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 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 myself 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 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
Please comment below and thank Stape for sharing his talents and insights with us!
Stapleton Kearns is one of todays true living masters of oil painting. I feel so humbled and fortunate for his generous offer to speak with our art community. Every time I see his work I want to rush to the easel to see if I can make something beautiful like that. He is an artists’ artist.
I hope you have been as inspired as I have been by his paintings and philosophy about getting in front of the easel every day. Make sure you visit his blog (link above) – it is chock full of some of the best art advice you will find.
You may also want to check out another fantastic artist we got to interview – Bill Anton, a celebrated Western Artist.
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Es español, por favor!!!!!
Dear , mr . Innman, I have read your interview with , mr. Stapleton, He seems like a very dediicated , and diciplined craftsman. The examples of his paintings bring me to places I have newer seen. They have a yearning , even , lonely quality to them, yet dont demand any thing, but just to BE. The movement of the season, or the water and wind , suggests, imminent CHANGE.
Thank you for your enlightening postings.
Thank you Elizabeth for your elegant response! I have admired Stapleton’s work for many years. I remember seeing ads in the magazines back in the 90’s and enjoying the beauty of his paintings then. I was thrilled when he agreed to the interview. I knew he would have tremendous insights to share with our community.
I’ve admired Mr. Kearns since I first began painting 6 years ago. I think the statement he makes about making a painting, not recording reality is so true and a major roadblock to greatness.
I agree Kittie – that’s one of our primary goals – to help artists break away from the constraints of the camera and explore with creative imagination and “poetry”.
Many thanks to both you and Stape, Bill!! I do so appreciate his comments and found them very inspiring. His paintings are really lovely and very inspiring as well. I think it is noteworthy that he has devoted his time and attention to his art, as we sometimes take it for granted and don’t realize that talent needs to be developed. Kudos to you both!! I’m starting out late in life and at 63, I fully appreciate the value of time well spent:)
I loved Stapleton’s attitude toward art. “What can I make out of this?” , is my motto when I paint anything. Break rules and be serious about it!! Thank you Bill for providing this interview.
No doubt Spike! There are no boundaries beyond the ones we make ourselves. Onward and upward, eh.
Marvelous interview with a great artist. Insightful message to those of us who paint at every level. Thanks
I’m so glad you enjoyed it Jennie – I agree wholeheartedly!
Thank you for posting this conversation with Stapleton and of course, including these paintings. I am extremely inspired by his work and much of his comments. I especially am driven by his phrase – “The art comes from you, the data comes from the world.” His paintings showing here have nostalgic value to me as I have either lived there or have warm memories of being there. I am 66 years old and just this year truly finding time to put all of me into painting with gusto and this interview with a magnificent artist is such a learning tool for me. Thanks to you, Bill, and of course, to Stapleton whose information is greatly valued.
What an exciting time Cathie to be so young and have the opportunity to “put all of me into painting with gusto.” You couldn’t have picked a better time in history to delve into painting with all the wonderful resources available today for learning and inspiration. 50 years ago 66 might have seemed old, but today you have the possibility of decades of good painting years ahead. Just think of all the incredible things you can accomplish in that time.
Thank you, Stapleton Kearns and Bill Inman for sharing your insights and wisdom. I love Stape’s matter of factness and have held a similar internal dialogue regarding art marketing verbiage: I.e., what’s the big thing about “plein air”, since I love to paint outside anyway and just do it…. and I’m not French! Lol. Love the ‘fullness’ and ‘polish’ of Kearn’s paintings shown here. It does the natural landscape full justice! – six versus just 2 hours certainly seems to give back the investment of work and studied experience!
Spot on Renate! Back in the 90’s and early 2000’s it seemed that so many thought plein air was about a certain look or direction – that always rubbed me the wrong way. I have been painting on location since the early 80’s and never felt compelled to seek a ‘plein air’ look. I love that Stapleton doesn’t concern himself with stereotypes or definitions – he simply paints what he loves in the way he feels inspired to paint. A wise path for each of us to follow – that’s also why he is a master of his craft.
