It was 2010, in Terry Masters’ painting class at Palm Springs’ Desert Art Center. Terry walked to the front of the room and hoisted a large canvas onto an easel. He flipped open his portable plein air kit (battle-scarred from hundreds of painting encounters).
Terry is no shrinking violet. At 6′ 5″, he is a Tower of Power. He grabbed a brush (with a very long handle) and began to paint.
Not in a placid, controlled, way. He literally attacked the canvas. Watching him was eye-opening: a plein air action painter.
Slash! Splash! In Terry parlance it’s “Stab and Drag”: Hit the canvas then drag the paint just where he wants it to go. The teacher’s four painterly steps are: shapes…values…edges…colors, in that order
First you have to get the shape right, be it a palm tree, a smoke tree or a Joshua tree.
Then, Terry keeps working with a soup of colors that either blends together or becomes a base color for what will come later. Next: The edges. He makes adjustments with his brush, widening a shape or “chipping away” to help define details such as palm fronds. Finally he refines his colors–a touch more blue to the distant mountains, dabs of orange on a gnarly tree trunk.
These fugitive colors add an extra dimension to the painting. The viewer sees marvelous flickers of color. Subtle but magical.
While all this is going on, Terry is floating his signature highlights onto trees, rocks, mountaintops.
The demo was begun and finished in 30 minutes. Voila. Behold a palm tree! A big palm tree. I said to myself: “I only wish I’d seen this demo a couple of decades ago.”
Terry was born in Sacramento in 1955, one of nine children. The clan moved to Palm Springs in 1967, seeking relief for their mother’s asthma. Terry had a successful career as a KPSI radio station announcer and manager for 21 years. (The radio gig accounts for his voice of authority.) But all the time he was working in radio, his destiny was really his art. He was primed to be an artist by his junior high and high school art classes, as well as the Paul Grimm paintings he admired in Palm Springs’ shop windows as a boy. He would look at them and think: “Man, someday….”
His sister Lin Masters says he drew and sketched as a young man, but didn’t talk about what he was doing. “He came to visit me in San Diego one time. He sat down and grabbed an orange crayon and sketched the most beautiful picture of a girl’s face. Just one orange crayon.”
At the same time, he was discovering the desert terrain that would be his prized subject. Coming from Sacramento, where the horizon was flat, the young Terry especially adored the perspective from the peaks: “I just loved getting up high to look all the way down the Valley and over the little San Bernardinos.” The plein air painting craze of the 1950s and ‘60s had gone by that time, and Terry never saw anyone painting outdoors. He didn’t know it then, but he would play a major role in reviving the venerable tradition.
In 1994, drawing on “naïve confidence”, he made a New Year’s resolution to be a painter. (“The only one I ever kept.”) “Ken Auster, the great Laguna painter gave me my first instruction in painting ‘en plein aire’,” he says. I’ve also worked with Daniel Gerhartz, Jeremy Lipking, Mark Kerckhoff and Matt Smith and I’ve learned a great deal from my fellow California painters.”
Coming from radio—where everything was about promotion—Terry at first talked on and on to his fellow artists about how to promote themselves. But then he took a good look at his work, decided it lagged behind that of his peers–and stopped talking. “I kind of shut my mouth and really went to work,” he says. The result was an explosion of skill and a reputation for being mysterious and elusive.
He is an artist member of the California Art Club as well as a member of the Laguna Plein Air Painters Association, and teaches classes yearlong at the Desert Art Center, along with stints at the Palm Springs Art Museum.
While some people say there’s nothing new to say in landscape painting, Terry likes to argue that there’s only one message and it’s just as good today as it was when Hilton, Dixon and Swinnerton roamed the dunes. The message: “Isn’t this a beautiful planet?”
Terry worries that if young people miss the message, the grand tradition of desert painting will die out. To prevent that fate, he is intent on passing on his skills to a new generation of desert painters.
In his classes, the teacher remembers every student’s name after just one mention. A typical student may be just getting back into painting after a long hiatus–career or child rearing or both. That artist is already accomplished but wants to push the work to a new level. Terry either comments politely or (when invited) actually grabs a brush and has at it.
He will sometimes end the class by redoing a student project to show us the Terry Way. A recurring instruction is: “Now….don’t screw it up!”
Terry is a plein air painter, meaning he paints a la prima–outdoors and not in a studio. He leaps out of bed at first light, that magical time when the sun is just beginning to edge up over the eastern mountains, bringing the California desert to life.
Plein air painters are aware of the always-moving sun arcing across our skies until it dips over the mountains to the West and darkness descends. The circle of mountains ringing Palm Springs changes hue from pink to beige to shadowy purple blue. Of course the sun–our enabler–is also our challenge; we have to work very fast because the light and colors keep changing literally minute-by-minute.
Gallery owner Howard Schepp says Terry’s sixth sense for light is what sets him apart. “He sees the light in his mind in an idealized way. He sees the light I can’t see with my own eyes.”
Lin Masters, too, says if you go on a drive with Terry you quickly realize he is seeing things you can’t. “The beauty he sees through his eyes is just remarkable. He has a beautiful way of seeing the world.”
Before Terry, there was Monet–a pioneering exponent of this approach. Sometimes his subject was a mere haystack. Or Rouen cathedral. The point is, Monet focused on the light and like Terry he painted his subjects over and over and over again. Terry has painted hundreds of scenes inside the huge palm groves in the Indian Canyons.
He may paint a small potted cactus backlit by the morning sun or the massive north face of Mt. San Jacinto. He paints Tahquitz Canyon, Big Bear, out to Joshua Tree with its huge boulders. Smoke trees galore. Cholla. Saguaros…
He’ll drive to the Salton Sea, to nearby Borrego (what a moonscape down there!) and into Painted Canyon, favorite haunt of Jimmy Swinnerton and the early desert painters. When he hikes into the backcountry his backpack holds his palette, paints, turpentine and snacks. There’s a tripod strapped to the side of the pack. He’s covered a lot of the local country in this fashion and plans to delve into the high mountain stretches of the Pacific Crest Trail, an area known as the Desert Divide.
Terry’s current gallery show at Howard Schepp Fine Art in Palm Desert is the season’s hit, with more than 300 people attending the opening and more than 70 pieces sold. A special guest at the opening was Terry’s mother, Patricia. “Art was definitely encouraged in our family,” says sister Lin. “Our parents encouraged us to do what we felt good about.”
Schepp tells us that the show came to be because three clients came into his gallery on the same day….for one painting.
The first client bought that painting and then another.
Schepp called Terry and told him his dilemma. “I need more paintings!”
He got permission to come to Terry’s studio to see if he could find something special for those two clients. Howard goes on: “What I discovered sent chills up my spine just like what happens when I stand in front of other works by genius artists.”
This landmark show of over 120 paintings can be viewed in the Schepp Gallery on El Paseo through the end of February. The gallery will continue to feature Masters’ work in coming months. In fact, Howard Schepp is not letting Terry out of his sight. He has his entire career—he says it’s just begun– mapped out for him, with shows in Santa Fe, Sedona and elsewhere.
“He’s the right man for the right time,” Schepp says. “He’s going to be remembered forever.”
For more on Terry Masters, see: http://www.desertpainter.com/
The show can be viewed on the website: www.howardscheppfineart.com.
Richard Calderhead studied Fine Art at San Diego State. He went to New York after graduation and eventually launched his own ad agency. One of his early accounts was Sotheby’s. He met many of the leading painters of the day including Baldessari, Warhol, Christo, Albers, and others.
He now lives in Palm Springs and is a Terry Masters Fan Club Member. He has a new website in development. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org