Welcome to the Blank Canvas Series – An interview with an Artist. These amazing artists have offered to share their insights with the Master Oil Painting Community. Please Note: The views expressed here are those of the Featured Artist and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of Master Oil Painting or Bill Inman.
Today’s Featured Artist: Stapleton Kearns
“I am making a painting, not copying nature.”- Stapleton
Q: You studied with R.H. Ives Gammell. Would you recommend a similar approach for novice painters who want to become masters of the painting craft? What are your thoughts about attending an art school, atelier, or workshop – or should they save their money and just learn on their own with free resources like YouTube.
A: I think that atelier training is a big advantage. When I teach landscape workshops the students with atelier training have the drawing chops to deal with the scene before them. I would advise any student who can, to do a few years of it. I have been surprised that with the rise of ateliers though, that there aren’t a zillion great new painters. There are some for sure, but I suppose that having technical skills and having the ability to make pictures are two separate things. I see so many spend the rest of their careers doing the same sort of exercises that they did as students. Just like acquiring a knowledge of grammar won’t make you a writer unless you have something to say.
Q: Gammell was known for his honest (brutal) critiques and for not sparing any students’ feelings as a teacher (which often rankled young students’ and their egos). How did that affect you, and since you have been teaching workshops (highly praised events I might add) for decades, what have you found to work well when critiquing art?
A: I went to high school in a boarding military academy, (although I didn’t finish there) and I was used to that sort of discipline and pedagogy. When I got to Ives, he wasn’t the first teacher of that sort I had met. He was on the old Edwardian model of teaching, and most of his students had never been exposed to it.
When critiquing students I try to never “bite” anyone. I am naturally a bit scary, so they show up worried that I will. However, I do point out anything that I see as a fault. I often begin by telling students that “ I am critiquing something you have made, it is not you”. I try to be very gentle with beginners and ratchet up my level of criticism according to their level of attainment. Ives’s brutal critiques were OK in their context, we were very, very serious students. You would put a soldier about to face battle into a boot camp environment, you wouldn’t do it to a class of third graders learning to play kickball.
Q: You focused on the classical techniques and structured drawing under Ives’ instruction – how did you end up settling into your looser New England Impressionist direction? Would you similarly encourage students to begin with a year or two of drawing, especially from life, before moving into color and paint?
A: The classical training from Gammell has been a great aid to me, and I would recommend a student to spend a year or two drawing from life, but also from the cast. Drawing from the cast under the watchful eye of a qualified teacher is the surest way to obtain the ability to see proportions , shapes, and values accurately. The first essential skill is to draw exactly what is before you, it ain’t art, but you need to be able to do it.
Most people hear about cast drawing and dread it, thinking it must be terribly boring and tedious. In my experience though, most people end up enjoying it. From there the student moves up the scale of difficulty through simple still lifes, to heads, to figures. It is ABSOLUTELY essential this be done under a competent instructor! We are blind to the mistakes in our own drawing (otherwise we wouldn’t make them) until we reach a certain level of expertise.
I was studying painting with Ives Gammell, in the summer he left with his top two students for Williamstown, Massachusetts. That being all he had room for in the studios there. My roommate in the Fenway studios, David Curtis, who was from Gloucester and an experienced landscape artist suggested we spend the summer painting outside. I think this was about 1974. I was entranced by it and never stopped. The late Robert Douglas Hunter would come out to my location and teach me routinely. He charged me nothing to do that, and I will be forever grateful. That year, or maybe the next, I saw a retrospective of the recently deceased Aldro T. Hibbard at a gallery in Boston. I was so impressed! A few years later I moved to Rockport and began working to learn the Cape Ann style of painting. There were still a lot of old guys around who would help me, or serve as examples if not mentors.
I stayed on exactly that course for my entire career. I am trying to make the same kind of pictures still, although I hope I have become a little better at it.
Q: Even though you have been painting outdoors for 40 years, you don’t consider yourself a ‘plein air’ painter because you finish much of your work in the studio. Do you go out on location with the intent to finish a painting – or do you expect to finish them in the studio? And when you do finish a painting fully on location, what do you do to quickly capture the light/shadow/color temperature before the conditions change?
A: I don’t meet the criteria used today for a plein air painter, I don’t necessarily work “one shot” and I work on my pictures in the studio, often completely repainting them! I had been painting outside for about twenty years before I heard the words plein air spoken out loud. James Gurney pronounced me a plein air painter at a party long ago , when I showed him slides of my paintings. I knew the word from reading, but had no idea how it was supposed to be pronounced. I just paint outside. And I’m not French.
