Robert Douglas Hunter | Artist of the Week

If there were a brick-and-mortar educational art institution called “The Boston School,” Robert Douglas Hunter would surely be its Dean.  The label Boston School is applied rather loosely to artists who have received much of their training from master painters whose techniques are derived from R.H. Ives Gammell’s adaptation of French atelier instruction.  In this sense as well, Hunter has long been recognized as an informal “Dean” of the movement, adding his own particular signature to the Boston School emphasis on carefully planned compositions, accurate drawing, and a delight in the ability of light and shadow to create atmosphere in painting. He has personally taught well over forty students who are now accomplished full-time professional artists, and in turn, these students have been responsible for training many others.

Born in Dorchester, Massachusetts, in 1928, Hunter served in the Marines before graduating from the Vesper George School of Art in 1949.  He studied with Henry Hensche and then intensively with R.H. Ives Gammell from 1950 to 1955.  Simultaneously in 1950, he began a teaching career at the Vesper George School of Art, which lasted until the school closed in 1983.  He also taught at the Worcester Art Museum from 1965 to 1975.

Hunter has won more than thirty regional and national prizes, including the first John Singleton Copley Award (1966) and fourteen Gold Medals at the annual exhibition of New England artists held by the Jordan Marsh Company, Boston.  In recognition of his painting and teaching, he won a Citation from the governor of Massachusetts (1979).  He was the first winner of the Copley Medallion (1988) and was the 1989 winner of the Guild of Boston Artists Award.  He was featured in a significant article in American Artist magazine (September 1990) and is listed in Who’s Who in American Art, Prize Winning Art, and Who’s Who in the East.  In early 2001, the Cape Cod Museum of Art opened a new naturally-lit gallery named in Hunter’s honor and mounted a retrospective exhibition of his paintings in the new space.  A member of the Copley Society of Boston, the Guild of Boston Artists, the Provincetown Art Association, and the Allied Artists of America, Hunter’s paintings are in the collections of the Ackland Art Museum, Chapel Hill, NC; the Chrysler Art Museum, Norfolk, VA; the Maryhill Museum, Goldendale, WA (Solo Exhibition, 1988); The Michelson Museum of Art, Marshall, TX; and the Southern Alleghenies Museum of Art, Loretto, PA.  His work is also in collections at Harvard University, Northeastern University, Phillips Andover Academy, Tufts University, and numerous private and corporate collections, including the New England Life Insurance Company and the John Hancock Insurance Company.

“We strive in our early years to learn our craft; therefore, we search for a master teacher who has demonstrated this in his own work.  Afterward, there comes a long period of growth during which we experiment, embracing some ideas for fuller development and discarding others not useful to our creative needs.  When our work begins to reveal individuality, it is still essential to pursue an honest observation of nature interpreted within the framework of varied compositions of our invention.  If we fail at this point, we run the risk of displaying mannerisms that will inhibit our artistic growth. This is no small matter.  It is a formidable challenge that we try to meet with all our resources. Yet the measure of our artistic success rests in the evaluation of generations yet to come."

Robert douglas hunter, 2005

Sight-Size: A Method of Painting
An Interview with Robert Douglas Hunter by Richard Goetz

Bob, will you first give a brief explanation of sight-size painting?

Basically, it is a method of viewing the model and your painting simultaneously from a selected position so that both images appear the same size. The artist is afforded a much clearer comparison of the subject to the painting, which eliminates transposing the visual image to a different size on the canvas as he paints. This allows the painting to be life-size or under life-size because the size is determined by the relative position of the model, the easel, and the place you stand when viewing the subject, which I refer to as the “viewing point.” If you want your painting to be life-size, the canvas is placed next to the subject; if it is to be under life size, the easel is moved nearer to the viewing point. That distance determines how much under life-size the painting is to be.

For example, if the artist wishes to paint a portrait bust two-thirds life-size, the viewing point would be about 14 feet away, with the easel placed approximately midway between the viewing point and the model. From the viewing point, the painting would appear to be the same size as the subject. If the canvas is brought nearer to the viewing point, the image on the canvas becomes smaller.

What determines the distance you stand from the model?

That depends on the size of the study; the larger it is, the farther back I stand. The artist should be far enough away to see clearly at a glance all he plans to include in the painting. I do not want to be so close I have to turn my head from side to side to see all the subject, nor do I want to be so far back that I see more than the subject.

What is an average distance you stand from the still-life or portrait model?

From 12 to 16 feet. This point is where all the observations of the model must be made. You must not look at the model when you are at the canvas. Observe the model and mix your paint at the viewing point, then walk up to the canvas, retaining in your memory what you wish to execute. Apply the paint and then walk back to the viewing point for your next observation.

Now I would like to go back to where we were talking about sight-size, life-size, and how far back you stand. Sight size does not mean your canvas must be life-size. If you will take your easel with the canvas on it and draw it up, say, halfway between where you are standing and nature, you can make it sight size, but if you want to make it under life-size, the closer the easel comes or the canvas comes to you, the smaller will be the image. Is that clear? In other words, if you now had your canvas midway between yourself and nature, or the setup, and you were to take and mark off parallels, you would suddenly see that the sight size of the setup is considerably under life-size. If the canvas were so close that it was at arm’s length, then you would find that the shapes are very small; how small is determined by how close the canvas comes to you. It can be illustrated very easily in the diagram.

