Although she was attracted to drawing and painting as a very young girl, plein air artist Karen Leoni chose other educational and career paths.

Born in Chicago, she has also lived in Florida, where she completed high school and headed off to college in Atlanta. After completing a biology degree, she spent a number of years working in the information technology field doing technical sales. She credits a job change, which brought her to San Francisco, as making the difference in her becoming a full-time professional artist in her 40s.

“Without California, I may not have found it,” says Leoni of discovering art as her real passion.

“I came here because of a job, but I started taking art classes, and then decided to do the full four-year program at the Academy of Art in San Francisco. It wasn’t until I got a solid art education, with an understanding of fundamentals, that I began to enjoy the process, and I knew I had found home.”

After completing her degree, Leoni continued private study with Huihan Liu, a Chinese Oil Master whom she considers an important mentor. She opened her own studio and taught privately. She also taught at the Academy. Landscapes, seascapes, and still lifes have dominated her output, and animals and figures often grace her paintings, done in oils or pastels. “My style is somewhere in between photo-realism and impressionism. I tend to shift between tighter and looser representations of my subject, depending on what I’m painting. When I become interested in a subject, I spend considerable time exploring it, maybe I even overdo it a bit. For example, I’ve been painting flowers, and I try to capture the details and character of each … but after I gain familiarity with the subject, I may paint it again, but in a looser style.”

As a full-time artist, the pandemic didn’t change her habit of getting outdoors to paint four or five times per week. 

“I live in Walnut Creek and can walk to many beautiful and diverse gardens. I’ve also taken numerous trips to Monterey and Carmel to paint and photograph the seascape. I usually paint on location and might make a small study. This allows me to capture more details of the subject, color, and light.” Then she finishes the work or paints the same subject on a larger canvas in the studio. Leoni also finds a number of Benicia buildings along First Street as good subjects for her painting. “There are some beautiful gardens in Benicia as well.”

Karen Leoni painting outdoors
Rose painting by Karen Leoni

Leoni’s landscapes and flowers will be a part of her featured show at the Benicia Plein Air Gallery for the month of August. She joined the Gallery in January of 2020, only to see it close in March because of the pandemic. Upon re-opening later that summer, the gallery saw little foot traffic for a number of months. Leoni was previously a member of the Lyonshead Gallery in Carmel for many years until that location closed. “Especially this past year, I’ve learned the importance of keeping my website current and promoting my work through social media. I have collectors that I met in Carmel who have looked me up online after that gallery closed and have continued to follow my work.”

Leoni calls Benicia “a marvelous town” that attracts friendly, down-to-earth people.

Those she sees on her frequent walks never fail to say hello. In addition to painting, she enjoys photography and hiking. Her many painting recognitions include numerous Boldbrush Competition selections and awards from the Laguna Plein Air Association, North Valley Art League, Monterey Bay Plein Air Painters Association, the Stockton Art League, and other organizations. A reception for Leoni will be held at the Benicia Plein Air Gallery at 307 First Street on August 14, from 4:00 to 6:00 pm. Gallery hours are Friday through Sunday, from 12:00 to 6:00 pm. Learn more about Karen Leoni and the gallery at and