I stay out on a location much longer than is considered typical today, often as long as five or six hours. I draw for the first hour or more, in paint, not with a pencil. Sometimes I have a fully worked out painting in one transparent color before I allow my self to touch my white. That way I can correct by rubbing back to my canvas. I shove the elements before me around on my canvas until I am happy with my design. I do a lot of arranging and manipulating.
I am making a painting, not copying nature exactly before me, although I do have that ability. Therefore as the light changes I am not terribly bothered by it. I have probably set my shadows in place and won’t alter them as the day proceeds, unless they do something I like better than what I have on my canvas. By the time the light changes significantly I have a good idea what the picture is going to look like. I am not transcribing, I am painting a poem about what I see.
Q: You describe a process of placing several colors next to each other in each space of a painting to create a vibration effect – how do you maintain such a beautiful harmonic balance in your paintings without overwhelming the viewer or creating muddy color?
A: I paint in muddy colors. Most of nature outside is muddy. Imagine a fret-less instrument rather than a guitar, I can play in between the notes. All color, is no color!
I like a painting to be a mix of grave colors and clean saturated color. I do use vibratory color, almost everywhere. If you were to slide a wedding ring across one of my pictures it would nearly always have several different “notes” within it’s circumference. It gives a much more lively look than than painting in flat unvaried tones like a house painter. I try to keep a certain restraint in this, I want the notes to mix at viewing distance, but be visible upon close inspection. Often I am throwing notes of slightly differing colors of the same values on top of each other.
Q: How do we know when we are, as you say, “adding art” to our work?
A: Adding information, or transcribing, doesn’t add art. Making decisions about what the painting should look like does.
• You cannot observe design into a painting.
• The art comes from you, data comes from the world. Ordinary painters look at the landscape and ask, “what does it look like?” Great landscape painters look at nature and ask “what can I make out of this?”
• I want to be a poet, not an accountant. When my paintings fail, it is because they are matter of fact, here’s this, there’s that. I don’t want to be like a realtor saying the obvious “and here’s the bedroom”. I would rather be a suitor, encouraging you to lay down.
Q: You have mentioned that “These are tough times in the art world” – what do you mean by that? Do emerging artists have a chance of making a full-time income in today’s art climate? Are galleries still a valid option for sales or would you recommend other venues? How about owning your own gallery as you did – is that a good way today for emerging artists to ‘make a living’?
A: Since 2007 there it has been much harder to make it as a painter. I think it is getting better though. Art, at least in my world, tends to lag but still track the real estate and construction markets. I think some emerging artists have the chance to make it ( however we define that, it might just be survival) in today’s market. But most underestimate the difficulty.
You have to have the skills AND be entrepreneurial. I learned a lot running my own gallery (which showed only my own work), I think it is a great experience. Most of the time it was profitable. But it is a gamble, expensive, and not a part time job, although it might be seasonal.
Q: I read a few years ago that you mentioned a musician who when asked about another musician would always respond “great artist, I admire his/her work and he/she admires mine!” (something like that – it’s been a couple years since I read it). What is the mindset or mantra that has helped you to keep forging ahead and making a living as an artist?
A: A musician friend of mine knew Muddy Waters. He told me that when Muddy Waters was asked “what do you think of so-and so?” he would always reply. “ He’s a big fan of mine, and I’m a big fan of his!” I think that is clever, and wise.
Mindset….hmm. Lets see. I have always been infatuated with painting and it is always interesting to me. I am lucky in that I have known exactly what I wanted to do since I was a child. I have never done anything else other than a few part time menial jobs as a kid. I have always depended on my painting to live. But, I did fifteen years of no car, no phone, and no bank account when I started out. I never really had any other options, no fall back position. If I didn’t make art and sell it I starved.
I have a number of professional artist friends and we encourage one another, that helps. I don’t compete, I contribute. Others will bring things of value to the table as well. I paint nearly every day, I use an egg timer in my studio and work timed hours, so I don’t get distracted. I work a forty hour week, but it takes me eighty hours a week to do it.
I study books on painters and see as much great art as I can. I don’t have a television and almost never go to movies, I work on my house, but other than that I have no hobbies. I get up every morning and do the art thing, I don’t eat lunch. When it is too dark to paint I make dinner and I go to bed. I get up the next day and do the same thing. I am a bit of a monomaniac.
A Special Note from Stapleton
“Thank you for the opportunity to speak to your students, I hope something in all this verbiage is useful to them. As parting advice I would say to them. Art can be learned, but not easily. This is a commitment test. I was never the promising student in art school. Others were smarter, and more talented. But I stayed when others quit, and I put my art first.” – Stape