Three things to remember when painting in plein air: don’t touch the canvas, don’t chase the light, and squinting is mandatory.
“Squint to see the shadows,” says local artist Scott Hamill, “or you’ll miss the shapes.” Hamill has been painting outside landscapes en plein air for eight years and living in Santa Cruz for much longer. He’s used to teaching and being distracted while painting and graciously allowed me to join him for a morning of painting along the coast.
“When you’re painting, you have to think of shapes and not things—it’s not a rock, it’s a shape, it’s a shadow,” he says. “When you get away from naming things, then you get away from painting them as rocks or trees and they become brush strokes.”
Hamill paints almost every day, and never runs out of subjects, thanks to the variety of landscapes around the Central Coast. He has a set of extra wide brushes to make sure he can’t get caught up in the details, even if he wants to. “Cover the canvas quick and don’t muddy the colors,” he says between wide brush strokes. I sip my coffee and wonder when the blobs will turn into something more than a shape.
An hour later, the patches of deep brown and strips of blue have turned into a landscape, with crashing foamy waves and a beautifully earthy cliffside. Toggling between the real landscape and his painting, I’m ashamed of my doubt.
Hamill is one of around 40 plein air painters participating in this weekend’s Capitola Plein Air Festival. He’s taken part every year since the event started four years ago and says since the plein air community is relatively tight knit, it’s an opportunity for the painters to say hello while focusing in on one subject matter—Capitola. Plein air artists will be stationed all around the city for three days while visitors come by and watch the paintings come to life.
“With plein air you can start to observe the world in a different way—in a beautiful way,” Hamill says, gesturing to the cliffside. “Look at all of these figures and the yellows and whites and blues that, sure, if you’re on acid you’ll see, but you otherwise wouldn’t. You can start to see those colors when painting and thinking about the world in the way of shapes and colors.”
An important part of plein air painting, Hamill says, is just trying things out, sampling colors and smudging here and there. There are no mistakes, only happy accidents—yes, Bob Ross did say that. Watching plein air painters is part of the joy, it’s not so much a tedious precise work, it’s a dance between light and dark, back and forth. With a flick of the wrist, Hamill hums along while mixing his colors—blues, reds, yellows and squidges of white. He says using a split primary color palette lends itself to more harmony in his work since he has to mix every color he uses.
“There’s no orange or purple or green here, so I have to make them from these colors and you get to the point that it all works. There’s no pop of pink or anything,” he says. “Realism painters on the other hand have like 30 colors and seven reds, and to me that’s engineering. Mixing on the fly is a bit more fun and spontaneous.”
Perfectionists and those with commitment issues need not apply. Or, do apply, but be prepared to loosen up a bit.
“Angles and matching is the opposite of what you want in painting,” he says. “Look at Rembrandt. You won’t see symmetry, because that doesn’t give us opportunity to give us imagination. People can make smudges into what they want, but if you spell it out for them, it doesn’t hold their interest.”
Back up and it’s a landscape, with waves crashing over an outcropping. But get closer and the painting dissolves, breaking apart into color blocks and lines of light and color. The light and conditions have changed considerably since Hamill began painting an hour and a half ago, but the changes don’t affect the final product.
It’s all very romantic until a pelican shits on my backpack. “Thank you, cliffs!” Hamill shouts as he packs up. “Isn’t it great being outside?”
Capitola Plein Air Festival 10 a.m.-2 p.m. peak hours. Nov. 1-4. Artists stationed around Depot Hill, Capitola Village and Beach, along the Esplanade, Wharf, and Riverfront. Competition and sale held 11 a.m.-4 p.m. Nov. 4. New Brighton Middle School Performing Arts Center, 250 Washburn Ave., Capitola. capitolapleinair.com. Free.