - 12" x 16" - Oil

“Coastal Fog” – 12″ x 16″ – Oil


What typically is in your plein air kit?   My plein air kit is either my french easel or my Day Tripper Easel by Joshua Been, a backpack with my paint, brushes, medium and mineral spirits, plus paper towels. I also have several panels of different sizes… and when working larger, stretched linen.

What colors are typically on your palette?   I use mostly Windsor Newton, Rembrandt and Gamblin paints…Titanium White, Cadmium Yellow Lemon, Cadmium Yellow or Cad Yellow Light, Naples Yellow, Yellow Ocher, Cadmium Red Light, Alizarin Crimson, Cerulean Blue, Cobalt Blue, Ultramarine Blue, Transparent Oxide Red, Kings Blue by Rembrandt Paints, and Cobalt Violet by Rembrandt paints. Inside, for my still life and portrait paintings, I use the same palette except I use Flake White. For a medium I use Walnut Oil Alkyd Medium, because of its lack of odor, and odorless mineral spirits such as Turpenoid or Gamsol.

Please explain your plein air painting process.   I start each painting using thin paint to draw the shapes and lay out the composition. Once that is established and feels right, I start with the darks and midtones, and then the lights. I cover the whole canvas with thin paint so that after about a half hour it is covered and I see the overall feel of the painting. If something doesn’t feel right I will change it. At that point I start using more paint, not thinned, and build upon the lay in. I don’t often work longer than a two to three hour period with the changing light. If it is a small painting, I may finish it or I will continue to bring it back to the location at the same time each day until it feels I have achieved what I was after. At that point I like to live with the work in the studio, and will make additional changes where I think the painting needs it.


A painting is completed when I no longer know what to do with it. The conversation seems to stop. I’m not always right, as sometimes weeks, months or even years later a painting will call out for more attention.


You seem to work very rapidly; what recommendations do you have for those struggling to increase their speed, yet maintain accuracy and quality?   I have always worked pretty quickly. I think it’s something in our nature but not something one needs to do. I think with all the plein air events etc., there is this pressure to produce work very quickly and make it good work. I paint a lot of work that way but I also will work many sittings on a landscape, still life, or portrait  in order to go another direction with the work. It is a whole different experience to spend days or weeks working in a location on a few paintings, and building upon those works each day. Two different experiences. With all that said I love painting a piece in one go, when it works it’s very exciting. I would say to those struggling with this…work small and do painting after painting until you reach the level of maintaining accuracy and quality.

"Fishing Boats" - 11" x 14" - Oil

“Fishing Boats” – 11″ x 14″ – Oil


Some of the subjects you paint are very complex and would seem to take considerable time to paint; is your process any different for these subjects?   The process is different when slowing down and working multiple sessions. When I’m painting one of the rugs in a still life for instance, it is a slow process of painting the patterns, folds and light on the surface; I usually do that by building up the painting with several layers until it feels right to me…trying to get a sense of it more than a detailed rendition. I will work with a painting until I feel it is complete. Sometimes that has been off and on for months or years. Not everything just flies off the brush and lands right where it needs to be. Again, I think too much importance is often put on quick ‘fresh’ paintings. There are many ways to create good work.

There is such an extreme difference between your carnival and still life subjects, one is obviously full of energy and excitement, the other is very calming and peaceful; is your mindset the same when approaching such diverse subject matter? I really do approach my still painting from a more calm and meditative process. Landscape painting has time constraints, still life and portrait painting has constant  light; plein air only has roughly a two hour block of time with the light shifting moment by moment, until it is very different than what I started with. That causes me to really center my focus and react and respond as quickly as possible. Sometimes I approach the still life in a more rapid manner, but for the most part I’m there to spend time with my subject. The flowers require more speed just because they wilt and change, so that is where I put my attention the first two or three days.

"Red Amaryllis and Cherry Blossoms" - 20" x 16" - Oil

“Red Amaryllis and Cherry Blossoms” – 20″ x 16″ – Oil

"Carnival Carousel" - 12" x 16" - Oil

“Carnival Carousel” – 12″ x 16″ – Oil

"Studio Still Life" - 40" x 30" - Oil

“Studio Still Life” – 40″ x 30″ – Oil


What does it mean to capture the essence of your subject, and how do you do that?   I think the essence is not so easy to achieve. For me, more than anything, I’m going for the overall effect of the subject, which I see as the design, and how everything relates and connects, plus the space and atmosphere of the landscape or studio. When the painting breathes, I feel I have reached the essence, or as Pissarro said, ‘the sensation’. I’m more interested in that than the ‘realistic’ depiction of the objects.

There are so many differing opinions as to what qualifies as a plein air painting; in your mind, what qualifies?   Any painting painted out in the open air, whether it takes 1 hour or 10 years.

What is the most common thing people say about your paintings?   The light, atmosphere and space.

You’re married to artist, Terry Oats; how has she influenced your work?   Terry and I have been together since 1984. After my earliest influences, she has had the greatest impact on my work. Her color sense and interpretive way of seeing has helped me to see beyond the obvious. Our conversations about art and the work we do, the work we like and what we look for in a painting, has helped me grow and evolve as an artist. She was the first painter that talked about relationships in a painting which caused me to become more aware of that aspect, which I think has made for stronger compositions and movement throughout my paintings. Terry also has been my number one supporter and has helped me with understanding a lot about marketing my work, believing in my work, knowing my worth, and facing the art market. I took me a long time to really throw my hat into the ring and get my work out there on a broader level.

"Main Beach, Laguna" - 24" x 40" - Oil   (Best in Show - 2016 - 18th Annual Laguna Beach Plein Air Invitational, Laguna Beach, CA

“Main Beach, Laguna” – 24″ x 40″ – Oil (Best in Show – 2016 – 18th Annual Laguna Beach Plein Air Invitational, Laguna Beach, CA


Other than selling paintings, what is the most difficult part about being a professional artist?   I have been painting full time since 1975 and love painting in a much deeper way than those first several years of wonder. Yet, I often question my ability to do this thing day in and day out, and do it well. So, I think the doubts might be the hardest part, and continuing the work when one does not really know where it’s going, what kind of purpose it serves others, and helping me make sense out of our rather confusing existence. Beauty and nature is very powerful, I’m very lucky to live a life of trying to touch it.

What does your typical day look like?   If I’m working in the studio I head out there between 8 and 9am and generally work 6 to 8 hours or more…longer in the summer, shorter in the winter. I only work with natural light so I don’t work at night. When painting the landscape I’m out shortly after sun up, take a break in mid day, and then paint several more hours in the afternoon. Depending on my energy, I will paint at sunset, but not as much as I used to.


Jim, Thank you for this inspiring and informative interview. Your talent is much appreciated.

To learn more about Jim McVicker and his work…



I am very pleased to announce the release of my first instructional DVD, Limited Palette Landscapes, professionally produced by Liliedahl Art Videos. The video contains over 15 hours of instruction and follows my painting process from selection of the canvas to the final brush stoke. For a detailed description of the video contents, including a short video…and order instructions…please click HERE. Thank you in advance for adding this DVD to your video library. Upon viewing, if you would kindly share your comments with me, I would greatly appreciate it. THANK YOU.


Next week’s blog: “The creative process: ‘Be Still My Soul'”

Be Still My Soul - 30 x 40 - w

John Pototschnik is an Art Renewal Center Associate Living Master
To view his art and bio, please click HERE



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