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Artist David Belling Paints Southwest Florida

Scenes of Old Florida are given fresh perspective in David Belling’s watercolor vignettes. As he transports his viewers along Fort Myers Beach’s working docks, the Sanibel Lighthouse, a historic Boca Grande marina, and the salty fish shacks of Pine Island Sound, fond memories return and new excursions along Southwest Florida’s coastline are inspired.

            Belling, 83, has been painting for almost six decades, many of those as a hobby during his professional career as an advertising creative director. He has been recording his local representational perspectives since moving to Cape Coral in 1991, turning to his art full time after retiring in 2004.

            Belling often returns again and again to capture timeless locales to record a new perspective. He has a knack for knowing what is special. In A Day at Cabbage Key,the famed restaurant, boathouse, docks, looming water tower and cruising Lady Chadwickcombine to tell a short story. 

            What sets Belling’s work apart from traditional impressionistic landscapes and seascapes is the exquisite detail in his work. The faint slats of the water tower, life-preserver ring hanging on the boathouse, potted plants near the restaurant, dappled awning of theLady Chadwick—punctuated details make up the whole in A Day at Cabbage Key.

            Belling says he’s been criticized by fellow watercolorists for his attention to detail. It’s something, though, he can’t tame. “I try to be more impressionistic, but I haven’t gotten myself there yet. It might be too late to change at this point,” he explains. “Most of that detail is painted directly with a brush in my hand.” On the other hand, he adds, “I get feedback from people who are amazed at the detail. I’ve had people tell me, ‘I want to go there.’ They want to see what I saw.”

Seeing the Painting

            Belling photographs iconic landmarks and returns to his studio in his Tarpon Point Marina condo, and selects the ones he wants to use as subjects. He works from a print at his drawing board, where he spends an hour or so creating a light sketch that serves as the basic blueprint. He spends three or four hours a day painting.

            With decades of experience in design and art and photography direction, his composition and approach alight in his mind before getting to work. “There are days that I can’t wait to get up and get at it—to start painting. When I look at images, I can see it as a painting,” Belling says. “I know exactly how I’ll paint it.” 

            He usually works from one image, although for A Day at Cabbage Key, he combined elements that may not be seen in one frame. “I don’t make up a painting,” he notes.

            If he’s not out photo-documenting his subjects, Belling’s artwork still calls him outside. Last August, he took a painting trip to Yellowstone National Park with his daughter, Lizette Phillips, a professional painter. 

            Belling ritually gathered with his art director friends on two annual plein air forays. One was in Wisconsin each fall. Each spring, his group chose another destination, such as Everglades City, Florida, or a small Arizona town. In Wisconsin, he was drawn to rusted-out trucks in rural environs, particularly Door County—creating some of his most detailed work. 

            He’s an award-winning plein air painter whose works were on exhibit in Tampa, Old Forge, New York, and Minneapolis in the fall. National, juried competitions provide feedback and affirmation from his peers, he says.

            Belling has participated in the Fort Myers Beach Art Association’s annual Paint the Beach, regularly pulling in awards. March will find him at the juried Lighthouse ArtCenter plein air competition on Florida’s east coast, which is restricted to 35 artists who paint for six days. He was accepted to participate last year, too. “Getting juried in was a real accomplishment for me. I didn’t win anything, but I sold all my paintings”—the only artist to do so. 

            He will be the first to tell you that he doesn’t paint to sell—and that, ironically, he’s his own worst marketer. He paints because he wants to, because it gives him a fresh challenge every day. Belling’s works are represented in four local galleries. “I have the good fortune that I don’t have to sell paintings to survive. I paint strictly for my own pleasure,” he adds.

Cathy Chestnut is a freelance writer and frequent contributor to TOTI Media who explores the people and places that make Southwest Florida, her hometown stomping grounds, unique.