'Wow Somebody Should Paint That...' Into the Light With John Musgrove

John’s oil paintings capture the warm, diffuse light of San Francisco’s Sunset and Richmond District. B0ardside reached John in Paris.

I’m standing on a bridge over the Canal Saint-Martin right now there’s a lock that’s filled with water, but I don’t see a boat. It’s amazingly peaceful. It’s early morning here, so I assume there’s not too many people around.

We’re right in the 10th Arrondissement. The canal goes south, to the 11th, and connects with the Seine. I imagine it used to be much more of a commercial link. Barges and stuff. Not too many right now. We saw an amazing pleasure craft with these very well heeled people just sitting out on their deck drinking wine.

Are you doing any painting?

A little sketching. I was determined to do it every day, and I haven’t done it. It’s a little tricky because we’ve had family members come to visit, we’ve got our dog here. We want to get out there and do all this stuff. I am taking a shitload of photos. That’s what I use, generally, for my paintings. A handful may make it to the canvas. I like the wide open skies and also these narrow corridors. I’m definitely finding some beautiful stuff.

I’m interested to see John Musgrove paintings with that quality of light that Paris is so famous for. If it weren’t so associated with, you know, Thomas Kinkade, I might have described you as a painter of light. You capture the very particular light of San Francisco so well, and particularly of the west side.

Well I appreciate you saying that. Especially the Thomas Kinkade reference.


I don’t ever really think consciously about painting the light. I just respond to what captures my interest. As an artist, I’m sure you go around and you come around some corner and you go, Wow, look at that. Yep. Yep. That’s amazing. Somebody should paint that.

And, really, I haven’t painted many other places. I started painting in San Francisco, and I was blessed, as we all are, by living out there. Being able to bask in that glorious light of the Sunset, especially on those amazing clear days when the shadows are crisp and everything, it’s just a joy. I was gonna say I feel a responsibility to paint it. Not exactly, but…I’m in just such a fortunate position to be able to do it. And I love doing it. As time goes on, and people say nice things to me about my paintings, I do feel kind of a sense of responsibility not to waste it.

Life goes by, people live and die. We’re not gonna be here forever. What kind of so-called legacy other than my two children would I have?

I’m in the same boat. You gotta get after it.

Yeah, you know, you go to these museums here, and...we were at the Picasso Museum the other day, and — the guy was just a force of nature, you know?

It seems like he got up every morning and just said, what am I going to create today? Whatever he wanted — ceramics or painting or metal work or whatever. That inspired me to, you know, maybe try some new things. Break out of the old patterns, painting cars and buildings in the Sunset.

It does seem as if you were born to paint San Francisco. The surfaces, the walls, the light, the downtown areas. All of it just seems to be so naturally suited to your gifts as an artist.

Thank you! Well, you know…if I were someplace else, would I be, would I have started painting? San Francisco just forced me to stop fucking around and do something. I have to give credit to the place itself. I just feel like we are all so lucky to live out there.

I grew up in Florida, got a degree in art from the University of Florida, but it was focused on graphic design. Because I didn’t have the balls to say, Hey, I’m gonna be a painter. I felt I needed to be a little more practical than that.

I dabbled, I did things from time to time and it was always like in the back of my head that I really needed to somehow stop farting around, find some discipline and get down to it. And, after moving to San Francisco in 1980, I finally did — in the summer of 2001. So I haven’t been painting all that long.

But you started strong, kept going and built on it. That’s inspiring to see.

Yeah, man, I’m super lucky. Super lucky. Being in the Sunset, of course, and still living there day, you know, you have a true appreciation of the unique character and the beauty and the light. That definitely inspired me.

I live in Golden Gate Heights. And I’d drive out to the Outer Sunset to take our younger daughter to the co-op nursery school right there at the beach, on Lawton. Driving straight out there, a daily trek, to and fro, being sleep-deprived. The Empty Mind. Really, I think that was kind of a big deal for me.

Do you think that created some kind of a breakthrough? Being by the beach in the Outers in that raw, sleep-deprived state where you were more open to what you saw — did it kind of bring about an artistic epiphany that got you painting again?

Maybe so! You know, like, I never had really thought about that too much before right now. I would drop my daughter, and when I got back to the studio, because I knew I had three hours, that’s when I was really getting going, and I had this sense of urgency about the time. I knew that was going to be my only time, you know, those three hours. I would really devote myself in those mornings, and yeah, that, that really got me going.

Here, in Paris, I’m standing beside this canal. This is a place I‘ve been to a bunch of times since we’ve been here. I’m just waiting for the light. It’s sort of a patchy, warm blues and clouds, and the clouds are kind of wispy, so they kind of go in and out. Right now, at this moment, there’s a clear shot of the sun on these building. I’m gonna get on my camera while we’re talking, and take a picture.

The other person that comes to mind, especially since I’m in France, is the photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson. Cartier-Bresson was working for a Communist newspaper in the 1930’s. Le Soir, I think it was. And they sent him to London to cover the coronation of King George V. He went over, and he took this amazing set of photographs. Not one of them of the coronation.

They were all of the regular people lining the parade route, trying to get a glimpse of the king. Fantastic. Just like this incredible array of faces and training nets and people looking through those little wooden periscopes. And I don’t know, it was just beautiful. He saw what was important. And the thing about Cartier-Bresson that always sticks in my mind is the anticipation of the moments, you know? Being ready. Being ready when the moment occurs.

And you know, I definitely do that too, like some place in the Sunset where I’ll suddenly think, Oh, that would be great at a certain time of day, or when the light’s like this. And I go back until I get the right image.

You just manage to be there. I mean, it’s, it is as if we know that it’s a little more complicated. You have to get some source materials, maybe source images and bring them back to the studio, but it’s as if you just happen to be there with your brushes and your canvas at exactly the moment when the light is just perfect.

That’s at least the impression that’s given, and that’s the important thing.

Paintings and art by John. Interview by Douglas Gorney. John’s work can be found at his website, musgrovepainting.com or on Instagram at @jrmuskie