Donald Neff

Neither snow nor rain nor…

“Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds.”

–US Postal Service

This steadfast creed of the US Postal Service could just as well apply to us plein air artists. We paint through the snow, rain showers, scorching heat, and even under the cover of night. Yet, there is one foe that makes our creative endeavors nearly impossible: WIND! And, of course, those pesky mosquitoes. But truly, the wind is our greatest adversary.

Yesterday, the Monterey Bay Plein Air Painters gathered at Rustique Winery for a paint out. It was a gloriously sunny day—if you could overlook the relentless gusts of wind! Easels toppled, supplies scattered, and occasional chaos ensued. Determined to make the best of it, I set up shop in the back of my SUV, using the open door as a windbreak, as did several others. After a little more than an hour, I managed to complete a quick, bold-brushed sketch of the stunning vineyards and Salinas Valley landscape before packing up for afternoon commitments.

Here are some snapshots of our group in action.

As for my sketch, a brief critique reveals my mixed feelings. The middle ground composition suffers from unbroken, parallel lines, mirroring the scene too faithfully. The perspective feels slightly off, too. However, I’m fond of the background, particularly the misty essence of the Salinas Valley. This piece has potential, and I’m eager to refine it in the studio. It’s definitely a keeper!

BTW, I had recently visited Rustique Winery…and made this brief video of the area and above, which led to scheduling this paint out. The hills were quite greener then. In case you missed it—

31st Carmel Art Festival

The Carmel Art Festival in California is an annual event that transforms the picturesque seaside town of Carmel-by-the-Sea into a center of creativity and culture. Each May, this festival celebrates the magic of plein air painting, where artists capture the breathtaking coastal landscapes. seascapes,  and charming architecture of the area in just a few days. Visitors are treated to the thrill of watching artists bring scenes to life, bidding on exquisite art at auctions, and diving into a variety of engaging exhibitions and workshops.

I’ve been part of this artistic extravaganza nearly every year since 2006. In recent years, participating has become more convenient since we now live locally, eliminating the need for travel and accommodations—though those adventures were part of the charm! Artists have about two days to create at least two world-class paintings ready for sale.

Check-in was on Wednesday morning, where festival officials stamped the back of our canvases to ensure all paintings were freshly created within the two-day timeframe.

After my canvas was stamped, faced with morning gloom, I was uncertain about my first painting location. However, being halfway there, I ventured on to Garrapata State Park near Soberanes Point. Despite the overcast skies, a little artistic imagination brought the scene to life.

Next, I headed to Ft Ord Dunes State Beach. I walk there 3-5 times a week as it is near our home in Marina. Last year, a painting I created there won the People’s Choice Award and was featured as this year’s festival poster. Although I didn’t expect to capture lightning in a bottle twice, I hoped for a bit of the same magic by painting close to last year’s spot, yet capturing an entirely new scene.

Thursday morning was gloomy again, so I stayed in the studio to touch up and frame the previous day’s paintings. By early afternoon, I was off to Elkhorn Slough to create another piece.

The festival is not just about art—it’s a vibrant celebration with live music, gourmet food, and family-friendly activities, offering a rich and inclusive cultural experience that showcases the artistic heritage of the region. Since I won People’s Choice Award last year, my painting was the festival poster for this year. Here are a few photos of the festival.

Here are my three pieces for the show.

Painting Hokkaido

It had been five long years since we last visited our son in Sapporo, Japan. Not by choice, but because the pandemic threw a wrench in our plans. Japan, being one of the last countries to reopen after COVID, kept us apart. Thankfully, our son visited us during that time. But finally, we made it back to Sapporo.

I won’t turn this into a full travelogue, but I did bring my acrylic kit and managed to squeeze in a few paintings between our touring excursions and rain squalls around Hokkaido, Japan’s northernmost island.

We made our base at the Sapporo Park Hotel, nestled next to Nakajima Park—my favorite spot in the city and conveniently close to our son’s apartment. I had painted in this park on our last trip to Sapporo. This time, we also ventured into other parts of Hokkaido. Here’s a few photos around Sapporo.

Our first excursion was to Furano, where my son’s girlfriend hails from. Furano, in the heart of Hokkaido, is famous for its breathtaking natural landscapes, especially the vibrant lavender fields that bloom in mid-summer, which unfortunately weren’t in bloom during our visit. When people asked what it reminded me of back in the States, it eventually clicked—Montana! Known as Big Sky Country, Montana has wide valleys framed by mountain ranges, similar to central Hokkaido, though some in Japan are volcanic. Here are a few photos from the trip, including the famous Blue Pond.

