Debra Huse captures the California coast on its own terms
By Bonnie Gangelhoff
This story was featured in the February 2013 issue of Southwest Art magazine. Order the Southwest Art February 2013 print edition, or download the Southwest Art February 2013 issue now…Or just subscribe to Southwest Art and never miss a story!
When Debra Huse received a top honor at the annual Laguna Plein Air Painting Invitational awards dinner recently, the audience erupted into applause. But a second round of applause might have swept through the room if the artists and collectors present knew the unusual circumstances under which ENCHANTING COASTAL KELP was painted. While other artists depicted scenes they observed from shore, with their feet planted on terra firma, Huse painted her award-winning landscape from the deck of a boat drifting unanchored in the Pacific Ocean—the vessel rocking back and forth and her canvas gently swaying with the currents. This was not the first time the Southern California artist had worked on deck, but it was the first time she had done so for a museum plein-air show. Aiming a paintbrush at a moving target is pretty risky business. But Huse does have miles and miles of experience painting on both land and sea.
A member of the American Society of Marine Artists, Huse currently has a painting in the organization’s traveling show on view at the Haggin Museum in Stockton, CA. In addition to the Laguna show, Huse is also a regular participant in other plein-air events stretching from coast to coast, including Maryland’s Plein Air Easton, Colorado’s Telluride Plein Air, and Hawaii’s Maui Plein Air Painting Invitational. Although she has painted scenes across the country, she is best known for scenes of the Southern California coast that capture its special sense of place.
A few years ago in a lecture at the Maui plein-air event, Jean Stern, art historian and executive director of the Irvine Museum, had this to say about Huse: “Debra Huse takes a loving look at the quintessential California lifestyle—the beaches, boats, gardens, and people, all partaking of the ‘good life’ in the Golden State. An astute observer of everyday life, Debra presents her subjects immersed in the unique light and warmth of coastal Southern California. A true plein-air painter, her paintings are direct and honest views of what is all around her.”
Viewers familiar with Huse’s coastal scenes might be surprised to learn that she was born and raised in the landlocked state of Indiana. However, as a youngster she was never far from the lakes where her family regularly vacationed in the summer. Her father had served in the U.S. Navy and shared his love of water and boats with the family. By the time she was 4 years old, Huse knew how to water ski, and alongside her growing affection for life on the water, she was also developing a keen interest in art. She was exposed to art through her mother, an amateur artist whose paintings hung on the walls throughout their home, including boating scenes that graced their kitchen walls.
Many artists say they began their careers sketching, painting, and drawing as youngsters, and Huse is no exception. The difference is that Huse, perhaps more than some budding artists, became serious about art very early on. When she was just 10, her mother enrolled her in classes with a professional painter, where she learned the fundamentals and even how to stretch her own canvases. A year later she was awarded a prestigious summer scholarship to the John Herron Art Institute. Not yet 12 years old, she took classes in an array of media, including printmaking, ceramics, oil painting, and even classic life drawing with nude models. “It was really cool. I got to take college classes. I even had a locker like the college kids,” Huse recalls. “But most importantly, I learned to take art seriously.”
Once in high school she continued with art classes, often working on pen-and-ink drawings and watercolors late into the night. When it came time for college, she was accepted into the fine-arts department at Indiana University in Bloomington, and it was there she sold her first artwork for $25, a pastel interior of a campus greenhouse. After graduation she was hired by a firm in southern Indiana to assist artist C.W. Mundy in creating illustrations of sports megastars like Larry Bird and Magic Johnson. Two years later she moved on—first working as a freelance art director and then, in 1986, landing a full-time position with the global advertising agency Saatchi & Saatchi in Newport Beach, CA. She pulled up her Midwestern stakes and moved westward to the Southern California coast. “I was young and thought it was a great opportunity. I also thought I would go for a year and then go home,” she recalls. Famous last words.
Today, 26 years later, she calls Basin Marine Shipyard in Newport Beach her artistic home. Her studio space is inside one of 30 garages that belong mostly to fishermen who store their gear there. With the climate temperate year round, Huse is able to take her easel outdoors frequently and paint amid the boats in the marina. Over the years she has developed a tremendous respect for the fishermen who carry on the ancient tradition of feeding people from the sea—an element she tries to convey in her work, she says.
Some days she enlists her husband, Randy Ressel, to captain the couple’s 43-foot sportfishing boat for a plein-air excursion to nearby Catalina Island, one of her favorite places to paint. “I love painting from the boat around the many harbors and coves of the island,” she says. “There are endless opportunities for beauty and dramatic lighting. And being free from the land is wonderful.”
Ressel has outfitted their boat, The Grouper, with a few moveable fishing-rod holders and also made Huse a short fishing rod that screws into the bottom of her paint box so she can use the rod as a tripod when the boat is anchored. The rod fits securely into the rod holders on the boat. If the boat is unanchored, she just makes sure her tripod is secure. “Then you roll with the boat and forget about it,” she says. “The only tricky part is if you are going for a small detail in a painting and the boat is pitching. I hold my breath then.”
She relishes overnighting on board, rising early, and heading up onto the bow in shorts and a T-shirt for a day’s work. “The water has its own voice. The movement, the way the light reflects off of it, is totally different from the land,” she says. “If there is wind, it changes the value and color of the water. If there is no wind, there are beautiful reflections and a sense of calm.”
For Huse, painting on location on land or at sea is a way of life—a photograph simply won’t tell the whole story and record the nuances of color and value accurately. “The tricky part is the light changing, but that also adds excitement for the person painting on location. You are capturing the atmosphere while it’s happening. It’s a great challenge and joy to feel the breeze and see all the critters that come to visit you.”
Huse is aware that she follows in the footsteps of the early California Impressionists who also came to the Golden State from across the country but in the early part of the 20th century. They, too, stayed on to capture its breathtaking seashores, mountains, and deserts. Like Armin Hansen and Edgar Payne before her, Huse creates paintings that evoke the high drama, lushness, and light of the natural world. Working on location keeps her outlook flexible and her actions spontaneous, she says. For example, when out to sea working on ENCHANTED COASTAL KELP, Huse originally wanted to concentrate on the Laguna Beach shoreline. But as the painting progressed, she became more and more enamored with the tangle of orange kelp undulating in front of her, drawing her attention away from the shore. In response, she kept moving the horizon line up in the painting, so she could focus more on the kelp. Eventually Huse scraped down the whole painting with a palette knife. And in the end the shoreline became very small and the ocean vast and expansive.
“Oil is such a luscious medium,” Huse says. “Applying lots of paint, moving it around, and carving out areas is fascinating. As a contemporary plein-air colorist, I strive to capture the beauty of the moment, the poetry of the atmosphere, and the notes of colorful light with the spontaneity and energy of a painter intrigued.”
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