Chapter 5: Painting on Location

In the 1970’s, the “plein air” scene in Laguna Beach was not as it is today. There were no plein air classes or mentor paint-outs to attend. As stated in Best in Show (Stern, 2018), Southern California artists were following other movements at this time. Through the grapevine, Solomon heard of an artist named Mike Logan who painted outdoors. Solomon usually worked in his home studio, but had enjoyed painting outside a few times while stationed in Washington D.C. and wanted to try it again.

Michael Logan (1939-2016) was 18 when he moved to Laguna Beach after attending the Coronado School of Fine Art. It was the perfect time and place for his love of painting outdoors to develop. He followed in the footsteps of legendary Southern California Impressionists like William Wendt and Edgar Payne who had called Laguna home. At over six feet tall, Logan was an impressive figure, and was looked up to both literally and figuratively by his fellow painters. He had a big, bushy beard and hair to match, which grew wilder with age. A warm smile and hearty laugh made it hard not to enjoy his company. He was a Festival of Arts exhibitor from 1970 to 1978 and had a strong following of collectors. Artist John Ramos recalls that Logan’s work was well respected by fellow exhibitors and he would often sell all of his paintings before the summer festival season was over.

Michael Hallinan was also an aspiring artist who was going to art school at Laguna College of Art and Design by day and working as a bartender at night. The Rib Cage was a popular bar frequented by a cast of local characters. The owner of the establishment allowed Hallinan to hang his paintings there. He sold a few of those early pieces to drunk patrons, but says that he refused to give them refunds when
they sobered up. He worked with a beautiful cocktail waitress named Shelley. She introduced him to her boyfriend, Mike Logan. The couple would later marry, but Shelley wouldn’t have to change her last name since she had been married to and divorced from Mike’s brother Jeff Logan a few years prior.

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Solomon met Hallinan around town and befriended him, possibly because he had a truck and Solomon needed help moving into his new house at Top of the World. Hallinan introduced Solomon to Logan, and the three were fast friends. Aside from interests in art, they were all Vietnam-era veterans, Logan having served in the Army Reserves and Hallinan in the U.S. Air Force Reserves for six years. They referred to each other by last names, and sometimes joked that it sounded like a law firm: “Solomon, Logan, Tobin & Hallinan.” (Pat Tobin was usually at his home in Mexico, but he was definitely part of the firm.) The irony here is that they were more like outlaws than lawyers. “Like myself, most of my friends don’t work for a living,” Solomon told author Arline Isaacs when she interviewed him for the book Who’s Cooking in Laguna Beach.

This loose-knit band of painters became like brothers, painting and traveling together for many years. Even in later years when life pulled them in different directions, they would still come together to exhibit their work. Solomon and Logan took Hallinan under their wings. He was the youngest of the group, and benefited greatly from their expertise. “When I left art school as a painter who didn’t know how to paint, my prospects were dim. Mike and Dave invited me to go out most mornings and paint the countryside. (We didn’t know the term ‘plein air.’) I got the equivalent of a private art lesson each day,” he recalls. The only way he could pay them back was by providing free drinks at the Rib Cage.

Hallinan took their instruction and ran with it. Before long, he was able to quit tending bar and paint full time. He became a Festival of Arts exhibitor in 1978 and continued to exhibit each summer through 1990. He has had a long, successful career and still exhibits his work at the Sawdust Festival each year.

Logan was older, wiser and more experienced in plein air painting than his comrades. Hallinan reflects, “Although Dave, at that time, was the best painter, Logan was the ring leader. Neither Dave nor I had painted in plein air, so Mike became the leader by default. Plus Mike looked like a painter which gave him instant credibility.”

Solomon referred to their outdoor work as “painting on location.” Some day trips to nearby destinations like Trestles were made in Solomon’s tiny two-door AMC Pacer hatchback (shown above). With each paint-out, they learned from each other, critiqued each other’s work and gradually each developed his own unique style. The critiques were brutally honest, but there was one rule: “You could say whatever you wanted, as long as it was funny,” explains Mike Hallinan. If they didn’t have anything constructive or funny to contribute, they would simply say, “Nice underpainting,” which was not a compliment. This method of exchange was obviously effective, as the quality of each painter’s work excelled during these formative years. Hallinan feels that his work did not influence Solomon’s or Logan’s at all, but this point could be argued against, as every teacher learns something from his student.

Although Logan convinced Solomon to do some oil paintings on canvas, he would always return to his love of watercolor instead of the more traditional plein air medium of oil. On close inspection, the discerning viewer will notice that the painters occasionally placed each other into their paintings. For example “Halfway House” by Michael Logan (opposite page) shows two tiny figures with easels on the cliffs, indicating his painting companions Pat Tobin (1950-2006) and David Solomon.

Tobin, who became a well known and highly respected big wave surfer, met Logan and Solomon around 1976. He had grown up in Laguna and moved to Petacalco, Mexico, to surf and paint when he was just 18 years old. It was there that he truly found himself. He also lived in Maui for several years where he painted with fellow surfer and painter Jan Kasprzycki. Jan was also from Laguna and had encouraged Pat to sell his work. Tobin took the advice and found great success. Whenever he came to town, which was once or twice a year, collectors would be lined up to purchase his work. In an interview with Surfers Journal 20 years later, he spoke of meeting Solomon, Logan and Bill Ogden, recalling, “The stimulus was incredible.” He shared Hallinan’s admiration for Logan’s talent and mastery of plein air painting, remarking, “Michael’s brush strokes are at a point that, say, Monet was at in his time.”

Hallinan met Tobin in 1978 when they both exhibited at the Festival of Arts for the first time. Their booths were next to each other at what was considered the worst location on the grounds, against the fence at the very front of the venue. “Any farther forward and we’d have been showing in the median on Laguna Canyon Road,” says Hallinan. “No one came by unless they were lost or in the witness protection program.” Most evenings, they passed the time drinking from liquor bottles they had stashed in the bushes by their booths.

Logan campfireHallinan says that Tobin was the most creative painter of their group and lived the most Bohemian lifestyle. One of the first road trips that Solomon, Logan, and Hallinan took together was in a rented motorhome. Their original destination was San Francisco, but after painting the Bay Area for a day or two, they decided to keep going, eventually ending up in Oregon. From this journey, Solomon fondly recalls meeting a fisherman and hearing his life story over a bottle of tequila.

On road trips like this one, they generally camped out, making dinner over the fire and sharing tall tales. The Oregon scenery greatly inspired the group, but the men were sorely unprepared for the cold northern weather. Nevertheless, the trip confirmed the necessity of travel in each painter’s life. To facilitate more road trips, Logan purchased a cab-overcamper, while Solomon opted for a Dodge van, complete with a bubble window and interior carpeting. Such vehicles provided room to haul all of their equipment (including Logan’s giant canvases), plus room for friends and Logan’s faithful hound.

The stories of their travels are told through the thousands of paintings that they produced. The experience of traveling, whether it was day trips by car or excursions to faraway destinations by plane, provided each painter with inspiration that would last throughout the year. On each journey, they stopped to photograph, sketch and paint whatever caught their collective eye.

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Clockwise from top: David Solomon painting on the rocks in Laguna Beach. Solomon and Michael Logan on a painting trip to Baja California. Solomon and Patrick Tobin at work in Laguna Beach.