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Painting the Town: Santa Clara Valley Watercolor Society’s “En Plein Air” Projects

Painting the Town: Santa Clara Valley Watercolor Society's

It’s a quiet, cold morning on Jan. 12 behind Santa Clara’s Triton Museum near the historic Jamison-Brown house as the Santa Clara Valley Watercolor Society gathers for their informal plein air Thursday morning paint session. Close to a dozen painters wearing layers upon layers of hats and coats and sweaters and fingerless gloves braved the chance of rain to do what they love – paint the great outdoors.

More than 400 members make up the informal – and free – Santa Clara Valley Watercolor Society. The plein air painting opportunities are among their most popular activities – on average about 20 to 30 painters can be spotted on any given Thursday morning as they paint gardens, wineries and historical sites from Baker Beach in San Francisco to Pacific Grove. The Society also sponsors a two-day trip each year and often are invited to members’ homes if they have interesting gardens to paint.

Beyond the plein air painting dates, the Society also offers eight to 10 workshops each year from nationally and internationally recognized painters. Members often have the chance to participate in a free one-day demo before deciding whether to sign up for the inexpensive three to five day workshop. Of course, with all the wonderful work the members create, the Society sponsors three shows and exhibits a year to display their work.


This year, the Santa Clara Valley Watercolor Society also has a new mission: to paint the historic sites of Santa Clara. Brad Santos, the Society blogger and one of three plein air coordinators explained via email: “Last August our group was invited to paint at the Harris-Lass House ( in Santa Clara by Joan Cabral of the Historic Preservation Society of Santa Clara (HPSSC). We discussed with Joan, the HPSSC ‘Art on the Lawn’ chairperson, about Harris-Lass hosting an art show (for our group and maybe other local art clubs) in August 2017.” Thus, each month, the Society is focused on painting a historic site in the city as part of the potential fundraiser to sell their paintings to support the Harris-Lass House.

But the Society is not just focused on their artistic efforts – they are a true community. “The organization started around 1966 when students from the Art Gallery [a store in San Jose] wanted to paint outside of class,” said Santos. “I joined in 2008 and we’re quite a large group. Some members were art majors in college and gave up painting for a career but now that they’re retired, it’s a chance to pick up the paintbrush again. For others, retirement is the first time we tried watercolors.” Luckily for the members, one of the rules of the Society is that there is no criticism – instead, they’re a supportive community for painters of all levels.

“We want to make our group as inclusive as possible,” Santos added. “When we go to a place, we like to paint really different things and that’s okay. […] I really enjoy it – there are some great artists and they produce some really amazing paintings.”

The general consensus that morning was how much the members appreciate their Society. Webmistress Leslie Grimm agrees, “We just have so much to offer to members. For me, I like the chance to paint – there’s always somebody at the plein air days who knows better than you and can help. Plus, it’s fun to have other people to paint with rather than being such a solitary act. It took me four or five years to try painting outside and now it’s one of my favorite things.”

Since the weather was frosty that morning, the painters were taking their work slowly – “it takes time for the paint to dry on a day like today,” Santos said with a small smile. “We have plenty of gaps.” Some of the painters were clearly taking advantage of those gaps to chat with fellow members, while others simply enjoyed the opportunity to be outside. Lisha Wang, a member for five years, explained, “I love the fresh air! To be in nature and still surrounded by people is everything. I love living [and painting] here – you can go to the coast, the hills, or to cities and towns, and there’s just so much history to learn!”

Several of the painters on the day had started their artistic careers with Chinese brush painting but had discovered the joy of working with watercolors. Joy Kuo, a newer member, is one of them. Additionally, Salinda Zunkel trained in Beijing with the traditional style during her adolescence but more recently joined the Society. Her husband Dick, a member of the Watercolor Society for the last 10 years, perhaps summed up their love for the organization best when he said, “I’ve lived in the Bay Area more than 30 years and [thanks to the Watercolor Society], I keep going to places I’ve never seen before. It’s such a broadening experience above and beyond painting and being outside.”

And while the temperatures barely rose as the cold and grey morning wore on, the painters’ enthusiasm never wavered. “We usually enjoy a good lunch afterwards to talk and look at our work,” Santos explained. And, of course, they’ve got another paint site to look forward to next week. For more information about the organization, visit their website and blog –



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