“Because Weir Farm has remained relatively undeveloped, a visit here can transport you back in time,” said Douglas Smith, an artist who has recorded the Connecticut landscape for several years and found it easy to begin a painting on the first morning of the magazine’s outing.
Starting in his usual way by making pencil studies of potential painting subjects in a sketchbook, Smith then brought out a pochade box to make an 8″-X-10″ oil study of one of those scenes. He designed and made the box and, in fact, has started a business of crafting them for other artists.
The pochade box, which can be made for either a right-handed or left-handed artist, has compartments for brushes, paints, and prepared panels. The panels Smith uses are made from rag board (one-hundred-percent-rag mat board) coated with shellac, and his brushes are either short-handled tole-painting brushes or round bristle brushes whose handles have been cut to a shorter length.
Smith said the smaller oil sketches allow him to quickly record the changing pattern of light and shadow in the landscape. He uses them as a reference when painting the scene on a larger canvas, resting the pochade box on the metal compartment in his French easel.
“I begin the large painting with a big bristle brush using a mixture of ultramarine blue and raw sienna thinned with turpentine,” the artist explained. “I hold my palette when mixing colors so I can turn it toward the light to judge the color of the mixtures against those already on the canvas. I start by painting in the masses, averaging the color, and quickly covering the entire canvas. From there it’s a matter of modifying the warm or cool color temperature, dark or light values, and soft or hard edges while I continually refine the drawing.”
The palette of colors Smith used at Weir Farm included lead white, cadmium yellow pale, cadmium orange, cadmium red light, permanent rose, alizarin crimson, ultramarine blue, King’s blue (Rembrandt), permanent green deep, and raw sienna.
“My idea in creating this picture was to walk the line between realism and abstraction,” Joseph Keiffer explained after completing his painting of the pond at Weir Farm. “I wanted to make viewers look twice at a familiar scene to show them that reality is as weird as it is pretty.”
This theme is one that has motivated Keiffer as an artist, as a dealer, and as a critic. In a recent issue of American Art Review, for example, he wrote that “… any good ‘realistic’ painting, of any period, also contains within it a good ‘abstract’ composition, and, conversely, any good ‘abstract’ painting is only considered ‘good’ because it makes reference to the viewer’s experience of reality.”
He went on to say, “I use the same criterion to judge both realistic and abstract painting: Does it feel real? Does it make me feel like I’m ‘there’? Does it make me feel anything at all? If so, what?”
Keiffer is well respected in New York City for the exhibitions of realist paintings he has mounted in the office-gallery on East Seventy-second Street that bears his name. His activities as a collector, dealer, and artist have given him a background that few practicing artists can boast. Knowledgeable about the great American landscape painters of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, Keiffer often paints near his weekend house in the Catskill Mountains at sites that have attracted many of America’s best-known artists.
In Weir’s time, cattle trampled down the vegetation surrounding the pond. But today, the trees and bushes form a dense ring around the water, making it difficult to set up an easel. Keiffer had to position himself precariously on a sloping patch of rocks and dirt to get a clear view of the reflective water. Once he began painting, however, he worked intently for several hours until he had established the picture.
“I work this way because no one taught me anything different,” Donald Jurney said jokingly as he described his techniques for landscape painting. “Most of what I know about painting I discovered by looking at the work of artists I admired and by reading about their approach.” These comments help explain why some of the methods he uses are quite different from those of other landscape painters.
Of the artists gathered at Weir Farm, Jurney certainly had the most extensive palette of oil colors. He seemed to have a dab of every possible blue and green you can buy in tube form, including some of the Compose colors that Holbein offers. “I suppose I could mix all of those colors myself,” Jurney said, “but I don’t see any reason to bother.”
He had a fistful of paintbrushes ready as well, most of them small-size rounds. The artist chuckled as he admitted that he is not usually quite so well equipped–his wife, Joan Griswold (who also attended the Weir Farm outing), had purchased a large quantity of bristle brushes for him when she last visited New York City.
Jurney kept his paint rather thin as he began each painting, allowing himself to build up to thicker and more detailed presentations of the landscape. The round brushes also gave him a degree of control that would not have been possible with larger flats or filberts.
Although it took Jurney longer than some of the others to get settled into the painting activity, he produced three impressive small paintings during the two-day outing. What was particularly interesting about these pictures was that they were, in large part, inventions only loosely based on the actual appearance of the farm. Furthermore, Jurney was able to articulate a lot of detail in a relatively short amount of time. The artist’s tiny brush-strokes captured subtle transitions of light on trees and grass in a field that only suggested the Weir property.