I managed to do one painting in Furano, capturing a view from one of the hilltop parks.

After returning to Sapporo, I did another painting in Maruyama Park, where a few cherry blossoms still clung to the trees,

Next, we headed to Hakodate via train. This historic port city in southern Hokkaido is rich in cultural heritage. Hakodate was Japan’s first city whose port was opened to foreign trade in 1854, and used to be the most important port in northern Japan. Hakodate blends modern attractions with historical sites, like the star-shaped Goryokaku Fort, now a public park and observation tower with panoramic views. The bustling wharf area brought to mind Cannery Row in Monterey and Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco. I didn’t get a chance to paint in Hakodate, as we were too busy soaking in the sights.

Back in Sapporo, finding time for one more painting in Nakajima Park, I sat on the same bench to paint as I did five years prior.

Too soon we headed back to our home in Marina, CA. It was time to get ready for the Carmel Art Festival. Stay tuned!

Painting Old Monterey

Participating in the second Monterey Art Museum Block Party, 25 artists of the Monterey Bay Plein Air Painters came out for a good time. I randomly was chosen for the same location as last year. This year, I painted a short pathway between two of the buildings in Plaza Del Oro Gardens. Below are some photos of the day.

Here is the painting I came up with. I think it’s a keeper!

Hidden Path, 9×12, oil on panel

Reviving A Decades Old Capitol Reef Painting

Picture this: an old acrylic canvas, holding within it the essence of a majestic landscape. For over twenty years it sat dormant in my studio, a relic of earlier artistic endeavors.  Not quite sure when I started it, but probably the early 2000’s when I was still doing mostly acrylic paintings.  Although it was an awesome scene, I was never quite satisfied with the painting, and never quite finished it.  As it sat in my studio, my style and technique changed over the years, especially when I switched from painting mainly acrylic pieces to oil painting in the early 2000’s. I embarked to reimagine the piece in oils, and paint right over the old acrylic.

Capitol Reef National Park is a hidden gem nestled in the heart of Utah, a tapestry of colors woven over millions of years. My memories of this enchanting place date back to the early ‘80s on a six month RV trip all over the Southwest. One of the lesser visited and known national parks in the US, it’s a geological wonderland boasting mesmerizing landscapes sculpted over millions of years. Spanning a 100 miles of colorful canyons, towering cliffs, and intricate rock formations, the park offers a captivating journey through time. Its signature feature, the Waterpocket Fold, stretches like a wrinkle in the Earth’s crust, revealing layers of ancient history. Visitors can explore remnants of ancient civilizations, from petroglyphs etched into sandstone walls to pioneer homesteads preserved in time.

Here is the old acrylic painting that sat in my studio all these years–

This is the photo study I used in producing the painting. It is taken somewhere along the Fremont Vista Trail I hiked from the Fruita Campground in the park late in the day.  Fruita campground is one of the prettiest in the Southwest, situated in a green valley, surrounded by red cliffs and mountains. You will also find many orchards in the valley, where you can pick fruit for free.

Here’s a photo of my 20′ Dolphin RV in Capital Reef. I traveled in this little RV for six months in the winter of 81, and spring of 82 all over the Southwestern US. At the time, I also visited art galleries, and by the time I returned home to San Jose, CA, my paintings were sprinkled in a half dozen or so art galleries all over the Southwest US.

To paint over the old acrylic, first some preparations were in order. I sanded down the acrylic layer to get rid of any gloss and put a little more tooth in the surface.  I then put a thin coat of Liquin over the entire surface of the canvas. Liquin is a quick-drying medium for oil and alkyd paint. Used as an additive in many forms of artwork, it can also be used to bring out the luster in darker parts of the painting.  I occasionally use it as a separation layer between coats of oil painting. 

I then blocked in the scene again with a layer of oil paints mixed with Liquin.  As I progressed through the layers of oil paint, I used less and less Liquin. Here are a few photos of the progression as I worked through the painting.

I left the lower right area undone as I was uncertain if it needed a closeup foreground there.  I finally decided to put in some foreground so-as to push the rest of the scene back. During the process, I first painted a bigger foreground, but then cut it back as it overpowered the vista.

Here is the final piece.  As usual, I’ll let it sit for a while, but might touch it up later.

Capitol Reef, 12x26, oil on canvas
Capitol Reef, 12 x 36, oil on canvas

Here is a slider view where you can move the slider arrows back and forth between the old acrylic painting and the now just painted over oil version.

