Column: Reinvention is key to this artist’s professional survival

Although he's an award-winning plein air painter, Laguna Beach artist Michael Obermeyer keeps his old Starbucks apron in his studio as a reminder of harder times.
(Photo by Dave Hansen)

Michael Obermeyer was a middle-aged artist working in a Laguna Beach Starbucks trying to make ends meet during the Great Recession.

Humbled and a little bitter, he did what he had to do for his wife and three children. But when he looked at his first paycheck he had to chuckle.

“I could sell a 5-by-7 for that check,” he said. “And it just got to the point where I was really unhappy.

“The worst part as an artist and someone who was self-employed for 20 years is being locked inside for six hours and you can’t go out and do anything,” he said. “You’re like a caged animal.”

Plus, the job was in the same close-knit town as his Laguna Canyon studio, so nearly everyone knew him.

His friends wondered what he was doing. He was an award-winning artist and a Festival of Arts exhibitor — now for 21 straight years. What more could he do?

But Starbucks was the only place that would hire him.

“I applied at seven Trader Joe’s and got rejected by seven Trader Joe’s,” he said.

Such is art. And more to the point, such is Obermeyer, a scrappy pragmatist and perennial nice guy who has always tried to make the best of things.

Still boyish and fit at 58, he survived the recession the same way that he’s reinvented his artistic style since he was a boy: perseverance, hope and devilish fun.

He remembers vividly, for example, the first time he saw a naked woman. Raised in Canoga Park, his parents enrolled him in an after-school art program. He was about 5.

“It’s funny I would come out of Catholic school and go to this art school somewhere in the valley with paintings of naked women,” he said. “I was struggling in school, especially English and math, because I was just drawing, but one of my nuns, she saw something in me.”

With teacher support, he survived high school and started at Cal State Long Beach, never wavering from his art.

He honed his craft and after college joined various professional art associations, including the Society of Illustrators of Los Angeles. That was important because it led him to the United States Air Force Art Program.

Of course Obermeyer grew up with “tons of model airplanes” and earned his pilot’s license just out of high school.

So when the Air Force told him they wanted to fly him around the world as an observer and draw planes, he was in heaven.

“Are you kidding me?” he said.

He drew rocket launches at Vandenberg, made refueling runs in the Northwest, rode shotgun on anti-drug planes in Panama, but his favorite was flying in an F-16 over Peru.

To this day, his aviation drawings and paintings are in the Smithsonian, Pentagon and bases around the globe.

But like all things, that chapter of his life came to a close, largely through military cutbacks.

He had to transition his illustration work into something else. Illustrators were a dying breed because everything was going digital.

“These guys coming out of college can do everything but they don’t know anything about drawing,” he said.

He remembers seeing a plein air exhibit in Newport Beach that was so vivid he could “smell the dirt.”

“I was so intrigued. I thought, ‘I’ve got to go out and try to paint the outdoors,’” he said.

He quickly hit a roadblock. The fine lines and exacting nature of illustrations do not play well with the flowing, impressionistic plein air style.

“Being an illustrator, the real tough part for me was loosening up. I think the illustrator background helped me as far as perspective, design and just basically laying out the painting — composing the painting quickly. When you’re outdoors you have to do it really quick.”

He also learned that it’s no longer all about the details of his beloved planes — or commercial buildings or houses — but the natural qualities that surround them.

“When you have two hours or less to paint a scene outdoors because of the light changes, you really have to learn to squint and just put in the basic shapes, regardless of how much you see. You have to find your focal point and realize that you’re just basically painting light. It’s not the subject so much as how light hits the subject.”

This notion of changing light is an interesting one — and almost like a metaphor for his life.

“It’s all the about the light,” he said. “Once I start painting, I’m just painting form and light.”

For Obermeyer, his journey now seems like it’s come full circle. After years of both bliss and uncertainty, he still cherishes his planes and dreams, his past and future. But he’s working firmly in the present, teaching and relishing his gift.

“I’m constantly working on my craft. Hopefully someday I will get it down and have it all figured out,” he said, tongue firmly in cheek.

For him, he probably would be disappointed to have it all figured out because there would be no more challenge. At the very least, he’s learned to see and appreciate the light in front of him.

And if he ever doubts his path, he keeps his monogrammed Starbucks apron hanging in a corner of his studio as a reminder.

“Once I left there I realized there are no bad days in art anymore,” Obermeyer said. “Anything that involves art, I’m all in.”

DAVID HANSEN is a writer and Laguna Beach resident. He can be reached at