Acrylic on birch panel 10 × 8 July 8, 2017
Acrylic on birch panel 10” × 8” July 8, 2017

There’s a great little cocktail bar and restaurant on J Street in Tacoma, in the Hilltop neighborhood. Rose is a bartender there and she is mighty. She is blonde and striking. Tall and intimidating. She’s a Tacoma native and makes a good martini. One night in April, Caroline and I walked to the bar on J street, through the Hilltop neighborhood, about one mile from our home.

As we left the sun was just setting and clouds were rolling in. I snapped a couple of photos. Next to the bar is a great, empty lot. Maybe three lots. From J Street you can see all the way over to Martin Luther King Way.

There are a lot of empty lots in Hilltop. If we were walking down that same street in 1984, we would have been taking our lives into our hands. This Wikipedia entry vaguely refers to real estate development efforts as part of why Hilltop is a safe place to live again. I’ve heard from locals that drug dens and buildings owned by delinquent landlords were seized by the government and bulldozed. This forced the criminal element out, to the north and south.

Today you will often find a driveway cut into the sidewalk, or a staircase leading to nothing. These empty lots are eerie but they open up views across the neighborhoods. As Tacoma gentrifies - and it is - I’m sure these lots will just get eaten up by terrible condos and other heartless architecture.


This painting was a do-over. I had started another image on the other side of this birch panel. Another image that I had lost all love for and was plodding along like it was a homework assignment. I got wise, flipped the panel over, and made this painting instead. Art should never be a drudgery unless you are paid handsomely for it.

Birch panel is a great surface to paint on. Leave it un-primed and it takes up paint like a water color - but then you can build density and thickness on top.

 Laying in the clouds. My new palette on the left.
Laying in the clouds. My new palette on the left.

I’m using a new Masterson Palette - a magical device which keeps your acrylic paints mixed and workable for a very long time. This is a game-changer. I was able to keep a palette mixed and workable over two painting sessions. This makes my work process so much faster. So much less clean up and rework. Just snap off the lid and go.

 Sky and grass - blocking in the buildings.
Sky and grass - blocking in the buildings.

I sketched the scene from my reference photos right onto the panel and laid in clouds first, followed by the empty field, then laid in the street and details last. I tried to imply a tiny bit of graffiti on the far wall with a few dabs of color. I left out some superfluous cars and trees in favor of windows and doors - human elements.