Donald Neff has always been drawn to the quiet little spots in our world. “Give me a little ditch with some water — that will always attract me,” he says. But after a year of painting the hidden streams of Silicon Valley, Neff is trained to see oases everywhere. 

The scene Neff painted

Neff recently went on a trip visiting family in the Philippines and Japan, and at his first stop, in Manila, he found time to paint a plein air piece. “Manila has a lot of slums, and my in-laws wouldn’t let me paint in them — they were worried I would get mugged,” says Neff. “They live in a walled-in compound.” 

“Adieu, 2013; Bienvenu, 2014,” by Donald Neff, 2014, oil on panel, 8 x 10 in.

Neff managed to pull “Adieu” out of this scene.

Neff wandered around the compound and found a vacant lot with junk strewn around — he heard a janitor of some sort lived there, but he wasn’t sure. With houses and civilization all around, Neff painted what looks for all the world like a jungle scene. “My son says it is one of his favorite paintings of mine, but I wasn’t sure about it,” says Neff. “It has an abstract quality, with all the colors.”

“Chavez Legacy,” by Donald Neff, 2014, oil on board, 8 x 10 in.

The view Neff was painting for “Chavez Legacy”

On the Japan leg of his trip, the subject matter was a little more obvious and ubiquitous. “I could have spent a week painting within a block of my son’s apartment, there was so much,” Neff says. 

“Katsuyama Temple Gate,” by Donald Neff, 2015, acrylic, 10 x 18 in.

The view where Neff painted “Katsuyama Temple Gate”

The San Jose, California, painter was happy to paint scenic temples and picturesque little graveyards, but he’ll find beauty wherever he goes. During last year’s project, in which he painted more than 50 scenes of streams and creeks in Silicon Valley, Neff learned to find nature almost anywhere. In many of those paintings, just out of the viewer’s sight, there were office buildings, viaducts, and plenty of cement. “I’d say that 60% to 80% of the scenes were that way,” says Neff. And now it is a habit. “I tend to look for that more now, after the creek project last year. Every time I go over a bridge I peek over to see what it looks like under there.”

It’s a trait perhaps all artists should have.

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