For the latest in news, shows, upcoming events, new works, contests and special offerings… sign up today for John’s Newsletter.

John's Blog

Sunday, June 24, 2012

Andy Thomas Interview

I first met Andy Thomas more than 20 years ago while participating in the Midwest Gathering of the Artists Show in Carthage, MO. His talent was obvious, so to see his career explode as it has in recent years as a painter of western themes, well, it's really not that surprising. 
His paintings now garner well into the five figures.

Spirit of the MGA  -  40"x 30"  -  Oil
Thomas captured, in his trademark style, many of the participants in the Midwest Gathering of the Artists Show with whom we became friends. I'm depicted with the highwheeler, indicating my love of cycling.

Mark Smith, co-founder of the Greenhouse Gallery of Fine Art in San Antonio, TX, and exclusive representative of Thomas' work said, "Andy represents one of the most talented and creative painters working today. He has gained wide respect for his portrayal of the horse and its historic role in the old west and, as a result, has become one of the most sought out and collected painters of the historic time period known as the Old West. Collectors respectfully refer to Andy as a great "story teller" and compare his paintings favorably to the works of Remington and Russell. Through his paintings, Andy allows the viewer to be a participant in the scene rather than a spectator".
Bad Whiskey  -  24"x 48"  -  Oil
At the Coeur d' Alene art auction in 2009, this painting set an auction record for Thomas's work, selling for  $110,000

Things could have turned out quite differently. I remember being notified in 1996 that Andy had been injured in an explosion while working in his shop. His hands had been severely damaged. I couldn't believe it, and feared the worst. Later, in an attempt to return to painting prematurely, he further injured his right hand. That's when he took up painting with his left hand, producing some amazing work. Now that both hands are fully healed, he is able to paint equally well with both hands simultaneously while working on two different paintings...doubling his production...just kidding.

Bad Deal  -  24"x 36"  -  Oil

Andy didn't begin his professional career in the fine arts. After graduating from high school, he went to work for Leggett & Platt, Inc. in their Marketing Service Department, an in-house ad agency. During this time he also attended Missouri Southern State College, graduating magna cum laude with a degree in Marketing Management in 1981. Employed for 16 years with the Fortune 500 company, he advanced to become its staff Vice-President before finally resigning his position in 1991 in order to pursue painting full-time.

Grizzly Mountain  -  30"x 40"  -  Oil

I've always accused Andy of having a photographic memory because of his uncanny ability to record things he has seen or experienced. He denies my claim, but there is something extraordinary in his ability to capture a moment in tell a story that is capable of transporting folks to another place and time. If he had lived in the old west, cowboys would have paid him to join them by the campfire and spin a yarn. His vivid memory and imagination enable him to create paintings pregnant with action and drama...paintings sought after by a growing number of collectors.
Desiring to learn more, Andy graciously agreed to an interview which I am pleased to share with you. I think you will find it interesting.

What would be your definition of art?  I gave this a great deal of thought my first year as a full time artist. As I looked around and identified what I thought was art (including architecture, movies, comedians, choreography, etc), they all had two elements. The first was communication. That is, they all had to be received by the viewer or listener. The second was they were original in that there was no formula used. Sometimes I would find myself thinking "Gee, that's great and I don't know why". So, I define art as creative communication. The real question for an artist is, "Who am I wanting to communicate with?"

Horse Thief  -  24"x 36"  -  Oil

You define yourself as a painter of history, how do you go about translating the written account into a fully realized painting?  Painting an actual event is a challenge. If I am true to factual history, many of my creative tools are taken from me. Still, I can be somewhat creative and use my craft and research to produce a work that people appreciate. Historically based paintings that are not a specific event are much easier. I get much of my inspiration from reading personal journals and memoirs of the time because they are full of feeling and impressions.

James Gang  -  24"x 36"  -  Oil

Your western themes have really caught on with collectors, why do you suppose that is?  There's a little boy inside me who wants to be a cowboy someday. I suppose that makes me paint westerns with enthusiasm.

How did you find your individuality as an artist?  By painting many styles and subjects until my own style emerged.

Do you consider the process of painting more important than the result?  No. The final painting is always my ultimate goal. However, I'm always amazed how indifferent I am about a painting that is finished. It is the past and I am looking forward to the next painting. Luckily, my buyers don't feel the same.

Johnny Saved the Girl  -  40"x 30"  -  Oil

Journey to the New Home  -  24"x 36"  -  Oil

What part does photography play in your work?  I use many photos for background reference but really only paint directly from photos for rifles or pistols and sometimes for hands. In the course of painting a figure, I often pose myself and take a photo to check anatomy or clothing wrinkles.

Does plein air painting play a part in your work?  Plein air was one of the many types of painting I did to develop as an artist. I never learned to enjoy it and I only do them now for the fellowship of other artists.

