Welcome to the Blank Canvas Series – An interview with an Artist. These amazing artists have offered to share their insights with the Master Oil Painting Community. Please Note: The views expressed here are those of the Featured Artist and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of Master Oil Painting or Bill Inman.
Today’s Featured Artist: Jim McVicker
“With knowledge that comes from years of painting from life, one can bring that into the studio when using photos.”- Jim
Q: Many Plein Air artists prefer to paint smaller scale pieces, 6×8 or 9×12, because of the quickly shifting light. Not you though. How do you complete such large, complex, and stunning pieces on location?
A: My earliest plein air paintings from the early 70’s were canvases not much smaller than 18×24. Not sure why I started outdoors with larger sizes, but most were at least 24×30. I would paint those in one session of 3 to 4 hours with some studio work if needed. It’s funny, but I would find it very difficult to pull together a 24×30 to my satisfaction in one sitting today. I will work on a larger paintings over a period of several days to a few weeks and sometimes setting a painting aside and waiting for the following year under the same lighting and seasonal conditions.
Right now I’m working on a 24×36 on location and I have 4 sittings of about 2 hours with each. I think I will need at least two more sittings outdoors and some studio work. I just finished up an 18×24 after 4 outdoor sittings and a 20×36 that I had worked on several sittings last year at this time. I have worked as much as 15 or 20 sittings on a landscape. One thing I love about different days at the same time is each day offers up subtle, and sometimes not so subtle, differences from the previous sitting. New ideas come to mind, a change in the sky, a slight shift of light you did not see the day before, and color and value shifts. It has an element of risk that I like.
A photo is static, life is not, and taking time and chances with a painting can be frustrating, challenging and very stimulating. Multiple sittings bring one closer to the landscape, or any subject for that matter. I feel I’m going into deeper resources within myself to really try and understand and connect to the subject. It is a wonderful on going relationship, that for me, does not happen the same way with a quick one shot painting. I always thank the landscape after spending so much time with it. I have worked as large as 54×84 outdoors, but I’ll say, I also love to paint small works, 9×12, 11×14, 12×16 in one sitting and I do a lot of those. Nothing quite as exciting as pulling a good painting together in a matter of a couple of hours. Once in awhile one ends up becoming a larger work in the studio.
Q: Would you recommend a similar approach for fledgling Plein Air painters? And if a young artist wants to follow your lead what tips can you give that might help them muster the courage to ‘go big’ successfully?
A: I always recommend working small outdoors to painters in the beginning, not much bigger than 12×16, and to paint a lot of them. I think a painter will learn a lot more about painting doing quick small works as opposed to working hours and days trying to make a larger painting. Once you understand how to simplify shapes, see values, color temps, light, atmosphere and have successful small works, I believe you can then transfer that understanding to larger works. With that said, if one feels the need to work larger, I say go for it.
Q: Rumor has it you don’t use photographs to paint from. Do you paint everything from life, or do you ever paint from memory, imagination, or some other reference? And if the rumor is true, why did you decide not to use photos?
A: Mostly I don’t, and for years I never did, but over the past several years they have been a good tool here and there for some larger paintings. When I do that I always have a small piece painted on location first. I have also painted a couple small demos from jpegs when the group of students could not get outdoors. I found it to be more enjoyable than I thought it could be.
I will always tell those learning to paint to avoid photos and work from life. With knowledge that comes from years of painting from life, one can bring that into the studio when using photos. They can be helpful when working really large, giving you more reference material to combine with a study. Also, I like the idea of being able to capture some unique lighting situations with the camera and possibly using that with memory for some future studio works. As I age I think I may do more studio landscapes.
I also here and there do some works from memory or changing a plein air in the studio by changing the light or shapes, etc, in order to try and make it work. Even painting from life one is always using memory as we look away from the scene to work on the canvas.
Q: How do you simplify what you see, and what you’re going to leave out? Are there specific principles that draw your focus more than others?
A: I am always looking for shapes and light that I find exciting. I won’t start a painting unless I feel it right through my body and know I want to paint it. I see lots of stuff that does that to me. I certainly do the old squinting trick to not see detail and just see values and shapes. I try to see how they connect and how the eye moves throughout the scene and keep a sense of unity. I mostly try to keep the shadow shapes simple, not much detail and keep more energy and focus in the lights.
Q: You paint landscapes, still lifes, and portraits with equal mastery. Do you approach them the same, or do they each present separate challenges? If so, please describe how they differ.
A: Each one presents separate challenges. I try to approach each subject as open as possible, and at that moment figure out how I am going to approach and paint it. The studio work, still life and portrait always seem to be more meditative and not as frantic as painting the changing light outdoors. I think I’m a bit more relaxed when working from subjects indoors.
I find all painting difficult. When it’s going well I’m very happy, and when not it is very discouraging. That almost always happens on each painting, always an up and down of emotions. The longer the paintings take the more the battle rages. That’s one nice thing about quick spontaneous paintings; less time to beat yourself up.
Q: Your paintings are so vibrant and rich. Do you paint colors and values exactly as you see them, or do you take ‘artistic liberties’?
A: I feel I paint the colors as I see them but I do love color and tend to push it some. The values to me are the most important element, after a good foundation of drawing, so color can go any direction if your values work. Sometimes I will not paint the distance values as dark as they are in order to push the distance back and create more atmosphere. When I see strong color I will paint it.
Q: So many artists look up to you. As your career has progressed what artists have you watched and learned from?
A: I watch and learn form every artist’s work that hits me as a good painting. I have always looked at historical painters, spending many hours over the years in museums. My wife and I have a very large art book collection and I look at a lot of contemporary painters online as well as shows when I get the chance to see them.
In the beginning I learned so much from George Van Hook, James B. Moore, Curtis Otto, Doug Ferrin, Stock Schlueter, Ken Jarvela, my wife Theresa Oats, Dale Landrum and just about everyone I have painted with. There are many contemporary representational artists that I look at a lot and admire. I have had the good fortune to meet many over the past several years, Joe Paquet, Tom Hughes, Ned Mueller, Matt Smith, Andy Evanson, and so many others.
Enjoy a few more of his beautiful paintings