Is painting like riding a bicycle — once you learn, you never forget?


Ron Pulliam put down his brushes almost half a century ago. Now, the north Pacific County man is delighting fellow residents of Bay Center, Washington, with artwork of familiar scenery.

He posts his finished art — and sometimes works in progress — on his Facebook page and Remembering Bay Center, Washington, a local Facebook group.

Positive comments from residents spur him to create more.

“I paint for pleasure for sure but it’s not all pleasure. Sometimes it causes temporary grief but I get a lot of satisfaction from it,” he said. “Nothing else exists except the canvas, the colors and my brush. It’s like I am in a vacuum or maybe an hour in a warm pool. It’s a pleasant feeling.”

Pulliam is married to Jane Pulliam, a member of the Chinook Tribal Council. They split their time between their home in Tacoma, Washington, where he has a tiny basement studio, and an older property in Bay Center.

“We love it there, the town and the people,” Pulliam said.

The couple bought the Bay Center home, which they are restoring, 13 years ago. There, Pulliam’s painting is confined to a corner of their dining room.

Rediscovering his talents

One facet of his creative talent has been on hold for almost 50 years.

Pulliam grew up in Ohio and attended Kent State University in 1968. He was drafted into the U.S. Army and served a tour in Vietnam as a surveyor and photographer.

“It was a period of prolonged, unrelenting stress and threat,” he said.

He returned changed and wasn’t keen on resuming his early artistic endeavors.

“I painted now and then, but had to go looking for my brushes,” he said. “It was a long period in between paintings.”

In the years that followed, Pulliam had a 32-year career as a graphic designer, during which he ran his own business.

Now retired, Pulliam is rediscovering his talents. He is gaining a considerable local fan base, while remaining cautious about marketing. Years back, he turned wooden bowls with considerable skill, but found that extending his art into commerce killed the hobby.

“They were more artistic than functional but because I started thinking about selling, going to arts fairs, I lost interest at that point,” Pulliam said.

A ‘recovering perfectionist’

Pulliam joked that he is a “recovering perfectionist.” Some years ago, he immersed himself in elements of Japanese culture. He spent seven years honing his skills in the aikido martial art, nurtured trees in the bonsai style and bred koi fish. He was fascinated by the Japanese trait of exactitude, which extends to perfecting the rear surfaces of a fence which is hidden from view.

He is reflective looking back at that phase. “I didn’t want to be reminded that I had lost an opportunity by not going back to painting,” he said.

The breakthrough moment came after he and his wife took Landmark education personal coaching classes in Portland.

“It challenged my way of thinking,” Pulliam said.

Around that time, he connected with artist Lori Beth Chandler who invited him to her Seattle studio. Together, they dumped acrylic paint on 4-by-5-foot pieces of heavy canvas, “without thought toward design or results.”

“We squeezed, we splashed, we splotched the paint all over,” he recalled with a laugh. “It was kind of cool. Looking back, that was part of the break in my way of thinking.”

Surprising success

Once he took out his brushes, his own skills surprised him.

“I was flabbergasted by my first paintings,” he recalled, adding he was a better painter than in his youth.

“I said, ‘Dang, I can do this!’ I was fully prepared for a lot of failure — you have to be. You have to be prepare to do a lot of crappy things. It’s a skill and it takes practice and work. It usually takes years.”

He painted the Weyerhaeuser mill and its Raymond, Washington, waterfront setting, and a street scene showing the town’s Park Avenue. As he toyed with choosing a consistent style for his preferred artist’s signature, he painted his initials as if they were chalked on the sidewalk.

Since those early works, rural landscapes have dominated Pulliam’s art.

“The area comprising Raymond, South Bend and Bay Center is the source for many of my paintings. There’s no end of subject matter and weather to work with,” he said.

On journeys between their Tacoma and Bay Center homes, Pulliam scouts scenic views.

“My wife drives the last 50 miles. I sit with my phone and and take pictures out of the window. Sometimes I get her to stop the car,” he said.

From these, plus photos he takes on walks around their Bay Center neighborhood, he chooses his subjects and angles.

“I see a sunset. I look for composition, contrast and color, and take pictures then review them. I go over 10, 15, 20 and find the one,” Pulliam said.

Still learning

His progress still amazes him, as he shares online.

“Some days I’ll walk into the studio, and stop dead and think, ‘Did I paint that last night?’ It’s a weird feeling,” Pulliam said.

But Pulliam is down to earth, too. He shuns watercolors and oils, preferring the more forgiving medium of acrylic paint.

“I am still learning. I learn from just about every painting I do. I have ‘happy accidents’ — most mistakes that can be corrected,” Pulliam said.

If not happy with a perspective, color or other elements, he takes a break.

“If I get to that part where it is as much as I can do, I set it down and pick it up later when I can see what it needs,” he said. “That happens when I think, ‘This is good enough’ or if somebody says, ‘Put down your brush and step away from the painting.’ There is a danger of overworking.”

Occasionally, Pulliam selects unexpected topics for variety and fun. One was of Freddie Mercury, originally seen in a black and white photo but painted in color to resemble stage lighting. Another was a set of four still-lifes of pears which he posted online seeking votes — just about every respondent agreed with his own favorite.

At 73, he is in no rush to cash in on his revived talents. His pleasure comes from others enjoying his work.

“I don’t want it to become a business. It’s a love,” he said. “I want something that generates emotions in a person at first glance or else something they can identify with.”