What is the major thing you look for when selecting a subject?  I have learned to fumble around with ideas until one gets me excited. Lots of thumbnails and color studies.

...And the Band Played On  -  36"x 48"  -  Oil

What is your major consideration when composing a painting?  That's tough to answer. I will say this; If my little thumbnail looks like a good composition, the color study will have a good composition as will the finished painting.

How thorough is your initial drawing?  Very, very loose. I really let details emerge and develop as I paint. Sometimes I move arms or legs many times in the process.

A piece currently on the easel shows the initial drawing with grid lines on a toned canvas.

Current work on the easel shows the preliminary color study which has been reversed for the larger work. Also shown is photocopy of study and a preliminary figure study.

Describe your typical block-in technique.  My usual procedure starts by taking a photograph of my color study and printing the image on an 8.5"x 11" paper. I then draw a 16 square grid on the photograph. I prepare my large canvas by staining it with a brown/black mixture (ultramarine blue and transparent red earth). I use the same mixture to brush in a 16 square grid on the canvas and redraw the color study.
At this point, I usually block-in the whole canvas with thin color and soft edges. The washed in canvas should have the correct color, value and composition of the finished painting with no details. I then begin the slow process of finished, detailed painting by working on individual figures or small areas and working around the canvas.

How do you decide the dominating mood for a painting, and how do you maintain it?  My paintings are narrative, storytelling affairs and the mood of the painting is part of the story. The mood is controlled by the choice of light source, the deepness of the shadow areas and the body language and expressions of the figures. Since I use figures often, body language is important. I never paint a man just standing. My men stand in defiance, or in fear, or with boredom, etc. That's what I try to do, anyway.

This is typical of small preliminary color studies Thomas does as preparation for the larger work.

What colors are most often found on your palette?  Ultramarine blue, transparent red earth, Venetian red, cadmium yellow deep and zinc/titanium white are always on my palette. I keep cadmium yellow light and cadmium red available but rarely use them. My vision is color weak so this limited palette suits me.

What are the key points one needs to know when creating a true sense of atmosphere?  Light source, light source, light source.

You have a strong affinity for illustrators of the past, why is that?  I think they were the best artists. They did paintings that fascinate me. They have not had a chorus of art historians promoting them.

So, if you could spend the day with any three artists, past or present, who would they be?  Howard Pyle, Charles Russell and Frederic Remington.

What advice would you have for a young artist/painter?  Here's the best advice that was ever given to me. I asked an artist I greatly admired the same question, hoping he would tell me something like "paint horses, you can make good money painting horses" or "go to this show and you'll sell out". Instead, his answer addressed my artwork; "Whatever you see as your weakness, attack it. For example, if you can't paint hands, practice until you can". I followed his advice. The same artist, when I asked him what was the most important thing about a painting, immediately said, "The reason you wanted to paint it in the first place". Perfect answer. The artist was John Pototschnik.

What advice do you have for a first-time collector?  My experience shows me that people who only buy artwork they personally like are forever happy with their choice. I was always uncomfortable when people looked at my work for decorative or investment reasons. I do know that a painting that you enjoy doesn't require maintenance or your time like so many other things we buy.

When you become discouraged and feel the well is dry, so to speak, what do you do?  I look at other artwork. For instance, I spent a great afternoon the other day making a list of my favorite all-time paintings and printing slick copies of them off the internet. I never really finished the list and before I was done I had ordered two more art books. But I had fun and was ready to paint.

Land of the Apache  -  24"x 36"  -  Oil

Finally, Andy, if you were stranded on an island, which three books would you want with you?  Atlas Shrugged (because of the message and because it would take being marooned to get me the time to reread it), and True Grit (better with each rereading). My third book would be some sort of survival guide so I wouldn't be hungry while reading the other two.

Thanks Andy for a wonderful interview.

Andy will have his first ever one-man show at the Greenhouse Gallery, November 16-30 2012. Twenty-five new pieces will be available for purchase, including works in oil, watercolor, and pen and ink.

Andy Thomas website
Greenhouse Gallery of Fine Art website

If you would like to receive my monthly newsletter, please click HERE.


Sunday, June 17, 2012

The Academy Tradition

Some of the best work being created in figurative painting today is the result of an intensive, systematic, well-planned course of study that could be defined as "academic".

 One of many lithographic prints created by Charles Brague in conjunction  with Jean Gerome .  These plates were copied by beginning academy art students.

For most of the 20th century "academic" was a dirty word. It represented old-school rules, blind followers of the past, resistance to new ideas, labored, formula driven, boring, artificial work with an insistence on a doctrinaire, systematic aesthetic...all a result of academy (art school) training.