The sight-size method of painting requires the painter to stand sufficiently far from the arrangement to be able to see the entire arrangement at one glance, The canvas and easel are placed somewhere between the painter and the arrangement so that the painter can easily scan the arrangement and the canvas side by side.

All of the observation of the arrangement is done from point B. where the palette is kept on the paint table.

The painter then, with paint on brush, walks up to the canvas to apply the color note. He then returns to observation point B for further comparison of the arrangement in relation to the canvas in order to decide the next color note that should be painted. All decisions on what next should be worked on are based on what seems least correct about the painting in relationship to the arrangement.

This procedure is continued until the canvas is completed, which may take from 1 to 30 days, depending on the degree of refinement desired.

What formal preparation did you have for your career as an artist?

My formal training began at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, from age 13 to 16. While attending high school, I also studied with Carl Adams, a well-known watercolorist. At the Museum I had two courses that dealt in abstract painting which helped me to observe shapes as abstract elements first, and hence to achieve greater unity of design.

After graduating from high school, I was in the Marine Corps for two years, and then I enrolled in Vesper George Art School, where I completed the prescribed course in three years and remained for a year of post-graduate work. During this period, I spent much time in the Museum of Fine Arts copying the great works of art.

After you finished at Vesper George, I believe you then studied at Provincetown?

Yes, I saw Henry Hensche give a painting demonstration and was impressed with the way he dealt with color and mass. It was a new exposure for me because my training had been so linear. So the following summer I went to Provincetown for studies with Mr. Hensche. It was the first time, literally, I had ever gone out of doors with paints and painted the effect of outdoor light directly on a landscape. When one is working out of doors instead of inside, the big shapes of nature are simplified, even on a gray day. And the thing that intrigued me particularly about Mr. Hensche as a teacher is that he urged his students to use a palette knife-a blunt, rather crude instrument that forces you to capture big shapes and try to interrelate them.

While in Provincetown, I met R. H. Ives Gammell and spent the next five years studying with him in a small atelier class, rather than under the apprenticeship system. Gammell had from three to five students and furnished each with a studio, model, and materials.

The art schools and universities today emphasize an artistic experience, often ignoring sound technical knowledge. Such a background should be based on the student’s ability to see impressionistically. That is what Mr. Gammell did for his students: he taught us the craft of painting.

Did that finish your preparation for a career as an artist?

I managed to get a studio in Boston and support myself through the Gallery in Provincetown and the Vose Gallery in Boston. By now, of course, I have taught at the Vesper George School for a number of years and derive my steady income from this source.

Let's talk about your painting.

Primarily I consider myself a still life painter; however, I do paint landscapes and portraits. I limit the portrait commissions to about six to eight a year. I don’t care to get too involved with portraits, although I enjoy doing a few and try to put as much into them as I do into my still life work. This in itself limits the number of persons who are willing to pose for me, as I require a great number of sittings to get the same degree of finish and refinement as in my still lifes.

Your small landscape drawings art so precisely and beautifully rendered that they remind me of some of the early masters.

Drawing presents a completely different point of view from painting. After working for weeks on a still life, it is quite an enjoyable change to be able to sit down and finish something in 2 1/2 hours. I use two-ply smooth paper and 2B to 5H drawing pencils. I begin the drawing by lightly delineating the big masses. After predetermining all the statements in my mind’s eye-very much as a watercolorist does. I then lay in the tones. I don’t use a chisel point, but the pencil is fairly sharp, creating the tones and values in a series of crisp lines. My pressure on the paper is always about the same, and the different values are created by the softness or hardness of the pencil: the harder the pencil, the lighter the tone; the softer, the darker.

Your landscape drawings are very small, about 4 by 7, but are very finished. Do you use these as reference material for future paintings?

My landscape paintings are done on the spot in 2 1/2 or 3 hours to capture the mood and light of that particular day. I don’t believe in doing a sketch and then working it out in the studio with formulas or memory because what I am really trying to do is capture a quick impression. It’s good to get out of doors occasionally to get a fresh eye for light after studio work. It helps to see color correctly because out of doors the local color is lost in the color of light.

Stop River, Noon Hill Rd. | 12 x 20"

What materials do you use in still life painting?

I paint with artist-grade oils of flake white, yellow ochre, light red, Indian red, ultramarine blue, ivory black, cadmium yellow pale, cadmium orange, cadmium red light, alizarin crimson, cerulean blue, and viridian. I always use artists’ grade paint; it’s particularly important in using cadmium’s, but perhaps not so in the earth colors. The coloring agents in the better paints are so superior to the inexpensive paints that it makes no sense to use cheap paint at all. If you are using a paint that is not sufficiently strong in hue, you will never be able to hit certain color notes, such as the color quality in fruit, in particular.

What brushes do you use?

Mostly long bristles, the ones called flats-not filberts; occasionally sables in some small passages. I always use the largest brush to do the job.

