Nancy Davidson loves to walk onto a beach and squint.
“That excludes the details so you just see the big masses and shapes,” the award-winning Santa Barbara landscape artist told the News-Press.
She then pays attention to the most important elements.
“To me, it’s all about the light,” Ms. Davidson, 70, said at Waterhouse Gallery in La Arcada Courtyard on State Street, where her oil paintings have been sold for a long time. “You’re walking around in the late evening, and the light strikes something, and it’s like, ‘I’ve got to capture this before it’s gone!’ “
Her paintings of Santa Barbara beaches have impressed local art lovers and Art of the West. The prestigious Minnetonka, Minn., magazine, which is read by art collectors, is running a story about her in its March/April issue.
Ms. Davidson said the editor, who met her at a Western art show, told her the magazine loved her coastal pieces and “You’ve been on our radar for awhile.”
The Art of the West story featured some of her paintings of beaches such as “Santa Barbara Sunset,” in which a dramatic blast of light during the winter embraces Arroyo Burro Beach.
Another painting in the magazine, “Shoreline,” depicts Santa Barbara Point as seen from the beach below Shoreline Park.
Ms. Davidson told Art of the West she was drawn to the scene because of the contrast between the cool blues of the ocean and the warm rose golds of the land.
The Santa Barbara native’s love for painting began when her grandmother, Santa Barbara resident Catherine Davidson, gave her a little box of oil paints when she was a girl.
Nancy Davidson, who loved to ride horses from Hope Ranch Beach to Goleta Beach, started her lifelong dedication to drawing and painting horses.
“My grandfather (general contractor Peter Davidson) would sit there and criticize the drawings for me,” Ms. Davidson said. “He was really firm but was really gentle at the same time. He launched me into wanting to be an artist.”
Ms. Davidson said she found horses were easier to paint than people. “Having a horse and having to brush and groom them, I had a tactile sense of their muscles. I studied their anatomy and how they walked on their tip-toes.”
After graduating from Santa Barbara High School in 1966, she studied art on a National Merit Scholarship at Michigan State University in Lansing.
“But I missed the beach. I missed the smell of the salt air,” said Ms. Davidson, who soon returned to Santa Barbara and earned a bachelor’s degree in studio art
at UCSB in the late 1960s.
After marrying John Behlman (who became the manager of UCSB’s fleet of vehicles), she continued painting but worked during the day as a teller at Santa Barbara National Bank (now Santa Barbara Bank & Trust). In 1976, she left banking for good to focus entirely on her art and took some classes at the ArtCenter College of Design in Pasadena.
In the early 1980s, Ms. Davidson worked as an illustrator in the Earth and Planetary Sciences Department at Santa Barbara City College, where she also took some art classes as a part-time student. She also taught a class on drawing animals at the Santa Barbara Zoo through City College’s School of Extended Learning.
“It was so much fun!” Ms. Davidson said. “We started with the elephants because they were slow and ended up on the last class with the monkeys because they were so fast.”
She displayed her art regularly at galleries, and from the 1990s through 2008, her paintings were featured in exhibits hosted by original “Newlywed Game” host Bob Eubanks and his wife, Irma, at their barn in Santa Ynez.
“In 2011, I decided I was going to take a class through City College Adult Ed in landscape painting for the heck of it,” said the artist, who with her husband has two sons in their 20s.
“I ended up sitting next to this gal who was president of SCAPE — Southern California Artists Painting for the Environment,” Ms. Davidson said. “She told me, ‘We’re going to have a show Tuesday at the (Central) library. Do you have anything?’ I thought, ‘No, but I can make something!'”
So Ms. Davidson painted a landscape and won a first-place ribbon. That inspired her to enter another landscape in the Santa Barbara Art Walk, where judge Diane Waterhouse, who owns Waterhouse Gallery with husband Ralph, gave her another blue ribbon. She told the News-Press she’s been consistently impressed with Ms. Davidson’s design, composition and use of light.
Ms. Davidson said the two blue ribbons convinced her to focus on landscapes, in which she tries to be realistic while evoking a certain mood.
The artist said she takes photos of the beaches and relies on those and her memories as she recreates the colors, shapes and light in her home studio. She explained she’s not a fan of plein air painting because of how light quickly changes outside.
“My paintings are more contemplative. I try to capture one single moment that to me feels like a day at the beach,” Ms. Davidson said.
Her pieces typically go for thousands of dollars.
One of the paintings appearing in Art of the West, “Home by the Sea,” which also has gone by the name “California Dream,” shows a historical home on the bluffs below Shoreline Park. Actress Irene Rich and her daughter, Frances, lived there and hosted friends such as movie stars Spencer Tracy, Katharine Hepburn, Steve McQueen, Ann-Margret and racing legend Enzo Ferrari.
“Look at the reflection in the water!” Mrs. Waterhouse said. “It’s just so beautiful.
“Don’t you feel like you’re at the beach?”
Nancy Davidson’s oil paintings are sold at Waterhouse Gallery in La Arcada Courtyard, 1114 State St., Suite 9. Hours are 11a.m. to 5 p.m. Mondays through Saturdays and noon to 4 p.m. Sundays.