Watercolor as a mistress

October 11, 2022 § Leave a comment

The Riv

George Washington Smith was Santa Barbara’s most influential architect back in the 1920s, the founding father of the California movement in Spanish Colonial Revival design. The irony was that Smith, when he moved to Montecito in 1917, saw himself as an artist. But after building the centrally located house and studio he’d designed for himself and his wife, friends and neighbors kept clamoring to have him create residences for them.

“I soon found that people were not really as eager to buy my paintings, which I was laboring over, as they were to have a whitewashed house like mine,” he once said. “So I put away my brushes and have not yet had a moment to take them up again.”

Now, a century later, Smith’s spiritual offspring are turning the tables back again, as a new group show features a dozen successful Santa Barbara architects who also paint or create other visual art. “ARTchitecture” is on display at the Thomas Reynolds Gallery in downtown Santa Barbara.

“I’ve been an architecture junkie since I was a young lawyer living in Chicago, and a few decades running my gallery in San Francisco only encouraged that,” says Reynolds, who moved to Santa Barbara during the pandemic and opened the new art space on State Street last year. “Living here, I’ve arrived in architectural nirvana.” 

The idea for the exhibition came about through Reynolds’s casual conversations with Marc Appleton, the celebrated Santa Barbara architect who helped organize the show, and they reached out to peers to round out the curation. “There’s a natural affinity between architectural design and visual art that many of us feel,” says Appleton. “We decided it would be fun to see how many architects in town actually indulge their passion for watercolors.”

Quite a few, it turns out.

Anthony Grumbine, Jeff Shelton and Stephen Harby are among the well-known locals participating in “ARTchitecture,” along with Domiane Forte, Henry Lenny, John Margolis, Sean McArdle, Tom Meaney, Alexis Stypa and Qing Xue, who collectively contributed more than 75 works for the exhibit.

While the well-trained architects are all famous for designing homes, offices and/or public buildings around town, frequently employing beautiful architectural drawings to convey their vision, painting is a different matter entirely. Appleton jokes, “If I had to paint with the intention of making a living at selling my watercolors, I would be in the poor house.” However, Reynolds says the products of the architects’ art aspirations are anything but amateur hour. “Everything in the exhibition is frameable – they are fine art paintings that stand on their own,” Reynolds says.

Locals will recognize many of the scenes depicted in the watercolors, as a majority of the pieces focus on some of the most beloved buildings in town, including the Santa Barbara County Courthouse. The landmark shows up in paintings by three different architect-artists, each revealing an individual perspective – not unlike how they might design a building from scratch, although without having to please anyone but themselves. 

Appleton says the focus required for watercolors is part of its appeal, perhaps even more so than the finished product. “You have to really look at the building or architectural scene and allow yourself to learn about what you’re seeing,” he said. “It becomes a way of remembering the experience that’s richer than a photograph.”

Harby, who has largely traded active design for a set of watercolor brushes and leading art-travel trips, goes even further. “The joy of experiencing spatial complexity, materials and light fueled my architecture career for a number of years,” he said. “Now, sitting in front of an astonishing and challenging building and trying to capture, and represent it, brings the same kind of thrill as creating it.” 

Appleton agrees. “Watercolor is an extremely seductive art form,” he says. “We have our profession of architecture, which is a commitment like a marriage. But then we have watercolor as a mistress.”

VIEW THE RIV’s 10-page spread


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

What’s this?

You are currently reading Watercolor as a mistress at Art Matters.


%d bloggers like this: