Artist Millie Velasco does painting a day for worldwide “Plein Air” contest 

Local artist Millie Velasco paints the Green Store as part of a worldwide “Plein Air” contest. Photo by Kevin Cody

Velasco braves the wind and sun while painting the 22nd Street lifeguard tower. Photo by Kevin Cody

by Elka Worner

Every day last month, seasoned Downtown Disney sketch artist and Redondo Beach resident Millie Velasco stationed her easel at one street corner or another, capturing images of the South Bay in oil as part of an international art challenge as much about endurance as skill. 

“I ran a marathon once, this was just as challenging,” Velasco said.

Velasco paints Hermosa Beach pier on day three of the challenge. Photo by Millie Velasco

The sketch artist was taking part in the 2022 #PleinAirpril contest. The French term “plein air” means painting outdoors in the open air, a practice familiar to Vincent van Gogh and French impressionists Claude Monet and Pierre-August Renoir.

The month-long contest encouraged artists to work outside of their traditional mediums and beyond the four walls of their studios.

Velasco’s oil painting of Martha’s in Hermosa Beach. Photo by Millie Velasco

“I had to deal with the sun, the wind, the looky-loos,” Velasco said as she set up her easel next to the 22nd Street lifeguard tower on April 15, halfway through the challenge.

Each day, the mother of two, painted two to six hours and then posted her work on Instagram. The #PleinAirpril challenge was open to artists from all over the world. The prizes included arts supplies and gift cards. 

“I decided to try oil painting,” Velasco said.

Velasco’s oil painting of Pier Avenue shops. Photo by Millie Velasco

Her canvases featured local sites like the Green Store, Pier Plaza, the Comedy and Magic Club, Tony’s on the Redondo Beach Pier, the Kettle, Jus’ Poke and the Manhattan Beach Pier.

The unforgiving nature of oils is a far cry from her training as a cartoon and caricature artist.

“I had no idea what I was doing in the beginning, but it was fun,” she said.

Velasco’s oil painting of the Kettle in Manhattan Beach. Photo by Millie Velasco

Ever since she was a child, the Philippine native loved to draw. Her father was in the Navy, and she lived in Japan before moving to California. In high school, Velasco excelled as a cartoonist for the school newspaper.

“AP Art History is the only AP test I passed,” she said.

Velasco was a pre-med student at UC Irvine, before she switched to her true calling. Instead of dissecting cadavers, she’d rather paint and draw them.

“It was my passion. I loved it,” she said. “I couldn’t imagine not doing art.”

After graduating with a Studio Art degree, she worked as a front-end developer for the Walt Disney Internet Group, Honda, Toyota, Mattel, and Allergan. She left behind her grueling 60-hour workweeks when she became a mom. 

Like many Southern California families, she often visited Disneyland, where she watched the caricature artists swiftly sketching the faces and bodies of park guests.

“It was instant gratification for the guest,” she said.

Velasco auditioned to be a portrait and caricature artist at Disney walk, and got the part, sketching thousands of portraits a year.

“You’re bringing them happiness within minutes,” she said of her marker and charcoal drawings.

Velasco’s oil painting of Tony’s on the Redondo Beach Pier. Photo by Millie Velasco

For the next two years, she set up her booth and drew, rain or shine, holidays, and weekends. She said going from a six-figure income to $8 an hour was humbling, but well worth it because her work ended up all over the world.

In 2012, Velasco started her own company, SmugMugz, drawing caricatures for parties, weddings, birthdays, and corporate events. Her booth is a big draw at the Hermosa Beach Farmers Market, Fiesta Hermosa and Hermosa Fine Arts Festival. She cranks out black and white portraits in three to four minutes, and a color version in less than 10 minutes, capturing the essence of her subjects in a modern and humorous form. Her corporate clients include HBO, Skechers, Warner Brothers, the PGA, Workday and the Los Angeles Zoo.

Velasco shares her talents volunteering as a Young at Art teacher at Hermosa View School, where her son is a student.

“The kids really pay attention to her,” Young at Art co-director Marisa Checa said. “Millie makes art fun.”

Velasco said art education is often missing from our digitally connected world. 

“Art requires play. That’s how ideas happen,” she said.

Velasco is constantly creating, whether painting with oils or soy sauce.

In a bow to her Asian heritage, she completed a series of soy sauce portraits of famous Asians, including singer Bruno Mars, actor George Takei, stand-up comedian Margaret Cho, DJ Steve Aoki and Pat Morita, also known as Mr. Miyagi of Karate Kid.

 “I have it inside. It needs to come out,” she said. “It’s like giving birth. You’re creating a new life.”

Velasco will display her artwork at the Hermosa Fine Arts Festival on May 28-30, 2022. She posted her challenge oil paintings @millzvanillz. Her website is ER


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