By Cynthia Carbone
A well-known landscape painter and teacher, Michael Drury grew up in Santa Barbara and has been painting professionally since 1970, when he met his mentor, Ray Strong.
“But really,” he says, “I always painted, always loved to push color around. My father was an amateur painter — a pretty good watercolor painter — so I always had the materials around the house, although my parents thought I’d be a teacher of literature.”
“When I was a kid, I had a paper route and gardening job, and when I went to put my money in the bank, I noticed that there were six big paintings on the wall behind the tellers’ cages. They were by a man named Fernand Lungren. I didn’t know who he was — all I knew was that those paintings really spoke to me.”
“Then in 1963, after I graduated from high school, I went to the Impressionist Museum in Paris, and I looked at the paintings there, and I knew right away that’s what I wanted to do with my life.”
“When I had admired the paintings in the bank as a kid, I hadn’t consciously thought I could ever do that. It seemed like some sort of adult thing. But when I saw those paintings in France — and they were little paintings — I could actually see the way the paint was put on, and that’s when I realized that someone actually did this, somebody had taken a brush and stuck it into paint and made these marks on the canvas! That’s how it all started.”
“Everything from that point on was about figuring out how to become not only a painter, but an open air painter — a guy who goes out with his paint box and easel and paints right outside. So I bought a paint box in Paris and started making these horrible little paintings right then. My best friend who was traveling with me still has the first one, and he won’t give it back to me, so I can’t destroy it.”
Michael’s favorite places to paint are the Gaviota Coast, Big Sur, and northern Nevada. He also enjoys painting in Ireland — he and his wife Diane honeymooned there five years ago and have since gone back several times.
“I have painted certain places often,” he says. “I can start at a place I know well and finish at home from memory, because I never use photographs. I remember the first time I painted a picture completely from memory . Larry Iwerks, an artist and friend of mine, needed a painting from me right away for a desert show. I didn’t think I could do it. I went over to Ray Strong and I said Larry wants me to do this painting, and he said, ‘You’ve been painting the desert for thirty years; you should be able to invent a painting,’ and so I put this canvas up on the wall and started thinking about what I wanted to paint and I made a painting of a volcano that’s about fifty miles north of Mojave, with a big cloud formation over it. That was the first time and one of the few times that I just stood in the studio with my music on and made a painting from memory.
Most of Michael’s paintings are done outdoors, and he has to paint quickly before the light shifts. “Normally you paint in sunlight,” he explains, “and even on a foggy day, the light changes, so really, to be consistent you only have about two hours in the morning, and a little longer in the afternoon. At noon, the shadows disappear. So at the most, I spend three hours working on a painting, and that means I’ll probably come back to it the next day, although it also depends on the size of the painting. And a lot of it depends on how much I thought about the painting and how well I know the spot.”
“I like oil painting the best because it has weight out of the tube. When you are pushing it around on a brush you can actually feel the paint. With watercolor, you have to be very delicate because it is really just tint. But oil paint has some stuff in it.”
“Occasionally, I’ve done little pastels from memory. I just think to myself, ‘I want to do the hill behind Agua Caliente after sunset.’ And I remember how the hills become big dark shapes, and the way the road is cut. I did a whole series of those, and they were really fun. I didn’t have to prove anything because I was doing a medium I don’t normally use, so nobody expected anything in particular. People bought them up!”
“I enjoy getting compliments, and people come up while I’m painting, and they’re mostly very nice. Once I was in a place called Upper Sardine Lake which is near the Sierra Buttes way up above Lake Tahoe. Glacier lakes and big cliffs — really spectacular. I was there on a fall day painting this place. The guy who was the caretaker for this lodge was standing behind me, and after awhile he says, “It don’t look like that to me,” and he walked away. It brought me to earth. Here I was feeling pretty good about my painting, and the guy who actually lives there says it doesn’t look like that.”
But such moments don’t discourage Michael for long. He is a man doing exactly what he loves. “I can’t think of anything else I enjoy more,” he declares, “It’s the most fun you can ever imagine.”
Michael’s paintings sell from five hundred to a couple of thousand dollars, depending upon the size of the canvas. “It’s weird,” he muses, “because when you think of what a painting is, all it is is a flat surface with some colors pushed on it, so in terms of its physical worth, it’s maybe five dollars worth of materials. But what people are responding to, hopefully, is that I’m communicating the emotion of how I feel about what I am painting — and thirty some years of painting experience.”
“I paint, I teach, and I surf. That pretty much takes care of the day. I get up way before sunrise and I go to bed at 8 o’clock at night, so I don’t have any extra time.”
“But you always have to look at stuff to figure out how to get better. If you’re a surfer, you look at videos of surfing to get better. If you’re an artist, you have to look at paintings. In terms of the subject matter of art, there’s really nothing new. The visual world is unchanged from the way it was a million years ago. Light still hits trees, plants and animals the way it did all that time ago. It’s just putting all those things together in a different way, in your own language — that’s how you make it art. So I look at paintings, I look at books, I go to museums. I look at stuff all the time.”
“My advice would be to listen to what your heart tells you – not just your intuition – your heart will tell you what you need to know, and you really should listen to it.”
“In the meantime, read! Turn off the television and read, because there is nothing better than reading a good book. The TV gives you stuff but very rarely asks anything of you. It’s giving you all this imagery but it doesn’t ask you anything. A book asks you to use your imagination, and imagination is like a muscle — you have to exercise it. It’s like if the surf is flat on the Ranch and you don’t get out and paddle around in the summertime, then when it finally gets big, you’re out of shape. The brain is just that same way, if you don’t use your imagination, it becomes a limp muscle.”
“So listen to your heart about what you want to do. You don’t have to make any decisions now, but the one specific thing you can do is read good books. And your teacher didn’t tell me to say that.”