A Culture of Color: Celebrating Dia De Los Muertos and More

Anne Laddon has long enjoyed traveling and painting in Mexico, and on a recent visit she witnessed one of the country’s most colorful celebrations, Dia de los Muertos.

The paintings of California artist Anne Laddon transport us to San Miguel de Allende, the historical city in the hills of central Mexico. With her signature bold colors and direct treatment, Laddon shows us grand colonial buildings, verdant scenery and brightly colored interiors.

Dia de los Muertos | Anne Laddon, ArtistsNetwork.com

View From Gordes Provence (pastel, 10×15) by Anne Laddon

The artist’s fascination with the country is long-standing. “I’ve loved Mexico since I was a child,” Laddon says. “I grew up in San Diego, and we used to travel there. I also speak Spanish, which helps. Once I had children, I started going to San Miguel de Allende, because I was able to put my children in a Spanish immersion and art school there while I learned to paint.” Laddon first traveled to San Miguel in 1995 and stayed for a month. “I did that four summers in a row and fell in love with central Mexico,” she says. “Since then I’ve visited another half-dozen times.”

The brilliant colors of Mexican textiles and decorations are a perfect match for the artist, who likes to push her colors to extremes. “Color is my first love,” Laddon says. “I’m a colorist before anything. I don’t purposely add color to my paintings; I just see everything that way. My daughter thinks I have an extra cone in each eye—she says I see things really saturated.”

Laddon began her career as a graphic designer, then in the 1970s she became a silk-screen printmaker, “which allowed me to use super-saturated, pure color,” she says. “Pastel was just a wonderful discovery for me.” That discovery occurred some 15 years ago when she took a class with artist W. Truman Hosner. “I just happened to have a box of Rembrandt pastels I’d never opened, and as soon as I took this class, I thought, look what I can do with this! And that was it; I gave up oil painting and, for a time, worked in pastel exclusively.” Today she divides her efforts between the two media.

Día de Muertos (Day of the Dead)

Last November Laddon visited San Miguel for the Day of the Dead celebration, which is, in fact, a three-day affair. “I’ve always been curious about that celebration and how the city is transformed,” she says. “I wanted to visit during this wonderful, spiritual holiday and soak up all the color I could.” She went with her daughter, who also speaks Spanish. “She was a good sport,” Laddon says. “She put up with me painting everywhere I wanted.”

Laddon primarily paints en plein air. “Most of my pastels are done with the goal of finding a fabulous composition and color statement on location,” she says. “When painting outside, things happen that you don’t expect, and that’s why so many artists are attracted to it. It’s so different than working in the studio.”

The artist generally works on 12×16-inch sheets of paper and can complete a painting in a few hours. These plein air paintings are finished works and not specifically intended as preparatory studies, although she does occasionally use one as the basis for a larger studio work.

Laddon prefers to paint out-of-the-way corners and everyday scenes instead of major sites. “You can find all sorts of odd locations to paint where you can settle down, be present and deepen your experience,” she says. “That’s what I tell the sixth graders I teach, too. Be present, be in the moment and wonderful things will happen.”

Dia de los Muertos | Anne Laddon, ArtistsNetwork.com

Flowers are delivered by the truckload for the women to use in their work for Dia de los Muertos.

She painted in several locations during Day of the Dead, but one was particularly compelling. “The Mexican culture reveres its dead as if they’re still part of the family. And they celebrate them,” Laddon says. “It’s not like Halloween—it’s very deeply spiritual.” The artist had long admired a church in San Miguel called San Juan de Dios and the abandoned cemetery situated next to it. She learned that every year a group of 20 to 30 women get together during Day of the Dead to decorate graves that are no longer visited in this cemetery and make them special. “I came across the women as I was looking for a cemetery to paint,” Laddon says. “They were very nice and invited me to come back again later when the flowers began to arrive.”

Dia de los Muertos | Anne Laddon, ArtistsNetwork.com

The cemetery decorating for Dia de los Muertos is complete.

Later, Laddon watched as flowers were delivered to the cemetery by the truckload. “There were bright marigolds and deep purple carnations. The ladies cut them off and decorated the whole ground with beautiful flowers,” she says. “They built little altars on top of gravestones, and brought favorite food and beer as offerings.” Setting up in a corner, she watched and painted for two days. “Those paintings may not be my very best, but it was a magical, transformative experience to watch how this culture was celebrating and honoring its dead.”

