John Cosby is a passionate plein air painter. To him it’s a hunting expedition. “You hunt the scene, the sensory memories, and the ability to get out of your own head, and feel the place,” he says. “Painting outdoors is an adventure, and with all its ups and downs, should be approached as such.” For those that have never painted en plein air, he advises getting good painting instruction. “I teach many skills that are best learned indoors and then applied outdoors with better clarity. Painting outdoors presents many issues that can only be seen in person, so by not gaining at least a competent level of handling plein air skills, you will miss some of the good stuff.”
About his own painting, surprisingly, he does not find anything difficult about painting, only greater or lesser challenges. “After all these years spent with paint and easel I have learned that patience and the pursuit of solid knowledge goes a long way towards solving problems and is very satisfying to accomplish. I look for and embrace my problems as challenges. The most difficult thing is seeing my weaknesses without bias. My greatest breakthroughs are when I see my mistakes and weaknesses so I can address them.”
Cosby, who lives in San Clemente, CA is a founding board member of the Laguna Beach Plein Air Painters Association, founder of the Laguna Beach Plein Air Invitational, and Signature Member of the California Art Club, and Plein Air Painters of America.
I hope you’ll enjoy this interview with the excellent painter, John Cosby. I’m honored to bring it to you. (Click images to enlarge)
There’s a big difference between loving to draw as a child and deciding to pursue art as a livelihood; how did that decision come about for you? There were many defining moments that changed or solidified my course. One was the first time I traded a drawing of another boat I had done while floating in a harbor somewhere on the intercoastal waterway while headed south with little to no money. The people on the boat I was drawing wanted to see what I was doing and then asked what it would take to get it; the trade cost them a hurricane lantern, so we were a lot warmer in our little boat. Many years later after a stint as an illustrator I had the owner of In-N-Out Burger up to my apartment studio to review some work I was doing for them. While there he noticed my land and seascape paintings and asked if they were for sale, since this was a hobby I had to think fast and I said that yes I guess they are, and while I tried to think of a price for the one he was in front of, he said how much for all of them? The next day I celebrated, bought more paint and set to a career in fine art…that was 25 years ago. These two were the biggest, but there were many more, less defined but just as significant events.
At age 18 you found yourself in the military, assigned as an advance man for the Executive Branch of the U.S. Government; how did that job come about and what were your responsibilities? My time in the military came through enlistment in the Army at the end of Vietnam. I didn’t have funds for collage and wanted to get an education; the Army offered me that, as they were recruiting with benefits after the draft ended. After a few weeks in basic training I was approached for special assignment positions as I had floated to the top in the aptitude tests in a few categories. I got the job after an exhaustive interview process, training and background clearance. My job was to be part of an agency within the White House that handled any secure communications for the Executive branch of government. I got to travel the world, just like the Army was advertising at the time, but in style. I was in the right place at the right time.
What year did your fine art career begin, and who/what had the greatest influence on you in those early days? I guess my fine art career started in about the mid 80s with that meeting with Mr. Snyder (In-N-Out Burger) and progressed rather quickly as I opened my own gallery in Newport Beach CA, after finding that the few representational galleries out there were not interested in showing a new unproven and rather untrained artist. The public had more progressive tastes, and after my first few shows that sold out, I had a lot of offers from galleries. Marco Sasonne, who was living in Laguna Beach at the time, was an early influence on my early work. There were more, but I would say he was the most influential.
Why are you an artist? I am a painter who aspires, one painting at a time, to be an artist. The thing that inspires me most is the opportunity for learning that art offers. I seek to align of my skills and my inspiration so that on occasion I might make Art.
You are a strong proponent of painting from life…en plein air; why is that so important to you? Painting from life offers a candid and truthful view of your subject not filtered through a 3rd party. It also offers a sensory experience that cannot be had in a studio. I paint in and out of the studio but never do a larger painting without having had at least sketched color and design ideas on location. I love the outdoors and traveling, so this also plays into my painting method.
Your paintings are full of light, effectively capturing that wonderful California atmosphere; what are some key principles one needs to bear in mind in order to represent atmosphere accurately? Atmosphere is captured through accurately seeing and representing values and temperature. So, learning and practicing a good working method that allows you to be accurate in you work will go a long way towards making the light and air you want to capture believable. A portrait painter once said there is no emotion in a tube. It is the way you depict the shapes of the face that evokes the expression of that emotion. By regularly experiencing the light in any atmospheric condition I can usually tell what is not right in my painting and fix it.
When selecting a subject to paint, what are you looking for? When I find a place I feel offers something to paint, then I look for patterns of light and shadow. The subject is secondary, I look for interesting shapes.
Please explain your painting process? My painting process is mostly self-taught and consists of 3 phases. First: mass in the scene with color and tonal relativity in a flat mass style, representing light and shadow. Second: “colorize” the masses making them more accurate and interesting as needed. Third: add details. This method works great in the field, as the first step locks the light and shadow down rather quickly. I can then ease up the pressure and look carefully for the next two steps.
I work everyday and can’t wait to apply what I learned yesterday to today’s project.
What are you doing to continue to grow as an artist? To grow as a artist I actively pursue a better knowledge of skills I don’t think are where I want them to be. I do this by taking time away from my daily painting for the market and look for a source of knowledge from which I can benefit. Whether it be someone, some place, or some thing, I will make specific time for it. For instance, I studied the prismatic pallet with Joe Paquet by joining his class for a week. Though we had painted together for many years, I wanted time to study and not just paint. I read “Carlson’s Guide to Landscape Painting” every year and always find a deeper understanding. I always go the best museum shows I can that have things I want to learn from. I also believe that too much success in one type of subject ropes you in and you can become formulaic. To combat this, I allow myself to explore many types of subject and atmospheric conditions.
