Terry DeLapp is a third-generation Californian, born in Pasadena in 1934. He attended a military academy from the age of 5 before coming to Cambria when he was 16. He was an English major at UCLA and then attended the Chouinard Art Institute in Los Angeles. Terry then became an art dealer in the ’60s and ’70s, specializing in landscape painters who headed west.
Terry focuses on landscape and still life, painting in a style he calls neotonalism, a fresh take on the 19th century American art movement called tonalism. The art is known for its treatment of nature, using a soft and limited palette, and blurred shapes to capture mood rather than detail.
An exhibit of Terry’s work, “Mundus Cerialis: Painting of the San Joaquin Valley,” is on display at the San Luis Obispo Museum of Art through Dec. 2.
Q: How did you become a painter?
A: I can’t say I was a prodigy. I got involved in art dealing and I just liked looking at paintings. Early on I realized I wanted to be a painter.
Q: What inspires you?
A: I always go to the Central Valley. It’s more than the topography; I’m interested in the agricultural world of California — of the world, actually — but I happen to live in California.
It’s a great subject. Buildings fall down but new ones are put up. It’s a protean thing: it’s forever changing.
It’s interesting, but city people seem to be especially attracted to farm subjects. They respond to the space — visually and emotionally.
Q: How did you get drawn to the Central Valley of California?
A: When I was in the military academy, we’d take these summer trips to nearby states in these old open-air trucks with a canopy on top. It would be August, hotter than hell, and we always went through the Central Valley, up the 99.
We’d look out at these fantastic green fields. A lot of us had had our families taken away from us, and we thought the farmhouses looked like the Partridge family, real homes. It’s an image I never forgot. The scenes emotionally rang a bell with me.
Q: Your paintings are designed around a strong horizon. What does that convey?
A: That’s the way the farms look. A strong horizon produces a sort of hypnotism; you can focus on one thing. Hills distract. I don’t paint hillside farms; they become picturesque.
Q: Do you prefer landscape, still life or seascapes more?
A: Each serves a different purpose. Painting a still life is a little like doing your scales on the piano; you can rip into it. A seascape is fun to paint as a diversion. I’ve done some big seascapes that people respond to in a reflective way. But landscape, that’s where the message is.
We paint from memory, what your inner art eye dictates. When I’m out in the country, I might do a sketch of a farm or even take a photo. Then, one to two weeks later, the important part of it is what you remember; that’s what you paint.
Q: Is it tough to be a professional artist?
A: It’s the best thing on earth to be but you don’t get paid for it. The U.S. is not an art-friendly country. In Ireland, you don’t pay taxes if you’re an artist.
Marketing your art is a very difficult thing, probably harder to do than the art itself. It’s the downfall of a lot of artists; marketing and making contacts are not their forte.
Q: You describe yourself as a neotonalist. What does that mean?
A: It’s a form of painting that is geared to create an emotional response. It’s subjective. In Freudian analysis they give dreams some credence because they open up so much more of the person.
Neotonalism is like that. If it’s done correctly, it opens up a person’s inner visual senses: nostalgia, melancholy. The object is to let the viewer go off on their own tangent. It’s the lack of control by the painter that’s important. There’s an inherent simplicity. A Zen kind of art.
Q: What can participation in Cambria’s art organization, Cambria Center for the Arts, offer an aspiring or a professional artist?
A: It allows people to do art, which is sort of a primitive, cave-wall emotion. I’m all for it.
I’d like to encourage the association to get other professional artists to visit, not to do workshops, but to talk about art and show works of art. When you raise your level of understanding about art, your skills will increase. Good artists are willing to come and to share.
Q: What advice would you have for an aspiring painter?
A: Don’t rely too much on technique. There is no silver bullet.
Go to museums. Experience the real deal. And remember: the only reward you get out of being a painter is painting. That’s as good as it’s going to get. It’s a moment of ecstasy when you’ve managed to convey a feeling and put it on a canvas.