Laguna Beach residents Martin Roberts and Veronica Gray uniquely embellish their photographs, reimagining the art of photography.
By Jennifer Pappas Yennie
One could easily draft a novel on the accolades and adventures of Martin Roberts, the Laguna Beach gallery owner who put hand-painted black-and-white photography on the map. He, along with partner-in-crime Dan Witte, have been traversing the globe together for decades, capturing rustic cottages and pastoral doorways that have found their way into resorts, retailers and homes across the country.
Roberts’ passion for the darkroom started as passions often do: from the influence of his father, a photographer who drew him into the darkroom by building him one of his own when he was only 12 years old. The pair would travel to photo fairs and shows, where Roberts would often wonder what made one photograph “better” than another. “[I saw] the best of the best from a very young age,” he says, perhaps spurring the high level of excellence he holds himself to nowadays.
Shooting exclusively in black and white, Roberts still develops all his own film in his darkroom before adding color and texture by hand with a variety of different paint mediums. On location, Witte, who shoots in full color, captures the same image Roberts takes in black and white to help him remember the color palette when he starts painting.
The first hand-painted photograph the pair created is of Roberts at 25 years old, leaning against a tree in Guatemala. “Because the photograph was so plain and I was a fledgling painter, I thought maybe doing the grass would beef it up,” Roberts recalls. “And I was just amazed at how it looked.”
Specializing in Mediterranean, Provence and Tuscany locales, Roberts is continually on the hunt for untapped subjects. “My job is that of an explorer, trying to find something that has never been done in a photograph,” Roberts says. And while the COVID-19 pandemic put a kink in his travel routine, Roberts still makes it to Europe once a year, often visiting untouristed locations recommended to him by people he encounters on his travels as well as in his gallery.
Roberts is currently working on a series of Spanish villages that lend themselves to horizontals, which is unique because 75% to 80% of his collection is composed of verticals.
Because he utilizes such a wide variety of paint types—acrylic, watercolor, oil, gouache—and layers them until the effect is more three-dimensional than two, Roberts considers himself a mixed media artist.
But he is no surrealist. Authenticity—replicating colors and textures that exist in the real world—is paramount for Roberts. So why does he continue to embellish his photos, which are stunning on their own unadulterated merit? “Black-and-white photographs done in the darkroom have a level of contrast and impact that digital photographs don’t have,” Roberts explains. “So, I became very experienced at painting the color you would wish was in the image. In other words, I create the scene of your dreams.”
Martin Roberts Gallery
310 Forest Ave.; 949-497-1692; bigtimeart.com
Veronica Gray’s path to photography was an unlikely one. While earning her master’s degree in Spanish and Latin American literature from Syracuse University, she got a job as a court translator. Being in the courtroom inspired her to alter her career trajectory; instead of obtaining a Ph.D. in Latin American literature as planned, she applied to law school and became an attorney specializing in employment law.
“I began making photographs in law school,” Gray explains. “I had the travel bug. I made a list of places I really had to go, and they were all in remote parts of the world. … Instead of keeping a diary, I started documenting with my camera.”
Despite pursuing a full-time legal career, Gray continued to travel. The more she traveled, the closer her lenses got to the faces that intrigued her. “I just saw people,” Gray says. “I saw a face that attracted me, that I wanted to communicate with. I did not see the landscapes.”
Given the intimacy of these portraits, it should come as no surprise that her process is a human one. There is no “shoot-and-run” action here; she always makes a connection first, and always asks permission. Her subjects, often Indigenous, are looking at her. They are images built on trust. “I wasn’t trying to take something from them, but give them something,” she notes.
After viewing “Bridges to Understanding,” a Phil Borges exhibit at Bowers Museum, in the summer of 2004, Gray traveled to Takaungu, Kenya, and tried her hand at digital photography for the first time (while still shooting film as well). This led her to explore developing images with Adobe Photoshop, though she didn’t start experimenting with embellishment until 2020. For obvious reasons, portraits are not enhanced—“You don’t want to change someone’s face, someone’s personality,” Gray explains—but her land and seascapes are rife with embellishment.
“What I see is not necessarily what you see,” she points out. Inspired by the quality of early morning twilight and the desire to translate what she sees and feels into something no one else could create, Gray utilizes digital layering and texture techniques, never ending up with the same thing twice. She also hand-embellishes some images using paint and pastels, a method she learned from Kate Breakey, a visual artist from Tucson, Arizona. “The Blue Finch” is a beautifully stark example of Gray’s hand-painted embellishments.
