Joan Marron-LaRue | Painting Catalina

Casa de Martin, oil, 12 x 9. painting, southwest art.
Casa de Martin, oil, 12 x 9.

By Bonnie Gangelhoff

Joan Marron-LaRue has traveled to the annual Plein Air Painters of America show and sale on California’s Catalina Island for a dozen years. Each November she finds something new on the picturesque isle to inspire her, and each time she also returns to favorite old haunts like the Martin home, a white-washed adobe structure with a yard full of brilliant pink begonias and towering palm trees. “I’m trying to capture the sparkle and the spirit of the place and the people who live here,” Marron-LaRue says as she eyes the scene from across the street.

It’s no surprise that this friendly Arizona painter has gotten to know the couple who lives in the house she loves to paint. Over the years she has learned that the Martins take great pride in their home, and their gardens regularly win community awards. While it’s not necessary for plein-air painters to be on a first-name basis with their subjects, one suspects that for the outgoing Marron-LaRue there is no other way. “I think it’s important to fold into the world around you so you are not so much an outside observer but interacting with the whole location—whether it’s people, trees, or animals,” she says. “That energy comes through in your work.”


Framing helps determine the focal point. southwest art.
“Framing” helps determine the focal point.

“Plein air” is a term originally adopted by art historians to describe how French Impressionists worked en plein air, or outdoors. It was eventually co-opted to describe the impressionistic landscape artists who work outdoors today. For the past week more than 20 prominent plein-air painters, PAPA members like Marron-LaRue, have fanned out across the Southern California island to paint its harbors, coves, cafes, and tropical vegetation. At week’s end the painters present their works in a show and sale held at the island’s historic casino building.

During her annual stay, Marron-LaRue usually creates about two oil paintings a day. Each one takes about three hours to complete. She and the other painters must work quickly to capture the fleeting light.

By 9 a.m. on this particular sunny morning, Marron-LaRue is unloading painting gear while she expounds enthusiastically about the plein-air process. There are several keys to every successful plein-air painting, she explains. “First, I have to select a scene that excites me or speaks to me—whether it’s the color, design, or emotional connection,” she says.


Marron-LaRue adds dots of color. painting, southwest art.
Marron-LaRue adds dots of color.

Marron-LaRue also believes that a successful plein-air outing involves packing the right amount of equipment. “No extra stuff, just what you need,” she says. She carries the bare necessities in a backpack—a French easel, eight brushes, eight tubes of paint, a drawing pad, and a rainsuit, among other things. It weighs about 15 to 20 pounds, no more.

Once she finishes unpacking and sets up her portable easel, she turns to an observer and says, “Time to focus and concentrate.” Her cheery dialogue ceases as she pulls out a tiny cardboard frame and quietly holds it up to the scene she will depict in her painting. “Framing” the scene like this helps her zero in on the focal point and the exact elements she wants to include. “My decision to make the front of the Martin house and the gardens the most important element dictates how I will use the contrast between the darkest dark and the lightest light to call attention to that focal area,” she explains.

In her next step she makes a small value study of the scene in pencil. The sketch helps place the various elements in the painting. When finished she uses a brush dabbed with yellow ochre paint to draw the outline of the house and the rest of the scene on the canvas. The brush drawing, like the pencil sketch, helps position the subject matter.

Marron-LaRue studies her palette. southwest art.
Marron-LaRue studies her palette.

To complete the preliminary brush sketch she uses basic compositional guidelines such as linking dark areas with other dark areas. She lays down transparent darks first—lavender, brown, and green. She puts down the darks in the pine tree on the far right, near the begonias, up the trunk of the palm trees, then under the eaves and awnings of the house. “The dark patterns contrasted with the strong lights give you drama in a painting,” Marron-LaRue says. “I’m trying to establish a rolling pattern of darks that leads the viewer’s eye around the canvas.”

After finishing the initial brush sketch, she begins to lay in the color, slashing a swipe of red paint across the center of the canvas. The mark will slowly evolve into the roof of the house. “This process gives the feeling of where that color will show up,” she says.


