Painting the Malibu Landscape

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A landscape painting of Malibu at sunset by artist David Ashwell

Malibu man has found happiness and acclaim in his second career as a landscape artist. Painter David Ashwell didn’t even pick up a brush until he was 50 years old. Now painting is his full-time passion and his work is collected worldwide.

Originally from England, Ashwell was a successful television commercial director when he moved to Malibu 35 years ago. Throughout his first 30-year career, Ashwell was experienced in photography and graphic design; however, he was not a trained painter. He had only drawn storyboards for his commercials.

“I found the only thing I was really enjoying in the end was drawing the storyboards,” Ashwell described in an interview with The Malibu Times. “It seemed to me that was a sign that I should do something that was less advertising and more free. My wife encouraged me to start painting.” So Ashwell did paint, for an entire year.

When Ashwell and his wife sold their home on Carbon Beach, she encouraged him to hang one of his paintings and invite friends. He put up the 23 paintings he had finished over the year and “a lot of people came. I sold 13 paintings and made $60,000 in an afternoon,” he said with a surprised laugh. “I thought, ‘You know what? I really want to do this.’” 

But Ashwell said he’s not painting for the money. 

“It nourishes me way more than my old job,” the artist declared. “It was satisfying creatively at the beginning, but not towards the end.” Ashwell credited his wife with encouraging him to take up painting and gallerist Lia Skidmore for encouraging him to paint on a larger scale. 

Malibu’s Skidmore (married to Michael Zakian, director of the Frederick Weisman Museum at Pepperdine) is an art dealer who had a gallery in Cross Creek for eight years until she moved it to Bergamot in Santa Monica. She mounted Ashwell’s first one-person exhibition nearly 20 years ago. 

“When I saw his paintings, I thought they were very beautiful,” Skidmore shared. “His approach to landscape was always very fresh and astutely informed by film and photography. I thought it was a unique, distinct voice from the beginning. Landscape has been around for centuries, but David had something unique to bring to the genre.” Skidmore said Ashwell’s paintings sell out. 

Ashwell’s current exhibit, titled “Why Landscape,” features iconic Malibu images including the Lagoon and lifeguard towers. Ashwell scopes Malibu and takes photos at different times of day. 

“I do a light study, basically,” the painter explained. One piece titled “Dawn” depicts the Malibu Pier just before the light hits the building. After taking photos, Ashwell paints a small plein air painting on location, sketches and takes notes. He then takes the information he’s collected and creates a final, bigger work in his home studio in Point Dume. 

“I’m very familiar with the different special relationships that different lenses give—like a wide angle lens will separate everything out and a telephoto lens will stack it all together,” he described. “I like having that extra dimension to play with rather than our eyes that are always the same focal length.” 

The artist explained why he mostly paints Malibu, saying, “When I first came here, it gave me a sense of optimism. It’s an old cliché, but coming from England it was a bit like living under a 40-watt bulb because it was so dark. Here it’s so bright. 

“It’s not the heat that attracted me—it’s the light,” he continued. “There’s a sense of optimism about everything. I happened to end up in Malibu. As a kid I was always yearning to be by the seaside. Malibu reminds me of—certainly the beaches at Point Dume—remind me of the beaches in Devon and Cornwall in the ‘50s when I was a kid. I feel a sense of optimism that comes from looking at these various images and I try to express that.”

Ashwell added he feels lucky to have found his passion.

“It’s wonderful to have a second career at my old age,” 74-year-old Ashwell chuckled. “I feel really lucky that I’m doing something that I care passionately about at my age because I think a lot of people plateau and it’s sort of a gradual decline after that. Now I’m so grateful that I learn something every day. 

“I learn when I paint,” he went on. “That sunset and sunrise and various painting techniques—it’s wonderful to have all of that to learn and I’ve only just scratched the surface. I feel very fortunate.”

Ashwell’s seventh exhibition at Skidmore Contemporary is on display through Sept. 15.