I am quickly chasing 90 years and have just had my big “light bulb” moment. Your interview with Mr. Kearns was “enlightening”. I have been painting for many years and always kept an extremely clean palette. Throw away the cleaning rags! Seriously, I’m going to play around with
muddy colors as I’m looking at the grass and trees in a completely different way. What a great artist and interesting way of putting the colors
together. Isn’t life great? So much art to enjoy. Thank you for your interview.
Of all your interviews this I have liked the best. He makes wonderful comments and then jars me using the word ” ain’t”.. . his verbiage has the same small surprises as his vibrantly wonderful paintings. It isn’t mentioned , but it seems he has no time for family. I think he would be an interesting person down with for a chat.
Thank you Bill for interviewing and sharing great artists’ insights through Blank Canvas. Thank you Stapleton Kearns for granting an interview with Bill. I will remember to ask myself, “Am I just recording data or am I adding art to my work.” Thank you, again!
Bill thank you for interviewing wonderful artists for Blank Canvas who enlighten and touch us, not only with their work, but with their thought process. Thank you Stapleton Kearns for sharing your insights, experiences and your love of painting poetry. It enriches us all.
You, Stapleton Kearns, are my most favorite artist. I love your paintings, but most of all I love who you are as a painter. You are so sharing and giving. I love reading your blogs over and over. It has been one of my greatest wishes to one day study with you or just watch you paint. It would be a great honor to own one if your paintings. Maybe one day. Thank you for sharing yourself with the world.
Thank you Bill for this interview. Thank you Stape for agreeing to the interview. Stape, you continue to amaze. I have followed your blog since its inception. It was always the first “read” of the morning for me. Now I reread specific sections or topics when I need a Stape-fix. Stape challenges my thinking in his blog and honest and respectful in his critiques. Bill’s critiques actually reminded me of Stape’s critiques in his blog. I don’t miss Bill’s monthly critique webinars, just the deadlines for submissions! So, my gratitude to you both as you continue to inspire this painter to keep going.
Ah an excellent interview and posting of such “poems”. Rigorous, thought stimulating, and the glimmer of understanding about this whole painting thing. Thank you so much Stapleton Kearns, for speaking with our audience, and to our collective artist souls. Thank you also Mr. Inman for sharing.
Stapleton Kearns is the real deal. I do not know another painter out there who does not work harder. Thank you Stapleton.
I thoroughly enjoyed the interview with Stapleton Kearns, Thank you for these opportunities to hear first hand the priorities and wisdom from long time painters like Kearns. His discipline of painting hours put me to shame, My favorite comment was that he is not trying to record data, but instead, do artwork. His art speaks loudly. Thank you for doing these canvas interviews. They are inspiring and help me know what areas I need to work harder,
Thanks Stape… yes, very helpful. Love that you do t compete, you contribute. Thanks Bill for this interview.
What a wonderful interview. Thanks so much to both of you for sharing your conversation. I loved seeing the photos of Stapleton’s work, full of rich color and each one telling its own story.
The two things that hit home for me were 1. his complete and utter focus on his work and 2. describing himself as a poet, seducing his viewers.
Each of us has to get past the “real estate” phase of painting, but, speaking as an “organic” artist, with no formal art education, it makes sense to start there and take a disciplined approach to painting until you have the skill and confidence to create your own “poetry”.
Ahh Very inspiring indeed. Seeing his paintings was truly breathtaking and his guiding comments to the past and porspective students were cutting edge unique and helpful.
Thank you both for the very inspiring interview. I really can’t add anything else that others haven’t already mentioned.
Would like to comment on your paintings though, as I only wish I could get the feeling in my paintings as you do – amazing. I’m going to be trying out some of your suggestions and will see how it works out for me.
Sir, thank you for arrangement of the interview with gratitude for the artist.