by Curt Hawkins
Watching Colleen Howe set up her easel during the “wet paint” painting session is a defining moment. I get it. On the spot painting. I watch Colleen Howe squeezing tubes of oil onto her palette, squinting into the distance. She is soon immersed in her personal world. The painting that she is working on will go on sale within hours, thus, wet-painting. On the spot painting means making art, not subjects.
“On the spot painting” is the subject of Utah artist Kate Starling and Colorado artist Len Chmiel’s joint presentation this weekend at Maynard Dixon Country, the annual event held in the remote town of Mount Carmel that was home to the artist.
Viewing Kate Starling’s sketchbook one can see just the suggestion of the subject. She prefers “painting every day outdoors, sun, rain, wind,” always considering how to see her subject — not the whole, but what is compelling, the play of light, or how a cloud causes the slot canyon to melt into shadow. Obviously, the process can only take place outside, on the ground. On the spot painting is also about on the spot knowledge. Len Chmiel says that “while painting water, it isn’t a bad thing to be a fly fisher, no better way to study water. Then interpret your own authenticity.” Kate Starling says that after composing a subject, she likes to do something to surprise herself. But you can only do it if you are not mesmerized by the subject. The former National Park Ranger’s knowledge of geology is something she falls back on without thinking about it at all.
Knowledge is a tool, but not the goal. In the gallery catalogue for the event Susan Bingham quotes Chmiel: “ I used to try to control everything but now I allow my intuition to speak more. I try to stretch the truth of what the actual image is. I never wind up with a real representation. I do things that are recognizable, yes, but I have a much different intention.” The stretching of the truth includes multiple photographs of his unfinished painting, and using Photoshop to see if he should go bigger, or maybe tweak the tone a little. “ I look for the abstraction in the subject; I have to satisfy my own curiosity,” he says. “Sometimes [the Photoshopped image] helps me see what shouldn’t be there. [It] saves me a lot of scraping.”
One wouldn’t say the artists gathered around Starling and Chmiel are incredulous when Chmiel mentions the use of Photoshop, but some do turn to each other as if to say, “Did he really say ‘Photoshop’?” He did.
“I might take 3 or 4 images and stack the buggers up to see if I missed something. Look, I have close to 1500 pieces of art sold and hanging out there. I use every tool that I can when I’m in the field, but I still have to bring the painting or sketch in. And finish it to my specifications. We’re lying anyhow — so what is the difference.” He has shaken up the 100 or so artists gathered, and ends his statement: “Photos have detail in them — at times I only have 45 minutes out there ’on the spot.’ I don’t go for perfection out there. My favorite position at all times is “What if?” And Photoshop allows me to take the chance without all of the sketching. I do all of my drawing with my brushes and raw paint anyway. And I want to find a way to get more and more paint on the canvas any damn way that I can.” Starling does not use photos extensively, but does create abstract sketches, and if there is a photo of the subject, she uses it for shadowing, and to correct the many changes of light that take place in the field.
It is 4:15 in the afternoon. We sit on the back patio of Maynard Dixon’s home, restored by Paul and Susan Bingham. There is a pale flash of lightning. Over 100 of us have been here for an hour and a half. It rains a little bit, no one leaves their seats. Altogether there are 34 artists here of national and international repute. Add to this the art lovers, students and collectors and we are, in the best sense of the overused word, a “village.”
Starling and Chmiel continue their presentation.
From the audience: “How do you know when a painting is done?”
Starling: “When you look at the painting and start taking paint off.”
Chmiel: ”Look at the painting and know this, that you shouldn’t add salt to every thing. And make sure that you got a nice big set of clouds and some teepees in the thing.”
We laugh, and the sun comes out, backlighting the cottonwoods.
Chmiel: “Here’s a message about the importance of being an artist. Everything that we use today started in the head of an artist. The design, the beauty of the car or other item that we use. Artists are more a part of everything that is used in America than we think. This is my life’s work and probably yours.”
From the audience: “Do you consciously seek painting in a certain style. A lot of painters have trademark styles?”
Kate Starling: “ I honestly can say no. There’s enough going on, on the spot, that you don’t think about it. Maybe that’s what someone might see as technique.”
Chmiel: “Now we are back to authenticity. I am not trying to be John Singer Sargent, as much as I admire his work. Style evolves over time. Just do the work. I earned a living as an industrial illustrator. I sold small water colors in the lunch room for $5.00. When I got enough money I went on my own. I paint for myself. You paint for yourself.”
Starling: “We have to mention our early work and how you build a foundation of skill and knowledge. And that foundation changes, grows. It happens over time just being yourself.”
Chmiel: “Maynard Dixon started as an advertising illustrator, he gained a work ethic. He also had mentors. Mine was Don Putnam. But I’ll tell you the thing that stays with me now was his attitude toward life. The great joy. I gained great joy with Don and joy was a huge part of his artistic vision.”
Starling: “Maynard had his own vision. And you can see it in his style. Keep being yourself. I learned this from Maynard. But my style is totally mine, not his. It is my own. I keep being myself. And I will always keep doing this.”
Chmiel’s concluding thoughts sum up the feeling of the group. “We’ve enjoyed this. We hope that our art work is so good that it brings you to your knees.”