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Lessons from the masters: Last week’s 23rd Annual LPAPA Invitational flooded our town with talent…and a lot of insightful wisdom

By MARRIE STONE

“I remember exactly when I painted this picture,” said plein air master Donald Demers, holding “Green on Green,” an oil piece he painted in 2005. “We were traveling around Tahoe and there was no particular subject. There wasn’t a barn or lake. There was just this interaction between these organic objects.” 

Lessons from Demers

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Photo by Jeff Rovner

Signature Member Donald Demers holding his 2005 oil painting, “Green on Green,” at the Strotkamp residence

“Green on Green” gives the eye a lot to take in. It also offers it space to rest. Demers created a quiet scene of pine trees and scrub brush, rocks and grass. But he also produced a place for the mind to meditate on the natural world. “This is what poets do too,” Demers said. “They see a spot of nothingness and find something in it.” 

Last week, 35 plein air masters came from around the country to participate in the 23rd annual Laguna Plein Air Painters Association (LPAPA) Invitational. They brought not only their skills and talent, but their artistic secrets and inspirations, their backstories and philosophies, even their vulnerabilities and moments of pride. 

Demers, who lives and works in Maine, regularly judges plein air shows. His paintings appear in numerous prestigious art publications across the nation and have garnered awards in the LPAPA Invitational in 2001, 2002 and 2020 (when he won Best in Show for his oil painting “Laguna Breakers”). This year, he took home the Fine Art Connoisseur Award for “Autumn Tones.” 

When Mary Linda Strotkamp (former board member of LPAPA) and her husband Jay (also a longtime supporter of the association) purchased “Green on Green” in 2006, they closed the conversational loop Demers had initiated. “I was so grateful there was reception at the other end, because otherwise I’m yelling down a well,” Demers says. “Art is a dialogue, after all. It’s a form of communion. Once Jay and Mary Linda saw the painting, I was no longer yelling down a well.” 

Lessons from Strotkamp

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Photo by Jeff Rovner

(L-R) Mary Linda Strotkamp, Donald Demers and Jay Strotkamp in the Strotkamp residence with their painting, “Green on Green”

Insights like these kept coming this past week. We followed several artists and learned not only about their artistic processes, but how they view the world. While their paintings are intricate, their mental landscapes are equally rich and complex. They shared some of their wisdom. 

Plein air painting 101: Chasing the light 

The French term “plein air” simply means “out of doors.” Plein air paintings are generally produced on location within a matter of hours, usually in natural settings that take advantage of the ocean or landscapes. Light is one of the most critical components to the process – the way it glistens off water, filters through trees, streams among clouds, dapples the grass, or creeps across the mountains. Most plein air artists say light is the true subject of their work. 

This past week – with its unpredictable and rapidly changing weather – presented several challenges for the artists. Not to mention the oil spill, which closed our local beaches (a prime location for many plein air artists to paint). They were resilient and quick to adapt, which may have played a role in the philosophical discussions they willingly shared. 

“This story is a little out there,” said Gil Dellinger, whose painting “One Simple Sycamore” won this year’s Revelite/Lyn Burke Memorial Award. “How deep do you want to go with this?” The answer – all the way. 

“To begin with, light is everything,” he said. To Dellinger, it’s the subject of the painting itself and represents the spiritual. “I had an almost mystical experience with the light this week.” 

Dellinger had settled on a scene in Irvine Regional Park to paint “One Simple Sycamore,” but the weather didn’t cooperate. “I tried painting in the greys, but it wasn’t working. The next day I went out again, feeling determined, and said a little prayer: Can I just have some sunlight?” 

Dellinger arrived back at the scene, set up his paints and sat down. The light suddenly split open. “It came down for only 15 minutes,” he said. “I was able to photograph it so I’d have a reference for later. The rest of the day was socked in grey. Not one speck of sun. The timing was perfect.” 

