Kathleen Dunphy paints the ever-changing landscape
By Bonnie Gangelhoff
This story was featured in the June 2013 issue of Southwest Art magazine. Order the Southwest Art June 2013 print issue, or get the Southwest Art June 2013 digital download now…Or better yet, just subscribe to Southwest Art and never miss a story!
Autumn in the Sierra Nevada Mountains means a riot of colors in the trees—orange in the oaks, yellow in the birches, and crimson in the maples. Kathleen Dunphy knows this magnificent terrain well. For nearly a decade she has called Murphys, CA, home. The historic gold-rush town is perched in the foothills, halfway between Yosemite National Park and Lake Tahoe. She has spent many days here capturing the colors as well as the light as it falls across the foothills. The back roads close to home offer her endless visual fodder.
DAPPLED LIGHT is a good example of the world outside Dunphy’s studio door. In this painting she depicts a shed that she has passed hundreds of times on daily walks with her dogs, Angus and Ellie. But one day last autumn, the pattern of the cool shadows cast by a nearby tree combined with the yellow-orange of the autumn foliage caught her eye. “I suddenly saw a painting where there had never been one before,” she says. Much to Angus and Ellie’s disappointment, Dunphy cut the walk short, dashed home to pick up her painting gear, and rushed back to the scene before the light changed.
Dunphy is fond of calling her style of painting “impatient realism”—tighter than impressionism but looser than realism. She is not compelled to render a scene literally and in painstaking detail. For that reason, she paints 80 to 90 percent of each piece on location and leaves the finishing touches for when she is back in the studio. “I prefer to get away from the subject matter and judge the painting based solely on how successful it is as a work of art, not on how exactly I copied what I was seeing.”
Surprisingly enough, when Dunphy learned that she had received a full scholarship to San Francisco’s Academy of Art University in 2000, she wanted to concentrate on becoming a figurative painter. But 13 years later she is well known as an award-winning plein-air artist. What happened? The way Dunphy tells the story, she walked into a plein-air painting class at the academy and experienced a seminal moment in the direction of her fine-art career. “The axis of the earth turned, and I said, ‘this is where I belong—with my two loves, painting and being outdoors,’” Dunphy says. She likes to joke that she quickly changed her class schedule to taking “all landscapes, all the time.”
Years later, after completing miles of canvas on location in wind, snow, and rain, she is reaping the rewards of that spur-of-the-moment decision. As this story was going to press, Dunphy had recently learned of her acceptance into the prestigious Plein Air Painters of America, an honor she considers one of the proudest accomplishments of her career. A selection of the artist’s paintings is on view beginning this month in the PAPA show at the Leigh Yawkey Woodson Art Museum in Wausau, WI. Dunphy’s landscapes are also on display this month at the California Art Club’s annual Gold Medal Juried Exhibition and Sale and in July at Knowlton Gallery in Lodi, CA.
Knowlton Gallery owner Robin Knowlton, who has represented the artist since 2006, says that Dunphy’s landscapes are a favorite among collectors because she has deep knowledge of her subject matter. “I can always count on Kathleen’s paintings to be the premium works in any show. She paints plein air at every opportunity and spends considerable time in her studio working on larger paintings,” Knowlton says. “Kathleen doesn’t run from one plein-air competition to another. Instead, she concentrates on steadily painting and keeping her galleries supplied with top-flight work.”
While there is a treasure trove of natural beauty nearby, Dunphy also takes regular trips to California’s Pacific coast, a four-hour drive from Murphys. Seaside destinations are among her favorite places to set up an easel—Point Lobos, Pacific Grove, and the whole stretch of coastline from Garrapata Bay to Monterey. She relishes standing at the ocean’s edge and feeling the power and struggle of the land and sea that has gone on for time immemorial, she says.
In February, Dunphy took her first trip of the year to the coast. That day at Whalers Cove in Point Lobos was crystal clear and graced with angled winter light. Dunphy completed three studies and a dozen sketches. She was about to pack up and start the long drive home when she felt the sudden urge to get one more look at the pounding surf from a different vantage point—on the west side of Point Lobos. The artist was not disappointed. “I was mesmerized by the churned-up surf and atmosphere created by the pounding waves of the winter seas. I set up my gear and painted for another exhilarating two hours,” she says. The result was a painting aptly titled EXHILARATION. “All other sounds were drowned out by the roaring ocean. Paintings like this are hard to let go [of] because of the emotion behind them, but they’re also the ones that best reflect me as an artist.”
Dunphy is fond of saying that plein-air painting is a lot like catching fish: Sometimes you catch them, and sometimes you don’t. EXHILARATION came at the end of a good day of fishing. One thing that may explain Dunphy’s emotional ties to—and talent for capturing—the sea is that the artist grew up in Maryland, and her family frequented coastal destinations like Ocean City in all the seasons. Dunphy says she never much cared for ocean swimming, but she was enthralled by the waves, the smell of salt air, and the seabirds and often spent hours walking along the shoreline.
As a child, Dunphy says, she was “the kid who was always on the sidewalk with chalk.” She loved art and drawing but didn’t consider fine art a career possibility until many years later. That turning point came in 1996. Dunphy was 33 years old and had started several successful businesses in this country and in Germany, where her husband, Randy Smart, had been stationed in the Air Force. One day that year, when the couple was living in Anchorage, AK, Dunphy realized that if she was going to follow her dream of being an artist, “it was now or never.” She quickly signed up for classes at the University of Alaska. Two years later, in 1998, she enrolled in a workshop with plein-air painter Kevin Macpherson, and then in 2000, she began her formal art education at the Academy of Art University.
When she first started painting landscapes, Dunphy recalls that she felt like the highest compliment someone could pay her was to say that her paintings looked like photographs. Now she winces at the thought. “Today if someone says that, I say, ‘oh darn it.’ I am more interested in conveying the way a place feels,” she says. “Instead of portraying every single rock, I am more interested in what the heat feels like when it hits those rocks. I really know now that it’s not so much about duplicating what I am seeing but the emotion I am feeling when I look at a place.”
Like many plein-air artists, Dunphy is often inspired by the “magic hour”—the fleeting light at dawn and dusk. But light at any time of day can spontaneously inspire a painting. For example, when she is teaching plein-air workshops, Dunphy likes to tell her students about the time she painted a breathtaking landscape in rural Northern California. The scene featured beautiful plowed fields with a farm in the distance and a brilliant blue building with light glancing off its roof, an element that pulled the whole composition together. “Later, as I drove past the farm on my way home, I realized the blue building I had been painting was a Porta-Potty. Had I known what I was looking at, would I have painted it? Maybe not, but I learned an invaluable lesson about painting what you are excited about, no matter what it is.”
Modern life has a way of removing people from nature, so Dunphy feels fortunate to be able to stand in the elements every day and portray the wonders of the world in real time as a plein-air painter. Whether she is high in the Sierras or standing on a cliff overlooking the Pacific, the ebb and flow of the seasons are ever-changing sources of inspiration. “There is beauty all around us. I want my paintings to make people slow down and take a look,” she says.
Featured in the June 2013 issue of Southwest Art magazine–click below to purchase:
Southwest Art June 2013 digital download
Southwest Art June 2013 print issue
Or subscribe to Southwest Art and never miss a story!
MORE RESOURCES FOR ART COLLECTORS & ENTHUSIASTS
• Subscribe to Southwest Art magazine
• Learn how to paint & how to draw with downloads, books, videos & more from North Light Shop
• Sign up for your Southwest Art email newsletter & download a FREE ebook