For the Love of Solitude and Beauty: Artist Karl Kanner’s Plein Air World

By Noma Faingold

Karl Kanner enjoys nothing more than the freedom of plein air painting in Golden Gate Park or another natural setting near his Inner Sunset District home. He loves the feel of the elements. The sensation of the brush stroking the canvas. The re-creation of something in the moment and seeing his progress as an artist upon completing each oil painting. 

It is bliss until admiring eyes encroach.

While most unknown artists would be flattered, Kanner, 33, lives with social anxiety disorder, so he would rather not have a conversation, even if it results in selling his work. 


Artist Karl Kanner takes a break from painting to enjoy a sunny day. Courtesy photo.

“People come up to me while I’m painting and want to buy what I’m painting. It’s nerve-racking,” he said. “But the more I’m out, the less scary it is.

“Usually the paintings are not close to done and they’re wet,” he added. “I had to make business cards.”

Growing up in Kennebunkport, Maine, Kanner spent a lot of time alone drawing. When he was really young, he was consumed with coloring books. While he wasn’t diagnosed with social anxiety until high school, after his family had moved to Chappaqua, New York, he remembers all the symptoms were present as early as age 5, especially when he was around people or had to perform in any capacity.

He played violin, and he not-so-fondly remembers what doing a solo at a recital was like. 

“The amount of fear I would feel was really disproportionately extreme to the circumstance. I would get a lot of physical symptoms I had zero control over, like sweaty hands and dry mouth,” Kanner said. “The biggest problem is my mind goes blank. I wouldn’t be able to recall what I had for lunch. It feels like stepping up to a cliff. Pure terror.”

oil5 (Rooftops)

Artwork by Karl Kanner.

Kanner later told his mother that the times he performed at recitals were among the “worst days of my life.”

Getting called on in class was not much better. 

“It was the last thing I wanted,” he said.

He cultivated his visual arts talent in elementary and junior high schools. Teachers, peers and his parents were supportive. His mother took him to art museums. That kind of attention didn’t bother Kanner.

The academic-oriented high school he attended, however, had a very limited art department, so Kanner didn’t apply to art school. He went to Virginia Tech his first year and then transferred to Savannah College of Art and Design, where he earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in Illustration. 

Kanner took a risk in deciding to move to San Francisco in 2011 right after college because he “was blown away by the Redwoods” from a previous visit. He only knew two people and did not have a job lined up. He was dreading being interviewed, but he applied everywhere, including at a car wash. 

He was staying at a hostel in the Tenderloin. 

“It was a bit of a shock because I had never lived in a big city,” he said. “It was a little scary living in the Tenderloin.”

oil38 (China Beach)

Artwork by Karl Kanner.

Kanner got a job lead from a friend to join a temporary worker pool at UCSF, which led to landing a full-time position, a neurological clerkship in the Education and Administration Department on the Parnassus Campus. He has worked there for nearly seven years. For the last several months, he has been working from home due to San Francisco’s COVID-19 shelter-in-place orders, which suits him just fine. 

“A lot of the interacting with people is gone,” he said. “If I had to work a day job for the rest of my life, I would want one where I was telecommuting. That way I could maximize my time painting.”

Kanner, a realist (but not a photo realist), goes outside to create plein air works at least twice a week. It allows him to be out in the world while still shutting out the world. 

“When I start painting, I’ll lose awareness of everything else. There’s no room for anxious thoughts,” he said. “When I see something I like, I get joy out of recreating it. It’s really satisfying.”

Kanner has been influenced by N.C. Wyeth, James Gurney, San Francisco-based Mark Tennant and self-taught Alameda plein air painter, Tom Hughes. He is not represented, nor has he ever had an exhibition. 

“I would like an exhibition. I have a decent number of paintings,” he said. “But then I fear I would have to be there and talk to people.”

Another painter Kanner is inspired by is British plein air painter Julian Merrow-Smith, who lives in Provence, France. 

“I want that lifestyle,” he said. “It’s incredibly beautiful where he is. He doesn’t have to interact with a lot of people. He does a painting a day.

More artwork by Karl Kanner:

oil33 (Kirkham and Funston)

watercolor5 (Kirkham and 6th)

watercolr7 (Kirkham and 11th)

See Karl Kanner’s work on his website: www.karlbkanner.myportfolio.com and @karlkanner on Instagram. 

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