Sunday, August 28, 2016

Local Art Seen & Heard: Jeffrey Larson @ the Tweed

Larson Self Portrait
As I drove to the Tweed to hear Classical Impressionist painter Jeffrey Larson give a talk on "Training the Eye to See," I wondered to myself how many people would be there for a two hour mid-afternoon presentation on the last weekend of summer. A delay getting out of the house resulted in my arriving just as Bill Shipley introduced the speaker with the words, "We are privileged to have an artist of Mr. Larson's caliber here in our community."

This year the Tweed Museum of Art on the UMD campus had a major facelift. When they re-opened in June Jeffrey Larson's impressive exhibition titled "Domestic Space" occupied a good portion of the gallery's lower level. It's a great kickoff for the art school this classically trained painter is opening in two weeks with his son. The exhibition is on view until September 18, 2016, with thirty exquisite works that illustrate the concepts he presented in his talk yesterday.

As soon as he met the podium the guy gushed enthusiasm for his subject matter. At least a hundred seats had been set up and not one was empty. Most impressive, beyond the size of the turnout, was the level of engagement once the Q&A commenced. There was nothing stodgy happening here, no polite erudite prattle. Rather, we were treated to a discourse on love, the love of learning to see like an artist, to fine tune one's perceptions to observe as an artist observes.

Mr. Larson opened by stating that eyes take in information from the day we're born, but we don't know what we are seeing. We must learn to recognize what we're seeing, what is hard, soft, safe, reliable. When we become classical-style artists, what is important is learning to see truthfully, and marry it to an artistic sensibility. This childlike way of seeing involves simplifying shapes and colors into forms, puzzle pieces. We're translating three dimensional reality onto a two dimensional surface. To do this we break our observations into patterns.

It is essential that we learn "how to see correctly, then reproduce it on canvas," he said. We're not copyists. Rather, we're translators.

The artist brought with him numerous examples of early and previous work to illustrate his various ideas. The first of these was a painting of a sculpture in black and white. He pointed out how lines became reference points as he attempted to mimic what he saw on the canvas. He noted how he had blocked in the shapes and identified the value structure, showing the manner in which light hit the sculpture and produced brighter places and where the shadow formed where light is absent.

"Accuracy is the aim," he explained. "Reproducing reality by breaking it dow to key components. Reproducing beauty is far more difficult than it looks."

At this point Mr. Larson made a really significant statement. He said that people tend to keep doing what they are good at when they ought to be developing the skills which they are lacking, to develop the areas where they are lagging. I would suggest that this applies not only to artists, but to all aspects of life, from careers to hobbies to relationships.

To see as an artist means to be fascinated with light.
He talked a bit about the impressionist movement in Europe. The catalyst, we learned, was the invention of paint in tubes which enabled artists to bring their paints to lakes and parks and other outdoor settings. He then shared an example of his own work painted plein air, and told how it came about. The subject matter: a small birch tree with a few other trees in the midst of a field against the backdrop of a forest. In point of fact, there were more trees and shrubs than he painted, but he edited them out, just as I am editing out details about the 100+ people who craned their necks to see the highlights he was pointing out. "We as artists make choices as to what we want to present," he said. As artists explore subjects "it's more about problem solving. The joy of painting is discovery."

After sharing his son's growth from subject matter to young artist he closed by commenting on how to respond to art, whether it be Bach or Van Gogh. "Artists should be judged by their intent. We should ask, 'What was he trying to do?'"

* * * *
A question and answer period followed. Questions came fast from all parts of the audience.

Q: How do you realistically paint flesh and skin tones?
A: Skin tones are a challenge to make look alive. It's key to see those colors accurately.

Q: How do you capture shadows properly as the sun moves (when painting outside)?
A: Paint fast. Or come back each day at the same time. (At this point he explained the importance of recognizing where the bright spots are in a scene or on an object.)

Q: Do you do underpainting?
A: Sometimes. To work out shapes and color values.

Q: Are you willing to analyze the waterfalls painting behind you?
A: This is a staggering scene. The artist did a series of small paintings live and brought them back to the studio. Until you try something like this you'll never realize how difficult something like this is.

A question was asked about his development as an artist. He said he always drew and liked it. If you're going to make it you must work hard.

A question was asked about definitions. He said a copyist is one who copies other paintings. A classical realist is a term coined by Richard Luck pertaining to art created pre-photography. Mr. Larson calls classical impressionism "honest seeing."

Going into detail about his first monochromatic painting of a statue.
He was asked for more details about the school he is starting. He replied that it is called the Great Lakes Academy of Fine Art. It is located in the former St. Peter's Church at 818 West Third Street. The school's aim is to pass on the craft thru many generations. The first classes open in two weeks with six students lined up at this point. He will be doing a live painting at the school on September 10.

Another questioner noted that there's been research that showed how original paintings signed by the artist produce serotonin in people when they own them. It helps counter the "depersonalization syndrome" in our tech culture.

Jeffrey Larson laughed and said he would use that in marketing his paintings.

Another question had to do with the loss classical skills. He, being a photographer, has observed that many schools and college art departments have deep sixed their darkrooms. The process of developing film is becoming a lost art.

Q: What's the difference between talent and artistry?
A: He responded with the illustration of Wayne Gretzky. He had talent but it had to be developed. Artistry has to do with choices.

Last Q: Why do you paint with oils?
A: Oil painting offers more versatility.

I'm confident that the time at the Tweed was a rewarding two hours well spent for all who attended. And I would agree with Mr. Shipley's introductory comment at the beginning. I have a feeling we will all be enriched by Mr. Larson's decision to establish his school here.   

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