A San Francisco Artist Uses Paint To Capture The Magic Of The Sky


Artist Elaine Coombs in her studio

Artist Elaine Coombs in her studio.

For many years, Elaine Coombs’ paint palette was daubed with countless iterations of the color green. Known for her intimate landscapes, Coombs depicted alpine forests, sun-dappled glades and lush tree canopies in which the sky played a supporting role. Then, a few years ago, her attention shifted upward. Clouds, in all of their ethereal manifestations, became the focus of her obsession—and the green pigments went into storage. 

A painting depicts a colorful sky.

A painting, Expansive Skies (gold), hangs in artist Elaine Coombs' studio.

Inspirational quotes around the artist's studio

The painter sprinkles inspirational words and quotes around her workspace, saying that they remind her of the purpose in creating art.

clear glass filled with tools like scissors and paintbrushes, next to painting

Tools adorn the artist's studio.

Quotes decorate the artist's studio

A photograph serves as inspiration

Many of her works are sparked by photographs of the clouds she takes herself.

“When the pandemic hit, I worked at home for a while,” recalls Coombs, who grew up amidst nature in Ontario and currently lives in San Francisco. “I found myself painting the view framed by my apartment window, and my husband and I took long walks in the Presidio and nearby neighborhoods that inspired me. Being outdoors helped me feel calm and present, and I wanted to find a way to convey that feeling.” The artist took hundreds of photos—especially at the dramatic “golden hours” just after sunrise and before sunset. Eventually, she began capturing more sky than land in her shots.

Once her studio reopened, Coombs started dedicating herself to skyscapes. More abstract than her previous work, these paintings tread the line between figurative description and state of mind. They glow with a subtle shimmer, thanks to an underlayer of gold or silvery pearl metallic paint that captures the translucence of the sky. She recently started working with a metallic blue that shifts from vibrant to pale as the viewer moves—much as the sky can change hues on a dime depending upon atmospheric conditions.

Interestingly, Coombs does not use a brush; rather she employs a kind of pointillist approach, using a palette knife to apply color with a controlled series of strokes, marks and dots. As you approach the canvas, the clouds begin to pixelate; pull away and they shift back into focus. At the moment, the artist cannot imagine returning to painting landscapes. “There is still so much more to explore in the clouds,” she says. Asked if she has captured the apocalyptic skies during the California wildfires, Coombs demurs. “I’m too much of an optimist,” she explains. 

In fact, the artist radiates a kind of radical positivity and a desire to share joy with others. “My hope is that, even in trying times, people might see my work and feel inspired to notice the beauty in the everyday,” she says. “And of course—once in a while—remember to stand still and look up.”