Dellinger describes the experience as feeling “profoundly taken care of.” He says, “I felt that what I was doing was important enough that this kind of event could happen. It was such a privilege.” 

Lessons from Dellinger

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Photo by Marrie Stone

Gil Dellinger with “One Simple Sycamore,” winner of the Revelite/Lyn Burke Memorial Award

The important synergy of an artists’ colony 

Artists are generally solitary souls. Plein air painters, in particular, often work in isolation. They draw their inspirations from the natural world instead of other people. So, there’s a unique synergy when they come together.

Lessons from Group

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Photo by Mitch Ridder

The 23rd Annual LPAPA Invitational artists

Superficially, these nearly three dozen invitational artists appear wholly different, representing a range of ages and ethnicities, genders and geographies. They come from 13 states – stretching from Washington to Florida, Maine to Hawaii. Some grew up abroad, in China or Australia. They’ve worked in diverse fields, from architecture and interior design to publishing and teaching. This year’s Best in Show winner, Carl Bretzke, holds a medical degree from the University of Minnesota and practiced as a radiologist. While they all share an essential skill in common, they come to that skill from a variety of viewpoints. 

Whenever all these people get together, the parts are greater than the whole,” said Ludo Leideritz, owner of Forest & Ocean Gallery and moderator of Monday evening’s Talk with the Artist event. “When they paint together, something else happens. There’s a bit of magic. It’s not a competition. Actually, it’s the opposite. There’s this love and respect they have for each other, and what they do, that acts as a catalyst.”

That catalyst sparked dialogue between them as they fed off each other’s creative energy. They were both artist and audience, seeking out approval from the painters they admired most – each other. 

“The thing that matters most to me, especially at these kinds of invitationals, are the other artists,” said Mark Shasha. “These artists are incredible. I don’t know if I’ll sell anything here, but I know when I put my paintings on the wall, if Don Demers shrugs, I’m doomed.”

Shasha says the highpoint of his career was having his painting win the Artist Choice Award at the 2018 Plein Air Easton Art Festival in Maryland. “I was so thunderstruck that these artists whom I so admire had chosen my painting. When my fellow artists say, ‘That’s awesome,’ there’s nothing better.”

Building that community of artists is critical. But where – and how – does that happen? One answer is art school.

The value of an arts education 

There’s plenty of discussion these days on the value of higher education. College costs keep rising while the practical skills they impart can feel dubious. Several of these master artists had something to say about the value of an artistic education. 

Lessons from Education

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Photo by Mitch Ridder

LPAPA Mentor Erich Neubert leads local students in a plein air painting course at Heisler Park during last week’s invitational

“I was the only person I knew who went to art college,” said Shasha, who attended the Rhode Island School of Design. “My buddies were studying science and engineering. When we got together, I wanted to crawl under a table. How could I explain to them that this had value? But I still get goosebumps remembering how we learned to think like artists. We didn’t graduate art school as artists. We graduated art school thinking like artists.” That training not only informs how Shasha executes his paintings, but how he views the world. 

Hope Railey, chair of the Drawing and Painting Department at LCAD, told attendees at Wednesday evening’s Plein Art Talk with Experts: “I tell students they’re not students. They are professionals in training.” 

Railey’s own educational experience bears out that insight. Before joining the faculty at LCAD, Railey taught at the Academy of Art in San Francisco, the same school where she received her MFA. “I had no idea that once I was with my people, and built a community around myself, those would be the people I worked with. My professors became my colleagues,” she said. “The amount of support artists give one another is amazing. I tell students, ‘We’re our own support group. We need one another. We create our careers through one another.’”

Railey has witnessed a recent shift in parental attitudes as students are now supported in their artistic pursuits. “Twenty years ago, there weren’t a lot of parents encouraging their children to go to art school,” she said. “But today, I’m shocked. There are these amazing parents pushing their kids toward a Fine Arts education. Times are changing. I’m really excited about these changes.”