Your gifts, abilities, and adventurous spirit have enabled you to do many things, including rebuilding an old classic sailing sloop. You even spent three years sailing up and down the eastern seaboard when you were a young man; tell us about that. Do you think those attributes have made you the kind of painter you are today? How? Sailing, hitchhiking, riding my bike cross country, and a fair amount of motorcycle riding, were important things for me to do in my 20’s, as they showed me much about people, lifestyles and our country that I would have not realized had I not stayed in motion like that, and at that age. My portable gift of drawing certainly helped to make this possible, but making art wasn’t the plan, it was more about living the experiences. While sailing I got to meet families and individuals living a “alternative lifestyle”. In general, everyone was well educated and recognized that there was more than one way to live life. The pursuit of gathering things was replaced by nature and the wonder of being free to go anywhere, anytime. We sailed using what we called the “butter method”. If the butter was getting too stiff we went south, and if getting too soft we’d head north. This generally kept many of the friends we had grown close to running into each other without a plan. When living a life stripped of all the chaff, people automatically recognize your skills, and if you share them they make you valuable to society. I started to be recognized as the artist and I found it felt right for me. My thirst for maintaining my traveling lifestyle helped me to realize that art could be a portable career and a way to support my adventures. I had no studio so by default I was a plein air painter, although I didn’t hear that term for many years. My lack of method, training, and specific direction, gave a unique look in my work, and enough art lovers resonated with it to launch a successful painting career that goes on today. Every Artist has a unique story and I think by not following anyone else’s successes I made my own.
What character qualities do you possess that are crucial to your career success? Tenacity and wanderlust. I also love to work with tools.
You are buddies with Joe Paquet, how did you guys meet? You’re working on a collaborative effort called “Rust and Roadsides”, please tell us what that is, its goal and purpose. You only get a few good friends in life and I am thankful Joe is one of mine. We met when he was invited to the Laguna Invitational about the year 2000. I had the unenviable job of herding artists through the opening orientation breakfast, and because of the nature of the situation, we didn’t allow guests in the meeting/breakfast. Joe’s west coast dealer had tagged along and I had to remedy the situation and ask the guest to leave. It was an auspicious beginning to a honest and frank friendship. I have always enjoyed painting roadsides and Joe has always been attracted to industrial subjects. While lamenting the general lack of enthusiasm for these subjects by our galleries at the time, we hit on an idea for a show. I have helped curate a few traveling and stationary museum shows so we decided to launch this multi-year odyssey, independent of sponsorship and completely under our direction. “Rust and Roadsides”, a trip through the American dream, www.rustandroadsides.com, is a painting, audio, and video project that revolves around telling the story of the great cities, people, and communities that built the American dream. The rust belt, as it is known today, has provided us with much more than just paintings of old stuff. The places we have traveled to over the last 6 years have given us the stories of individuals and generations that have been openly shared with us. The goal of this project is to capture the intersection of the past and the present in this vital part of our country, and our collective history. We are about to begin offering sponsorship for a show that will travel to museums around the country as an American Document, a story of who we are now and from where we have come.
Are there some principles of composition that you always adhere to? The things I pay most attention to in composing my paintings are the following: 1) Don’t put your area of interest in the center of the work. 2) When moving the eye through a work, I consider the speed and direction the eye will travel. 3) I watch the edges of the canvas so as to be aware of anything that might take you out of the image. 4) I also am very aware of my division of space and how my information is distributed through the composition. 5) I try and develop a strong area of interest.
Please put these words in order: value, technique, composition, framing, concept, color, drawing. Drawing, Value, Concept, Composition, Technique, Color, Framing
What colors are typically on your palette? For many years I used only Cad Yellow Lemon, Cad Red Medium, Ultramarine Blue and Mixed White. I learned much about color with this limited palette and still, when traveling light, I use this palette. Though I think in terms of the above palette, when mixing my full palette, I use the colors above plus, Cad Yellow Medium, Alizarin Crimson, Cobalt Blue, Cerulean Blue Hue, Viridian Green, Ivory Black and Raw Sienna.
Painting on location is a very integral part of capturing a sense of place. As I mentioned before, to have experienced a place with more than my eyes makes it possible for me to imbue the painting with the full feeling of place.
If you weren’t an artist, what would you most like to be doing for a living? Educating people who are truly motivated to learn.
How would you like to be remembered? “He lived every day to the fullest extent permissible “by law” in some countries”
Today, if someone is interested in pursuing fine art as a career, how would you advise them to go about it? Study the past and apply it to your world. Create from the things you know firsthand. Find a good teacher and listen to what they pass along without your ego in the room. A art career isn’t a sprint it is a life style, so treat both successes and failures as learning experiences. Spend the majority of your time learning tools that you need to make a good painting. By mastering tools of the trade you will find your own voice. Success in art is not about money, so do not measure your successes by your monetary success, you may be very disappointed. Always use the best materials and frames you can afford and your hard work will show better.
If you were able to go back in time, to the age of 18, and reshape your career from that point, what would you do differently? Nothing! I could go on about better training or missteps in my career, but in retrospect, the sum of my experiences made me, molded me, into what I am today, so I think I would stick with the way it happened! OK, one thing, “I would buy Amazon at the opening price”.
John, Thanks so much for taking the time to have this interview, so that your knowledge and experience can be shared with the readers. We very much appreciate all you have done for the art community and plein air painting in particular.
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I am pleased to announce that the Art Renewal Center’s Board of Judges, after reviewing my current work, has changed my affiliation from Associate Living Master (ARCALM) to Living Master (ARCLM). I am truly honored to be listed among such great contemporary artists. You may read about it HERE.
John Pototschnik is an Art Renewal Center Living Master
To view his art and bio, please click HERE