Raphael - The School of Athens - 1509 - Fresco

Academies of art have a long tradition. The word itself derives its name from the place near the Acropolis where Plato and his friends met to talk about philosophy. This was the original Grove of Academe and the men who walked under its trees were known as the Academy of Plato.
The word was revived in Renaissance Florence by the Neo-Platonists. The first art academy was probably founded by Vasari in 1563.

Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres - Madame Henri Gouse - 28.74"x 24.41" - Oil - 1845-52

"The Florentine Academy was like Plato's - a group of colleagues coming together to discuss mutual interests. And not only were they advocates of the pursuit of the new knowledge, but they were also against the authoritarian labyrinths of scholasticism and the whole closed society of the Middle Ages. This strong anti-Guild, anti-craft, anti-medieval direction became the politics of the Academy for four centuries, sometimes moving it to establish dogmas whose rigidity and exaggerations can be understood only when the energetic opposition from the Guilds is taken into account.".

There was a belief among the Academicians that art was an intellectual pursuit and every bit as important as the professions of law, medicine and mathematics. As an intellectual pursuit, students were first confronted with abstract ideas such as perspective and anatomical proportions. Only later were students allowed to move on to drawing, painting, etc. 
At the root of the Renaissance Academies was a thorough study of Roman antiquity. Statues from this period were used as models and the most revered artist of the academic tradition was Raphael. 

Jacques-Louis David - The Death of Socrates -  51"x 77.25" - Oil - 1787

"Being intellectual, art should be systematic, the Academicians reasoned; it should be divisible into logical categories and a hierarchy of modes. An order of rank was established with history painting at the top and still-life at the bottom of the ladder. And each aspect of art was studied, separated into its components, analyzed. Artists were taught to draw the parts of the body before they approached the whole figure. They studied the hand, the foot, the mouth, the anatomy of the horse bone by bone and muscle by muscle".

Example of plaster cast

This type of teaching was the norm well into the 1800's, but political turmoil, growing individualism, protests against authority, increasing assertiveness of the masses, even the rise of Impressionism all contributed to the dramatic change in the way artists were trained during the 1900's.

Alexandre Cabanel - Cleopatra Testing Poisons on Condemned Prisoners - Oil - 1887

Sir Lawrence Alma Tadema - The Finding of Moses - 54.13"x 84" - Oil - 1904

Jean-Leon Gerome - The Reception of the Siamese Ambassadors at Fontainebleau - 50.39"x 102.36" - Oil - 1864

R.H. Ives Gammell in his book, Twilight of Painting discusses some of the characteristics of the academic tradition.
  • Strives to convey a sense of the high import of its subject matter
  • Preeminence of historical painting. This sort of painting set out to illustrate narratives presenting man in his heroic aspects, choosing by preference incidents typifying the ever recurring patterns that govern human conduct from age to age. Subjects were usually drawn from the Bible, Greek or Roman literature, or allegory.
  • Insistence upon extraordinary draftsmanship.
  • A thorough knowledge of human anatomy and applied perspective as well as a very broad knowledge of general culture, including history, architecture, and costumes.
  • Strong emphasis on principles of composition.
  • Drawing of the idealized, generalized types rather than specific characteristics.
  • Emphasis upon form rather than color.
  • Workmanship unobtrusive by its very perfection.
Charles Brague - La Sentinelle - 11.02"x 8.27" - Oil - 1876

William Adolphe Bouguereau - Calinerie - 57.09"x 35.83" - Oil - 1890

Today, with an increased interest in reviving some aspects of the academic traditions, many academies of art have blossomed around the world.
What they have in common is a thorough, systematic method of instruction that leads students step-by-step through increasingly more difficult challenges until the work has reached a high level of refinement.
The very nature of the training weeds out the less talented and committed. 

Two points are represented here: drawing from the plaster cast and drawing the image the same size as viewed  using the sight-size method.

Here's a typical curriculum for most art students. This one is from The Florence Academy of Art. They claim their teaching methods are taken from the classical realist tradition, rooted in the Renaissance. By the way, students only advance when they've mastered each challenge...not until.
First Year / Intensive Drawing
Copying 19th century academic drawings created by Charles Brague
Copying plaster casts of antique and Renaissance statues (Focus: outline, proportion, gesture, shadow shape, while using the sight-size method)
Life drawing

Second/Third Year / Painting
(Color progression through monochromatic, limited palette, full palette)
Cast painting 
Figure painting
Still life

Images: Art Renewal Center
The Florence Academy of Art
 Academy of Classical Design
Quotes: The Academy - Art New Annual XXXIII
Reference: R.H. Ives Gammell - Twilight of Painting

If you would like to receive my monthly newsletter, please click HERE.

