Clark Mitchell | An Oasis of Calm


By Bonnie Gangelhoff

The lines from a poem displayed on Clark Mitchell’s website say it all: “Let the beauty we love be what we do. There are hundreds of ways to kneel and kiss the ground.” The words were written by the Persian poet Rumi, and they describe Mitchell well—the man, the artist, and his work.

Designated a master pastelist by the Pastel Society of America, the California-based artist paints with an unbridled passion for the landscape, from lush lavender vineyards to hot pink bougainvillea beneath towering palms to a romantic coastal sunset. “I seldom feel more nurtured and satisfied than when I’m outdoors looking at the landscape, the sky, and the horizon,” says Mitchell. “The other possibilities—painting figures, still lifes, or abstracts—do not hold the same enticement.”

He also paints the Rocky Mountains, but Mitchell’s artistic heart always returns to Sonoma County, where he makes his home on a picturesque hillside outside the small town of Cotati, about 45 miles north of San Francisco. From his bucolic perch in his nearby studio, Mitchell is surrounded by spectacular views. Every day is an inspiration, the artist says, as he describes the oak-studded hills, the weather’s changing moods, and the windswept eucalyptus trees ringing nearby fields. The vistas are enhanced, he notes, by layers of haze that soften the atmosphere. “The views are remarkable enough that we are able to stay on my property for the first day of my plein-air workshops,” he explains.

When Mitchell isn’t teaching or participating in major plein-air events across the West, he can be found in his studio, which he describes as his “newest love affair.” The recently constructed straw-bale structure has walls two feet thick and is graced with a 16-foot easel made of a heavy-gauge wire grid suspended away from the wall. The device allows him clamp down 10 or more works in progress at one time. “The studio is wonderfully creative and has a masculine mixture of Southwestern, Craftsman, and Mediterranean styles,” Mitchell says.

The studio is also his home away from home, an oasis where he spends hours on end, sometimes working well into the night as he layers, rubs, and drags vibrantly colored pastel sticks across rough paper to create the illusion of a three-dimensional surface. For the last several years, Mitchell has used black paper with a sanded surface. Although he once matted over the edges of his works in the traditional manner, he has been experimenting recently with leaving the edges of the painting visible. “It breaks the illusion of a looking at a scene through a window, and it reminds the viewer that this is indeed a work on paper,” Mitchell says.

Mitchell considers himself a traditionalist, although this subtle change has given his work a fresh, contemporary feel. But this is just a small part of what makes Mitchell so respected among his peers and popular among his collectors. The larger part of the equation is that he devotes his talents and technical expertise to capturing the magic of a scene. He wants to tap into the viewers’ fond memories of a place, to take them back there to experience it again—to feel how the wind sweeps across the desert near Palm Springs or notice how light falls on palm trees at Laguna Beach.

Rebecca Barber, who owns Studio Arts Gallery in Laguna Beach, keeps Mitchell’s paintings on her walls year round. She says people often go up to one of his pieces and study it for a long time. Eventually they turn to her and say with surprise, “That is exactly the way the scene looks—how it feels,” Barber explains. “He has a quality that many other pastel artists don’t have. His paintings stand out because of their structure, because of the way Clark builds up the color. It gives his works more depth and makes them look so real. The waves, the moonlight on the water … you want to dip your finger in the water.”

Mitchell’s works often project a sense of calm and peacefulness. His paintings beg the eye to linger awhile and appreciate the moment. And that is precisely the artist’s intent. In a world full of turmoil, Mitchell wants his landscapes to give people a respite, “a chance to recharge.”

Robin Knowlton, owner of Knowlton Gallery in Lodi, CA, agrees that the paintings have a calming effect. “I think it is a reflection of Clark and who he is,” Knowlton says. “He is a calm, gentle person who cares deeply about the landscape he is painting. You can feel that investment and emotion come out in his work. People come in and are riveted. They fall in love with the pieces because they experience an emotional connection.”

Knowlton also adds that she finds an intimacy in Mitchell’s paintings that springs, she thinks, from his familiarity with the locales he paints. For example, Mitchell has spent many hours and countless miles hiking in the Sierras and the Rocky Mountains, and this connection is reflected in his pastels. Also, because he is a master of his craft, he is able to take his paintings to a deeper, more complex level than other artists, explains Knowlton: “He takes his time. There is no haste. He is a painter who has an intention. Clark wants to lead you to a certain place.”


