|Santa Barbara has long been known for
its sparkling sunlit coastline anti misty tree-clad mountains,
qualities that make it the focal point of California's current
plein air movement. For long-time resident and premier landscape
artist Ralph Waterhouse, the city and its environs are truly
a painter's paradise.
"Because of the city's unique geography, the atmosphere
here is much like that found along the Mediterranean Sea,"
he says. The winter light is unbelievable. Santa Barbara faces
south, so we are blessed with balmy breezes and the dynamic of
the east/west lighting on the coastal mountains. Sometimes the
sunsets are so vividly overwhelming that people accuse you of
making them up. Because there is nothing to hide the setting
sun, the evening glow casts long shadows creating marvelous lavender
hues accented by light and dark regions that add so much interest
to a painting."
Spring Poppies, oil 16" by l2"
"California poppies grace the hills and meadows around Santa
Barbara in Spring and add an extra touch of color to the local
land-scape. Poppies have been a favorite subject of California
plein air artists since the late 1800s."
As a plein air artist, Waterhouse feels especially
fortunate to reside along California's Central Coast. "The
countryside is so lovely between here and Monterey and, because
the region is not as densely populated as that to the south,
we still have a lot of canyons that lead out into some fairly
pristine regions," he says. "Technically, however,
I guess I can't describe the land as unspoiled, because it is
planted with huge eucalyptus trees that were imported from Australia
in the late 1800s."
Because of their innate architectural beauty, those
trees are a favorite subject for Waterhouse. "When the
wind blows, they literally seem to dance and in the summer, when
the heat draws the moisture from the ocean, their fog-shrouded
silhouettes are almost mystical," he says. Perhaps the
reason he delights in the special effects created by the fog
is that those scenes stir memo-ries of the mist-laden English
coun-try side he knew so well as a child.
Although he prefers to paint unfettered vistas, Waterhouse
con-fides that occasionally he enjoys adding buildings to his
composi-tions, including weathered barns or old water towers.
For the past five years, he also has participated in California
Art Club outings to paint the lovely Mission San Juan Capistrano,
an experience he finds particularly pleasant because of the intimate
give and take between artists as they paint in a confined area.
Viewing the loose, painterly qualities of Waterhouse's
current work, it is difficult to imagine that he spent nearly
two decades creating tightly rendered paintings of birds and
small mammals in his native England. He admits to being enam-ored
with the concept of being an artist from childhood. "I idolized
my cousin, who was a graphic designer so, by the age of 10, I
knew that was what I wanted as my future career, he says. "In
fact, I became so focused on this goal that I left my formal
schooling and took an apprenticeship. It was permissible to do
that in those days."
Foggy Day Devereux, Study, Oil 12" by 9"
"When I captured this scene, I had to paint very quickly,
as the fog kept on rolling in and out. Sometimes I could not
see the tree at all. At the end, the egret graciously appeared
at the perfect focal point."
After completing his training in the 1960s, Waterhouse
worked in the design field for a number of years. "I enjoyed
the creative aspect of the job, but the client restrictions always
messed up what I wanted to do," he says. In 1972, he left
the commercial art business and began to pursue his first love:
painting the picturesque English countryside and its wildlife.
Waterhouse was raised in Yorkshire and later moved to
the Lake District in the northwestern section of the country,
a region made famous by writer Beatrix Potter and English poet
laureate William Wordsworth. "It's very pic-turesque and
quite romantic. he says. "The lush green hills are dotted
with lakes and enchanting cot-tages surrounded by old stone walls.
Even today it continues to attract artists and poets as well
Because his was a rural environment, Waterhouse
spent much of his childhood outdoors, becoming especially fond
of bird watching and studying nature, and his early work reflected
those first hand experiences. "It was never my thing to
get into the African game animals," he says. "Rather,
I enjoyed portraying familiar species in a tight environment,
such as a rabbit near its war-ren or birds around their nests."
Before long, Waterhouse was invited to exhibit his delicate gouache
renderings in shows throughout England as well as in Germany
and the United States. He also began to market his work through
a gallery in Scottsdale, Arizona, and by 1975 was spending almost
two months each year in Arizona and California, researching wildlife
native to the Southwest. In 1982, he set up housekeeping in Santa
Barbara and soon after met Diane, the woman he would later marry.
Today the couple has a 9-year-old daughter, Claire, who often
joins her father at a local charity show in which she offers
her own small paintings for sale.
Sunset through the Trees, oil, 16' by 12'
"Just across from my home, I am blessed with this open space
and eucalyptus groves, and in the winter we get these fabulous
sunsets. I watch for the right time and weather conditions, set
up my easel, capture on canvas these special moments.
As an extension of their mutual love of art, in 1984
the couple opened the Waterhouse Gallery in Solvang, California,
relocating in to Santa Barbara five years later in order to be
closer to home. During that period, Waterhouse was moti-vated
to refocus the direction of his work, as well. "I wanted
to do some-thing completely different, so I began painting out
of doors, and the freedom of working on-site became a challenge,"
he says. "In reality, I still spend 50 to 60 percent of
my time in the studio, because that's a great place to refine
the larger images, but I make a concerted effort to retain the
spontaneity and freshness that are the hallmark of plein air
In keeping with a tradition he began in England, Waterhouse
works out of a studio attached to his gallery. He confides that
there are practical advantages to being a painter. "We just
finished remodel-ing our bathroom and, when our tile guy asked
who was going to do the faux finish on the wall, I proudly told
him, Me,"' he says. Diane loves to collect art and the couple's
collec-tion includes 70 original paintings by such talented artists
as Kevin Macpherson, Jeremy Lipking, Loren Speck, Steven Hanks,
Laura Robb, Kim English, Donald Teague, and Jean Legassick.
"The interesting thing about art is that many people clout
realize it affects every aspect of their lives," Waterhouse
says. "Whether it's the car you drive, the building you
live in, or even the garments you wear, they have all been designed
by somebody. Apart from religion andwar, art has played the largest
part in defining our civilization. It brings a sense of peace
and beauty to all it touches, and I am so fortunate to be able
to make even a small contribution to that."
Myrna Zanetell is a writer living in El Paso, Texas.
Art of the West September/October