Hopefully this new painting won’t sit in my studio unfinished for another 20+ years! I have more old acrylic pieces of wonderful scenes, so who knows, I might work on them!

The Third Layer is the Charm

This painting began life as a plein air piece I did for the 2019 Carmel Art Festival. It was quite a rainy week, and I painted it from the Marina State Beach parking lot between rain squalls. Painting out of the back of my SUV, I was in and out of the car as the rain kept coming and going throughout the morning. Here’s a few pictures (click to see entire picture)–

The painting didn’t sell at the festival, in fact it was a bad year for sales as the setup was different with not much light on my pieces, and it was raining off and on the entire time.

I never was entirely satisfied with the piece, as I didn’t like the clouds. Some time later, I tried touching the clouds up in the studio, but still wasn’t satisfied with the result.

The last few weeks has seen some dramatic skies in our area, just like what was happening 5 years prior during the Carmel Art Festival. A few days ago, some clouds were drifting by just like what I wanted to see in the painting. So, I repainted the clouds from my back yard. I guess you could call this a plein air painting layered on a studio painting layered on a plein air painting!

Below are the two paintings, the original on the left, and the just completed refurbishing on the right.

Monterey Bay Squall, 24×12, oil on canvas

Now, the big question is, should I put a seagull or two back in the new version??

BTW, at the time, we had thought about moving to the area, but didn’t realize in six months we would be in a new home just a few miles away from this location!

Elkhorn Morning

Elkhorn Slough, nestled along the central coast of California, is a short drive from our home in Marina. Its tranquil waters wind through marshes, mudflats, and tidal creeks, offering refuge to a rich array of wildlife, including otters, seals, numerous bird species, and vibrant marine life.

I had been wanting to get out and paint some of the wondrous skies between a series of storms which have been hitting the central California coast, so went out this morning to Elkhorn.

It was wonderful just sitting and enjoying the peaceful sounds of the estuary residents. Not many homo sapiens were around. The wide variety of waterfowl were constantly coming and going, diving for food, and playing in the water. Sea otters swam and dove for their morning meal.

I took some artistic liberty in the skies, painting the sky as it looked closer to sunrise before I got there. I plan on adding a few details and touchup in the studio, and when done will publish an official photo. Below are a few photos of the morning.


Here is the final piece after just a little touchup in the studio. I added just a bit to the clouds, and detailed some of the fence lines

Elkhorn Morning, 12×16, oil on board, plein air

Dunes Sunset

We have had a number of weather fronts coming in the last few months along with great sunsets over Monterey Bay. We walk along the dunes near our home in Marina, CA quite frequently, usually in the late afternoon, and enjoy the low or setting sun, particularly in the winter months when sunset is earlier. I recently did a painting of one of the sunsets, and I just have to keep painting them!!

This painting is a bit of a composite of the landscape components, but all the elements were within about a hundred yards of each other. The sky is pretty much was I saw it. It’s interesting, and I don’t know what causes it, but the yellow sky near the horizon is not reflected in the whiter highlights in the upper clouds. I saw this same phenomenon in my last painting of the sunset.

“Dunes Sunset”, 20×16, oil on canvas. Available

Light Filtering Among the Small Clouds

Sunsets on Monterey Bay by Fort Ord (now closed) are often breathtaking and captivating experiences. The reflection of the sun on the waters of Monterey Bay adds to the beauty of the scene, creating a serene and picturesque atmosphere.

Prior to moving to Marina, CA, I visited the area frequently showing in art galleries in Carmel, and at the annual Carmel Art Festival for the last couple decades. I always drove right by Marina and the massive dunes to go further south to the rocky Big Sur coast and other areas which I thought would be better subject matter for my paintings.

Now, I walk along the dunes with my wife, Josie, 3-5 times a week for daily exercise, and the ideas for painting studies there are seemingly endless. Riding my eBike along the coastal trails is also fun and great exercise! I am losing track of how many times I have painted them, but here is another one!!

What drew me to this particular sunset was the light filtering among the small clouds in the upper atmosphere. They didn’t seem to be affected by the bright yellows and oranges of the sun and clouds below. Enjoy this new piece just off the easel.

Dunes Sunset, 24×18, oil on canvas

For those who know the area, I call this Divarty Hill, just west of the Divarty Rd/Hwy 1 underpass. Some may recognize the tree, but I replaced the asphalt road with vegetation.

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