Draw up a list of the painters most admired

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1 ARTIST PROFILE T. ALLEN LAWSON A Painter s Painter The subtlety, restraint, and intelligence evident in T. Allen Lawson s landscape paintings result from his use of color charts, videos of the scenes, and lessons learned from great artists of the past Draw up a list of the painters most admired by other painters, and T. Allen Lawson s name is certain to be near the top even though he lives away from the most active art communities, seldom teaches workshops, hasn t produced an instructional DVD, is not an active user of Facebook, and isn t a member of one of the better-known art societies. Lawson s enviable reputation is based almost entirely on the fact that every exhibition of his work creates a buzz that travels with lightning speed from artist to artist and from collector to collector. As reassuring as it may be to know that great painting is still the most important achievement for an artist, one still wants to ask what makes a painting great, or how artists can elevate the content of their pictures to be at once universal and unique. The generalities offered by workshop instructors Find your own vision, Paint your passion, Spend more time looking and thinking than you do painting don t seem adequate when one is searching for a clear path forward. The feeling one has about a scene is far more important than the specific elements within it, Lawson says as he begins to reveal both his thought process and his methods of painting. Instilling a painting with those feelings is a bit like drawing a caricature of a person. Someone like David Levine was able to create marvelous drawings of well-known people that, for all their exaggeration of the facial features and gestures, actually captured their persona better than a photograph. He did that by grabbing the essence of the person, reducing it and exaggerating the most characteristic features, and presenting the caricature as simply as possible. He did the same thing in his wonderful watercolors because he understood that painting is a process of enhancing some visual elements and minimizing others. T. Allen Lawson s studio in Maine, with color charts on the floor and a drawing propped up on a drawing horse. Essence Of The Scene Lawson goes on, I don t go looking for a subject to paint because more often than not, the best ones come to me. I usually make 10, 20, or 30 small thumbnail sketches of a potential subject, only spending about a minute or two on each as I think about the format vertical, horizontal, or square placement of the elements, and cropping of the overall image. I also consider how to reduce or pull areas together, rather than add elements to a painting. The goal is to reduce the scene down to its essence. For me, the feelings I have about a location are more important than the location itself. Understanding that helps me decide how to approach the process of arranging the elements of a painting. Some of the color charts Lawson prepared to help him determine the most appropriate color mixtures when he s painting outdoors or in the studio In recent years I have been making short digital videos of the locations that interest me so I can play them back and recall the sights, sounds, and movements instead of just an image frozen in a photograph or sketch. I also write notes to myself to help me focus on the one salient aspect of a scene that I want to emphasize in a painting. It s all part of a process of shedding the aspects of everyday life, swimming against the stream to get back to the core inspiration. Charting The Landscape One of the most important aspects of Lawson s painting process is his practice of referring to about 20 color charts when painting outdoors or in the studio. Each chart diagrams all the various combinations he can achieve by mixing colors. He explains, The charts show how each of the 15 to 17 tube colors on my palette intermix with each other to establish eight different values, in approximately 160 one-inch squares on each chart. I can pick up a chart to see eight combinations of ivory black 50 October-November 2012 /

2 Prairie Chapel Evening 2010, oil, 24 x 26 in. ARTIST DATA NAME: T. Allen Lawson BIRTHDATE: 1963 LOCATION: Rockport, Maine INFLUENCES: NEED THESE WEBSITE: / October-November

