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Palo Alto Weekly

Arts & Entertainment - June 28, 2013

Painting on the dock of the bay

Artist Earl Junghans is happiest out in the Baylands with his watercolors

by Rebecca Wallace

While studying to be an architect, immersed in the precision of perspective, Earl Junghans chanced to enroll in a watercolor class. He labored to replicate "that old magnificent Beaux Arts style," he recalled, painting layer upon layer, letting each layer dry in turn. It seemed like the way an architect should approach fine art. He spent a whole semester on a single painting.

Then the teacher announced that students had to turn in their best five works. Junghans rushed back to the studio and dashed off four more paintings, using what he'd learned at breakneck speed. To his surprise, these paintings outshone the first by a mile.

"I learned a lesson," he said, laughing. Freeing your brush to swift inspiration sometimes yields the best art.

Today, Junghans is still liberated by watercolors. Now a retired architect, he retains the science of perspective and all he learned in his career about material and texture, light and shade. But instead of using those lessons in tight, detailed blueprint drawings, he lets them out to play on soft watercolor paper. Visitors to the Palo Alto and Mountain View Baylands may see Junghans outside painting, with a folding chair and a portable table.

"What attracts me are scenes that have a lot of darks and lights, a lot of contrast. People think watercolors are transparent and pastelly, but that's not true. It has such potential. You can get the brightness," he said. Inspired by the confident, vivid watercolors of Winslow Homer and John Singer Sargent, he's never even tried acrylic or oil paints.

This summer, 28 of Junghans' paintings are so close to the Bay that they're practically damp. He has a small solo exhibit at the Environmental Volunteers' EcoCenter out in the Palo Alto Baylands, where panoramic views from the building showcase wind and water. Across one wall are Junghans' own views of Byxbee Park, waves, hills, boats and sky.

A resident of Menlo Park, the artist chooses the Midpeninsula to set most of his works. (Those California-gold East Bay hills do take center stage in at least one painting.) Overall, the views are a mix of broad landscapes and up-close detail. A pair of paintings called "Fading Marsh Grasses" looks carefully at a complex maze of blades.

"Sometimes I see something and am attracted to it because it's so difficult to paint," Junghans said. It helps that he does pencil work before painting, outlining his images and figuring out where the shadows are.

The same meticulous brushstrokes show up in "Interpretive Center Detail," where the wood slats on a pier mirror the ripples in the water. In "Sea Scout Boat," the artist has painted a small boat and a coiling rope in rich blue-grays, with sharp panels of light and shade.

While out by the Bay, Junghans has found his attention captured many times over the years by Palo Alto's airport. "Landing Gear #2" offers a low view of a plane and its wheels, and the underside of a wing. "I sat right here on the ground and painted," Junghans said. This was before 9/11. When he tried to do another airplane painting more recently, a security man chased him away.

Junghans originally hails from Virginia and moved to the Bay Area a few years after finishing college. He had visited the city by the Bay on a class trip and fallen hard. "There's nothing like San Francisco," he said.

When he first moved here, he didn't know anyone, so he spent many of his weekends outside painting. Decades later, he keeps painting and exhibiting; past solo shows have been at the Pacific Art League in Palo Alto and at the SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory in Menlo Park. He describes himself as an active person, busy and athletic. Watercolor paintings fit right in.

"The quicker you do them, the better they come off," he said. "I love art, but I don't like to sit around."

What: An exhibition of Baylands watercolors by Earl Junghans

Where: The Environmental Volunteers' EcoCenter, 2560 Embarcadero Road, Palo Alto

When: Through Aug. 28, with a reception on June 29 from 1 to 3 p.m. The EcoCenter is open Monday, Thursday and Friday from 11 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. and Saturdays from 10 to 3.

Cost: Admission to the center is free.

Info: Go to evols.org or call 650-493-8000.

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