John Cosby | California on his Mind

By Virginia Campbell

Plein-air artist John Cosby captures both the look and feel of the California landscape

ON THE BEACH, OIL, 30 x 24
ON THE BEACH, OIL, 30 x 24

Like many traditional plein-air painters, John Cosby takes a moment of earthly existence and captures what light reveals about it. But he manages to go one step further, conveying not only how a scene looks but also how it feels. In fact, Cosby has won a number of competitions and awards over the last decade, and his paintings have sold extremely well, because he’s adept at painting how things feel. The scenery surrounding his studio in Laguna Beach, CA, is already so beautiful that he often focuses on the visual mysteries of more modest spots. His compositions remain unmannered no matter how complex they become. The freshness is especially fresh. And he does all this with an easygoing brush.

Cosby’s landscapes have an inviting quality about them, though oddly, landscape is not the genre closest to his heart. “My favorites are paintings with figures,” says the artist. Cosby’s figures appear in all kinds of environments—on the beach, along city streets, in bars and restaurants. His brush strokes tend to offer a minimum of detail in defining the figures, but his compositions play up the relationships among them, even when they are blobs on a walkway. The world of his paintings is, however subtly, one of human interdependency. What’s particularly striking in Cosby’s work is that you can feel the nearness of people in his landscapes, cityscapes, and interiors, even when figures are not in them. “I’m a people watcher,” he says, “I really like people—their good points and their demons, too.”

Cosby’s ease with people extends to his other far-ranging activities in the art world. In addition to being an avid participant in plein-air events, he is a hard-working advocate, a willing meeting-goer, and a good negotiator. “Artists I know call me, looking for pragmatic solutions, and I enjoy seeing what I can make happen. I owned three galleries some years ago, so I understand dealers. And I know that any deal that has only one winner isn’t going to last long.” Cosby was a founder of the Laguna Plein Air Painters Association and served as the group’s president. For four years he was a board member of the Laguna Art Museum, for which he organized fund-raising events. He’s a member of the California Art Club, where he has lectured, and of the Oil Painters of America. He teaches two painting workshops a year, for the sake of sharing what he knows. He’s about as far from being a loner as you can be while still maintaining a vibrant painting career, though he admits playing the blues on his upright piano when alone in his studio.

Recently Cosby became one of only five living artists handled by Redfern Gallery in Laguna Beach, a long-established gallery that specializes in historical California painters, including Laguna art colony greats like William Wendt. The surprising thing is that Cosby has been painting in his current style for only the last 12 years or so.

Born in 1955, Cosby started painting when he was a child, under the auspices of his grandmother, who took lessons herself from some of the original Laguna painters. Though he learned early on about mixing colors and creating space with shifting values, a great deal of experience with different types of art would come to pass before Cosby came full circle to making the kind of paintings his grandmother would have appreciated. None of that experience took place in art school.

HOT AND FAST, OIL, 24 x 32
HOT AND FAST, OIL, 24 x 32

When Cosby was 17, living near Los Angeles, he decided he was ready to leave home and begin an independent life. “My father told me I was too young,” he recalls, “and when I insisted I was leaving, he said, ‘Fine, but if you leave, you can’t come back.’ After living out in the world just a while, I was having problems and decided I had to go back home. But my parents had put their house on the market and there was nowhere to go back to. I went a couple of weeks without food, and finally, I walked into an army recruiting office and I told them that if they gave me dinner, I’d enlist.” This was in August of 1973; a year earlier and he would have ended up in Vietnam. But in a pattern that has marked his life, he made of happenstance a remarkable opportunity.

When he tested high on the army’s aptitude test, he was put in a special communications unit attached to the White House. “At 19 I was the organizational front man for the team that took care of the red phone to the Kremlin and communications with the CIA. I went all over the world. I remember staying in a bedroom in one of Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu’s castles and waking up to Renoirs and Monets on the walls, looted art from World War II.” Cosby served during the final year of Nixon’s presidency and traveled to San Clemente after his resignation, then returned to Washington to work in the Ford administration. With enough stories to dine on for a lifetime, he left the service after four years. “It was heady, but bizarre,” he notes. “I had to take a lie detector test every week. Every girl I dated had to have security clearance. I was still growing up, and I got in trouble all the time.”

Featured in March 2008


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