Eric Merrell | A Sense of Wonder

Eric Merrell expresses the magical beauty of the natural world

By Norman Kolpas

Eric Merrell, Through the Chaparral, oil, 18 x 24.

Eric Merrell, Through the Chaparral, oil, 18 x 24.

This story was featured in the June 2018 issue of Southwest Art magazine. Get the Southwest Art June 2018 print issue or digital download now–then subscribe to Southwest Art and never miss another story.

One night a few years ago, Eric Merrell was hiking and sketching in the foothills of the San Gabriel Mountains—which are just a few miles north of the home he shares with his wife, photographer Ramona Rosales, and their cat on a quiet residential street in Pasadena, CA. The almost-full moon was low in the sky, providing him with the strong shadows and bold-yet-subtle definition he prefers when working on the moody nighttime landscapes he loves to create.

Suddenly, Merrell glanced up from his sketchbook to see two glowing pairs of eyes, close to the ground, staring at him eerily through the darkness. “They didn’t seem menacing, just curious,” he recalls. As quickly as they had appeared, the eyes vanished. “Then they reappeared a few feet away,” he adds with a chuckle. “They were probably gray foxes, which I’d seen in that area before.” He not only made mental note of the apparition but also added to his sketch the two pairs of tiny orbs.

Later, back in his studio—a converted garage packed with paintings, rows of plein-air sketches, and countless Moleskine notebooks filled with fine pencil jottings—Merrell transformed his original impressions over the course of several months into the aptly titled MYSTERY RETURNS [see page 54]. The large oil recreates the whole scene, including two bright little dots gazing out from the darkness in the lower-right corner and another two just to the left of the middle foreground.

“For myself, one of the overriding aspects of all my paintings is that sense of wonder or mystery,” he says, reflecting on his almost 17 years as a professional fine artist. Whether his subject is a daytime or moonlit depiction of the natural world, a still life, or one of the reflective figurative works he’ll occasionally do as a challenging change of pace, Merrell always aims to plumb the mysteries of the world around him.

Since childhood, which he spent primarily in the Northern California agricultural town of Gilroy along with several years in Rochester, NY, Merrell has received ample support for that outlook. Both of his parents had backgrounds in botany; his father’s work in the seed and vegetable business and his mother’s passion for gardening, along with regular family camping trips in the Sierras, constantly nurtured their son’s interest in nature. “My mom still grows lots of vegetables and fruit trees, including persimmons, and she has a huge greenhouse with cactuses,” Merrell notes. “And I’ve got a pretty good green thumb from them.”

Art was as much of a constant for him as nature. “I always had a little spiral-bound sketchbook with me,” he says. Mostly in pencil, Merrell would copy comic books, especially the indie fantasy adventure Elfquest—the creation of illustrator Wendy Pini, who herself had grown up in Gilroy—along with renditions of photos from the skateboarding magazines he loved at the time. His mom and dad recognized his budding talent, signing him up for after-school art classes when he was a fifth grader in Rochester, and then later back in Gilroy, where he attended junior and senior high school. Even then, he says, “I still had that sketchbook stuffed in my backpack and was constantly drawing in class.”

He talked to his parents about pursuing art professionally, and they offered their full support. “They told me to just go to college and study with people who’ve been down some of those roads, and then figure out where to go from there.”

During his senior year, Merrell brought his portfolio to a college fair in Oakland, where he was offered some scholarship money at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia. He entered the fine-art department there; but, finding himself dissatisfied with the lack of practical training he was offered, he switched into the illustration program for his second year before transferring to the prestigious Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, where he graduated in 2001 with a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree in illustration.

That program provided Merrell with the rigorous foundation he desired for the fine-art career he had long wanted to pursue. Soon after graduation, he was invited to visit the nearby DreamWorks Animation studios, a source of employment for many Art Center alumni. “I met a few people there, and I found it really intriguing that there were snacks and coffee all the time on every floor,” he says with some bemusement. “But when the artists there asked me what my plans were, and I said that the next week I was going to the Sierras to paint, I could see this look in their eyes that they wanted to go off and paint, too.” The choice was clear to him. “If I could somehow make painting work and not have to go into an office, that’s what I wanted to do.”

