Volume 15, Issue 23  | March 21, 2023Subscribe

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A conversation with Jeff Sewell, who took “Best in Show” at the LPAPA Invitational


The Tide Abides, this year’s “Best in Show” winner at the 24th annual LPAPA Invitational, is the painting that never should have happened. It wasn’t part of Jeff Sewell’s plan. Having enjoyed a few successful days of painting over the weekend, Sewell opted to take Monday off. He wandered down to Heisler Park to watch the Kids’ Paint Out. But those rocks below kept catching his eye. Even in the mid-day sun (one of the worst times of day for plein air painters), the reflective light proved perfect. Some might say “the rest is history.” 

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Courtesy of LPAPA

“The Tide Abides” (18” x 14”) oil, winner of this year’s “Best in Show” at the LPAPA Invitational

As any artist will tell you, though, history doesn’t just happen. It’s built on the thousands of paintings that came before, of decades spent staring at the ocean, of endless experiments and countless failures, and a few lucky breaks. 

I caught up with Sewell in the wake of his win to talk about this unlikely painting and how it happened. Along the way, I learned about Sewell’s inspirations, his secrets and techniques and his advice to young artists. Our conversation has been edited for brevity and clarity. 

Stu News: You’ve said The Tide Abides was the painting that shouldn’t have happened. What got your attention and made you change your mind? 

Jeff Sewell: There’s some synchronicity in the storyline of this painting. I hadn’t planned to paint that day, but the longer I stayed, the more I kept looking at the rocks down below. The tide had left them exposed. There’s no sky in the painting, which is unusual for me. It’s an aerial perspective. I had to create the light from the reflection in the water instead of having the light in the sky, so it’s unique. For me, it was an unpredicted moment. This was the only painting I didn’t plan for. I just stumbled onto it and discovered the subject in front of me. I found some shade under a Cypress tree and created this painting.

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Courtesy of Jeff Sewell

Jeff Sewell created “The Tide Abides” in Heisler Park on Monday, Oct. 3 at the 24th annual LPAPA Invitational

SN: How many years have you participated in the Invitational? 

JS: I’ve been in this event maybe 12 or 13 times, dating back to probably 2008. The first year I was an alternate, so I walked in the back door.

SN: Talk about your path into painting.

JS: I was into art through high school. I took three art classes a day my senior year. But when I got to college, I didn’t like the instruction and what was expected of me, so I quit and focused on other things. Later on, around the time I turned 30 and was starting a family, we purchased a few pieces of art for our home. I knew at that moment what type of art was calling my name. I hadn’t painted in 17 years, but I realized I wanted to paint impressionistic landscape scenery. I have a romantic side and it connected. 

I’d just come home from a bad surf trip – all rain, no waves – we couldn’t surf at all. I decided I had to start doing something else besides surfing. So I started painting again. That was about 20 years ago, and I got a hook I couldn’t get out of me. I just stuck on it.

SN: Did you seek out any formal training?

JS: I did a little when I first started. When I bought my first easel, the saleslady told me about Jeff Horn, an instructor at Irvine Valley College. He had an Outdoor Painting class that was just starting. Jeff is a LPAPA signature member. I took his course for a semester and learned enough to be dangerous and go out and do it by myself. From then on, it was all experiment.

SN: The plein air community seems so supportive. I imagine there’s mentorship within the organization itself. 

JS: Yes. I paired up with Greg LaRock, a well-known artist in this group who’s since passed away. He was a few steps ahead of me when I started. We’d go out three days a week minimum, following each other to new spots. In those first five years, I did at least 1,000 paintings. When you’re starting to develop a skill, volume is the thing. Greg was such a great inspiration to me. We’d critique each other’s work. We had a great friendship and bond that way.

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Photo by Mary Hurlbut

Jeff Sewell, winner of this year’s LPAPA “Best in Show,” with LPAPA Board Vice President Celeste Gilles (on left) and Executive Director of LAM Julie Perlin Lee (right)

SN: Is there a certain mood you gravitate toward in your work?

JS: I have six kids. About 10 years ago (halfway through my art career), I realized everything I do involves the most calming and serene subjects I can find. When I go home, it’s all dishes and chaos. When I’m painting, I’m usually looking for something that’s calming. I always paint to please myself first. 

SN: Talk about being self-taught. What does that look like for an artist?

JS: I’m just a sponge. I haven’t had any studies that would be considered ‘training.’ I go into galleries and decide what I like and don’t like. I pay attention to the stuff I don’t like even more, telling myself, ‘Don’t do that.’ 

Whenever I go to museums, galleries or events like this, I’m looking closely at [the work], figuring out how to achieve those results. What I’m trying to emulate becomes part of my toolbox. I teach myself through the influences I’m surrounded by, which is this great group [the LPAPA Invitational artists]. When I see these paintings, I’m building my toolbox for the next two years. I’ve got so many things I want to experiment with and attempt to do my way. 

No matter how hard I try, I can’t draw like Michael Obermeyer. No matter how hard I try, I can’t paint like Calvin Liang. But what I see in their work I can try bringing into my work. But it comes in my way. My peers and surroundings have been a big part of how I got here.

SN: It sounds like you didn’t miss much by forgoing the art degree.

JS: Well, I skipped over steps A and B and started with C. I started painting instead of learning to draw and a few other things that usually come first. So I learned to translate information through color and tone. That’s what gives depth and dimension. Ask me to draw a car and I’m really beside myself. I don’t have those technical talents. I rely on my stronger muscle of creating temperature and time of day through color and tone.