Marron-LaRue with her Catalina friend Maria Martin. southwest art.
Marron-LaRue with her Catalina friend Maria Martin.

Meanwhile the leaves in nearby eucalyptus trees are rustling, and their exotic aroma fills the air. Overhead a bevy of black ravens perch on a utility wire like a small audience. Like many experienced plein-air painters, Marron-LaRue is in tune with her environment. When the ravens drop a few shells from nuts to the ground, she quips, “Those birds seem to be giving me some kind of critique.” A few seconds later she adds, “Things like that make painting outside fun and help me re-create the excitement I find in nature.”

As she continues to lay in the color, she frequently stops and squints while eyeing the Martin home. This process helps her reduce the scene to its basic values and determine the intensity of the lights and darks in the work. She often follows advice that painter Harley Brown once gave her. “Harley says when a painting has one value (either a dark, light, or medium) in more than 60 percent of the work, and the other two values in unequal amounts, you create a dramatic work,” Marron-LaRue says.

She grows quiet again until Maria Martin appears at her front door. The painter calls hello. Maria replies, “buenas dias.” Without putting down her brush or missing a beat, Marron-LaRue calls back, “perfecto.”

The artist is now working in what some painters call a zone—concentrated focus on creating the painting. A rhythm often follows. “[Russian painter] Sergei Bongart used to say, ‘a good painting is poetry in motion,’” Marron-LaRue says.


Marron-LaRue poses before paintings displayed at Catalina s casino building. southwest art.
Marron-LaRue poses before paintings displayed at Catalina’s casino building.

Periodically Marron-LaRue stops, turns her back to the easel, and holds up a mirror that reflects the work-in-progress. The mirror provides a fresh perspective for the artist’s eye, which eventually grows tired and can’t always see drawing errors, she explains. “I have difficulty with vertical objects,” she says. “The walls of a house will tilt in, and I won’t see it unless I hold up the mirror and look at the reflection.”

As she talks her head is going back and forth from the scene to her palette to her canvas. “What I am trying to do is gather an impression of light hitting objects,” she says. “I’m applying a variety of colors with small strokes to simulate reflected light.”

After about two hours she stops for a few minutes to pull out a can of Dr. Pepper. “I missed these in Italy,” she says, referring to her September painting trip abroad with the American Women Artists organization. Then she returns to work. After she is finished laying in most of the color, she depicts the sky in a subtle sliver of blue. “It’s just a compliment to the rest of the painting,” she says. “I don’t want to distract the eye from the Martin home.”

The final stage in completing a work is her favorite. That’s when Marron-LaRue dots the canvas with a mixture of white, cadmium yellow, and cadmium lemon to evoke sunlight. “They’re like staccato notes in music,” she says of these color “dots.” “They are the color notes that create light. I love an excuse to take big, fat wads of paint and identify where the sunlit areas are.”

Such light areas also help move the viewer’s eye through the painting. “Everything in the painting should support the jewel in the center, the house,” she says. A few minutes later she takes a step back, slashes a white stripe across the roofline, and says with a flourish, “Cha-ching!”

At 11:45 in the morning she signs the painting in the lower right-hand corner and declares it finished. As for the title, it’s ready too. The day before, Marron-LaRue had visited Maria Martin and told her she planned to paint her house. She asked Maria what to call the painting. Martin replied, “Casa de Martin.” The name stuck.

Three days later, the final day of the PAPA event, Marron-LaRue displays Casa de Martin at the casino building along with works by other PAPA artists. A couple from Corona del Mar, CA, falls in love with the piece and buy it. The couple says they have come to Catalina Island annually for 27 years, and that Casa de Martin captures the spirit, color, and light of the place as they know it. “It feeds your soul whenever people say the painting speaks to them. It makes me feel good. And it’s one of the perks of being an artist,” Marron-LaRue says.

Photos courtesy the artist and Joan Irvine Smith Fine Arts, Laguna Beach, CA; Trailside Galleries, Scottsdale, AZ; El Presidio Gallery, Tucson, AZ; Lynne White’s Shriver Gallery, Taos, NM; and Monticello Gallery, Dallas, TX.

Featured in March 2001