Frank Serrano’s atmospheric plein-air paintings capture urban Los Angeles and the surrounding Southern California scenery
By Norman Kolpas
On an autumn Sunday afternoon, Frank Serrano sets up his easel on a rise above the beach in Dana Point. It’s a stretch of Pacific coastline that early 19th-century seafaring writer Richard Henry Dana Jr. (for whom it was later named) described as “the only romantic spot on the coast.” Today the author of Two Years Before the Mast probably wouldn’t recognize the place, as an affluent resort community and marina has grown around his namesake locale. But development doesn’t deter Serrano from uncovering the beauty of modern Southern California.
Surrounded by eight students who have signed up for his plein-air painting workshop, Serrano begins to sketch out on a small canvas board a scene that expresses the unspoiled serenity of the setting. In the foreground, a short jetty of jumbled boulders juts into the waves. A few miles out, a sailboat glides toward a distant breakwater, its mast and sail blending with the afternoon mist.
Gathered closely around him, the students stand transfixed as the scene comes to life under Serrano’s quickly moving brush. Mixing oils to just the right shades, he repeatedly adjusts the colors of rock facets as the changing afternoon light gradually reveals more pleasing tones. With swift dabs, he adds a froth of waves breaking toward the shore. He suddenly decides to make a change to the water in the distance, wiping away paint with a swipe of a paper towel and then replacing it with a lighter hue that casts the boat in sharper relief.
Finally, he’s done. The work before him possesses a richness—of colors and tones, of highlights and shadows, of realistic details and a hazy atmosphere—that conjures an unusual sense of depth for a two-dimensional work. “A plein-air painting shouldn’t look like a split-second snapshot,” explains Serrano. “It’s something that you capture over two hours.”
Thinking of Serrano’s works as a series of time-lapse images somehow explains why they appeal to the many people who have been drawn to them over his almost 18 years as a professional fine-art painter. With uncanny sureness, he manages to create an atmospheric, timeless aura by portraying each key detail of a scene at the moment its innate beauty is most captivating.
“You could say I’m both a tonalist and a realist,” Serrano notes, explaining his approach. “While I try to convey reality on the canvas, I’m more interested in capturing a mood. That’s why I prefer hazy, atmospheric days to bright, sunny ones.”
There’s another way, however, in which the passage of time burnishes Serrano’s paintings: He gravitates toward scenes that convey the enduring appeal of his native Los Angeles and Southern California. “I’ve learned to find beauty in the craziest places, right here in town,” says the artist, who now lives in suburban Glendale, a few miles north of downtown.
By way of example, he cites the Los Angeles River, which was tamed by miles of massive concrete channels built by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers after a series of floods devastated the city in the 1930s. Now being restored as a series of urban wildlife sanctuaries, the river draws Serrano to paint not only its rushing water, abundant wildlife, and lush vegetation but also, as seen in pieces like L.A. RIVER HUES, the elegance of its landmark bridges.
“I’ve met lots of people who live and work here in Los Angeles and, when they see what I paint, it reminds them of how wonderful this city is,” he continues. “I’m proud to be an artist who was born here.”
The 43-year-old Serrano grew up not far from Los Angeles International Airport, the middle of three children of a French father and Portuguese mother. From early childhood, he says, it was clear to the entire family that “art was my calling.” Paper and pencil were always around, and he’d draw pictures of dogs and horses, as well as favorite cartoon characters like Goofy, Popeye, Pinocchio, Woody Woodpecker, and the Flintstones. Recognizing that he excelled at art, his parents made sure he was always enrolled in after-school art classes at local community centers, and throughout school he won his share of awards.
By the time Serrano was in Westchester High School, he’d begun to earn money through his talent, taking to heart entrepreneurial lessons he’d learned as a participant in the Junior Achievement program. “I did architectural drawings for new awnings for a Sizzler restaurant for a friend’s father,” he recalls. “And I designed a company logo for another friend’s father.”
Instead of following the well-trodden path to art college, Serrano started his own business creating commercial art, logos, and signs for a wide range of clients. That, in turn, led Serrano to specialize for a time in airbrushed typography for custom race cars, hot rods, and trucks.
As he progressed through his twenties, however, he grew tired of the constant travel to car shows. So he opened a small screen-printing business designing shirts and hats for car shows as well as for jet-ski and boat races. That, in turn, led him into specializing in promotional wear for popular TV series like “Cops” and “Buffy the Vampire Slayer.”
All the while Serrano was running his commercial art business, he also felt the allure of fine art. “I always enjoyed going with friends to museums and art shows, down to Laguna Beach or up to Carmel,” he says. In 1993, drawn by the ambiance of the artists’ community, he moved his business to Laguna, where he found himself painting seascapes in his spare time.
One day, a girlfriend asked him to paint a picture. “It was a no-brainer,” he laughs. “I even threw in some whales and dolphins for her.” Others saw the results and began asking him to paint for them, too.
After observing Laguna’s many plein-air painters at work, Serrano decided to switch mediums. “I’d been working in acrylics, but they would dry too fast outdoors. Everyone down at the beach was painting in oils, so I started using them, too.” He continued to paint on the side, showing his increasingly accomplished results in local art shows and small galleries while he also began offering plein-air workshops, something he still does from time to time.
Then, in 1999, with his reputation growing, Serrano organized a plein-air painting trip into the Sierra Nevada for himself and 11 other well-known artists, resulting in a widely respected, strong-selling show at Exchange Fine Arts Gallery in Orange, CA. “I knew then I needed to make the change,” he says. That year, Serrano became a full-time fine artist.
He also began to realize that he didn’t need to trek to the High Sierra or the Four Corners or other popular artists’ destinations to capture the kind of atmospheric scenes he’d become known for. “The tonal stuff I prefer was right in my back yard,” he says. “In Los Angeles, you get the marine layer with moisture in the air, and you get smog, and when they mix together you get this beautiful haze, a mood that’s created in the air.”
That doesn’t mean he sticks exclusively to urban or suburban subjects. A freeway drive just an hour or two from his home can bring him to scenic spots like Dana Point or Santa Barbara, where more conventional plein-air subjects await fresh interpretation.
Take, for example, LATE AFTERNOON SANTA BARBARA, which depicts Leadbetter Point State Park, on the coast just north of that idyllic coastal city’s harbor. “I was facing west, painting into the sun, which was low in the sky, giving those atmospheric halo effects,” he recalls. The point itself appears in deep shadow, and the distant clouds, mingling with a haze rising from the Pacific, already glow warmly with a hint of the sunset soon to come. It’s a signature Serrano work, so much so that the artist also made a 16-by-24-inch version from the original 8-by-12-inch painting. The larger piece is included in his current two-man show at Maureen Murphy Fine Arts in the Santa Barbara suburb of Montecito, where his paintings are hanging alongside works by Ralph Waterhouse.
Regardless of the resulting size of a canvas, Serrano believes that as a plein-air painter he’s finally reached a point in his career where he feels fully contented and satisfied. “When you’re outside painting,” he explains, “you have to be completely involved in the moment. And when you’re completely involved like that, all your troubles go away. I enjoy my life now, because I have lots of those moments.”
Maureen Murphy Fine Arts, Montecito, CA; Betsy Swartz Fine Art Consulting, Bozeman, MT; www.pleinairgallery.com.
Two-man show, Maureen Murphy Fine Arts, through December 31.
Solo show, Serrano Studio Gallery, Glendale, CA, February 5-6, 2011.
Featured in December 2010