Editor's note: The following essay was published on September 30, 2013 in Resource Library with permission of the author. The Ruth Chandler Williamson Gallery at Scripps College provided other source material published with the essay. If you have questions or comments regarding the essay or other source material, please contact the Williamson Gallery directly through either this phone number or web address:
Chasing Daylight: Philip Latimer Dike, 1927-1943
by Sara Molina
Phil Dike (1906-1990), a leader of the regionalist art movement in Southern California during the 1930s and 40s, captured in watercolor the beauty and ephemeral qualities of life in the midst of some of the bleakest times in history. Born in 1906 in Redlands, California, Dike became familiar with painting through his grandmother's art, which was displayed throughout his family's Victorian home. During his early childhood, his family traveled to the beaches and ports of Southern California, primarily to Newport Beach, where their vacation home was located. That immersion in an environment of light and water at a young age impacted Dike's style and choice of subject. His sensitive nature and love of light led to his poetic, idealized depictions of those subjects. Dike's childhood connection with nature, as well as his time in New York and Europe had a profound impact on Dike's artistic development. The sea and landscapes that he discovered during his travels captivated him, and inspired him to explore the sensations evoked through the dynamic interplay of natural forms.
Dike rendered the forms and details of the landscapes that he observed, allowing for nature to reach out to the viewers, while at the same time enabling his emotions and experiences to merge into the canvas through the compositional arrangements and expressive technique. The realism of Dike's landscapes, with his expressive, loose handling of paint differs radically from the abstraction of form that avant-guard artists were examining during this time period. Widespread movements of the era rejected academic representation and concentrated on the tenants of modernism to destroy established ideas regarding the essence of art. Dike took a different stance, using the canvas as a reflection of the natural world in order to establish a point of familiarity with the audience and encourage dialogue. According to Dike, the role of the artist is "not always telling the viewer much, but is setting the stage for a person to recall an experience or thought that happened to him. I was using symbols that were interesting to me to give the feeling I wanted; with hopes they might evoke a similar experience or feeling in the viewer." The exhibition, Chasing Daylight: Phil Dike 1927-1943, at the Ruth Chandler Williamson Gallery, Scripps College, brings together Dike's work from his formative years, encompassing his explorations with dynamic applications of color, compositional arrangement, and atmospheric perspectives to express transient beauty. Landscapes infused with light and water became the primary focus of Dike's work.
After his early encounter with art, Dike pursued art classes at Redlands High School, and developed a serious interest in following an artistic career. In 1924 Dike was awarded a scholarship to study at the Chouinard School of Art in Los Angeles where he was taught by Frank Tolles Chamberlin (1873-1961) and Clarence Hinkle (1880-1960). Hinkle's favored students, Phil Dike and Millard Sheets, accompanied him on painting excursions along the coast of Southern California. Hinkle stressed the importance of developing a plein-air approach to painting, capturing the unique qualities of the landscape through expressive brushstrokes; the artist was not to impose his own thoughts and feelings upon his subject matter. Dike learned to compose with color, using dark lines to contour figures and create dynamic contrasts in his compositions.
Pulling in the Net is one remarkable example that demonstrates Dike's development of style, synthesizing his mentor's approach with his own unique portrayal of forms and the use of atmospheric perspective to express emotion. In addition, Pulling in the Net reveals Dike's characteristic placement of dark accent lines next to areas of fluid, vibrant tones to achieve volume and form, emphasizing the movement of the figures and capturing the spontaneity of plein-air painting.
With the support of his parents, Dike moved to the Art Students League in New York in 1929, hoping to advance his artistic career. There, Dike received instruction from Vincent Du Mond (1865-1951) and George Bridgman (1865-1943), two artists who had studied in Parisian academies and who both stressed the importance of drawing as part of the curriculum. Frank Vincent Du Mond emphasized rigorous outdoor painting exercises supplemented by numerous drawing classes, while George Bridgman taught artistic anatomy focusing on the forms and volumes created by the musculature of the body.
However, it was George Luks (1867-1933), a painter and member of the Ashcan School, who became Dike's mentor. Like his follow artists in the movement, Luks focused on the streets of New York as the subject of his art, presenting the unidealized realities of life in the city's streets. As a "broad-minded bohemian" Luks was known for setting up an easel in the streets and executing preliminary sketches onsite, which he would masterfully develop into paintings. He simultaneously worked on composition and formal details, making the painting process a fluid continuum. It was this freer style of the plein-air approach that attracted Dike throughout his career. However, he differed from his mentor, Luks, in moving away from gritty realism. Instead, Dike sought to communicate beauty via the same subject matter, but employing a soft color palette and depicting an idealized version of his subjects. The diversity of possible topics to paint in New York, the various classes and styles at the Art Students League, and the flourishing artistic movements in the city influenced Dike's exploration of style.
In 1930, Dike traveled to Europe in pursuit of experiences that would broaden his knowledge of techniques and mediums. As a highly sensitive individual, journeying far from home was difficult and uncomfortable for Dike, but his passion for painting and the opportunities available to him in Europe enabled him to overcome his insecurities. Throughout the rest of his life, he would never travel as far from home again.
