In October 2020, the plein air community lost the beloved artist Greg LaRock (see “Rest in Peace, Landscape Painter Greg LaRock”).
We’d like to thank the American Society of Marine Artists (ASMA) and Greg’s wife, Laurie LaRock, for giving us permission to share the following memorial from the ASMA newsletter. The profile includes Greg’s previous interviews with John Hulsey and Ann Trusty (TheArtistsRoad.net) and Mary Platt, Director of the Hilbert Museum of California at Chapman University, which appeared in the Orange Review, as well as tributes from Greg’s friends.
Greg LaRock: In His Own Words
I was born near the Pasadena area and grew up in Huntington Beach. I loved to draw as a kid—I’d spend hours doing it. Nobody in my family had any artistic background, but they encouraged the drawing and I kept it up.
It wasn’t until high school that I realized I was farther along the art path than most others.
My art teacher at Edison high school, Jerry Nicholson, was my first mentor. He recognized something in me and guided my path from about junior high on. We entered shows and I won a few awards. He was, and still is, an awesome watercolorist and was interested in realism, which wasn’t too popular back then.
Jerry took me under his wing and pushed me to enter student competitions…[and] set aside a weekly evening at the school where he worked on his own projects. I would return to school on those evenings and paint with him.
Doing so wasn’t very cool at the time, but all that solidified things for me. I realized my strength was in the arts.
You don’t realize until much later how important such influences were. Being an average high school student, I felt I would get lost in the mix if I pursued anything other than the visual arts in college, so I gave it a shot.
Working for a magazine during my later college years at Long Beach State helped to solidify my future in the arts. After college, I continued to work for the magazine for a couple more years until it went defunct. I then started my own graphics career and followed that for 18 years.
I really never thought I could make it as a fine artist, so I kept with the regular paycheck in graphics. Many years later I wanted to get back to painting and was going to do it only as a hobby, but it became all-encompassing after a year or so.
I then discovered plein air painting (most of my college training was figurative) while watching a Laguna Plein Air Painters (LPAPA) demo at the beach. I thought that putting your feet in the sand while creating art was awesome, so I started trying my hand at landscapes.
I was terrible at first, with no idea how to get it to work, but after a workshop with Ken Auster, my eyes were opened and I blossomed from there. I sold three paintings that year and thought maybe I could turn painting into a career. It was the coolest thing that they paid me money for my painting.
I buckled down, got outside and painted as much as I could in my free time. Slowly, over a period of a few years, the more paintings I sold, the fewer graphics I did.
[Painting on the plein air circuit] is kind of like NASCAR: you show up and all the same people are always there. These types of competitions definitely get you out of your comfort zone. It’s easy and safe to hide in your own studio, but shaking it up a bit by painting with your peers gives you a boost.
I’ve taught in Italy and will usually sneak out and do a painting or two on a family vacation. The only difference is that I might bring a smaller pochade box that I’m not as comfortable with, but the painting is the same.
Each area of the world brings its own challenges from the perspective of creating. If the light looks different, my goal is to try and capture it. Or grasp the “flavor” of the area. The locals might not have a clue to what you’re doing, but when they see your painting, it usually brings a smile or some compliment in a foreign tongue (at least they always sounded like compliments!).
If I’m giving advice to students, I tell them that their choice in materials is irrelevant to what others are using. Just find what works for you.
As for process, I mostly jump in. I will sometimes do smaller studies or look at my successful smaller paintings and see if they merit enlargement. Then I might try a large work based on a plein air study.
I do spend an inordinate amount of time thinking a painting through. I have a mental checklist—so to speak—and a process that I do before I proceed with any painting. If I’m out doing plein air work, I’ll walk around and view the subject from many directions. Is it better from closer up or farther away? Should I move over 20 feet to the right or left for a better angle, sit or stand, etc.
I also try to determine if the time of day and lighting conditions are best now, or should I come back in the afternoon, when it’s sunny?
I also have to view the scene in my head as a finished painting. Nature is beautiful, but it’s not always meant to be turned into a work of art.
Once something has piqued my interest, my mental checklist begins. I go through each part of the painting and try to solve the problems I foresee. Each area needs to be thought through. What will be the quiet passages? Where’s my focus? Is there a theme? And, finally, is my ability able to pull off each area?
Some scenes have a section or subject that you might not have painted before. I have to ask myself if I think I can capture it, or change it if necessary. If not, then I pass on the painting. Sometimes you’re not ready for a scene yet and I’ll wait years as my ability grows before coming around to it again.
After I’ve worked out what I want from all areas of a painting, and think I have a solution for everything, I begin. The challenge and fun is seeing if I can achieve my mental goal!
For me, the subject is irrelevant. I really don’t care what I’m painting as long as I see it as a painting. I’m truly only looking at the organization of shapes and light/dark patterns. If those things line up in a way that I find interesting and exciting, then that’s what I want to paint. Doesn’t matter if it’s a boat, flower, landscape, figure, etc.
It takes awhile to view things like this, but I find that design and composition are everything. Most great paintings are rarely of one subject plopped in the middle of the canvas. It’s the whole or the environment of a painting, never a portion of. It’s about shapes and composition; light quality, things happening.
I observe and think, ‘that could make a really great painting, the way this plays off that, the way the light falls here, and the shadow.’ Whether it’s a downtown scene or down at the beach really doesn’t matter to me. If the composition comes together, then that’s what I want to paint. That’s what I’m driven by.