Dia de los Muertos | Anne Laddon, ArtistsNetwork.com

Cemeterio San Juan de Dios (pastel, 18×24) by Anne Laddon

Another memorable painting location was Casa Hyder, a beautiful hacienda in San Miguel. “It’s an amazing house,” Laddon says. “It’s American-owned, and it’s used now as a rental and wedding venue. I went there 15 years ago on my first trip to San Miguel. This time I asked the owner if I could come and paint.” The resulting painting (see “On Location: Casa Hyder” on the next page), gives free reign to Laddon’s intense colors. “Painting there was a fantastic experience,” she says. “But here I was in this opulent American-owned villa—it was the opposite of painting in the cemetery, where I felt immersed in Mexico.”

Dia de los Muertos | Anne Laddon, ArtistsNetwork.com

La Sala Classic Colonial in San Miguel de Allende (pastel, 18×24) by Anne Laddon

The painting of Casa Hyder points to Laddon’s ongoing interest in interior spaces. “I like the patterns and liveliness of interiors,” she says, “and I love the adrenaline rush of having to capture something quickly.” Early in her career she enjoyed painting crowded bar scenes, and she has often painted musicians in concert. “If I’m at a bar, I won’t drink much, but I love watching people having a good time, and I get to spy on people,” she says. “The same is true with painting musicians. A lot of the time we’ll have musicians performing in our arts center, and I’ll have 30 minutes to capture something. It’s so much fun. It’s freer than being in my studio.”

Pastel Painting: Looking for Color and Energy

The artist works with various pastel brands, but notes that on a recent trip, she mostly used Holbeins for hard pastels and Rembrandts for a slightly softer stick. “When I’m working in my studio, I use Terry Ludwigs, which are super soft, but I don’t take those on location—they’re too big and fragile,” she says. As for her surface, Laddon works on Sennelier La Carte, which she mounts onto a black Fome-Cor board while painting. She usually chooses papers that are mid-value tones. “The toned paper enables me to work more quickly to find the value range I need,” she says, “and the bright colors just pop right off of it.”

Laddon starts a painting by drawing a preliminary layout using a light gray pastel pencil. “I’ll ask myself: What’s important here? What do I really want to capture? And I’ll quickly lay in the major shapes. Then I select a color range,” she says. “A lot of times I’ll have a little swatch of paper in the same color, and I’ll try the colors on that first.

Dia de los Muertos | Anne Laddon, ArtistsNetwork.com

Mission San Miguel Musical Mosaic (pastel, 19×25) by Anne Laddon

“I’m such a color junkie that I have to control myself, so I select my colors in advance,” she says. “I pick 15 or 20 pastels and tell myself that I can’t go back to the box for more. I close the box and start putting the colors down.” She holds several of these sticks in her non-painting hand as she works so that she doesn’t have to reach down to the ground as often to pick up the next stick. “A lot of pastelists have a table on their easel,” she says, “but I gave that up to be more portable.”

The artist starts with the darkest tone she’ll be using, usually a dark brown or black. “I take that and draw just an indication of the darkest darks,” she says, “so that I can visually measure them off.” She then moves to laying in her colors. The limited selection assures a degree of harmony and cohesion. “One of my biggest concerns as I paint is not getting too dark, because I love saturated colors and deeper tones,” she says. She strives to be direct and communicate her initial impressions on the paper.

Laddon often applies her colors in distinct strokes. “I’m really a poor example of a pastelist,” she says, laughing. “I don’t blend, and I don’t do any underpainting. I’m mostly interested in the color and energy I can get.” Whether we’re looking at her paintings of musicians, animals, interiors or one of her vibrant Mexican scenes, that color and energy come through loud and clear.


Anne Laddon (anneladdon.com), of Paso Robles, Calif., began her artistic career as a graphic designer and later worked as a silkscreen printmaker before turning to oil and pastel painting. Among her influential teachers, she lists W. Truman Hosner, who introduced her to pastel; Quang Ho; and the late Ann Templeton. In 2007, she founded Studios on the Park (studiosonthepark.org), a nonprofit arts organization in Paso Robles that facilitates educational programs, artists’ studios, and an annual arts festival and exhibition.

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