Gil Dellinger | Larger Than Life

By Bonnie Gangelhoff

California artist Gil Dellinger thinks and paints on a grand scale

If painter Gil Dellinger had to pick his favorite place to paint, Garrapata State Park on the northern end of California’s mighty Big Sur would easily get the nod. The 3,000-acre park features chaparral-covered hills, deep canyons, and a spectacular shoreline where thundering waves crash against jagged rocks. Dellinger, a native Californian, has been drawn to this rugged edge of the continent for some time now. Four or five times a year, you can find him perched on a rock overlooking the sea or hiking out to a point and casting a glance backward to the coastline. His painting infinite repetition was painted from the cliffs at the park.

Garrapata is such a favorite of Dellinger’s, in fact, that he has told his wife, Alexa, many times, “When I die, just throw me off these cliffs!” And when he hears of other artists painting there, he admits to feeling a wave of jealousy that is downright territorial. “I always want to say, ‘you can’t paint that, it’s mine!’” he jokes.

Dellinger follows in the tradition of early California Impressionists who were also captivated by this coastal expanse, such as Jack Wilkinson Smith and William Ritschel. Like them, Dellinger is intrigued by the way the colors reflecting on the water change depending on the seasons and the shifting light. Something about the eternal mystery of the ocean keeps him coming back for more, the artist says.


His usual routine for Garrapata painting excursions goes like this: Rising at about 4 o’clock in the morning, he leaves his hometown of Stockton in his silver Dodge van, arriving at Big Sur just before dawn. Before even picking up a paintbrush, he spends time observing the scene. “I’m like a surfer watching to see what the wave action is,” Dellinger says. “That’s how I get a sense of how I want to approach and paint the scene.” Once he settles on a location, he begins sketching or painting small studies in acrylic to capture the shifting moods and atmospheres that unfold throughout the day. “In the early morning there is a sort of cold, lemony light that hits the whites of the waves and the rocks,” Dellinger explains. “As it gets towards 9 in the morning, the light gets weaker. Late afternoon, it gets yellowy orange.”

Although he has been coming to Garrapata for years, these days there is a major difference. Where he once tended to portray the sea on small or medium-size canvases, he now transforms many of his initial studies into large pieces instead. “I’ve painted large for years, but I haven’t necessarily shown them until now,” he says. “I didn’t think my position in the market could bear it. I shouldn’t have let that influence me, but that is part of it.”

The turning point came three years ago when he started showing his work at Michael Zschoche’s gallery in Newport Beach, CA. Zschoche told him he had a market for large work and Dellinger was ready to take a leap of faith. “When Michael gave me the freedom to paint large, he really freed me up to do what I wanted to do,” Dellinger says. “I began getting large-scale commissions through the gallery, and that got me started. The bigger pieces seemed suddenly to be zipping out the door.”

In his first major show at the gallery in 2006, he sold a large-scale seascape titled sunset at rockledge. So many people wanted the painting, in fact, that Dellinger decided to do a series of works from that location in Laguna Beach, as well as scenes from Garrapata, for his next show in 2007.

“There’s definitely a developing market for large paintings,” Zschoche says. “One thing I noticed is that with plein-air painting, everyone seemed to be painting the same size. I decided I needed to take my artists to another level. You don’t sell as many large paintings, but the types of clients you do get are bigger and bigger. They are serious art collectors, not ‘decorative’ types.”

One such client, a big-name Hollywood actor, banged on the gallery window one night after 10 p.m. It was too dark for Zschoche to recognize the well-known face, but the next day the actor called and purchased sunset at rockledge and eventually eight other pieces by Dellinger. “Large paintings make an impact when you walk in a room. They are enveloping, awe-inspiring, and people just walk in and go ‘wow,’” Zschoche says. “It’s like watching a movie on a big screen, which is much different from watching a little 14-inch television set.”

Dellinger agrees. “Something about a big painting, if done well, draws people in, and their mouths drop open,” he says. “If the mood is strong enough, they get inside of it and get lost.”

The seeds of Gil Dellinger’s interest in large paintings were actually sown many years ago. Soon after graduating from San Francisco State University with a bachelor’s degree in sculpture and a master’s degree in fine arts, he landed a position as a preparator at the Haggin Museum in Stockton. The young artist was charged with hanging exhibitions and creating a docent program. He became familiar with the museum’s impressive collections, which include works by Adolphe William Bouguereau, Paul Gauguin, and Childe Hassam.

But it was the large-scale landscapes by American painters such as Albert Bierstadt that spoke to him on a visceral level. “The spatial relationships and the grandeur of the feeling of mystery,” Dellinger says. “They touched me because they said so much about the universe without being pushy or heavy-handed. They talked about the beauty of things.”

After working at the museum for a year, he was offered a position on the faculty of the University of the Pacific, where he taught drawing and painting for three decades before retiring in 2000. Although he received a distinguished faculty award in 1990, his passion has always been to paint. Throughout his teaching career he spent his spare time in his studio, painting mostly landscapes and some figures in pastel and, more recently, acrylic. His subject matter continues to include rural scenes, California vineyards, and ships at port.

After retirement, though, he found he missed some of the company that university life provided. “Painting can be a lonely business,” Dellinger says. He had already started to meet other landscape painters by participating in various plein-air painting events. And it wasn’t long before he assumed a leadership role, organizing shows to display the talents of the landscape painters from around the country he was meeting. “This is the thing I have the skills to do,” Dellinger says. “I know how to get groups of people to do things…”

Featured in February 2008

Find the rest of this exciting article and more
by subscribing to Southwest Art magazine.