What medium do you find most suitable?

I use the paint as it comes from the tube and add a little turpentine if the paint is too stiff. I always clean off all paint remaining on the palette at the end of each day’s work and put out fresh paint for the next day. Occasionally, near the completion of the painting, I will use a small amount of poppy oil in very dark areas. I paint on double-primed linen canvas with lots of rags. I believe in lots of rags. I don’t see how anyone can use a paper towel in painting. I never have had the problem of lint from my rags getting into my painting, but maybe that’s because the lint does get in and becomes part of the impasto.

I use a mahl stick all the time because I am walking back and forth from my observation position and my palette is at that point too, which is normally about 12 feet away from the canvas and 12 feet away from the arrangement itself. The mahl stick is great because I can almost use it as a balancer for myself. By keeping my fingers at the very end of the brush and resting the mahl stick against the easel, I can stay quite a distance away from the actual canvas when I am brushing the paint on.

Now let’s discuss the procedure you use in painting a still life.

The first consideration is composition. That includes the arrangement of the setup .and its placement on the canvas. If you were to divide art into three categories-illustrative, decorative, and historical-mine would certainly be decorative. I, therefore, deal with abstract patterns of shapes and colors rather than storytelling arrangements. I try to make these arrangements so that they create the illusion of complete control of design within a given picture plane. I generally used curved linear shapes, because they are more voluptuous and sensual. With these forms, I try to create a sense of harmony, unity.

As to subject matter. I started off by more or less specializing in New England Americana – crockery, bottles, brasses, and coppers-and while traveling in Europe developed a collection of 18th-century porcelain. Both my studios and my apartment are absolutely loaded with things I like to paint and to maintain variety I keep buying continuously.

What area do you work first?

The area of the canvas that appears to be least like my subject. Starting on a white canvas would naturally mean starting in a dark or possibly a very brightly colored area. I then proceed to cover each area that is least like the white canvas until all the surface is covered. From there I go to the color that is least correct, not trying to make it perfect but merely bringing it up to a better relationship to the rest of the painting. As an analogy, I like to think of myself as a shepherd, and all these various color notes are like sheep. The shepherd always goes after the straggler. If you apply this to painting, it very simply means you glance quickly at the entire setup or model and then at the canvas to look for a straggler, the mass of color that is least correct. This procedure is carried out until the entire canvas is correct and ready for final details or refinements.

In starting I use the largest brush possible, putting on generous amounts of color, starting inside the mass. I scumble on the paint, letting the brush go in all directions. At this stage I do not worry about the outline; I always work outward from the interior of the mass. When the color comes to the edge, I usually let it slop over a bit so when the adjacent color is put on and brought out to the edge, it too laps over into the wet edge of the neighboring color. This will keep the painting flexible, give a softness to the edges and keep the painting loose. This procedure helps me to work in terms of color masses as the Impressionists did, not in terms of an outline drawing.

Your finished paintings have a very smooth texture. If you put your paint on in a loose, heavy manner, why doesn’t it build up and become rough?

To avoid this, at the end of each painting session I use pages from an old telephone directory to smooth my paint. I carefully place the paper on the wet surface of the canvas and very lightly rub over it. This removes ridges of paint. When the paper is pulled off, it leaves a texture that gives tooth and a good surface for the next layer of pigment. I try to make the color, not the brush strokes or heavy texture of paint, do the job.

The procedure throughout the painting is somewhat the same. I try to cover as much of the canvas during the painting session as I can, but on a large canvas, it isn’t possible to cover it all except in the earlier stages. I am actually painting picture over picture, each becomes a little more correct and broken into smaller masses and more delicate color changes. There really isn’t any basic difference in the various stages. Each is a further development and refinement of the previous one.

Metal, Glass and Beach Stones | 22 x26"

It is obvious that your paintings are very accurately drawn.

The drawing develops as the painting progresses. The painter does it with masses of color, the draftsman with line. I assiduously avoid any kind of linear thinking or application when I am painting. As soon as you put down an outline, your edges become harsh, and you begin to think in terms of outline drawing and not in terms of mass against mass.

What can you tell us about finish?

Finish is just a refinement of the beginning, that is all. In the beginning, you put down the big note and then divide it into smaller notes, then subdivide the divisions, until the painting is carried as far as you wish.

I am now using a retouching varnish which I spray on, not brush on. It is one-third dammar varnish, two-thirds turpentine. When I run into a dry area, I put an atomizer into a bottle of the mixture and spray from about 14 inches to 2 feet away from the surface of the canvas, using as fine a mist as possible.

For a final varnish I have long used a synthetic picture varnish; it goes on with a brush beautifully, and in three hours or less it is dry as a bone. The picture restorers in New York all use the synthetic varnish now.

My interest is not in objects themselves, but what happens to objects when light falls on them. This is done with mass of color, not outline drawing. The main thing is to keep all of the painting developing and progressing uniformly. This is more vital than deciding on an arbitrary, finishing point.
An interview with Robert Douglas Hunter for M Gallery Fine Art in January 2013.
In the studio with Robert Douglas Hunter