Full of emotion and natural beauty, Gray likens her process to writing, often putting an embellished image away for a while before returning to it with a beginner’s mind. “Part of the process is being extremely critical,” she says. “… You must create your own style, your own brand. And I have to like it. … It’s a constant journey, but it’s such a joy.”
Laguna’s art scene is always expanding, with new galleries regularly opening their doors. In June, Souzan Zargari launched the eponymous Souzan Zargari Art, a combination gallery/studio on Forest Avenue. Within, she showcases her expressionist paintings, sculptures, abstract art, ceramics, mixed media and more. In the future, she hopes to host creative classes as well. Then, at the beginning of September, street art gallery Kool Chit held its grand opening. Artists that will be highlighted this month include imbue, Miss Bugs, Daniel “Chaka” Ramos, Denial and even the elusive Banksy. Artwork from resident artists will be on display year-round while guest artists will rotate quarterly. (Souzan Zargari Art: 949-715-0054; souzanzargari.com) (Kool Chit: 949-704-2122; koolchit.com) —Ashley Ryan
Art and Literature
Two popular artists with Laguna-based galleries released new books over the summer. In a vast departure from his usual marine life artworks, Wyland released “The Worlds of SeaWalker” in July. The second in a series of three, the book, written by Wyland, reveals the secrets of the universe while discussing alien abductions and UFOs. In addition, Fabio Napoleoni also unveiled the second book in his children’s series, which follows Dragonboy and his imaginary friends on their adventures, in mid-September. Written and illustrated by the artist, “Dragonboy and the Wonderful Night” touches on friendship, inclusion, new experiences and emotional intelligence. “The idea was to show that the nighttime can also be a fun place to explore and that it’s not always scary when it gets dark outside,” Napoleoni reveals. (Wyland: 949-376-8000; wyland.com) (Fabio Napoleoni: 888-344-6226; fabionapoleoni.com) —A.R.
Avran Fine Art
A joint show with abstract painter Blu Smith and sculptor T Barny opens Oct. 8 with a special reception highlighting the artist’s new works. T Barny will be on-site to meet locals from 6-9 p.m. that night. (949-494-0900; avranart.com)
Each year, Gallery Q at the Laguna Beach Community & Susi Q Senior Center honors the town’s cultural diversity with a special exhibit—for 2022, it is “Cultural Fusion,” running through Oct. 5. In this display, artists showcase their own cultures through their artwork. (949-715-8106; thesusiq.org)
JoAnne Artman Gallery
Artwork by America Martin, Billy Schenck and Greg Miller will populate the gallery walls through Halloween as part of a group exhibition titled “Barking at a Knot: Trying the Impossible, Yee-Haw!” The show combines imagery of indigenous figures and Americana pieces. (949-510-5481;
Laguna Beach Plein Air Painting Invitational
The town will be transformed into an outdoor art studio as plein air artists from across the country drop in Oct. 1-9 for the Laguna Plein Air Painters Association’s beloved invitational. Festivities include paint outs, art panels, kids events, a collectors gala and more. (949-376-3635; lpapa.org)
In “Revelation and Ruin,” a solo exhibit ending Sept. 25, Eric Stoner explores mythological and archetypal themes, and puts the human experience front and center in his collages and mixed media pieces. (949-376-6000; lcad.edu)
Peter Blake Gallery
The gallery space reopened over the summer for the first time since its pandemic-era closure. First up in a series of exhibitions that will explore harmony between art, architecture and design is “Gesamtkunstwerk,” which will be on display until December. (949-584-1224; peterblakegallery.com)
Two final shows in a four-part program celebrate survivors’ resilience during special Thursday night receptions. On Sept. 22, the gallery will honor abstract and figurative painter Olga Sinclair; Sept. 29 will focus on Eugenia Martínez’s “Because You Are a Girl” series. (949-715-5554; saltfineart.com)
Through the end of September, enjoy two shows: Ann Kim’s “Dreamscapes,” with colorful, large-scale paintings inspired by nature, and Aimee Bonham’s “In Search of Surprise,” which features collaborative pieces with “excavated” layers. (949-497-6775; sandstonegallery.com)