Usually, we interview artists about their favorite place to paint. But Southern California artist Esther J. Williams is not only a visual artist, she’s comfortable with the written word, too — and her idea of “just writing some thoughts down” results in the following, a love letter to Crystal Cove.
Crystal Cove is a seaside cottage colony that began its story back in the early 1920s, when Hollywood used it as a set for movies such as “Treasure Island.” Several thatched-roof huts were built, and that started it all. Being in Southern California, the weather was pretty great year round except for January and February — the storm season. Soon people from L.A. came down there to build summertime cottages that they leased from the original ranch owner, James Irvine. There was a different cottage built each time; no two are alike, just like the people. The colony became filled with about 50 charming cottages, a store, and many summer-only tent sites along the shoreline. Life was a beach party every day all summer long. Decades of people’s lives were spent there.
The original dwellers moved out in 2005, when it was turned over to the state of California and became a vacation rental-cottage resort for the public. But not all the cottages are restored yet; about 16 lay in their unattended natural state of decay. They are just waiting for funds from donors to rebuild, and that’s where I come in. Once I enter the north side of the colony where all the abandoned cottages are, I go back in time. I love these nature-reclaimed cottages to create plein air paintings from. The restored cottages are very quaint, mind you, but these old cottages with loose boards, peeling, faded paint, old shingles, and overgrown landscape are a playground for my muse. The windows of all sizes reflect the present light of the day, and the front doors seems to be asking me to paint them with a welcoming feel.
The first thing I do is ask myself what were the original owners like, why did they build this cottage just so? What went on in and around those walls? Then my imagination and spirit connects to it, and off I go into painting with such joy. I decided to paint a collection featuring each unrestored cottage. Keeping in touch with my artistic fundamentals, I use the construction of these unique cottages combined with the wonderful light at this beach to create each painting.
When I discovered these cottages back in 2002, I used to paint them as a thing. Just plain blocks of buildings stuck on a sandy bluff. I studied architectural design in college back in the 1980s, so I knew drafting and landscape illustration. Then, after studying their design for years, I realized I need to paint the shadow forms first and be aware of the light and how it interweaves all those angles and nature. Arranging the composition was most important.
Both the Edgar Payne and John Carlson books helped me immensely with all concepts of painting outdoors. It is a tough learning curve to alter from painting the “thing” to painting the light. But at Crystal Cove, it seemed I had all the time in the world. I began to rent out cottages and rooms to stay overnight just to be a part of the scene, greet the morning sunrise, walk the beach, and celebrate the night. I was obsessed, just ask anyone who knows me. Other artists gave me the title “The Queen of Crystal Cove.” I knew that was not true, because there are other important people who run the show there, such as Laura Davick, whose parents lived there and who is now vice president of the Crystal Cove Alliance, a group that helps get the cottages restored.
The morning light — I mean very early, at the crack of dawn — is so special there. The large sandstone bluff shields the shoreline from the rising sun and creates long shadows on the shore. The deep tones in the sand, the water, and the bluffs create mood-enhanced paintings, especially with the cottage colony appearing so sleepily as a backdrop. One of my paintings of such a moment in time was hung in a California State Senate Contemporary Art Collection in 2015-2016 in the Sacramento Capitol building. The daytime can bring all types of interesting shadows in the tide pool rocks along the shoreline and the cottages in the sun or even fog. The ever-changing marine layer gives the perfect atmosphere to create soft takeaways.
The late afternoon, when it reaches the golden hour, is one of my favorite times of all. The bluffs, sandy shores, and rocks get a golden cast of yellow-orange; even the cottages turn a sepia tone with vivid gold light reflecting in the windows. The sea changes colors to deep ultramarine blue, viridian green, pinks and violet in the shadows, with golden diamonds accenting the ripples. It is a magic hour to me as there is a kaleidoscope of color brewing before your eyes, each second, until 30 minutes after sunset.
“I have painted many sunsets there, even though it is the hardest time to paint. I find it best to prepare a palette of mixtures of yellow-orange, blue-violet, and a red-brown so I can dip into them, tint or tone them and slam in the sun and marine layer as it is happening. It’s always fun to try, even though I have scraped quite a few. I take many photos with my big Canon dSLR camera so I can use them as a reference for finishing up work or for studio paintings. I have even set a tripod out on a deck in the wee hours of the night to capture the moon cascading its reflection over the sea. I have painted several nocturnes. Yes, I’ve done it all.
I now have my art included in the Crystal Cove Art Store located in the historic district, and I do art shows there courtesy of the Crystal Cove Alliance and the gallery manager Kian Maleki. I feel that was an honor — to be accepted into this group of well-seasoned artists who also share a love for Crystal Cove. Each year in August I stay in one of the cottages for a straight week to celebrate summer and paint like a bandit. I stay for one or two nights at other times just to paint there. Of course, I party a little too — it’s part of the scene. The saying is, “Crystal Cove: Where every night is Saturday night and Saturday night is New Year’s Eve.” Half of my sales goes to the Crystal Cove Alliance to fund the restoration of the last 16 cottages. That makes me feel good about contributing to this historical village.