Indeed, Mitchell can direct the viewer’s eye to the middle of a lake, as in his piece AT THE CROSSING. Or, as in SUNNY IN CATALINA, he can lead the viewer’s gaze out over the Pacific Ocean to glimpse Catalina Island in the distant haze. In many ways, Mitchell is carrying on the traditions of early California Impressionists such as William Wendt, Guy Rose, and Edgar Payne, who paved the way for today’s plein-air painters. Such artists were among the first in the state to paint outdoors “on location.” Plein-air, or open-air, painting flourished in the Golden State from roughly 1890 to 1930; it is now enjoying a resurgence in California and across the country.

Historically, the term plein air referred to paintings started and finished on location. Today, it also refers to pieces that were sketched, started, or nearly finished on location but later completed in the artist’s studio. Both historic and contemporary plein-air painters would likely agree, however, that working on location is the best way to capture the light.

While the early California Impressionists were intent on recording the scenic splendors of the Golden State, contemporary artists like Mitchell often feel the added pressure of reminding people that pristine landscapes are being gobbled up by urban and suburban expansion, and that there is the very real danger of losing these unspoiled areas forever. “Over the 30 years I’ve lived in Northern California, I have watched major changes in the landscape by the hand of man—in ways we can’t retreat from. It’s amazing to see how much of Sonoma County is covered with housing developments,” Mitchell says. “We have to preserve open space for future generations.”

Mitchell says that his love for both art and the environment started young. Ever since he was a small boy, he notes, he had an interest in art. He also had the good fortune to grow up in rural Colorado, where magnificent views of the Rocky Mountains loomed outside his front door. “There were old cottonwood trees on the banks of the ditches and a picturesque lake nearby. I started to draw and paint it all at a very early age,” Mitchell says.

His parents, both avid gardeners, nurtured his budding interest, buying him art materials and
arranging lessons. But it was when he was a teenager that the seeds of his future life in art took permanent root. One fateful day his father gave him a box of Schmincke pastels. He had carried them home from Dresden, Germany, before World War II and then packed them away. Mitchell can still remember the chalky smell, the fine pigment dust, and all the different colors lined up in the box. “My love affair with pastels began that day,” he says.

When it came time for college, it was no surprise to anyone that he chose to study studio art at nearby Colorado College in Colorado Springs. In 1974, armed with his degree, he headed due west to the San Francisco area, where he soon enrolled in lithography, watercolor, and drawing classes at what is now the Academy of Art University.

It was in the early ’80s that he began to solidify the career he enjoys today. His godfather offered him a five-week stay at his condominium on Kauai, as well as a funky old car to drive around the tropical Hawaiian island during his sojourn. Mitchell recalls that he began to paint plein-air pastel pieces for the first time, including seascapes, mountains, and waterfalls. A year or so later, his godfather commissioned him to paint a number of large-scale works for a country club he had purchased in Palm Desert, CA. “That kind of faith and encouragement in my talents meant a huge amount to this young artist,” Mitchell says. “It gave me confidence.”

He returned home to California and signed up for classes with master pastelist Albert Handell, who was a major influence. “His enthusiasm for the medium and the way he used pastels inspired me,” Mitchell says. “Albert uses pastels in such a powerful way, with rich colors and broad strokes. After I studied with him, I wanted to make the medium more visible.”

For a few more years, Mitchell continued to work in both oils and pastels. But as he prepared for his first major show in the early ’90s, at San Francisco’s John Pence Gallery, it became obvious to him that neither medium was getting the attention it deserved from him. So after the show, wanting to advance in his art, he came to the conclusion that he had to choose one or the other. Pastels won the nod. “In those days it was an underappreciated medium,” Mitchell recalls. “But it all started to change in the ’90s. Now it’s amazing to me how popular it is. There are pastel societies all over the country.”

Today, the artist’s love affair with pastels continues unabated. Even though he faces the self-imposed challenge of successfully translating the power of what he sees and feels before him into a painting that will resonate with others, Mitchell says he is blessed to have followed the path where that first box of pastels eventually led him. “I want to express my extreme thankfulness for the privilege of doing what I love every day and being so richly rewarded for my efforts,” he says. “My artwork is that prayer of thankfulness.”

Knowlton Gallery, Lodi, CA; Studio Arts Gallery, Laguna Beach, CA; Fairmont Gallery, Sonoma, CA; Gallery One, Petaluma, CA; Jessel Gallery, Napa, CA; John Pence Gallery, San Francisco, CA; Ernest Fuller Fine Art, Henderson, CO;

Upcoming Show
Maui Plein Air Painting Invitational,  February 14-21. Group Show, Knowlton Gallery, March 3-April 25.

Featured in February 2009