Artists’ Studios | Elizabeth Tolley


Text by Bonnie Gangelhoff  ·  Photos by Forrest Doud

Elizabeth Tolley in her studio in Cayucos, CA.

Elizabeth Tolley in her studio in Cayucos, CA.

This story was featured in the May 2015 issue of Southwest Art magazine. Get the Southwest Art May 2015 print issue or digital download now–then subscribe to Southwest Art and never miss another story!

Describe your studio. My studio is located in the hills behind Cayucos, one of California’s last beach towns. The interior space has separate areas for painting, storage, sitting, and photography. All the rooms can be opened up to create a large gallery space. The space is big enough for me to have a number of large paintings going on at the same time. Like all the artists I know, my work starts creeping into other rooms. It’s good to be in shows. Recently, I took 20 paintings to the San Luis Obispo Museum of Art for an exhibit with my mentor, George Gibson. My studio was only empty for a couple of days before I started pulling out new canvases and paintings I wanted to continue working on.

What elements were important to you in designing your studio? Consistent light, good ventilation, heat, privacy, storage space, and a place to photograph my work.

Describe Cayucos. Cayucos was settled in the 1800s as a shipping port for cheese, meat, hides, and fresh water. We live in a canyon devoted to farming and ranching. When we moved in, our neighbors left us a note on our gate that said, “Welcome to the peace and quiet.” That really says it all. People here are in love with where they live. A few of the families have been in the canyon for generations. They fill us in on the history of this ranch and the canyon in general. My studio is in one of the original tractor barns.

How does the surrounding environment influence your work? Living on the land definitely lets me understand the light and seasonal change better. The landscape here is one depicted in many California Impressionists’ paintings. There are wide-open spaces in the canyon as well as intimate areas along the creeks. There are still some of the original barns from the 1800s in the canyon. It is like stepping back into another era. There is a quiet strength out here. Aged trees are shaped by the elements. Oaks and sycamores grow along the ravines and creeks. We have cattle, bobcats, mountain lions, wild pigs, and coyotes that call this land their home. Once when I was out painting, I had a bald eagle fly right by me at eye level. There is a strong spiritual quality to being in this canyon.

Why is painting on location important to you? To be able to paint the landscape convincingly, I need to work on site to understand the way the land moves and the subtle qualities of light and color. By painting on location I have learned to make the landscape my own. I move and simplify elements to make stronger paintings. There are times to make color studies, times to make compositional studies on location, and times to paint a complete work. These are my truths for painting. Another reason I paint on location is because I love the interaction of painting from life. I love being outdoors; it fills my soul to paint on location.

Elizabeth Tolley's studio in Cayucos, CA.

Elizabeth Tolley’s studio in Cayucos, CA.

What did you learn from writing your book, Oil Painter’s Solution Book: Landscapes? I learned that I could ask for help and that it takes a team to pull off a book. I use the book when I teach. It has proven to be a great resource. And artists tell me they use my book to teach and recommend it to others. That’s gratifying.

If you are working in the studio, do you listen to music? When I am painting large landscapes, I start with Ralph Vaughan 
Williams compositions. They sound like the out-of-doors to me. At some point when I’m working, I stop hearing the music. Often I let the outdoor sounds be my music.

If your studio were on fire, what one thing would you save? Our cats, Patty and Tommy Feral.

What do you enjoy doing when you are not painting? Working in the garden; visiting with family and friends; helping my husband, David, around the ranch; visiting art museums; and hiking. Once in a blue moon we get our kayaks out.

What is one place people will never find you? In a smoke-filled room.

Where do you take people when they come to visit you? This ranch is a destination in itself. Guests come here and soak up the magic.

Argosy Gallery, Bar Harbor, ME; Vault Gallery, Cambria, CA.

Featured in the May 2015 issue of Southwest Art magazine–click below to purchase:
Southwest Art May 2015 print issue or digital download Or subscribe to Southwest Art and never miss a story!