Self-proclaimed landscape painter Stapleton Kearns is a student of the atelier of Ives Gammell and now a teacher himself. What follows is an excerpt from an interview conducted in 2017 discussing Stape’s style, inspiration, and teachings.
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Alan Perlstein, Terry Hamann, and the Lily Pad | West Staff
Ives Gammell was known for his honest critiques and for not sparing any students’ feelings as a teacher. How did that affect you, and since you have been teaching workshops for decades, what have you found to work well when critiquing art?
“I went to high school in a boarding military academy, (although I didn’t finish there) and I was used to that sort of discipline and pedagogy. When I got to Ives, he wasn’t the first teacher of that sort I had met. He was on the old Edwardian model of teaching, and most of his students had never been exposed to it.”
“When critiquing students I try to never “bite” anyone. I am naturally a bit scary, so they show up worried that I will. However, I do point out anything that I see as a fault. I often begin by telling students that “ I am critiquing something you have made, it is not you”. I try to be very gentle with beginners and ratchet up my level of criticism according to their level of attainment. Ives’s brutal critiques were OK in their context, we were very, very serious students. You would put a soldier about to face battle into a boot camp environment, you wouldn’t do it to a class of third graders learning to play kickball.”
Even though you have been painting outdoors for forty years, you don’t consider yourself a ‘plein air’ painter because you finish much of your work in the studio. Do you go out on location with the intent to finish a painting – or do you expect to finish them in the studio? And when you do finish a painting fully on location, what do you do to quickly capture the light/shadow/color temperature before the conditions change?
“I don’t meet the criteria used today for a plein air painter, I don’t necessarily work “one shot” and I work on my pictures in the studio, often completely repainting them! I had been painting outside for about twenty years before I heard the words plein air spoken out loud. James Gurney pronounced me a plein air painter at a party long ago , when I showed him slides of my paintings. I knew the word from reading, but had no idea how it was supposed to be pronounced. I just paint outside. And I’m not French.”
“I stay out on a location much longer than is considered typical today, often as long as five or six hours. I draw for the first hour or more, in paint, not with a pencil. Sometimes I have a fully worked out painting in one transparent color before I allow myself to touch my white. That way I can correct by rubbing back to my canvas. I shove the elements before me around on my canvas until I am happy with my design. I do a lot of arranging and manipulating.”
“I am making a painting, not copying nature exactly before me, although I do have that ability. Therefore as the light changes I am not terribly bothered by it. I have probably set my shadows in place and won’t alter them as the day proceeds, unless they do something I like better than what I have on my canvas. By the time the light changes significantly I have a good idea what the picture is going to look like. I am not transcribing, I am painting a poem about what I see.”
You describe a process of placing several colors next to each other in each space of a painting to create a vibration effect – how do you maintain such a beautiful harmonic balance in your paintings without overwhelming the viewer or creating muddy color?
“I paint in muddy colors. Most of nature outside is muddy. Imagine a fretless instrument rather than a guitar, I can play in between the notes. All color, is no color!”
“I like a painting to be a mix of grave colors and clean saturated color. I do use vibratory color, almost everywhere. If you were to slide a wedding ring across one of my pictures it would nearly always have several different “notes” within its circumference. It gives a much more lively look than painting in flat unvaried tones like a house painter. I try to keep a certain restraint in this, I want the notes to mix at viewing distance, but be visible upon close inspection. Often I am throwing notes of slightly differing colors of the same values on top of each other.”
How do we know when we are, as you say, “adding art” to our work?
“Adding information, or transcribing, doesn’t add art. Making decisions about what the painting should look like does. You cannot observe design into a painting. The art comes from you, data comes from the world. Ordinary painters look at the landscape and ask, “what does it look like?” Great landscape painters look at nature and ask “what can I make out of this?” I want to be a poet, not an accountant. When my paintings fail, it is because they are matter of fact, here’s this, there’s that. I don’t want to be like a realtor saying the obvious “and here’s the bedroom”. I would rather be a suitor, encouraging you to lay down.”
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