3 ARTIST PROFILE Corralled 2012, oil, 25 x 25 in. good use at the time. A few years ago I realized they would be extremely valuable in gaining greater control over the way oil color conveyed what I felt about a subject. I became obsessed with painting each of the charts and worked on them night and day for three weeks, sometimes having to be reminded to go inside the house to eat or sleep. In the process of making them myself rather than buying a printed set, I learned a tremendous amount about combinations of pigments, as I had to mix each subtle variation. It was like reviewing the vocabulary of color in order to be able to express myself more accurately. Lawson reports that he s spending less time painting outdoors and more time drawing directly from nature another change in his approach to painting. I still enjoy plein air painting and always look forward to participating in events like Maynard Dixon Country in Mt. Carmel, Utah, he says. I also enjoy going back to my home state of Wyoming to paint. However, these days I am more inclined to create drawings and oil sketches outdoors and take those into the studio to use as the basis of large paintings that evolve over weeks and months. The ideas for Lawson s paintings often occur to him as he is considering subject matter that is close to his home in Maine; it s almost as if the locations tell him what to paint, rather than his making a conscious decision to focus and warm sepia, ivory black and yellow ochre, ivory black and cadmium yellow, etc., and each square is labeled to identify the two colors and the numbered value i.e., IBYO2, IBYO3, etc. As I study a scene and hold up the charts, I can determine the best combination of pigments to represent what I see and feel about the buildings, trees, roads, streams, or whatever else populates the landscape. Similarly, I can use the charts to adjust the specific hue, intensity, and value of areas within a painting. I made a similar set of charts when I was studying at the American Academy of Art in Chicago in the 1980s, but I didn t put them to Brooklyn Bridge 2002, oil, 7 x 10 in. Plein air 52 October-November 2012 /

4 These graphite and oil sketches are all preliminary plein air studies used in the studio to create the painting Wracked. / October-November

5 ARTIST PROFILE Wracked 2010, oil, 36 x 40 in. 54 October-November 2012 /

6 The Release of Winter 2011, oil, 24 x 40 in. on a particular scene. Quite often the motivation for a painting comes from my trying to understand what I see, Lawson says. For example, I wanted to get to know more about particular species of trees near my home, and it was almost as if nature told me I had to look closely at the bark to understand the character of those trees. I didn t expect to create a series of vertical paintings of close-up studies of five different species, but something told me that was the way to understand and respect them. Texture & Visual Interest Lawson often textures his canvases with layers of lead white oil paint and, after allowing the ground to dry, sands or scrapes the surface. He may tone the whole canvas, or start working on the white surface as he loosely blocks in the large shapes. If the scene includes architectural forms, he may draw the edges of those forms so the perspective is correct. As he continues painting smaller shapes, he makes refinements and adjustments, manipulating the oil colors by laying them on the canvas in thick strokes, drawing or scraping lines into the wet pigment, or finding other ways to add texture. I use the charts to determine the most appropriate combination of pigments, he says, and then I work the surface of the wet oil color to add more visual interest in the painting. The initial big shapes that I paint are the strength and backbone of a painting composition, and the surface is part of what will convey some of my feelings about the subject. I remember seeing a Whistler painting at the Sterling and Francis Clark Institute in Williamstown, Massachusetts, and remember that he tried to get the painting to look like breath on glass. He scraped and brushed the paint so much that it hardly seemed present, and when I stood close to his painting, the subject seemed to disappear. However, when I stepped back, I sensed everything Whistler loved about his subject, and I understood that the variations in paint handling are as important as the identifying elements of a subject. That s part of the magic of painting. Lawson goes on, Like most artists, I am thinking about the difference between painting and creating a piece of art. I keep looking at work by the artists I admire, those pictures that grab me the minute I walk into the gallery of a museum. I try to understand why I respond so strongly to those paintings. There is never just one reason, and that s part of the reason I keep going back to look at those masterpieces. M. Stephen Doherty is Editor of PleinAir magazine. See more of T. Allen Lawson s plein air and studio paintings in the expanded digital edition of PleinAir. / October-November

7 Expanded Digital Edition Content ARTIST PROFILE Feathers to Feed 2011, oil, 30 x 30 in. October-November 2012 /

8 A study for Release of Winter 2011, charcoal on vellum, DIMENSIONS. Plein air Wyoming Cottonwood 2012, graphite on paper, 30 x 22 in. Plein air The Return Home 2012, oil, 30 x 21 in. Collection the artist / October-November 2012

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