Carla Bates' Ocean Portraits

Carla Bates is a long-standing member of the Malibu Arts Association and has been a fine art painter for 21 years. Her focus lies on local Malibu landmarks and the connection between people and the ocean.

Written by Molly Strawn | Photographed by Julie Wuellner

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   In a custom home atop the stunning Malibu hills lives the art studio of Carla Marlenée Bates, a graphic designer by trade who made a career out of her passion: painting. The impressionist visionary holds a Fine Arts Degree from California State University in Fullerton, but she started her first few post-collegiate years on a different path. The day after Bates graduated, she was on a plane to Tokyo to pursue a modeling career, something she started doing to pay the bills. She continued her work across Europe until she was 25, deciding that at the end of the day, she was ready for a new challenge.

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“I wanted to move beyond having my physical appearance define me,” Bates said. Soon after, she went to work for Disney and Euro Disney on the corporate end as an Image Coordinator. Her job was to administer the wholesome “Disney Look” to cast members. It wasn’t long until she realized she was enforcing a dress code policy she wasn’t sure she believed in. Bates says there were aspects of the appearance policy that she felt needed updating. She spent five years campaigning to change the policies she had originally been hired to enforce. Her goal was to be an advocate for the corporate woman and encourage the company to rethink their policies.

After achieving success, she left Disney to move to Malibu and marry her husband, Bruce. Before long, she was working to build a souvenir business with her younger sister, Michelle. She was soon designing and selling merchandise all over California. The company quickly took over her family’s lives. She was met with a difficult choice: scale the business to the next level or focus on the next prospect.  


“I think I had an epiphany one day and said ‘I don’t want to do this anymore. This is not the path I envisioned for my life.’” Bates said.

It was during her unrewarding business hustle that Bates stumbled across a new opportunity. “[A parent] asked if I would teach their daughter who was very gifted but they couldn’t really afford [art] lessons,” Bates said. “Before long, I had nine students sitting at my kitchen table.”

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In addition to continuing her art lessons, other jobs were finding their way to Bates’ plate, including freelance graphic design gigs for The Malibu Playhouse and Once Upon A Time Children’s Theater in addition to many others. “It just made sense,” Bates said. “I saw that I could stay home to raise my two children, create art, teach, become more involved in the community, and have a great life. I feel like it’s worked out that way.”  

For her 16-year-old son Declan, living in an artistic household has been an inspiration to pursue his own artistic talents. “I would always have something to do,” Declan Bates said. “I could just go into my kitchen and have all the [art] supplies right there.” In the future, Declan plans to show some of his art alongside his mother in upcoming shows, as well as turn his designs into t-shirt prints.    

Today, Bates continues to focus on her fine art. She prides herself on being very involved with her local community and capturing the human condition out on the Malibu beaches. She has been a long-standing member of The Malibu Art Association and has been dedicated to painting full time for 21 years. Bates loves to paint people’s connection with the environment that she describes as “playful and contemplative.” “My approach to surf paintings focuses on telling a little story about humans interacting rather than depicting surfers conquering a wave.” An approach she describes as “feminine.” She says, “I am inspired both by the beauty of Malibu and how we connect with nature.”

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A continuing series is titled The Waiting. This series, in particular, illustrates surfers chatting among the swells waiting for that perfect wave. “I want to convey surfers sharing the experience of being immersed in their environment,” Bates said. After she takes photos of her subjects and composes them as she wants, she gets to work with her acrylics. Depending on the size and complexity of a painting, she can spend upwards of 50 hours on a single project. Other times, her inspiration runs rampant and can be finished in two. She paints both individuals and groups, always working to perfect the capture of both vibrant color and the glimmering light of the ocean.

“If I do a portrait, I don’t really want to get a likeness like they’re posing for it. I want to get them in their element doing their thing,” Bates said. “I call those Ocean Portraits.” Classical musician, Maria Newman has been an avid collector of Bates’ work for years. Today, Newman owns over a dozen of her pieces.

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“I wanted something unique and innovative, and I fell in love with her work. Her sense of what is emanated from the canvas is extraordinary,” Newman said. “I can live inside her paintings. Her work makes me feel alive.”

Bates has lived her life by her own moral compass, always letting her happiness guide her career decisions. “I want to bring joy,” Bates said. “Ultimately how you enjoy your life is doing what you love the most,” Bates said.  MM