The presence in Europe of Clarence Hinkle, Dike's college mentor, Clarence Hinkle and his wife, Mabel, eased the anxieties that Dike experienced in the unfamiliar environments. Having Hinkle's car shipped over to Europe enabled them to journey in comfort, while visiting numerous urban and rural locations. Traveling together through France, Italy, and Spain, Hinkle and Dike captured the vibrant, picturesque landscapes and towns they encountered, expressing from their perspective the daily life therein. Dike painted prolifically, reveling in the freshness of this new terrain. He was often inspired to also write short verses about the experience. In one such instance, Dike describes a springtime landscape in Spain:
It was this type of scenery that attracted and inspired Dike, encouraging him to investigate his poetic vision of nature and further develop his technique to communicate an emotionally charged experience to the viewer.
In Europe, he balanced painting forays with rigorous classwork. During his year in Europe, Dike studied drawing at the American Academy of Art at Fontainebleau; mural decoration and lithography in Italy; and printmaking at the Atelier Dorfinant. Experimenting with various techniques and diverse subject matter enabled Dike to develop into a versatile artist while at the same time reinforcing consistency within his unique style.
In 1931, the artist returned to the United States to begin teaching at the Chouinard Art Institute in Los Angeles, where he remained until 1934. Seeing his country in the midst of the Great Depression, Dike found himself facing images of poverty, economic hardship, and the daily struggles of Americans. However, unlike many of his contemporaries, Dike did not immerse himself in documenting the hardships of the era. Rather, he dedicated himself to transforming the sea and landscapes he discovered in Southern California into works of serenity that offered refuge to the viewer. The artistic choices Dike made in the context of one of the most devastating times in history communicate Dike's deeply optimistic vision of life.
Moving farther afield in his painting excursions, he traveled to the American Southwest and Mexico in 1932, depicting mining communities, railroad stations, and market places. His portrayal of a mine in Miami, Arizona, Morning Inspiration Copper, c.1932, makes visible the contrasting forms of human-built environments and natural ones. According to Woody Dike, Phil Dike's son, it was "the interplay of dark and light in combination with an element of abstraction that attracted my father to the mining scenes." The high perspective and stark composition enabled Dike to focus on the dynamic movement of the forms across the composition, emphasizing the uninterrupted flow of forms through the building complex in conjunction with landscape. Thus, the resulting image becomes a metaphor for the movement of light and shadow reflected in the forms, which sets the stage for Dike's exploration of experience and emotion.
In addition to his painting endeavors, Dike had another goal in traveling to Arizona: to reconnect with Betty Woodward, whom he had met at Chouinard. He married her the following year. The two returned to California, where Dike found work at the Walt Disney Studios. From 1935 through 1945 Dike worked as advisor and color director for animated films, teaching artists to maintain color consistency throughout an animated series. During his time at the Disney studios, he contributed to important films such as Snow White and Fantasia. All the while, Dike continued to paint local landscapes of the Los Angeles area and Newport Beach, gaining him national recognition as the leading figure of the California Style in watercolor painting. In 1939, Dike became president of the California Water Color Society, and pursued his explorations with light and color in the landscapes he created at points across Southern California. In the 1940s, Dike would set up a studio with Rex Brandt, a good friend and colleague, providing the opportunity for students across the nation to study with the best watercolor landscape artists. A decade later, Millard Sheets, Director of Painting at Scripps College offered Dike a post as professor at Scripps College and at the Claremont Graduate School, where he taught, from 1950-71.
The Scripps exhibition examines the contributions that Dike made to the regionalist art of California as a pioneer in capturing the beauty of landscapes via the expressive medium of watercolor. It is through his affinity with the ephemeral and dynamic qualities of light and his ability to translate these qualities in his work that Dike communicates his faith in the basic goodness of life. Always the poet, he describes this belief as reflected in nature:
In his painting, Dike invited the viewer to experience a world of light, color and beauty, one buoyed by the deep belief that nature heals and brings individuals closer to understanding the benevolence of life.
1 Janice Lovoos and Gordon McClelland, Phil Dike, (California: Hillcrest Press, Inc, 1988) p12.
2 Phil Dike, Spain,
3 Interview with Woody Dike, July 22th, 2013
5 Phil Dike's archives, 2013
About the author
Sara Molina is a 2013 graduate of the UCLA Art Histroy program. She was a 2013 Williamson Gallery summer intern.
Information about the related exhibition
Scripps College started its 2013-2014 season of exhibitions with Chasing Daylight: Philip Latimer Dike, 1927-1943, which runs from August 31st through October 13th, 2013.
Dike contributed greatly to the California art scene of the 1930s and 1940s through his work in what would later become known as the California Style of watercolor painting. As the 1920s drew to a close and throughout the 1930s, Dike began to master the art of translating the effects of light and color into watercolor. In those early years, his fascination with this work led the rather shy and private artist on a journey throughout the US and Europe.
With over fifty paintings, the exhibition tells the story of these years in detail. Visitors will view Dike's impressions of life in New York in the late 1920s and his studies at the Arts Students League; his work in Europe, including his time at the American Academy of Art at Fountainbleau; and his travels afterwards. Paintings created after his return to the States are also be on display, as Dike continued his exploration of light and color by recording street scenes, architecture, and landscapes in Southern California and the Southwest.
The exhibition is generously supported by the Jean and Arthur Ames Endowment. Lenders to the exhibition include: Gerald Buck; Lance and Elena Calvert; E. Gene Crain; Woody and Judy Dike; Mark and Janet Hilbert; Jim Moule; Mike and Susan Verbal. Works from the Scripps permanent collection are also displayed.
Wall texts from the exhibition:
Checklist from the exhibition: