T. Allen Lawson is one of the most admired realist painters in the world today. Two weeks ago, my daughter Danni and I drove 9 hours to see his show opening at the Booth Western Art Museum. I highly recommend you see the show before it ends April 28th.
Lawson and his wife Dore lived in Maine, but his roots were in Wyoming where he grew up. He now has a studio in both states. That’s one of the reasons you’ll see paintings that reflect such diverse subjects.
The constant is Lawson’s ability to capture reality in an understated and powerful way.
Last summer on my way back from the Plein Air Show at the Broadmoor Hotel I detoured down to the Prix de West show. Photos I had seen of Lawson’s work in some past show catalogs and on the internet made me a fan of his work. The photos did not do justice to the real thing.
Look at the paint texture in his work up-close. Since photos can make his work look smooth and blended you rarely get to see the texture if you’re not there in person.
His values and colors are spot on, and he makes it look effortless. That illusion takes immense thought and focus to design each element, so we question none of it. It simply feels right.
There’s nothing flashy about his paintings – they don’t need to be. Each painting tells its story quietly and irresistibly draws in the viewer. His images become icons of American life without forcing the viewer to draw conclusions or take sides.
Looking at The Nursery Tree you’ll feel the cold and think you’re standing there with him. Fortunately, this painting won the purchase prize at the Prix de West in 2017 so it is on display at the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum permanently. It was a joy to see it again at the Booth show.
He Taught Me A New Technique
Danni and I had a great time listening to Lawson as he described his paintings and the thought process behind them.
What was really exciting though, is that I learned a new technique.
I wondered how he painted some of the delicate thin lines. He told us he uses graphite and charcoal pencils. He simply draws through the wet paint. Once everything dries he sweeps off any excess charcoal dust and the carbon fuses permanently to the paint.
That seemed so reasonable and simple and yet the idea had never crossed my mind. Maybe that’s because I have so much fun with brushes. Still, it’s something I plan to experiment with soon.
Plein Air vs Studio Painting
Last week’s blog described my transition to more and more studio painting after years of plein air work. Lawson had a similar journey.
He doesn’t use a lot of photography, but he felt too rushed on location to capture the color nuances and realism he saw. So, much like George Carlson, he goes on location now to take notes. He sometimes does drawings and studies, but much of his paintings are from direct observation, memory, and his detailed notes.
He also likes to bring the outside into his studio.
Which is why it was incredible to see that his entire Bark series was there.
To create the paintings, he cut an equal length section out of 5 different trees on his Maine property and brought them into his studio. He then painted each one from life.
The series is now part of the prestigious Tia Collection.
Two Stand Out Pieces – A Master of Design
Lawson is a master of design. His paintings lead the viewer and tell a story without unnecessary detail or confusion. His edges are beautifully rendered so that objects feel natural – he avoids stiff photographic lifelessness.
He’s known for telling artists to slow down and take time to ponder and think. You can see easily that he follows his own advice.
Notice in the detail above, the use of broken brush texture mixed with sharper lines. He also uses those lines to direct the viewer around the painting and to the center of interest – the satellite dish.
The brightest and warmest highlight is also near the center of interest – the thin edge of the wall that’s catching the light.
In Giant White Lawson used the graphic contrast of a darker blue sky against the bright harmony of warm yellows and oranges to help the barn feel larger than life. When I look at the barn I can’t help but think of a protective patriarch.
And those chickens the barn protects are sprinkled around in a way that guides the viewer into the painting and right to the door of the barn.
Mosaic Exploration of Color
One of the fascinating surprises was Lawson’s large mosaic.
He told us that his color charts were getting worn out and needed to be updated. Rather than approaching them the traditional way he borrowed from Chuck Close’s portraits and decided to do a landscape color chart.
When standing close to Tim’s mosaic painting all you see are 11,000 small squares of color. He said that he mixed each square individually and used a custom palette knife to apply the paint.
Notice that the colors are flat – no striation or value changes within each color.
When you walk down the hall a dozen yards and turn around the image takes shape.
He said he learned more about color from that experience than he had from 30 years of painting.
Now, I much prefer to see the subtlety in his traditional paintings, but that mosaic was a feat of painting genius. To hold everything together while combining 11,000 individual squares of color is dizzying.
I’m not sure I would have the patience to attempt such a monumental puzzle, but I may try some smaller pieces to increase my understanding of color relationships.
One of the perks of being there for the opening was getting one of my show catalogs signed. I’m not too worried about increasing the value of the catalog. My thought was for my grandkids and beyond. I want them to know that I believe there is great value in getting outside ourselves and learning from every good source we can. Or, as my high school English teacher loved to say, it’s important to “keep expanding my pitifully narrow horizons.”
I hope you have a chance to see T Allen Lawson’s show. You’ll be glad you did.
If you know of other opportunities around the country to see exceptional shows and artwork let our community know in the comments below.
Here’s to brilliantly expanding horizons!
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