And then somehow, on his canvas, a frog the size of a Buick appears.
Sometimes, when Curtiss looks at his own paintings, he seems pleasantly surprised by his own turns of whimsy. He calls himself an introvert who expresses his humor best through his art: in puns, enigmatic animals, a still life containing a bowl of fruit, a wine glass and french fries.
Curtiss' schooling in art followed a classical path — he studied the traditional landscape for many years with painter Alfredo D'Annunzio. But, as he notes in an interview at his Los Altos home studio, "If you keep at it long enough ... eventually, whether you like it or not, your own voice will come out."
A Stanford design-school graduate and recently retired engineer, Curtiss became accustomed over the years to painting "in short bursts" when he had a spare moment. Now and then he found time to teach an art class at Palo Alto's Pacific Art League. Today, with more opportunity to paint, he's having his first solo exhibition in 12 years. He's showing 27 oils on canvas at the art league through April 28.
The soft-spoken, pleasant artist sees the show as a chance to connect with new people through his work. "If I see someone chuckling in the gallery," he says, "that does me a lot of good."
He smiles, remembering meeting a little boy at the show who really liked Curtiss' painting "Big Frog, Small Pond." It's a lush, green scene inspired by a visit to Arastradero Pond. Lurking in the trees next to the water is an impossibly enormous frog.
"That painting is about shyness and introversion," Curtiss says. The boy, however, wasn't too timid to say hello to an adult artist, and to proudly inform Curtiss that he had found the "hidden" amphibian.
Another painting in the show often gets a different kind of smile from adults. Titled "Thoreau Moves to Los Altos Hills," it depicts the writer surrounded by McMansions, reading in front of his tiny, rough cabin. Smoke rises languidly from the cabin's chimney.
Two pieces of reading material inspired the 2003 painting: Thoreau's "Walden," which Curtiss was re-reading, and an unwanted copy of a lifestyles magazine that came in the mail. Curtiss flipped through the glossy real-estate ads and felt frustrated by what he saw as excess, he recalls. "Something snapped, and I had to do it (the painting)," he says. "How many square feet do you really need?"
Curtiss points out that in his painting, no one from the mansions is out enjoying nature, while Thoreau looks perfectly content sitting on his front porch. He says he likes to imagine the people inside the huge houses, angrily calling the town council to complain about the cabin.
An especially quirky painting in the exhibition was inspired by a power outage. Curtiss got to thinking afterward, "There are so many things that we think are supposed to just be there for us." The result: "Gravity Goes Out in Palo Alto."
In front of a comfortable-looking home, everything is rising upward: the family car, the trash-can lid, the leaves on the lawn. A dog floats tummy-side-up, looking happy about it, and a garden hose unspools into the air like a cobra.
Curtiss' playful creativity has clearly won him some fans. Notes from the exhibition's guest book include: "You are a fabulous artist with a macabre sense of humor," and "Hella funny. How can you sell this stuff?"
The paintings take shape in Curtiss' airy garage studio that he shares with his wife, Francie, who does gouache and mixed-media pencil work. Several of Curtiss' sketches are pinned up on the wall, with a painting-in-progress catching the sun from a skylight. The canvas, "Renoir's Cat," is based on one of Renoir's voluptuous nudes — with an appropriately curvy cat lounging near a woman.
The painting is part of a series in which Curtiss imagines just the right feline pet for various artists. "Chuck Close's Cat," sitting on his studio floor, has a photorealist style, while "The Screen," hanging in the show, is a play on Edvard Munch's "The Scream." There's the typical horrified Munch face, with a wide-eyed cat on the side clinging to a window screen.
The Curtisses have two cats (too shy to emerge during the interview) who sometimes serve as models for the paintings, when they feel like posing. Some of Curtiss' cat paintings are less playful and more peaceful. In "The World Outside #1," a gray tabby gazes out a window, seated between two curtains. Curtiss often makes prints from his paintings, and he says this one — also included in the show — has been a popular seller.
As for his medium, Curtiss favors oil in part because it's forgiving. If he paints something and wants to change it, he can still wipe paint off when it's wet, or scrape and sand paint off when it's dry. And oil paint takes a long time to dry.
Subjects, however, may not be so flexible. Painting "The Essentials" — a still life with a tea kettle, fruit, bread and credit cards — took Curtiss six weeks, and he had to replace the bunch of grapes a few times. "The bread got hard as a rock," he says, laughing.
"The Essentials" sits on the floor of Curtiss' studio, and the artist contemplates it for a moment. The copper kettle gleams like an object of beauty created by an Old Master, while the credit cards' colors are almost gaudy. While painting, Curtiss says, he was musing about the contrast between what is "earthy, genuine" and what comes from technology.
He adds, though, that he's not always against progress. "I'm not sure I want to carry a sack of guilders around."
What: "Off Center," a show of oil paintings by Los Altos artist Steve Curtiss
Where: Norton Gallery, Pacific Art League, 668 Ramona St., Palo Alto
When: Through April 28. The gallery is open weekdays from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Saturdays from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.
Info: Call the art league at 650-321-3891. The artist's website is http://www.stevecurtiss.com .