It was one of those last minute events, one you had no idea was coming and no clue what you were about to experience. As I’ve found often throughout my life, one thing leads to another and many times to the unknown. I received an email on a Saturday evening from one of my students inviting me to join them the next morning to drive to Wausau, Wisconsin to see an American impressionists show. I hesitated since it is the dead of winter here and the three hour drive from Minnesota through Wisconsin seemed less than desirable this time of year, but decided I might as well go.
Doing no research on the show, I was not aware that the pieces I was about to see in person were from the exact lineage I’ve been studying the past twenty plus years, and now pass along to my students. The show was titled American Impressionism – The Lure of the Artists’ Colony and was mounted at the little known, Leigh Yawkey Woodson Art Museum. The show consisted of 54 pieces from some of the most highly respected American Impressionist painters. The gang was all there! If it weren’t Chase, Henri, Hawthorne, Beaux, or Twachtman, they were their students. The significance of this collection to painters today including my students and to me personally, is monumental.
Moving through the museum from piece to piece and feeling the cohesive “awesomeness,” I turned the corner and straight ahead was a large vertical painting by Charles W. Hawthorne, A Study Of A Woman In White. Respectfully signed on the front left bottom corner, “To My Master, W.M. Chase, C.W. Hawthorne.” Hawthorne painted this in 1900. This was only the fifth time in my life that I was moved to tears by the power of being in the presence of a painting. The painting was radiant with the subject, the light, the paint, and the continuity of the legacy of his teacher, Chase. All of those elements, combined with curiosity of the artist made this piece “authentic for me.”
Moving through the museum from painting to painting, studying the strokes of color juxtaposed against each other and reading the artists’ stories and struggles, I came to a new level of understanding of artistic authenticity. All the paintings in the museum were here for a good reason. Each piece was authentic in its own right. The body of work was cohesive in its strength and no two painters were alike. Each artist was honest in their own brush strokes, their own struggles, and their own curiosity; not attempting to paint like another. It was clear to me, there were no tricks or shortcuts in this room and in these great works of art. The painters were clearly knowledgeable about craft and technique and had studied the artists that went before and were firmly grounded in the fundamentals of painting, and so displayed, by their knowledge, the legacy of those who preceded them.
It seems through this lifelong process of painting, there are constant new epiphanies and deeper levels of learning and understanding that occur at different phases in our journey. This day in the museum, I experienced a new found clarity standing amongst this display of works: they were connected to all the bits and pieces I’ve been collecting throughout the years of struggles and triumphs as a student, painter, and teacher. I often hear from my students that they want to paint a certain way, or they want me to show them “how to paint a tree or a branch.” I tell them, there are no secrets or shortcuts to this. If they are curious enough, they will go study a tree branch and try it over and over again until they have found their own way to say it with paint. That’s how the stroke becomes authentic and yours. I was never taught how to paint a tree branch, I was taught the fundamental elements and to practice them daily. It is the endless curiosity that has taught me how to paint a tree branch.
For the student painters out there, be curious and let yourself explore. Paint what you love and are interested in painting. Don’t be so concerned with the finished product; it so often gets in the way of growth and progress. Set aside the fear of not being good enough, as it truly take a lifetime. And that’s a good thing! If we were as good as we were going to be today, why paint tomorrow?! There’s always something so wonderful to look forward to. The painting is not a product, but possibly a record of the process, and isn’t the process truly the Art? If you do the hard work and allow yourself to be present in the process of painting, your authenticity will surface on the canvas through your paint. Look at the display of our contemporaries and the great ones who painted before us. Study and try to figure out what the differences are between the ordinary and the extraordinary. We have such easy access today to both originals and online images.
After leaving the museum and going home, there was one painting I couldn’t get off my mind. It was a piece by John F. Carlson titled Snowy Waters. I couldn’t stop thinking about his control and use of color and the glow he achieved. Knowing that the show was only going to be there another two weeks, I called the museum and set up a time with the curator to go back to the museum with my paints and paint box and do a color study of the painting. Most museums are very accommodating to artists to study paintings as long as you call ahead and arrange a time. They only required I stand on a drop cloth. Understandable, but I was more concerned with tripping on the fabric beneath my feet than I was with spilling on the floor.What I learned from this study was priceless and my respect for his work just grew even deeper.
I always thought his book was a little dry for the reading but had good technical information. Goes to show, we are only ready for what we are ready for at the time. I’ve since reread his book and think he’s brilliant. When you stand right in front of an old Master’s painting and study his/her work, you feel as though you’re working with them in person, their voice and language is right there in paint – teaching you. My focus was on the tight value and color range he achieved, not his brushwork, although interesting. His brushwork is his and would be a waste of my time trying to copy. His manipulation of color relativity and control of range was genius! My burning curiosity to learn from this painting lead me back to the museum to study from this great painter, the same curiosity that continues to lead me through this journey called painting.