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words and images by Andrew Shinn

Wispy white-ish clouds float lazily overhead in a blue sky, as Paul Buxman is busy pulling colors from the scene in front of him and applying them to his canvas.  Paul is a farmer, musician, teacher, and one-time grade school principal, but today he’s only thinking about painting.  Standing behind him, I occasionally pick up the scent of brandy-fermented toasted Cavendish tobacco. The scent wafts my direction on the gentle breeze.  Just like the colors in his paintings, Paul Buxman lives a vibrant, colorful life.

Buxman is an impressionistic Plein Air artist.  But mostly he’s known for his use of color.  The plein air part means that he works on location, painting very quickly to capture the light he sees in the scene in front of him.  Some artists claim this creates a sense of honesty in a painting that is hard to achieve working indoors, painting from a photograph.  The impressionistic part means that he captures a scene that preserves the general visual feel without painting minute details that are too realistic.  Famous impressionists include Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Edgar Degas, and Claude Monet.

Earlier that same day, as Paul and I scouted a location for today’s painting, he talked through the season, time of day, what’s happening in nature this time of year, the light, and all the other factors that produce the colors he’s so attuned to.  This isn’t unique to his painting; Paul seemingly enjoys talking through the reasons for everything he does, from his farming practices to his choice of the pipe tobacco he takes with him while painting.  As he talks, he reveals the colors of his own life.

Even before we arrive at his chosen destination, Buxman displays a comprehensive knowledge of the colors we’ll see.   He knows the mountains and what gives them their varying colors. He approaches the landscape with a farmer’s sensibility, anticipating colors that will appear as the light changes.

We drive east, and Paul displays an impressive knowledge of each road and vista. He points out hills and orchards, and I recognize them from his work. He could easily be a tour guide for the area. He claims that every square acre within a 20-mile radius of his house appears in at least one of his paintings. From anyone else I’d doubt this, but Paul’s painting career has been prolific: he’s managed an impressive 50 paintings per year for the last 35 years.

When we choose a spot to paint, I’m not impressed with the view. Paul says, “There’s nothing grand; I like these simplistic spots.” But Paul knows what he’s looking for, and a painting is already taking shape in his mind. We drive over a rough dirt road, up a hill next to an orange grove. He starts pulling supplies from the trunk of his 1994 Honda Prelude. His painting kit is sparse but well-planned, and includes items like boots, a black t-shirt, an umbrella, miniature bungee cords, and a cheap, collapsible easel. He climbs a hill and sets up the easel, using the umbrella and black t-shirt to block the afternoon sun from falling on his canvas. It’s critical to his painting that he sees the colors accurately, and he takes the setup time to make that possible. He’s already prepared the 16x20-inch canvas he’ll use for today’s artwork. Though vibrant colors are his trademark, his starting point is a bleak gray base.

Paul’s own colorful career started at Wheaton College in Wheaton, Illinois, near Chicago. He had been planning to go to art school in San Francisco or Los Angeles, but in those days California schools were only teaching modern art, not the impressionist style Paul wanted to pursue. His older brother and sister were Wheaton graduates, and he met Karl Steele, an art professor, during a trip to see them. Steele was an impressionist painter who had studied under the famous Robert Henri. Showing a great deal of pluck, Buxman eschewed all talk of classes and programs, asking instead to see Steele’s own paintings. What he saw evidently impressed him, as Buxman finished his Bachelor’s degree in fine art from Wheaton four years later.
After setting up his easel and paints, Paul starts describing the scene in front of us using colors. I don’t see the colors in front of me until he illuminates them. Robert Henri said, “It is harder to see than it is to express. The whole value of art rests in the artist’s ability to see well into what is before him.” After Buxman describes the colors he sees, I find that after hearing them described, they’re unavoidable.

He works very quickly, sketching a blue frame of the scene in front of him. He moves a rock in the foreground of the painting. “It’s pretty easy to move mountains in this business,” he says. He tosses the comment over his shoulder, enjoying his own colorful irony. His hand flits from canvas to palette, deftly choosing and mixing colors. He seems to decide which colors to use based on instinct. He says he doesn’t think in terms of color theory. He internalized those rules a long time ago, he said.

After college, Paul taught at General Grant Middle School in Reedley for two years. He told the principal he wanted to teach art, and the principal just laughed. He went on to teach, then serve as principal at Miramonte Elementary School, which at that time housed kindergarten through 8th grade classes. He still teaches today, though not in a classroom setting. He brings people along to paint with him whenever he’s asked. He also lectures and shows paintings for groups as close as Fowler and as far away as Portland, Oregon. He has paintings hanging in the halls of Congress and the world headquarters of Chevron in Texas.

After spending the afternoon with him, I’ve concluded that the incredible colors in Paul Buxman’s paintings don’t come from nature; they come from Paul’s vision, personality and unique view of the world. Robert Henri said, “Paint what you feel. Paint what you see. Paint what is real to you.” It’s a gift to all of us that Paul Buxman shares his colors with the world.




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