My Coastal Dune Lakes Diary
Inspired by the beauty of South Walton/30a and the 15 unique coastal dune lakes.
I was having lunch in the studio in December of 2017, and read an article in the newspaper about the 15 rare, coastal dune lakes in Walton County. I knew about Western Lake. Everyone knows Western Lake, in fact it's just about mandatory that all local artists paint Western Lake. What about the 14 other coastal dune lakes? That's when I had the idea to visit each lake and paint something inspired by the visit. In March 2018, I went on the first excursion to Topsail State Park which contained 2 of the 15 lakes. Campbell Lake was easy to get to by bike and was long and wide. I took many photos. I continued westward in the park until I couldn't bike any further, then set out on foot to find Morris Lake. My hiking partner and I couldn't believe the beauty of this remote area of the park. It was a site to behold, with beautiful white sand dunes overlooking the Gulf of Mexico and not a soul in sight. After about an hour, we made it to Morris Lake. As I peeked through the foliage at the lake, I was rewarded with a sighting of a lovely blue heron. This heron turned out to be quite a muse for me and I painted numerous paintings inspired by it. At this point, a third lake, Fuller Lake, was actually very close, but just outside the park in a gated, residential community. Visiting Fuller Lake would be an adventure for another day. We headed back though the dune trail to our bikes and home to review photos of the day.
Western Lake is the most famous coastal dune lake in Walton County. Locals know it, tourists know it and painters paint it. This was surely going to be the easiest, coastal dune lake to paint since I’d already painted it a number of times. The famous shot of Western Lake is from 30a, looking out over the lake to the famous tree stand. I wanted to see it differently. In January 2020, I visited Western Lake via Grayton Beach State Park and walked the mile-long nature trail through the sand dunes, pine flatwood and scrub oak along Western Lake. It was cold this day, Florida-cold anyway. The sun was shining overhead and ultimately made some great shadows a little later in the walk. The way the shadows formed along the path ended up being my main inspiration at Western Lake that day.
Some coastal dune lakes are hard to get to for the public. You pass Big Redfish, Little Redfish and Alligator Lake on 30a but you don’t see too much of them. Luckily, I found a way with a new drone. The drone was able to be my eyes (in 4K) at the starting point on 30a and then all the way down to the gulf. My pilot and I were able to shoot all 3 of these lakes in March 2021. It was about 4pm and the sun was casting long, beautiful shadows in the dunes, perfect inspiration for the paintings.
I have loads of photos from my Deer Lake visit in January 2020 and I’m in most of them. This is because I had a second photographer with me that day, my son, Justin. It was another glorious, chilly, January, Florida day when we visited Deer Lake State Park. You can easily miss it and drive right by on 30a if you didn’t know where you were going. But it’s worth a visit to this quiet little park. There were a few other people there that day, some snow birds and a park ranger we got to chat with. After walking a long boardwalk from parking to the beach, we thought, “Where’s the lake?” That was another ½ mile down the beach to find the beautiful, navy blue and tea-colored lake, which was not connecting to the gulf that day. So many photos. Which one to paint?
In March 2019, I did my first video shoot at a coastal dune lake, thanks to the Visit South Walton. The idea for the video was to visit a coastal dune lake, get inspiration and then go back to the studio and paint from something from the day. Visit South Walton sent a video crew to accompany me on the scouting field trip to beautiful, Draper Lake. I took photos for painting inspiration, went back to the studio (which is just around the corner) and painted the scene. They captured it all on video and it became my first online demonstration.
I actually got to stay on Eastern Lake in a beautiful home of dear collector. OK. Back up. I didn’t know that at the time. In November 2018, I was looking a beach house to rent for Thanksgiving. We would be having a number of my son’s friends home from college, along with our family and friends. Everything I liked online seemed to be booked. I continued to look for a couple days and then one popped up that seemed perfect. I wrote to the owner to request the booking and she wrote back and said, “Is this my favorite artist? You’re in luck we just had a cancellation.” It turned out the owner was one of my first oil painting collectors. Getting this house was meant to be. We had a wonderful stay in her beautiful home with nightly fires in the pit, walks on the beach, spectacular sunsets and of course a big Thanksgiving meal. The collection painting was inspired by a sunset walk on the beach where a group of boys were skim boarding against the setting sun.
The next year I painted the sunset off that dock, commissioned by her sister-in-law, as a special, surprise present for her. (There is also a wonderful story about a rooster painting she won in the elementary school auction, but that is for another time)
I drive down County Highway 30a on my way to my studio, CHROMA, every day, and I always remind myself to look carefully and not become too accustomed to the beauty. On a foggy morning in March 2020, I was looking carefully and not seeing much. I drove past Allen Lake. It too was in fog, but a lovely tree stand in the middle of the lake stood out. I thought for a minute and turned the car around, stopped at Stinky’s Fish Camp, and took some photos of the lake. Later in the studio, I looked back at the photos and cropped one that looked promising. It wasn’t dramatic but there was something about it. Could I translate this beautiful foggy feeling into a painting? I saw it. And so it came to be in coastal dune lakes collection.
Lake Powell is the largest of the coastal dune lakes and occupies southwestern Bay County and southeastern Walton County. It is most accessible at Camp Helen State Park and that is where I visited in March 2018. It was a lovely spring day painting with the Emerald Coast Plein Air Painters. I was located way in the back of the park, just before the bridge, overlooking the lake and tree stand to my right. My on-location painting from that day was the inspiration for the 2 larger, more abstract paintings that followed.
My first visit to Stallworth Lake was special because I was invited by Margie, one of my painting students, who lived on the lake. She gave me some of the photos she’d taken over the years and told me about how her family, and especially her grandchildren, loved to come to the lake every year and boat, float and play. I could tell the families who lived around Stallworth Lake had a close-knit community and the lake played an important role. I chose to use one of Margie’s photos (with her permission) for a Stallworth Lake sunset painting.