Apart from collegiate degrees, more than one artist stressed the importance – regardless of the chosen medium – of learning how to draw. That fundamental skill pays dividends across every genre, they say. It’s essential to know the basic rules if you intend to play, bend, or break them.
“If you’re wanting to learn to paint, but you don’t have the structure of drawing, you’re going to self-select out of choosing things because they intimidate you, or they feel complex, or your painting contains people,” said Suzie Baker, who won this year’s OutdoorPainter.com Award for her piece, “Sycamore Sun & Shadow.” “Draw a lot. Then whatever you want to do is no longer off limits.”

Lessons from Baker

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Photo by Scott Brashier

Suzie Baker capturing the sunset at Main Beach last week 

Watercolor artist Daniel Marshall, who came to plein air painting after a three-decade career as a tattoo artist, stresses the importance of knowing how to draw as a foundational skill for plein air. “I’ve been professionally painting for seven years, but I’ve got 30 years of drawing experience behind it from the tattoo industry. Although I only draw enough information that I need for the painting – I don’t over-render my paintings in drawings – the information is there. It contains proportion and composition.”

Lessons from Marshall Portrait

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Photo by Marrie Stone

Daniel Marshall had a 30-year career as a tattoo artist before turning his artistic lens to plein air

Bringing the whole self to the canvas

Marshall’s prior experience as a tattoo artist raises another interesting intersection between plein air painters, many of whom bring more to their work than artistic training and skill. They also bring their own histories, life experiences and outside passions. Developing the artistic eye depends on incorporating these differing influences, life stories and personal experiences into an artistic filter to view the world. Those outside elements give each artist a distinct voice.

“I always bring influences from other mediums into my fine art. So much of my work as a tattoo artist influences how I look at value and tones,” Marshall says. “Even if you come to painting from a different background, there’s always something that informs what you’re doing. Don’t discount the experiences you’ve had. We all become a creation of differing influences. They dictate how art will come out of us when we paint.” 

Kathleen Hudson, who’s been part of the LPAPA Invitational since 2019, never attended art school. Instead, she learned by copying masterworks, starting at age 12. Hudson majored in medieval history and literature at Harvard University and brings those collegiate studies to bear on her paintings. “My thesis project was on pilgrimages,” she said. “I studied people who sought out difficult terrain as a metaphor for the spiritual journey they were undertaking. They would simulate spiritual battles by traveling through mountainous terrain or going somewhere very remote. I’ve spent lots of time diving into texts where people engaged the landscape in ways that had strong spiritual significance to them. Now, when I engage the landscape in my work, it transports me too.” Hudson won this year’s Greg Larock Legacy Award (“Evening from Recreation Point”), the Artists’ Choice Award and the Collectors’ Choice Award for her body of work.

Carl Bretzke, a former interventional radiologist who specialized in detecting abnormalities in images and carefully correcting them, told PleinAir Magazine in 2015: “I think I was drawn to radiology because it is so visual. In my work, I am constantly looking at images to determine if something is anatomically right or wrong, or if the shape is unusual. I’m looking at shapes and paying attention. It’s a lot of eye-hand type of work. Plus, I’m standing for several hours and have to persevere, just as in painting. I think I have fairly good stamina as a painter for just that reason.” 

Lessons from Bretzke downtown

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Photo by Scott Brashier

Carl Bretzke working downtown last week

Several LPAPA Invitational Members are former architects and designers. Their time studying structure, form and balance heavily influences their approaches to painting. “Maybe it’s the architect in me, but I look for patterns,” said Mark Fehlman at Monday evening’s Talk with Artists. “A lot of artists look for the light, but I’m more shape-oriented. I like to arrange shapes, almost like cutting colored construction paper out and creating a pattern.” 

