Painterly reflections

Woodside artist Jim Caldwell talks about his creative process and how water, in all its forms, shaped his one-man show

By Kate Daly

Special to the Almanac

Suffering from jet lag after just returning from a trip to Ireland, Jim Caldwell walks the few steps from his home in Woodside to his studio in the redwoods and paints for an hour – from 3:30 to 4:30 a.m.

Ordinarily, he picks up his paintbrushes at 7 in the morning, paints for an hour every day, and then dedicates the rest of his workday to his residential architecture design business.

"Painting is an intense thing," he says, surrounded in his studio by an eclectic collection of artwork he has produced over the years.

At least 15 of Caldwell's paintings will be on exhibit in his one-man show, "The Shape of Water," at Art Ventures Gallery in Menlo Park from June 7 to July 12.

"Many people think of me as painting oaks on golden hills," he says during an interview with The Almanac, but his current show reflects a water theme, or some form of it clouds, fog, snow or ice that "weaves together everything I've done for more than 30 years."

An artist's reception is set for Thursday, June 14, at 6:30 p.m. at the gallery. At 7 p.m., Caldwell will give a presentation that will include additional images and his reflections on what he calls "paradise surrounded by water in beautiful shapes."

In the studio

Wearing a white smock to protect his button-down shirt and khakis, Caldwell stands in front of an easel in one corner of his studio. On his left, a computer monitor displays a photo he took on his iPhone a week earlier. On his right, a copy of the image is emerging on canvas – the rough outline of a ruined abbey floats in a field of green, soon to be dotted with grazing cows.

He started with a canvas of hand-framed fabric called French polyester that's akin to linen. To prepare the canvas he coated it with gesso in a terracotta color, reminiscent of the Renaissance practice that allowed for warm hues of red to peek through layers of paint. Then he used acrylics to sketch the composition. Now, he is working in oils for the final strokes.

Caldwell emulates and admires John Singer Sargent for that artist's ability to capture fine details in one part of a painting, and then switch to a larger brush to achieve a loose look in another part.

When asked about his own style, Caldwell says someone once called it "Realistic Impressionism," and that description suits him just fine.

At age 75, Caldwell shows no signs of slowing down. After completing his painting session, he shifts across the room to stand at his drafting table, "where I'm looking at my unfinished canvas all day," he says.

He puts in a 40-hour work week designing homes, yet still finds time to teach drawing and painting at Filoli during the summers, give art talks, and practice sketching. He has also taught through the Stanford Continuing Education program.

An artist's life

Born in Manhattan, Caldwell has spent most of his life in this area. His family lived in Atherton, then Woodside, where his father, Emott Caldwell, ran Caldwell's General Store, the predecessor to Roberts Market.

The artist remembers his mother fostering his talent back in grade school when she signed him up to take lessons from a local artist, and then again during high school, when she sought out a class in Stanford's continuing education program.

After graduating from Williams College, Caldwell studied at Ecole des Beaux Arts in Paris, and then earned his architecture degree at Yale.

He has two business cards and two websites, one devoted to architecture and the other to art.

Caldwell reintroduced art into his routine when he was 39. He was a partner and project manager at a firm in San Francisco, spending most of the day on the phone, when he felt the urge to paint again. He enrolled in the only night course he could find, an acrylics class taught by Richard Heidsick at Canada College.

For several years, Caldwell painted still lifes in a spare bedroom. In 1987, he designed his own studio, and began to gravitate toward painting landscapes. A year later he established his own one-man architectural firm. (His civic life in the Woodside community includes a stint on the town's Architectural Site and Review Board.)

During the recent interview with The Almanac, he pulls out a small pad he carried on his recent trip to Ireland; inside are images of aged edifices he sketched while there, including an old bridge that intrigued him and that he sketched in pen and ink in 10 minutes en plein-air. He does this to chronicle his "wonderful memories," and hone his craft, "forcing my eye to translate 3-D into 2-D," he explains.

When he paints, however, he works from his own photographs.

"My images are very serendipitous," he says, adding how easily the process has become since the digital age.

With his smart phone or camera he takes multiple images of the same subject and maintains a backlog of thousands of photographs on his Macintosh. Inspiration is just a keystroke away when he experiences a rare dry spell.

Occasionally Caldwell does paintings on commission, again using his own photographs.

"Most of my fans want California, they want some place they have been," such as Big Sur, Yosemite, or the Stanford hills, he says.

Crystal Springs Reservoir is a subject he likes to paint, and is featured in a large canvas he completed last year. That painting is on exhibit in the show. So is the piece he did in 2005 of dramatic clouds hovering above the island of Korcula, Croatia. The gallery owner is from Europe so he made a point of including that painting.

Caldwell has a large body of work stored at his studio and posted on his website:

Caldwell skirted cancer seven years ago, right around the same time he became a grandparent. He painted a self-portrait back then, and delights in painting fresh portraits of his three grandchildren as they grow up.

He figures by now he has sold over 700 paintings, and that they're hanging in more than 400 private collections anywhere from the Bay Area to Europe and Japan.

Hard to say how many more thousands of people have experienced his art through the two coffee-table size books he published: "The Golden Coast: From Big Sur to Russian River," and "The Golden Coast: Landscapes at the Edge of the Continent."

Art Ventures Gallery is located at 888 Santa Cruz Ave. in Menlo Park and open Tuesday to Sunday from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.

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