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Photo by Jeff Sewell

“Color Me Impressed,” 15” x 23” oil

SN: Any specific artistic techniques you’re willing to share?

JS: Play a lot. Try a lot of paintings. Then look back and you’ll see what you’ve achieved. The growth is in the volume. It’s in a lot of failed paintings. Most of that volume is in the dumpster now. But they were the ones that taught me the most. From those failures come the best paintings. 

Then throw in some experimentation. I’m trying to develop new techniques as I go. Some fall flat. Some make for interesting moments in a painting. Then I try to create that moment in the whole painting. I lily pad my way across from one thing to the next.

SN: Are there any examples in your paintings this week that show some elements of experimentation?

JS: The Glow of It All was an experiment. When you come up close to it, you’ll notice the background is on gold paint. It changes with the light as you pass it. To me, that’s interesting. I’ve almost never done that.

The Waiting was also an experiment. I made that shadow as interesting of a color as I could. Shadows aren’t usually the main actor in the movie. For that painting, the shadow is the main actor. I wanted it to be a striking shot, so I intentionally went out of my way to make it powerful. That’s an experiment. I’m trying to achieve success but grow at the same time.

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Photo by Marrie Stone

“The Glow of It All,” 15” x 22” oil

SN: Where are your favorite spots around town to paint? 

JS: You’ll love this answer. My favorite spots are secret.

SN: That’s fair. 

JS: They’re not. Nobody would come in with me because what I see, nobody else probably does. My favorite spots are some of the northern points in Laguna. When the tide goes low, I can tidepool out into them and set up my easel and paint. 

SN: So you favor the ocean over landscapes? 

JS: I’ve surfed for 45 years, so I paint the ocean the most. But when I get a good landscape painting – like The Waiting – it stokes me even more. I expect my oceanscapes to be decent. But when my landscapes turn out, it’s even better because I can struggle with them. 

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Photo by Marrie Stone

“The Waiting,” 16” x 20” water-mixable oil

SN: Being a lifelong surfer must give you a different perspective on those seascapes. 

JS: I have a heavier muscle with it. I’ve stared at that horizon, waiting for the next wave to come, for hundreds of hours. So I do have a strong connection with it, which is both a plus and a minus. I have a preconceived notion of the ocean. I try letting go of that so I can see it with a fresh perspective.

SN: Apart from the aesthetic beauty, what else do you hope people take away from your work?

JS: I want to make paintings. I don’t want to make photographs. I don’t want to recreate some version of a scene. I want it to be mine. I want to leave my thumbprint on my paintings. I like a level of impressionism – a little off center and further towards abstraction. That gives me freedom to be creative, not just recreate what I see. It lets me put my personality and style into the painting. 

I love to simplify. For me, impressionism is deciding what not to paint. It’s being economical. Less is more. If you can say it correctly with less, then you’re getting people’s minds to turn on. They’re filling in all the details. They’re filling in subconsciously what I didn’t put into the painting. Like a good Rolling Stones song. There’s a reaction. Not just, “Wow, he can paint every leaf on that tree.” I want people to feel me in my paintings. 

SN: What’s next for you?

JS: I’m developing a body of work to show at the new Moulton Museum in Laguna Hills. We have a tentative date around March for opening the show. It’s my first solo exhibition which is really an honor for me. To be able to show a body of work together is a real thrill. 

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Photo by Jeff Sewell

“It Won’t Be Long,” 20” x 20” oil

SN: Any other advice you give to young artists?

JS: Don’t ever think any painting has to be your best painting. It’s only the painting that’s going to create your next best painting. Don’t take bad paintings hard. Success all comes in time. Just keep working towards it. Set your expectations at ‘I’m just happy to be here.’ You’ve got to live with gratitude. I don’t want to sound too kooky, but you need a thick skin to be an artist. 

Art is a very vulnerable thing. To create something you’re going to put in front of others to judge makes you feel so naked. But they’re probably not thinking what you’re thinking. You’ve got to step back and try to reduce the anxiety and pressure of it all. Be thrilled for yourself. 

The foremost thing I teach – paint to please yourself first. If others like it, great. But at least I know it’s the best I could do at that time. And when it’s not my best, I’m okay with that because I know it’s helping me get to the next step. 

What the judges said about Sewell’s The Tide Abides

Curious about the judges’ reactions to The Tide Abides, I sought out Julie Perlin Lee, executive director of the Laguna Art Museum and one of the three judges of LPAPA’s “Best in Show,” for her insights. 

“I thought coming to a consensus with two other co-judges for LPAPA’s ‘Best in Show’ award might be fairly excruciating,” Lee said. “Sometimes it seems that nobody agrees anymore. But after 40 minutes, Celeste Gilles, John Cosby and I had viewed all the works in the exhibition independently, focused on where our opinions overlapped and focused in on a few paintings we compared side by side. We all found Jeff Sewell’s The Tide Abides a superb example of plein air painting due to its composition, subject matter, movement and expert use of color. There was no arm-twisting or coercing between the judges. We had found our winner.”

A post-Invitational Showcase Exhibition is now open through October 31 at the LPAPA Gallery. In addition to the current exhibition of the Invitational artists’ work, LPAPA is featuring work created by LBUSD and LCAD students during the Kids’ Paint Out and Next Generation Paint Out. For more information on Gallery hours and location, visit LPAPA’s website, go to


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