Painting Paradise
by Myrna Zanetell
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  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 as tourists."
 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 painting.
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 2004.

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