I try to teach the concept of painting—how to “build” a painting. Which materials you use and the paths to get there are endless, but there are some foundational items which are important to get across.
I try to show the students how I think about creating a painting. I’ll do a demo from start to completion and talk the whole way through.
Students need to know what’s going on inside an instructor’s head and why we choose to do this or that. Then as I talk to each student, I’m looking to find out the direction they wish to travel—trying to show how it could be successful and what pitfalls to look for from their viewpoint.
Just because I like to paint a certain scene, doesn’t mean each student sees it that way. It’s my job to figure out what they want and give them the tools to reach their own successes.
It takes two lifetimes to become a good artist. You’re never going to get it all in this one so don’t worry about when you start or what age you are. If you enjoy it, just do it and learn all that you can.
Don’t compare yourself to others. As long as you’re growing as an artist, you’re doing it right. The joy is in the journey not the destination.
Memories of Greg
“My lasting memory of him is with an infectious, almost mischievous, smile on his face, always showing enthusiasm, kindness and joy. He was a very talented and skilled painter; a consummate pro,” fellow Don Demers shared. “Last time I was with him we were drinking beer at an outside table in Apalachicola, Florida with a few other painting friends during an event. It was good company and laughs with Greg like it usually was. He’s being missed in so many circles.”
“Greg’s big smile and big heart made it easy to become friends,” said Fellow Roger Dale Brown, “Over the years we would stay in touch through emails and plein air events. One of my fondest memories is a workshop Greg and I taught together in Newnan, GA. His excitement for the unfamiliar landscape and cows was infectious. Conversations after class were inspiring and full of laughter.”
Jean Stern, Director Emeritus of the Irvine Museum provided his remembrance: “Greg was a gentle, caring and sincere man who was also a great artist. My wife Linda and I often encountered Greg and Laurie at art shows and he was always courteous and open with his time. As an artist, Greg was one of the best I had gotten to know. I was fascinated by his skill at drawing and his bold application of paint. He won numerous awards, some at art competitions that I judged. The art community will miss him in so many ways. I know I will.”
Signature member Debra Huse, who also operates the Huse Skelly Gallery on Balboa Island and painted with Greg as a fellow Signature Laguna Plein Air Painter, said, “Greg has been a great & trusted friend for a long time. We have traveled and painted together all over the US in Plein Air Events. Greg was the most genuine and generous person to know, always greeting everyone with a warm smile and hug. He was deeply inspired by the landscape in all of it’s moods but was especially great at capturing stunning light in his work. Certainly a reflection of his warm personality he shared with us. He will always be remembered with love as a great friend and a great artist by all of the plein air community.”
Carolyn Hesse-Low said, “Greg was one of the first plein air painters from California to go regularly to the competitions that developed on the East Coast, bringing back with him not only some of the methods, styles and ideas that were popular there, but also some of the best East Coast painters themselves. There developed a wonderful exchange and camaraderie between plein air painters of both coasts, and I think Greg deserves a lot of credit for that. He was a wonderful ambassador.
“At every plein air event, Greg was a happy and joyful presence. We all loved having fun, and he was at the center of it. Laughing, joking, swapping stories, trading tips, checking out the scene, painting alongside friends, always reserving time afterwards for dinner. He was always positive and kind and generous. He would go out of his way to help you and would give you anything you needed. He was gracious and authentic. He was a friend to everyone, and he was everyone’s favorite.
“We all loved Greg so very much. He was a tremendous talent, the winner of many top awards in shows and competitions. He was passionate, curious and animated, always full of energy. He loved painting and teaching, he loved his wife and his friends, he loved finding beauty in the world. He loved life. He left us too early. He left us an amazing legacy of his work, and he left us his indomitable spirit.”
Roger Dale Brown said, “A few years ago we invited Greg and his beautiful wife to come visit us in TN. It was fun taking Greg and Laurie to downtown Nashville, buying boots and visiting clubs for some great music. We ended up at a blues club in Printers Alley where we sat next to REO Speed Wagon.
“During their visit, both Greg and Laurie admired a house plant that was 5’ tall. It was a cutting taken from a relative’s Ming Aralia plant 30 years before. That Christmas, as a surprise, we rooted a cutting and shipped it to them. Last I heard, after a lot of pampering, care and conversation, the cutting was doing well and growing. I hope it still is and that it brings peace to Laurie as a symbol of love and friendship. We will miss Greg dearly.”
Greg’s former student, Kim VanDerHoek says, “Through the years as Greg went from my teacher to my mentor to my good friend, I learned much about what an insightful, warm and giving person he was, not just as an instructor, but, in his day to day life. He often had a unique perspective about the business of being an artist and believed in empowering students and friends in reaching their full potential, whether it was through the gift of sage wisdom or a sincere congratulations for an achievement. As his friend, I truly enjoyed his sense of humor. We spent countless hours laughing our way through boring plane rides and through our downtime at various plein air painting events. He reveled in a good practical joke and often had a witty observation about whatever was happening around him. I will profoundly miss his friendship, his laugh and his insight.”
Greg’s wife, Laurie, shared, “The first time Greg told me he had no regrets was in our early 20s. He said, ‘I never look back, I only look forward–I never have regrets.’ This was his true philosophy. I found it so refreshing and such an outstanding point of view. I was fortunate to spend 30 years of my life loving this generous, humorous and wonderful human being. I cherish every one of those days savoring the memories of Greg’s passion for life and his beautiful smile living with no regrets.”