Each landscape tells a story – a sunrise on a beach in Mendocino County when the reflection in a tide pool is just right, a golden-brown valley near San Luis Obispo where oak trees perform a delicate dance up a hillside, the view from a cliff in Big Sur on a day that shades of blue seem to stretch the sea to infinity. The art is a celebration of light, location and the magic of nature. It has the allure of blissful perfection, but the secret to the serenity of a Peter Loftus painting is locked in the layers of honesty in each brushstroke.
“I enjoy dropping the viewer into a series of alternate universes,” Loftus says. “There’s a push-pull going on where the art appears to be horizontally reconciled, but the longer you look, it’s not quite as placid as it seems.” It’s a riddle of sorts that at first invites you into each world, but then as you’re about to jump, puts up a “not so fast” sign. Loftus has an uncanny way of shifting space on a canvas that’s reminiscent of Cezanne. For example, a breathtaking ocean panorama off a majestic cliff where you can almost hear the crashing waves below, but a second look changes things a bit when you notice a branch from a eucalyptus tree that seems to restrict the view. But for the artist, the branch is not a frustrating fly in the ointment; it’s nature’s truth. The tree actually makes the clouds look more violet and the ocean poking through more distant giving the piece credibility, 3-dimensional depth and most of all character. “I want thorns and bugs in my paintings,” he explains, “because for something to transcend from pretty to beautiful there has to be some kind of flaw that endears it to us.”
Loftus is not just an artist at the easel; he is a problem solver. The paintings begin with a complex set of geometric lines. He uses a photograph or a projected image for reference as he makes an elaborate drawing with colored pencils. The jigsaw puzzle-type shapes are camouflaged in a manner that only the artist can understand. During the underpainting process, he uses dark colors to create shadow areas. Along the way, the drawing gets obliterated, but by then, the structural issues have already been resolved. The next step includes multiple surface layers of glaze where he’ll often change whole fields of color. Loftus scumbles thin, opaque wash over the darker base getting that same broken hue effect that Monet achieved on his water lilies. “There’s a lot of trial and error where I change colors a bunch of times,” he explains. “If I feel a bluff isn’t red enough, I’ll put a reddish-orange glaze over the whole area. Then if that’s too much, I’ll mix up a pale, gray-green and scumble it on.” The resulting bluff has a brilliant and subtle gradation that looks exactly like a photograph from across the room, but up close the canvas looks gnarly and scuffed like an old garage door. It’s as if a war was waged between laying on paint and scraping it back.
Loftus wants the viewer to be able to see his decision making process, much like the transparency in Richard Diebenkorn’s Ocean Park canvases. “I love his paintings,” Loftus says. “I don’t have the vaguest idea what his goal was, but I know when I’m looking at them that he knew he didn’t have it. So he kept fighting the paintings until he got them where he wanted them. That’s the process I find I’m using. The only difference is that part of my process involves reconciling the paint surface with the image.” And the most important element in a Peter Loftus image is light. “I sometimes wonder if light and atmosphere are more vital to our sense of place than the physical character of the land,” Loftus says. He found that harmony in just one look at Santa Cruz where healthy trees stretch like content yawns in the mountains, peace and serenity float in the deep waters of the Pacific Ocean and nature brags about the warmth and clean air that hug it so tightly. For 33 years now, he’s called this slice of heaven on earth, “Home.”
Loftus’s studio is an old, brown barn in the middle of a residential neighborhood near the UC-Santa Cruz campus. The back wall serves as his easel where he works on three or four canvases at a time. They differ in size and are all on stretchers in various degrees of completion. He alternates days on each canvas making sure they’ve properly dried before he adds another layer. Several splattered paint droplets brighten up the long, level concrete floor. Otherwise, Loftus’s workspace is immaculate. Brushes stick out perfectly from a Wilson tennis ball can. Supplies are stored properly on a tidy table. In the back room, racks are stocked full of finished pieces. The drumbeat from African music pumps from the stereo in the corner. It’s a key ingredient in getting Peter in the mood to paint. “I love the rhythm and energy of it,” he says, “plus I haven’t the vaguest idea what they’re saying. So it shuts down all the activity in the left side of my brain allowing the right side to show me the solution to the problem.”
