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Watercolorist sets up outside Bay Books and Café Madrid coffee cart

“If you just surrender, then everything becomes easy”

Tony Trowbridge painting street scene
  • Tony Trowbridge painting street scene

“Just let it go, let it flow, kind of like life,” says Tony Trowbridge.

He’s painting a watercolor of what he sees right here on Orange Avenue in Coronado. Quick, deft, light movements, mixed with splottings of paint or of water, spreading color by finger, etching tree structure by cutting back to the paper with the wrong end of the brush. As he paints, he talks, without taking his eyes off the art paper clipped to his tripod. At his feet he has scattered finished pieces with a sign saying “Artwork for sale. Local original watercolors, $20+.”

It’s a business

It’s a business

It’s so striking, seeing someone actually creating art, at least art that’s not gimmicky cartoon stuff, on the street. People don’t quite know how to react.

“I strictly paint watercolors,” Tony says. “I learn so much every time I paint. And all the principles of watercolor painting are the principles of a happy life. The amount of control that we think we have in life, but really we don’t have any. So if you just surrender, then everything becomes easy.”

I’m desperate to see him create something from nothing. He says he’s about done with this one. So I help him decamp from here about twenty yards down the road. He sets up outside Bay Books and the Café Madrid coffee cart. A few eyebrows from the coffee regulars rise, just because this is not, well, regular.

Bridge in Mission Bay

Bridge in Mission Bay

Within minutes, Tony has a blank sheet of art paper clipped, and with a pencil is whipping up a few lines. Then he’s grabbing a big wash brush and bathing the canvas with pale yellows, greens, blues and browns. And before you know it, he has sprouted palms, wafted shadows across the pavement, stuck in umbrellas and the silhouettes of people. It is amazing to see it come to life like this in a matter of minutes.

He stops for a smoke. “My father was, is, an artist. But I didn’t live with him. I was born in Kansas, where he’s from. My parents were divorced when I was six. I would go back and forth between Kansas and California. But my dad gave me such a perfect environment to create and express. Fast forward to five years ago, I picked up watercolor. I went back to school, did one semester, but it reignited me. I forgot! I was supposed to be an artist! Now I’m 42, not married, don’t have any kids, but I’ve found my passion. I reunited with my father, and he gave me a crash course in watercolor. He’s a signature member of the American Watercolor Society, and he’s an amazing artist, so it’s in me. Two years ago. Keiko Tanabe, who’s world famous and lives here, took me under her wing. And taught me plein air painting like this. I’d go paint with her outside, whenever she was in town, and I got bit by the plein air bug.”

Now Tony’s back at it. The picture has changed radically since the start. Trees are taller, greener, shadows are longer, the Café Madrid looks backlit by a setting sun. He turns a spill into a ray of sunlight.

“All the best parts of my paintings are accidents. It’s why I’ll never get bored with this medium.”

“Does he have a permit?” says one of the baristas. “Wonder if the police know.”

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