Teacher finds joy in oil painting

February 9, 2018 — by Kaitlyn Wang

During his annual summer trips to Maine, media arts teacher Joel Tarbox takes photos of inspiring scenes with his phone — using it almost like a sketchbook, he said. Later, he flips through the photos to see which ones stand out to him and fuel his ideas for paintings he will create later.

Tarbox, who holds a Master of Fine Arts degree in painting from Northwestern University, enjoys oil painting in his free time, although he says can be difficult to find times for it outside of teaching and spending time with his wife and kids. He draws inspiration for his artwork from his upbringing in Maine.

“There were these moments and experiences living in Maine, coming of age and developing and finding who I was, so whenever I go back there, I’m very motivated by it,” Tarbox said. “It’s interesting — there’s a certain light quality in Maine that’s different from California. It’s a brighter, higher contrast  of light, and it’s hard to describe unless you go there.”

Although he appreciates the beauty of California beaches, they are undeniably different from those in Maine. He said that the West Coast “tends not to be an inspiration” for his paintings.

“My friends are always saying, ‘Oh, you should paint this, you should paint that,’ and there are a couple of paintings where I’ve had ideas from the West Coast,” Tarbox said. “But it’s odd. It just tends not to interest me the way the coast in Maine does.”

Because painting alone rarely pays the bills for artists, Tarbox long ago learned to use his artistic talents in practical ways. Before teaching, he became an expert in digital arts and also worked as a freelance graphic designer. He began teaching at Pacific Collegiate School in Santa Cruz 11 years ago because of his experience with traditional and digital art and is in his third year at SHS.

In the media classes he teaches, Tarbox said he wants to help students recognize that all forms of art share certain techniques.

“Being an artist is actually informative to teaching in the arts,” Tarbox said. “I’m doing digital media now, which may seem disconnected, but a lot of the basic concepts, like visual composition and color, go across media. They’re not disconnected. There are differences, but there are connections and I think I can help students see them.”

To do so, Tarbox often begins first semester for his Media Arts 2 classes by showing students famous paintings and asking them what an artist is conveying.

“I want students to understand artistic intent,” Tarbox said. “It’s not just something that happens, and whether that be making video, designing a poster, writing a poem, the idea is that there is some intent with what the artist is doing, some thought. It’s not haphazard.”

At home, Tarbox has a studio where he works on his paintings. Tarbox mostly paints landscapes, although he often includes an architectural element. Galleries in San Francisco and in Maine have exhibited his paintings, and he has also had showings and has sold artwork.

Currently, he is working on a painting of his brother’s beach house in Biddeford Pool, Maine, the area that Tarbox visits to see his family every summer.

Although people may recognize similarities between the subjects in Tarbox’s paintings and certain places in Maine, bits and pieces of different photos inspire his paintings and there is no specific area that his paintings are based on. His paintings are like fiction — they are not replicas.

Besides his photos, Tarbox also draws inspiration from traditional painters. His favorite artist is Johannes Vermeer, a Dutch painter from the 17th century most famous for “Girl with a Pearl Earring.” Tarbox said that he likes most paintings from the Italian Renaissance, but there are great pieces throughout history that he hopes to see someday.

Over the years, Tarbox has recognized that the most difficult thing to do as an artist is to simply begin a painting. He also stresses the importance of having a painting going at all times because it can feel daunting to not know what to work on next.

“I never feel good if there isn’t a painting on the easel in my studio,” Tarbox said. “The worst thing I find as an artist is to have nothing. Some of the worst paintings I’ve made are from when I had nothing to do and I just jumped in. It’s like they say for writers the scariest thing is the blank page. For a painter, it’s the blank canvas.”

No matter the size of the canvas, Tarbox always aims to work on at least one painting at a time. Small pieces, he finds, can get his ideas flowing when he is unsure of what to paint next.

To help students explore their own ideas and passions, Tarbox encourages those who are interested in the arts to ask him questions.

“I enjoy it, and I enjoy having people look at the work and ask questions,” Tarbox said. “I don’t have a lot of opportunity anymore to, so I’m open to it when it does happen.”


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