Interview with Visual Artist, Kurt Buxton

Tuscan Sunflowers by Kurt Buxton

TreeHouse: One of the most impressive things about your work is the fact that you started painting as an adult and are still fairly new to it. What made you decide to take up what some would see as a rather intimidating craft?

Kurt Buxton: There is a lot of talk about people’s “bucket list”…. things to do before we can’t. Often this involves travel or completing challenges… see Rome, run a marathon etc. If you are Austin Powers you have slightly different list. I don’t have a list; I tend to think in terms of what do I want to be doing four years from now? At some point when my kids were wrapping up high school it became apparent I was about to have a lot more free time and I began to ponder the possibilities. I enjoyed the idea of having a number of outlets, things to do as my wife and I had more leisure time. I have been fortunate to have been able to make a living as a landscape architect. I have loved designing, collaborating and building a business for the last 30 years, but what else? I thought it would be great to restore a classic car, learn to play guitar (not well) and paint. I had to find something engaging that would keep me from annoying the crap out of my wife.

TH: You mentioned that you only recently started working with oils. Did you try paining with different materials prior to that or were oils your first attempt at paining as a whole?

KB: I have tried watercolors, but oils have been my most dedicated effort and my first effort in over 20 years. I have always enjoyed drawing…. I started when I was very young with dinosaur coloring books (I always wanted that 64 pack of crayons with the sharpener in the back) and graduated to drawing cartoon characters from a Walter Lance book my parent got me for my birthday, I thought it was pretty cool when I could draw that bull dog from the Tweety cartoons! In design school you had to learn to draw and render, so that kept me learning. I actually did some cartooning for the Mustang Daily and took an architectural watercolor class while at Cal Poly.

A major inspiration to me when I was first married was my wife’s uncle, John Hench. I was fortunate to have been able to spend time with John discussing design, color theory and admiring his work at Disney as well as his personal work. One of John’s traditions was to draw and individually watercolor Christmas cards for his family and friends. While John did this for decades I attempted it for only a few years. I cherish the cards John sent us. I have always admired people who painted with oils, the medium was mysterious and intimidating, but the results were amazing.

Oakland Woods by Kurt Buxton

TH: You’ve said that part of your inspiration to begin painting came from fellow artist and landscape architect, Mark Jacobucci, who encouraged you and provided you with support. How much emphasis would you place on the comradery of artists, as it pertains to inspiration and creativity?

KB: I put great emphasis on three things, whether you are restoring an old corvette or learning to paint: understand your inspiration, learn however you can, and dive in. First, I spent time trying to understand what it was about other artist’s paintings that fascinated me. In Mark’s case it was how he communicated the light and mood of a scene in a bold and loose style, amazing color choices and with masterful composition and drawing skills. Second, I sought to learn how he and others did what they did. I asked Mark if I could buy him lunch and understand how he got started and what I might do, I download books on painting by artist whose style I liked, and I read extensively on color theory (something I have always studied). Lastly, I started painting. You can be a scholar and try and learn everything before you start or you can dive in while you are being scholarly and learn by doing (Cal Poly) and learn much faster and deeper.

Reading back over this I realize this was not a true sequence, completing each segment and then moving to the next, but was just the order of my start…. I do all these things continually; finding inspiration, exploring and learning and attempting. (Even now I am thinking I really like your writing and I could learn a lot from you Tasha to make this better….it’s a dizzying cycle!)

TH: Thanks, Kurt. It’s a learned skill that takes practice just like all of the other arts and I think you’ve got a pretty good handle on it. Do you have plans to further promote your work outside of the art shows your company holds? Is it important to you to potentially sell your own work at some point?

KB: Initially oil painting was something that I wanted to do because of this process of learning and expression, something I did simply because it was challenging and fun. I have had some encouragement to go further, to put my work out there. I see this as another challenge and learning experience. I have had a couple pieces accepted to the Newport Beach Art Festival and I plan on submitting to a benefit for Home Aid that is being organized by some friends in the building industry. The pieces are for sale of course to support the respective causes and if people appreciate my work enough to spend money on them then I graciously accept. We will see where this goes; right now I am working on a website to support these efforts. (More learning… Adobe Muse… what fun!)