Merrell was helped by his early association with the California Art Club, a Pasadena-based organization founded in 1909 that is one of the oldest professional art groups on the West Coast. “Before I finished up school,” he says, “I’d already met some of the members, and I did a few exhibits with them. That was very encouraging.”

Beyond encouragement, Merrell garnered sage career advice, particularly from established members Daniel Pink-ham and Stephen Mirich. “I could see that they lived economically and didn’t have new cars or gym memberships,” he says. “Dan said to me, ‘Just don’t spend the money.’ I learned from them both that you should live your life so that your art is at the top of your pyramid.” Setting out on his professional career with such sensible dedication and purpose, Merrell soon found his efforts rewarded in his graduation year when he was juried into the California Art Club’s 91st annual Gold Medal Exhibition, an event considered one of the top shows of traditional fine art in the nation. He’s continued to be selected every year since, including for the latest edition, held this month [see page 22]. Numerous other well-regarded exhibitions have followed, including his inclusion for the first time in this year’s Masters of the American West Art Exhibition and Sale at the Autry Museum of the American West.

One of the most significant honors for Merrell, and an important career turning point, came in 2009, when he was one of six artists from around the world chosen to receive a coveted two-month summer residency at Joshua Tree Highlands, an enclave of studio retreats adjacent to Joshua Tree National Park. The vast, rugged, unspoiled area spans 1,235 square miles of desert just over two hours due east of Los Angeles. With daytime temperatures often soaring above 100 degrees and stark, unsparing sunshine, Merrell quickly found that “at about 10 a.m. you start to lose most of the shadows,” restricting him to painting in the early morning and late afternoon and focusing on “things you’re a little more used to seeing.”

So, inspired by the nighttime scenes of his painter friends Pinkham and Mirich, as well as those by historical greats, like paintings of the Thames River at night by James Abbott McNeill Whistler, Merrell began to paint desert nocturnes. “I’d go out into the park at night and do sketches of it in the moonlight,” he says. “It was pretty fantastic to explore. Somehow, the mood really resonated for me, something about the lower light and the shapes of things in the darkness. During the daytime, we expect a certain resolution and more details. At night, there’s a sense of more freedom. You don’t have to explain things as much.”

A key moment in the development of his nocturnes was the realization that, since subjects in the dark all had similar values without much of the contrast one sees by daylight, he had to depict form by using color alone. “I use the same palette as I do for all my other paintings, including greens, blues, violets, cadmium red, and cadmium orange,” he says. “I just mix them differently. And there are even some situations where I use my yellows as well. I’m painting relationships of colors, not specific local colors.” That evocative approach to desert subjects has carried over into scenes lit by lingering traces of daylight, such as his painting CIRCLE SKY [see page 6], which depicts specimens of the national park’s eponymous spindly, twisted members of the agave family.

Merrell continues to visit and paint both nighttime and dawn or dusk scenes of Joshua Tree and other deserts of the southwestern United States, as well as places farther afield. He particularly enjoyed the arched cliffs of Étretat on the Normandy coast of France, which he and Rosales visited on their honeymoon in 2011. And, more recently, en route to Denver to participate in the annual Coors Western Art Exhibit & Sale, he stopped to sketch New Mexico’s White Sands National Monument, which gave rise to a minimalist study in shades of white and blue entitled SLOPES OF DISTANT WIND.

Going forward, he would love an opportunity to paint in Provence, and he hopes to be granted the monthlong residency he recently applied for to paint in Death Valley National Park next January. Regardless of the destination, though, Merrell is impelled simply by the opportunity to “see a new place, find something engaging.” He pauses a moment, and then adds with a smile, “like seeing eyes in the dark!”

Altamira Fine Art, Scottsdale, AZ, and Jackson, WY; Egeli Gallery, Provincetown, MA; Maxwell
Alexander Gallery,
Los Angeles, CA; Oh-Be-Joyful Gallery, Crested Butte, CO, and Telluride, CO.

This story was featured in the June 2018 issue of Southwest Art magazine. Get the Southwest Art June 2018 print issue or digital download now–then subscribe to Southwest Art and never miss another story.

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