San Diego Balboa Park Centennial

In honor of the 2015 centennial celebration of Balboa Park in San Diego, I painted 14 canvases exploring various settings there. Like so many residents of San Diego County, I take great pride in this jewel, the nation’s largest urban cultural park, with 15 major museums, impressive gardens, and spectacular Spanish Colonial Revival architecture.

This series was donated to the Balboa Park Conservancy to decorate their boardroom and offices above the Visitor’s Center in the park. When I began the paintings, I hoped that some non-profit organization might use them in connection to the centennial, but never in my wildest dreams could I have imagined that they would be housed in the middle of the park. This is the greatest honor I will ever receive for my artwork.

People may be curious about my process with this series. For years I’d thought about doing paintings of Balboa Park, and when my semiretirement from business coincided with the coming centennial, I decided to devote myself to this project. My wife, Lindsey (who inspires me!), and I went to the park in January, 2014 with a couple of close friends; and, I took a few hundred photos. In the months that followed, I painted 5-6 of these scenes, using my projector technique.

I began with “Migei International Museum” hoping that the orange taxi and umbrellas would provide a contemporary feel to hundred-year-old buildings. In keeping with my style, I wanted the paintings to look as if they could have been produced by the original Impressionist artists, most of whom were alive when Balboa Park opened for the 1915 Panama-California Exposition.

Click on each picture to see a larger size, close-up details (some paintings), and the original photo.

Mingei International Museum
2014 • 30 x 20
Detail #1 Detail #2 Detail #3

Many years ago, I saw a newspaper photograph of the Botanical Building with colorful water lilies and thought that it would make for a nice painting. However, at that time, I didn’t have the skills to execute such an intricate piece, and the idea nested in the back of my mind. When I went to the park in January, this was the one picture that I knew I wanted to attempt. Unfortunately, there were no water lilies in bloom, so I inserted them based on my photos of Monet’s gardens.

Botanical Building
2014 • 36 x 24
Balboa Park Conservancy
San Diego, CA
Detail #1 Detail #2 Detail #3

Donate to the restoration of Balboa Park’s Botanical Building

Tower, Globe & Fountain
2014 • 12 x 24
Balboa Park Conservancy
San Diego, CA
Detail #1 Detail #2

Casa del Prado
2014 • 24 x 18
Balboa Park Conservancy
San Diego, CA
Detail #1

Casa del Prado Hallway
2014 • 14 x 11
Balboa Park Conservancy
San Diego, CA

El Prado Columns
2014 • 8 x 10
Balboa Park Conservancy
San Diego, CA

At this point, I took my bicycle to Balboa Park on a quiet day and rode around taking a few hundred more pictures. This time, I had a better idea of the types of shots I wanted, and I knew for certain when I clicked the shutter release that “Lily Pond Facing South” would make for a compelling composition on a large canvas. The family on the left provides a contemporary element to an ageless view. My son, Neil, gave me feedback throughout the series and had some particularly helpful comments about depth perception when I painted this one.

Lily Pond Facing South
2014 • 48 x 36
Balboa Park Conservancy
San Diego, CA
Detail #1 Detail #2

Leigh - Balboa Park – 2014
(photo credit: Howard Anton Duncan)

When my son, Charlie, and his girlfriend, Emily, said they were visiting Balboa Park one day, I asked him to take more photos, and ended up intrigued by the shadows in this picture.

Spanish Village Art Center
2014 • 14 x 11
Balboa Park Conservancy
San Diego, CA

On the day of my bike ride, I took a photo that captured “Three Planes at the Air & Space Museum.” The dark and light area across the canvas is part of a B-2 Stealth Bomber on display there.

Three Planes at the Air & Space Museum
2014 • 8 x 10
Balboa Park Conservancy
San Diego, CA

Like most visitors to the park, I love going to concerts at the Spreckels Organ Pavilion. My photos were taken on quiet days, so I had to add the organ in these two compositions. On both canvases, I used a metallic, Renaissance Gold paint for the pipes, which fortuitously matched the color of the frames that we eventually used.

Spreckels Organ Pavilion #1
2014 • 24 x 12
Balboa Park Conservancy
San Diego, CA
Detail #1 Detail #2

Spreckels Organ Pavilion #2
2014 • 40 x 30
Balboa Park Conservancy
San Diego, CA
Detail #1 Detail #2

Leigh Paints Spreckels
(photo credit: Lindsey Hall Cohn)

I can’t adequately describe the happiness I felt on the day I brought sample paintings to show to representatives of the conservancy at the park. We met in the boardroom, and when they said that they wanted them, I was giddy with excitement. I looked out the window and saw the San Diego Museum of Art across the way. The realization that my painting of that beautiful edifice would actually be on a wall within its sight staggered me.

San Diego Museum of Art
2014 • 24 x 18
Balboa Park Conservancy
San Diego, CA
Detail #1

As I was preparing to leave, I asked the executive director, David Kinney, to whom I am eternally grateful, if there were any additional scenes he’d like for me to depict. He shrugged and pointed out that I hadn’t painted the building we were in, where the series was to be housed. A few months later, I completed this canvas. The boardroom’s window is on the second story, far left.

Plaza de Panama
2014 • 30 x 15
Balboa Park Conservancy
San Diego, CA
Detail #1 Detail #2 Detail #3

In the final painting of the series, “Before the Park Opens,” the park is quiet—the orange umbrellas are folded up, at rest.

Before the Park Opens
2014 • 14 x 11
Balboa Park Conservancy
San Diego, CA

Balboa Park is a marvelous canvas, and these 14 paintings represent a tiny segment of its beauty. I wouldn’t be surprised to find myself returning to this subject matter again and again. Regardless, the experience that this Centennial Series provided me with had a profound impact on my soul.

Incidentally, I discarded a 15th picture (the Natural History Museum), cutting out a swath and giving it to my god-daughter, Amelia Eastman, who encouraged me throughout the process of painting this series.

The Boardroom of the Balboa Park Convserancy

Leigh in the Boardroom of the Balboa Park Conservancy