In California, warm, golden light slithers through palm fronds, squeezes through iron-wrought gates, and bounces off the chrome of freshly waxed sedans. It makes purple Jacaranda trees glow in the spring and nourishes orange groves in the winter. Though California light is all-encompassing, it feels elusive. The magical light that is synonymous with California is the primary subject for many Southern California-based artists, who chase it down and pin it to canvases, photographs, and sculptures, hoping to thwart its escape from collective memory.

Many artists have been drawn to California’s sun-soaked landscapes. Light and Space Movement artists like James Turrell and Robert Irwin, who got their start in Southern California, are some of the most famous practitioners who found ways of isolating the phenomenon by carving a portal into a ceiling or filtering it through a scrim. Others, like David Hockney, mastered the craft of capturing sunbeams reflected in rippling swimming pools. 

As art evolves, so do the methods of capturing this illustrious light. Contemporary artists like Sarah Cain, Hayley Barker, and Gay Summer Rick feature the ways in which its colors bend and move through their murals, stained glass windows, and paintings. Sculptor Gisela Colón traps its prismatic iridescence in her monolithic cone sculptures. Painter Mario Ayala’s hyperrealistic works show how light radiates through Chicanx culture.

Notably, all these artists live and work in Los Angeles. The idea of California light doesn’t evoke foggy San Francisco, misty Big Sur, or the snow-capped Sierras. It’s a Southern Californian feeling that leans towards San Diego’s beaches and the Mojave desert. It combines the two polar opposite climates into a non-existent place that emits warmth, reverence, and wonder.

Hayley Barker, “Last Morning at El Centro” (2023) (photo courtesy the artist)

“I like to watch the sunrise as much as possible,” painter Hayley Barker, who uses purple and pink tones to accentuate the luscious green gardens that overtake Los Angeles bungalows, told Hyperallergic. “It’s a way of trying to ground myself and start the day on the right tone. It’s a way of connecting with my spirituality.” 

Barker’s connection to faith via sunlight is a common practice shared among many Southern Californian artists. The mystic glow also features prominently in desert-transcendentalist Agnes Pelton’s paintings, the drawings divined by occultist Marjorie Cameron (who was simply known as Cameron), and the fantastical landscapes of contemporary painter Ariana Papademetropoulos. All three of these women spent significant portions of their lives in Pasadena, and Barker herself paints from the foothills of San Gabriel, less than five miles from this hotbed for esoteric art. 

Sarah Cain, on the other hand, has always been drawn to bright, warm, and emotive colors, even when working in her hometown of Albany, New York. Her move to Los Angeles was inspired by friends and gallerists who saw the city’s personality in her abstract paintings. Though she had already been showing work for a decade, once Cain relocated, her work took off. 

Detail view of Sarah Cain, “We Will Walk Right Up To The Sun” (2019), stained glass framed by soldered zinc, 10 x 150 feet, produced by the San Francisco Arts Commission for the AirTrain station at San Francisco International Airport (photo courtesy the artist)

“I moved here in 2007 and things got a lot bolder,” Cain said. “Los Angeles was insanely big to me, even just driving here. I thought I was going to die of a heart attack every time.”

“I grew up on a dirt road and my nerve endings are not made for the city. But I think I was able to channel that into the work and get more focused,” she added.

Cain sees her strength as a colorist and hand-mixes vibrant shades of pink, red, and purples that scream loudly, but pleasantly, even when accompanied by blues and blacks. Though primarily a painter, she’s also been capturing California’s light with stained glass, amplifying it even further with her color schemes. Sometimes she pairs prisms with the glasswork, casting the full visible light spectrum over her artificial spectrum, bathing a gallery in joyous, chaotic light.

Sarah Cain, “Day after day on this beautiful stage” (2023) at the Henry Art Museum, University of Washington (photo courtesy the artist)

As beautiful as California light appears, it’s also a product of some of the worst qualities of urban living. Smog, wildfires, and dust add an eerie, gray tone to brilliant pink and orange sunsets. Gay Summer Rick, a painter who has been based in Inglewood for more than a decade, captures these colors as they filter through airplane exhaust at Los Angeles International Airport. Using palette knives to paint, she stipples darker colors on a light base layer, with the gaps resembling the particulate matter floating through the skies. Rick captures the enchantment of industrialization, which ultimately may transform the future of California light.

Greg Ito’s paintings capture the apocalyptic perspective of this phenomenon. In his graphic landscapes, cartoonish flames engulf houses on a hillside, depicting the wildfires that eat away at the Santa Monica Mountains year after year. He also depicts the rising tides, which lick at the feet of a Windsor chair in “The Key” (2020). The sun and moon lurk in the background, casting vibrant light on the wrecked environment. Even doomsday becomes an aspirational dream world when cloaked in California light.

To think of California’s light only as a pure, positive energy is to ignore some of the most challenging social and environmental issues affecting this region. It’s a spotlight pointed at communities struggling most, notably the nation’s largest population of unhoused people, who are exposed to high temperatures. Undocumented immigrants, fearing deportation, seek refuge in the shadows of a sweltering garment factory as they work for inhumane wages. Heat waves, some of the worst in history, sizzle invasive, water-sucking palm trees that have defined the iconic landscape. 

Hayley Barker, “The Shade Path” (2023), oil on linen, 100 x 82 inches (photo courtesy the artist)

Yet, as all aforementioned artists can attest, there is no denying that the light is a source of inspiration. Its magic is what keeps these artists painting.

“I try to focus on the more positive aspects of the natural environment, the elements, the particles in the atmosphere, that are less foreboding,” Rick said. 

For now, it’s best to enjoy California light before it’s lost to the Marine layer, or smoke and haze, for its transcendent nature that removes you from this earthly plane. Its glow makes anything magical — a sickly house plant, a sunbathing lizard, or an oil derrick pumping out black gold.

This article was made possible through the support of the Sam Francis Foundation in honor of the 100th birthday of Sam Francis.

Renée Reizman lives in Los Angeles, where she is a research-based interdisciplinary artist and writer who examines cultural aesthetics and their relationship between urbanization, law, and technology....

3 replies on “Capturing the Elusive Magic of California’s Golden Light”

  1. FYI.
    The light in San Francisco (is? was?) actually quite beautiful, as are many places in close proximity to water which adds dimension to the colors it highlights. I remember this light as a pale rose on most days. The fog came in in the evenings, many times creating multicolored sunsets that were gorgeous. Only the fog in the mornings was grey, a very pale grey.

  2. Seeing the vibrant connection shared by these artists and their artworks’ dance with California light is a retinal, sensory pleasure. Many thanks for showcasing similarities in their sensibilities and bringing our attention to it. Wonderful color all around!

  3. The fact is, pollutants, smoke and debris from volcanic eruptions all enhance the color and vibrance of the sunrise and sunset, particularly smoke from wildfires.
    The golden hour will only get better unless we do something about climate change.

Comments are closed.