Fehlman also says architecture trained him to seek out solutions within the project itself. “You have to dig to find answers,” he said. “In architecture, I didn’t just come up with some magic idea and create it. I worked with the community, I worked with owners and the site itself to solve problems. I worked my way through to find the solution that fits.” Oil painting is that way too, he said. It requires you to excavate the work. “The thing I like about oil is that it takes a while to set up. You can do things with it over the next 24-48 hours that make it more interesting.” Fehlman won this year’s Award of Excellence for his piece, “Let’s Take a Walk.”

Lessons from Fehlman

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Photo by Mary Hurlbut

Mark Fehlman at his booth at the LPAPA Invitational

  Barbara Tapp, who also participated in Monday’s talk, says she approaches her paintings like a storyteller and often chooses a theme. “Today was ‘meet at 2 on the bench,’” she said. “When I saw these two benches, I painted the story around them. Yesterday was ‘Sunday at the beach,’ and it was based around a family down at the beach. I really do see a title.” 

Demers does something similar. He names his paintings even before he begins. “I heard him say he’ll name a painting before he paints it,” said Baker. “If he’s going to paint a wave painting, and the name of that painting is ‘Crescendo,’ that painting better crescendo at the end as well as it did at the beginning. This is a good idea for plein air painters because things change so fast.”

Tapp also had a former career as an architectural renderer. “I’ve seen so many properties, and so many ways people live, that’s what fascinates me. I want to talk about life in my paintings – what I see of how we live, and how we inhabit this earth. Sometimes I fail. Sometimes I don’t. But every time I paint, I’m experimenting.”

Lessons from Tapp

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Photo by Mary Hurlbut

Australian artist Barbara Tapp

Other life lessons from plein air painters

Much of the wisdom the artists imparted last week has as much application in everyday life as on the canvas. There are endless ways to live a creative and meaningful life, even if you don’t identify as an artist. Training yourself to see the natural world – and the people inhabiting it – through eyes of wonder, curiosity and exploration pays dividends no matter your vocation or pastime. Here are a few insights they shared on both art and life. 

Set your intention. Most painters reported a preference for having a plan before they set out for a day of painting. They say that method also proves useful in daily life.

“Always have an intention,” said Marshall. “Don’t expect things to randomly happen. Set a focus on what it is you’re there to paint. Everything should be pre-decided. That’s a good life skill, in general.”

Lessons from Marshall

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Photo by Scott Brashier

Daniel Marshall at work on a nocturne scene in downtown Laguna last week

Baker says she can’t go to bed without a plan for the morning, or she’ll have stress dreams. “If I have a plan, I hold that plan with an open hand. If I see something else, I’ll stop and do that.”

Local master Michael Obermeyer is the only artist in the invitational who has participated all 23 years. The only drawback to that distinction is his difficulty in finding new scenes around town to paint. “Sometimes I will find a nice view for a painting in the months leading up to the invitational and hold off on painting it, saving it for this week,” he said. “That doesn’t always work, as sometimes the view just doesn’t inspire me like it initially did. But I will make a list of possible morning, mid-day, afternoon, and evening painting ideas and locations. I keep that list with me through the week, sometimes blocking out time for those possible paintings and sometimes spontaneously finding a spot while driving or walking around. Those unplanned paintings are usually the fresher, more soulful paintings for me.”

Pay attention to what catches your eye. Every person will be drawn to a different scene. What captures their attention is a function of who they are, how they see the world, and what images inspire them. Capturing that inspiration, churning it through their unique artistic filter and presenting it back to the world is what creates that artistic connection with the audience.

“If something stops me in my tracks, I ask myself, ‘What was it that stopped me? What’s the idea here? Is it about light? Is about busyness? Is it about the sky? What made me pay attention?’” said Baker.

“When something is catching my eye, I trust the scene,” said Shasha. “I start painting to find out what it is, to immerse myself in the beauty. To explore it.”

Balance confidence with humility. The phrase “fake it ‘til you make it” came up more than once in our discussions with artists.