His worldly wisdom runs deep. After his birth in Washington, D.C., Peter spent his childhood overseas in France, India, Italy and Thailand. One of Peter’s first introductions to art was his mother’s involvement in a painting group where artists worked out of the family’s Bologna apartment. That was when Peter was six. “I loved to draw as a little kid,” he reflects. “I’d do drawings of a couple ships with lines of cannon balls going back and forth until this whole drawing was a big scribble. In a way, I’m doing the same thing now where I do these elaborate drawings and then I bust shapes up and tie them back together and then bust them up again.” At age eleven, Loftus, his two brothers and parents moved to Bangkok. He had an art teacher there who singled Peter out, buying him brushes, ink sticks and equipment and showed him Asian painting techniques and how to work on rice paper. The Loftus family moved back to Washington in time for Peter to attend high school in the U.S. It was a culture shock that meant relearning American History from this country’s perspective. He also fell in love with music and played in blues bands. Peter thought he’d end up as a musician playing the D.C. club scene, but some insightful teachers thought he might want to consider college to avoid the Vietnam draft. He took their advice.
After receiving an art degree from Maryland Institute, Loftus went to the University of Pennsylvania to get his MFA. He gives Professor Neil Welliver, known by many as “The Dean of American Landscape Painting,” a lot of credit for his art education. “He had an incredible eye.” Loftus says. “The first critique he gave me, I had five or six paintings up and ready. He came in and looked at them and said, ‘The horizon in all of these is at the same place. That suggests to me that you’re flying on automatic pilot.’ Then he said, ‘You’ve got to do something about these shrubs in this area, they look like green mashed potatoes.’” Visiting critics were also brought in including Alex Katz, Elaine de Kooning, Paul Georges and James Brooks. At Penn, Loftus learned how to trust his eye, add definition to his subjects and, most importantly, develop discipline.
With an Ivy League art education under his belt, a love for the outdoors and a French easel, Loftus made it to California in 1975. He spent several years doing plein aire paintings, and was the only artist for miles who was perched on a rock or sitting in the sand. Peter says, “I took a small backpack with my water colors or gouaches and a canteen of water to Año Nuevo (A state park in San Mateo County). I’d just walk onto the dunes and wander around until I saw something I wanted to paint.” He admits that people passing by probably thought he was strange, because he always held the sketchpad tightly in his lap and truly had an intimate relationship with his drawings. One of his first series was a set of wash pieces done at the Santa Cruz Yacht Harbor. There he trained his eye to see dark and light values and acquired patience in developing the flow of color.
Those gouache paintings were the first to get picked up by a New York gallery. Peter had been selling them locally for a modest $150, but the big city dealer thought he could get at least a grand. Back east Abstract Expressionism was on the way out, Realism was in, and Loftus was selling. He also took a job teaching drawing at UC-Santa Cruz, where he worked for more than a decade. Loftus eventually decided to turn the plein aire pieces into larger oil paintings. So he moved into a studio and into his signature style – French Impressionism with some funk. “I think my representational paintings are like playing a 1-4-5 blues progression. You know where the chord changes are going to be, and then you can start to actually improvise knowing that you want to end up on these notes at these points. You can tell whether you’re playing well, because if you’re not, it will sound out of tune.”
His wife, Lynn, who he met in a painting class at Maryland Institute, is his biggest supporter and most important critic. “A lot of times I’ll say, ‘Okay, I think I finished this painting.’ It’s up to her, though. If she says, ‘Thumbs up!’ we call the dogs off. If she says, ‘Thumbs down!’ we sick ‘em and I go back to work. She really helps me at times when it comes to the negative shape elements of my art. There could be a passage that I think looks pretty good because I’m looking right through it or around it. Lynn will come in and say, ‘What’s with this? It’s really kind of unfocused and lumpy looking.’ I’ll look and then all of a sudden see it through her eyes, and she was right.” Peter and Lynn are partners in art and soul. Together they’ve raised three kids and have always “gotten up with the chickens and gone to bed with the chickens.” Their sixth grandchild was just born, and later this year, they’ll celebrate their 40th wedding anniversary.
Peter Loftus wears a neatly trimmed, gray beard well. Dimples add sweetness to his face when he smiles. He speaks ultra-intelligently with a very relaxed and patient delivery. They don’t make men any nicer. His shoes, socks, jeans and t-shirt are all black. It’s as if he’s just a stagehand and his work is the actor on stage. Form and color alternate in a spectacular series of soliloquies as light dances off the canvas.
A Loftus landscape tells the invigorating and compelling story of the northern and central coasts of California from sun up to sun down. When it pokes through the misty morning fog, you understand what Van Morrison sings about. When its spotlight shines down on a clear afternoon, the beautiful blending of greens, browns and blues create a patina that can only be described as paradise. Then, as the final sliver of a lipstick sunset dips beneath the sea and pinks, reds and purples streak across the sky, the true definition of romance can be fully realized.
Written by: Ben Bamsey