Coming next week, an interview with Andy Thomas


Sunday, June 10, 2012

Unveiling at the OMOMA

On the scene with your trusty reporter, John Pototschnik

Last night at the Other Museum of Modern Art (OMOMA), a star-studded, capacity crowd anxiously awaited the highly anticipated unveiling of Aire O. Gance's latest masterpiece. Stunned silence, followed by exuberant applause swept over the audience as the highly anticipated, Composition No. LXVIII, was finally unveiled. 
One could hear a pin drop as Mr. Gance spoke.  "This painting represents the culmination of years of effort to create a 'pure painting'...a painting that would provide the same emotional power as a musical composition. An empty space says a lot," he said, "and it says something different to almost every person who looks at it. It represents limitless possibilities and beginnings. Most importantly, the meaning and the emotion is going to be unique to every individual who stands in front of the canvas."

Aire O. Gance  -  Composition No. LXVIII  -  450"x 540"  -  Canvas  -  2012

By choosing to present a blank canvas, Gance is at once saying nothing, while at the same time saying everything.
Well known art critic, Payd de Play, said, "The monumentality of this iconic masterpiece is thoughtfully cradled in a hand crafted 24kt gold leaf frame, perfectly complimenting the purity of this brilliantly white canvas, an expression of an apocalyptic battle that will end in eternal peace...a sort of cosmic vision." Mr. de Play went on to say, "Many of the people in attendance that I have spoken with are stunned by Aire's cunning ability to mine the depths of their consciousness with this insightful work. Mr. Gance's 'inner necessity' to express his emotional perceptions led to the development of his unique style of painting. It's just brilliant, the very pinnacle of Aire O. Gance's career."
E. Lee Tist, editor of Total Vanity magazine, motioned to me from across the room. He was bubbling with enthusiasm, "Isn't this just a fabulous evening?" he asked, "And the painting, my, it's to die for. The whiteness of the canvas beckons us to the white light. Its very luminescence conveys a sense of infinity through the lack of volume and the absence of perspectival illusion. Out of this void, the viewer can sense the rising of the dead."
It was truly a spectacular evening. My head is still spinning in an attempt to decipher the iconography of the work, the key I'm sure, to unlocking the real theme of this painting.

(Many of the comments used to describe, Composition No. LXVIII, are the actual words of various art critics describing other abstract works of art. This further demonstrates a point I often make concerning the importance of clearly communicating what we want to say when we paint. Otherwise, any intelligent sounding interpretation will suffice).

"The supreme tragedy is when theory outstrips performance". - Leonardo da Vinci

If you would like to receive my monthly newsletter, please click HERE


Sunday, June 3, 2012

City Scenes - Our Town and Other Places

Those of us who have had children and now have grandchildren are quite familiar with the question, "Why?"
Most parents remember these seemingly never ending questions: Why is the sky blue? Why do elephants have trunks? Why is the snow white? Why does it thunder? Why is that policeman pulling us over, Daddy? Why can't we go to McDonald's? Why do I have to go to school? Why can't I stick my finger in the light socket? Why can't I wear my camouflage cloths to church? Why can't I go home now?" The questions just keep coming. Sometimes we'd like to say, "Go stick your finger in a light socket".
My latest painting, "Grandpa, Why...?", 14"x 24", Oil on canvas, is a gentle reminder of those times when every question began with, "Why?"...and hopefully we always had a wise and gentle reply. I know I didn't.
The narrative for this painting actually developed during the process of painting it. I think it expands the work and enables the viewer to relate to the piece on several levels.
Below is the process followed in order to bring the painting to completion.
Plein air study used as reference for the larger studio piece. Field studies are typically done on 100% rag paper and sealed with a ground of acrylic gesso. Paper size is 5.5"x 8.5" and the painting area is masked off according to the proportion needed. Each painting includes the following info: upper left tells me where I can locate the photographic reference. Info below the painting gives location, sometimes the direction I was facing, time, date, and abbreviations detailing the palette used. Each of the studies are placed in archival sleeves and filed in three-ring binders...100 per book. I am currently working on the tenth book. 

The palette.

Paint mixtures found in painting.

Canvas is toned with a mixture of ultramarine blue and burnt siena. Lightest areas are rubbed out with a  paper towel. Accurate drawing begins using a soft brush and various mixtures of the above two colors.

Drawing and redrawing continues. Decided to add to the story line through the addition of the  people.

Local color is applied in thin layers.

Getting there.

Grandpa, Why...?  -  14"x 24"  -  Oil on canvas

American Legacy Gallery in Kansas City, MO is hosting, "City Scenes - Our Town and Other Places", during the month of June. The show will highlight the work of several of the gallery artists. If you're in that area, I hope you'll make it a point to go by and see the show.

If you would like to receive my monthly newsletter, please click HERE