“Artistry requires irrational self-esteem combined with humility,” said Baker. “Irrational self-esteem is the thing that keeps you showing up at your canvas because it’s hard. There must be enough self-confidence to keep you showing up in the face of uncertainty. And I think that’s where the humility comes from. You’ll have times of elation and times of disappointment. Give yourself permission to fail. But if you keep showing up, you’ll get better and better.”

Fehlman recognizes it’s easy to be intimidated by other artists. He had a propensity to turn his contemporaries into mythic figures and felt intimidated by them. “I made a point of really getting to know these people, talking to them about what they do and feeling like I could be a part of them. It helped develop my confidence as an artist. Confidence is extremely important. You don’t have to be egotistical but painting with confidence is critical. Be willing to put yourself out there.”

Commit to the unpredictable. Becoming an artist, more than most careers, requires a leap of faith. That plunge into the unknown wasn’t lost on most of the artists. 

“I never looked at my career as a career. It’s just living the life of an artist,” said Shasha. “Every day, I shoot off a firework and it’s either a dud or it’s a big one. I can’t plan it, and I can’t plan my career. I finally realized I have to commit to the unpredictable. I have to commit to the unexpected, because every canvas begins blank. Every painting is a potential lightning bolt of wonder, or a total dud. And I won’t know which. I put just as much work into the duds as the ones that work out. There are no short cuts.”

Lessons from Shasha

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Photo by Mary Hurlbut

Mark Shasha at his booth at the 23rd annual LPAPA Invitational Gala

Resist the temptation to critique yourself. Much like life itself, it’s difficult to judge your own work objectively. LPAPA artists all seem to rely on others to assess the quality of their pieces. Some painters install mirrors in their studios to get a different perspective on their paintings. Others put their pieces away for periods of time and come back to them with fresh eyes. But most rely on spouses, children and other outside critics to give them honest opinions. 

Remain adaptable and resilient. Despite the many challenges these artists faced – from inclement and dramatic weather to the tragic oil spill that closed the beaches – they continuously adapted to the changing surroundings. 

“This week was quite a challenge,” said Obermeyer. “Each day seemed to be completely different from the others. We had hot sunny days with no wind, to thunder and lightning and humid skies, to overcast fog.” Obermeyer relies on sunlight and how it falls on a scene. “When it’s cloudy, I might paint a dusk scene or a nocturne.”

Overcome resistance. Baker says she still has paintings that intimidate her and lead to procrastination. It’s still a learning process, she said. Baker recommends two books to artists (and everyone else) that helped her push through resistance: The War of Art by Steven Pressfield and Art & Fear by David Bayles and Ted Orland. “They are three-hour audiobooks that helped me break through some of that procrastination stuff,” she said. 

A return to art

At its core, last week’s LPAPA Invitational was a celebration of the arts, artists and their collectors. While these painters were open to exploring the philosophical questions behind the importance of art and the creative questions behind the process, they all simply enjoyed delighting in the pieces themselves and marveling at each other’s talent. As Demers tells us from the beginning, art gives the eye a place to rest.

Lessons from Bretzke

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Photo by Ludo Leideritz

Carl Bretzke’s oil painting, “Valley Below,” won this year’s Best in Show

“I don’t think of paintings as being static images. I think of them as being resting points of the human experience,” said Demers. “They’re not decorative objects. They are moments we capture because we live linear, kinetic lives. We all want to catch our breath. Paintings allow us to catch our breath. That’s what art does.” 

The LPAPA Gallery is located at 414 North Coast Highway, Laguna Beach (between Myrtle and Jasmine streets). The gallery is hosting an exhibition of the LPAPA Invitational pieces through Monday, Nov. 1. In addition to works produced by the invitational artists, the LPAPA Gallery is showcasing student works representing LCAD, the five local Laguna Beach public schools and the Anneliese School. Proceeds from all student works will be donated to their respective schools. Gallery hours are Thursday through Monday, 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Contact the gallery at 949.376.3635 for all purchase inquiries, or visit the LPAPA website atwww.lpapa.org to view the Invitational Catalog and other details.