Baywood Low Tide by Kurt Buxton

TH: Congratulations on the acceptance at the NB Art Fest – a few of my photography pieces will be there as well, so I’ll see you there! Talk a bit about the process you go through to create a piece: what materials do you tend to favor? Do you think of something and set out to paint it or is your work more of a reflection on what you see? How much time do you devote to your art outside of work?

KB: In reverse order, just because: My time dedicated to actually painting varies wildly based on work and family, but I would say I average 16 hours a month painting. I spend at least 8 to 10 hours a week reading, learning, and exploring related to design, art, and oils outside of work. I paint based on scenes I witness. If possible I sketch the forms and values quickly in a small book and snap a few pictures with my phone for reference later. Some combination of subject, composition, light or color intrigues me. I usually attempt the things that look technically challenging, like a portrait of my son (I am horrible at people… for now).

I currently favor a limited color palette similar to Mark Boedges and Richard Schmid and work over oil primed canvas or panels with bushes, palette knives, and the occasional finger or thumb. My process was traditional underpainting as outlined in the first book I read (devoured really), Mitchell Albala’s book “Landscape Painting: Essential Concepts and Techniques for Plein Air and Studio Practice.” Since taking a multi-day course with Mark Boedges in Vermont and discovering “Ala Prima” by Richard Schmid, I have a more adapted underpainting as partial finished painting approach. I am sure this will evolve too….encaustics look interesting!

TH: Your scenes are usually from the natural world and seem to be an extension of your professional career in landscape architecture; do you envision attempting other settings or subject matters at some point?

KB: That’s an interesting observation. I think that landscape architecture is an extension of my love of experiencing outdoors. I have always loved being out of the house or office, camping, hiking, exploring the city, going to the park, the beach, mountain biking, trail running … all of it outside.

I once wondered off into the desert with a buddy while camping with my parents when I was about ten years old. We were chucking rocks, catching lizards, and generally exploring; we were gone for 6 or so hours until returning to camp when it was getting dark, unaware that everyone including the state park rangers were looking for us. Oops! (long before cell phones) So I do tend to paint outdoor scenes and currently on my easel is a rainy urban street scene in San Francisco. I have done still life as well and one abstract landscape. I will definitely expand my subjects and muddle in different “styles,” there is a whole lot of fun yet to be had!

A Slow Day at Crystal Cove by Kurt Buxton

TH: Any advice you would care to share with other aspiring artists? Especially those who are interested in painting, but have never tried it and aren’t sure how to begin?

KB: What worked for me was starting with a book and conversations with painters. I highly recommend Mitchell Albala’s book as a great starting point. Start small … 5×7 6×9  sized panels or canvas allow for quick practice and can build confidence before moving on to larger efforts. Also be careful not to over buy….you really don’t need a bunch of stuff to start.

Look at the colors the artists I mentioned use and buy a small tube of quality paint of each color and a handful of small and medium sized brushes that include filberts, rounds and brights. There are great paint mixing exercises in Richard Schmid’s book when you are ready to master color mixing with your palette.

I use the internet as a supplement to what I learn in books and from suggestions of accomplished artists…. There are some videos that show you how to do the color mixing exercises, or you can look up some information on underpainting that you have read about in Mitchel’s book. Rather than spend a bunch of time weeding through all the web content, research specific aspects, pick up your brushes, and give it try!

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Kurt Buxton


As a designer, Kurt Buxton has spent 30 years in the landscape architecture profession, focusing on large scale projects throughout the United States and overseas. His passion and expertise is design, studio culture, and business innovation. Kurt is a member of the Urban Land Institute Sustainable Development Council, American Society of Landscape Architects, Building Industry Association Board of Directors, Saddleback College Horticulture and Design Advisory Board, Cal Poly San Luis Obispo College of Architecture and Environmental Design Dean’s Advisory Council and Landscape Architecture Department Advisory Committee and is a LEED AP and a Licensed Landscape Architect in four states.

As an artist, Kurt’s passion and expertise in design led him to explore oil painting with the encouragement and counsel of artist and professional colleague, Mark Jacobucci. Continually experimenting, he paints subjects that offer a challenge and an opportunity to advance his skills; a learn-by-doing approach reinforced during his design education at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. Kurt has been intrigued by the beaches and natural areas of South Orange County, the beach scenes of the central coast town of Baywood Park, the rugged landscape of the Eastern Sierras, the farms of Vermont, and most recently the challenge of the rainy urban scenes of San Francisco.