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By Gretchen Reynolds
Two years ago, Keith Wicks decided that he needed to expand his horizons. At the time, he was living and painting in Sonoma, CA, a fine location for a painter, especially one who does so much plein-air work. With its limpid light and rolling hills, Sonoma look like parts of Italy, Wicks says: “It’s a gorgeous, inspiring, wonderful place.”
But after more than 10 years living there, he was feeling vaguely restless, suspecting that, to further his art, he needed to spend time exploring different worlds, different lights, and different sensibilities. So he did what few artists before him have thought to do: He solicited investors, each of whom agreed to help fund a year-long, around-the-world painting expedition, an immersion in plein-air artistry so ambitious that even Wicks was a little overwhelmed. “It was a big project that kept getting bigger,” he says.
It was also, for him, eye-opening and energizing. “I could go anywhere, paint anything,” he says. He completed a large oil of Paris’ famed Notre Dame Cathedral, as seen from inside a restaurant across the street, which allowed him to experiment with shadows and twilight. He wandered through Europe and Asia photographing and sketching street scenes. He worked large and small. And in the end, he had 100 completed oils that not only repaid his investors (with considerable interest) but also reinvigorated his art. Today, back in Sonoma, the 49-year-old artist finds the days too short for all he wants to paint. He says his idea list for the subjects and places he hopes to capture on canvas is already too long for one lifetime. “And I keep adding to it constantly,” he says.
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Wicks was born into a large family in Northern California with no particular tradition of artistic talent but with considerable acceptance of it. Encouraged by his parents, Wicks was always sketching and painting as a child. One of these early efforts, hung at a furniture store in Bakersfield, sold when he was 11. “I was launched as an artist,” Wicks laughs.
There were, of course, hurdles along the way. Money, for one. “My family wasn’t wealthy,” Wicks says, so after leaving high school, he had to support himself. While still in his late teens, he turned to advertising, designing logos and painting the sides of race cars. He also had attended the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, but left after several years to concentrate on advertising work full time. With a partner, he opened an agency and soon had a raft of California celebrity clients. The agency was bustling and successful.
But Wicks wasn’t really happy. “I felt like the advertising work was taking me away from the creative side,” he says. “It wasn’t really what I wanted to be doing.” So he sold his stake, moved to the Bay Area, and began working in the multimedia entertainment industry. “It wasn’t quite fine art,” he says, “but it was closer.” The work involved designing storyboards, working on commercials, and completing projects for George Lucas’ Industrial Light & Magic. Meanwhile, he painted. “I did a series of teapots. I also did a series of waiters,” he recalls. “I was kind of tip-toeing toward my true subjects”—which would eventually involve elaborate recreations of street scenes with hovering waiters at outdoor tables, lambent light, and sometimes, somewhere in the background, a teapot.
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But first, he had to actually become a full-time painter. That required a final leap of faith. “I knew that if I remained in the Bay Area, I’d find it hard to disentangle myself from the entertainment industry,” he says. “The directors kept calling.”
By then, Wicks and his wife, like so many Californians before them, had felt the pull of Sonoma. They’d visited, loved it, thought it would be a fine place to raise their daughter, and by sheer good fortune, found a home in the early 1990s that was in their price range. So Wicks took a deep breath, told all the clamoring directors he was moving, and relocated his family to the wine country. He also reinvented himself as a full-time fine artist.
Today, a Keith Wicks oil is immediately recognizable, less for its subject matter than for its luminosity. “I want my paintings to glow,” Wicks says. “I want the colors to look lit from within.” Achieving this radiance has required years of experimentation and work. It has also required long hours in the field—sometimes in the wind, the beating sun, and the chilly hours just as the sun rises or sets.
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Wicks starts most of his paintings with plein-air sessions, though not all of his works are completed outside. “I like to work large sometimes,” he says, noting that you simply can’t finish a large painting outdoors before the light, and therefore the scene itself, changes. “I paint fast, but even I’m not fast enough to finish a 4-by-5-foot canvas in the field,” says Wicks. “The light is so transient. It changes moment by moment.”
And light is, after all, the foundation of his work. The street scenes for which he’s renowned aren’t so much about the people or the charismatically crumbling plaster on the wall of an old restaurant. The paintings are about the light as it moves through that scene, the light as it glints off that wall, the light as it illuminates the laughing diners. His work is a study in how the world glows.
“Everything I do is drenched with light,” Wicks says. “I’m not particularly concerned with the subjects themselves. I want a mood, a romanticism. I want the light itself to have texture.” In the process, he makes that street-side café or wandering alley or corner bakery appear to be the most enticing spot on earth. Such easy romanticism doesn’t come easily, of course. It requires sophisticated, formal technique. It also requires, for Wicks, a stringently limited palette. Beauty, for him, is about restraint.
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How can a painter achieve such beguiling, naturalistic effects with a palette of barely eight colors? “I use very transparent paint,” Wicks says, with an emphasis on yellows, ocher, raw sienna, titanium white, and sap green. He’ll use a spot of cadmium red in almost every painting, but few of his other paints are so vivid. “I can mix almost every color I need using just the eight colors on my palette,” he says. “I avoid charcoals, because I don’t want any muddiness. I want clarity.”
Wicks’ painting technique is loose, fast, “almost slap-dash,” he says, using the term proudly. “I have spent 15 years trying to loosen up from the tight, photorealistic work that I produced for advertising clients. I’ve had to teach myself to let my brush strokes flow.”
The result is a kind of impressionistic realism that owes less to pure verisimilitude than to mood, much like the work of John Singer Sargent and Johannes Vermeer, two of his inspirations. “I don’t try to paint things exactly as they are,” Wicks says. “I paint things as I want them to be. I paint them as I see them in my mind’s eye, with gentle nods to reality.”
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He might, then, during one of his regular scouting drives around Sonoma’s countryside, notice a particularly striking hillside tree, grab the plein-air painting equipment he always carries in his car, and settle himself and his easel before the tree to start painting. But the blue sky that actually exists in the scene? In his final painting, it might become an achingly expressive yellow ocher, lit with the rays of a twilight that hasn’t even begun. “My plein-air paintings tend to be a little closer to the exact scene than my studio paintings,” Wicks says. But even in his plein-air work, he says, he puts himself and his sensibilities into the scene. “Nothing I paint is an exact representation of what I see,” he says. “If I wanted to do that, I’d just take photos. My paintings are always, in the end, about mood, about a certain warm romanticism.”
These days, still bursting with inspiration from his around-the-world trip, Wicks paints virtually every day, for hours, in the studio next to his Sonoma home. In his few spare moments, he managed to organize the wildly successful Sonoma Plein Air Foundation and its annual festival and competition, which benefit arts education in the public schools of Sonoma. He’s also started a sister plein-air festival in Telluride, CO, and a new Napa Valley Art Festival. The administration of so many festivals can be “a bit tiring,” he says wistfully. “But I lead a life of such good fortune, I feel like I have to do something to give back.” And in the process he increases, at least a little, the world’s glow.
Featured in June 2008