Tuesday, September 20, 2011

An Interview with Artist Thomas Kegler

With the coming of fall just around the corner, here is one last interview with a landscape artist connected to the Hudson River Fellowship. Over the summer I had a chance to sit down with the artist Thomas Kegler and talk about his views and understanding of the landscape and art. Kegler has been a part of the Fellowship almost since its inception, and his talent and knowledge of the landscape are widely admired in the classical art community. Kegler shows at John Pence Gallery in San Francisco and you can find more of his work at his website.

How did your attraction to landscape painting begin, and how did your relationship with nature evolve over these years of depicting the landscape?

I grew up in a family that was always doing something with the outdoors. My dad had a hunting and fishing shop, and I grew up working there. Our vacations usually consisted of going fishing or camping. So, I’ve had that [love for the outdoors] instilled in me when I was young. I’m towards the youngest of eight siblings and most of my older brothers were somehow involved in the arts, so I was exposed to that early on. I was always attracted to nature, whether it was wildlife art or otherwise - as a kid I would always copy and draw wildlife art. Eventually, in the ’80s, during the height of wildlife art, my father had his hunting and fishing store put in some wildlife prints. That ballooned and became a fairly productive stint in wildlife art that made a big impression on me. I met Robert Bateman a famous wildlife artist, and that had a big effect on me. I was also fortunate to live near Thomas Aquinas Daly (a living master landscape painter) (link: http://www.thomasaquinasdaly.com) and Bruce Kurland  - both little known, but phenomenal artists and very generous. They have to this day been a profound inspiration and good friends.
Even as a child, I was always dabbling in drawing and painting nature; but because of the mainstream art community’s push for the modern art movement and expression, and being from Western New York where there wasn’t a lot else going on – I felt a bit “lost” and disillusioned. So, I pursued a degree in graphic design and worked for a few years in the industry. Eventually I realized that it wasn’t what I wanted to do, so I quit and ended up going to Alaska for two summers as a fishing guide. That’s where I kind of found myself, and cleared my head. I came back, went into art education, and really loved it. That was a great move. All the while doing this, I was painting and drawing on my own. After teaching for a while, I decided to make a concerted effort to really study, through books, art that attracted me, which always was traditional realism. That’s when I became aware of all the ateliers that are out there, and Jacob Collins’ work. Most of what I was seeing out there was classical, mostly figurative and still life. I was looking for this approach, but for the landscape- because there wasn’t a whole lot out there, I was always resorting to photographs because I didn’t understand any of the process.
I came across the Fellowship… I can’t remember if it was on Jacob’s website, or American Artist… but when I saw it, I applied. I didn’t get in the first year, so I took that opportunity to reevaluate what I needed to learn, worked hard and eventually got in the following year. I walked into that setting of like-minded, insanely talented artists, and knew I had found my art home, if you will. It made a profound effect on my whole outlook, my process, and my appreciation for nature.  I immersed myself in nature and then infused these experiences in my studio paintings.

Has your time at the Fellowship changed your perspective on art?

Absolutely. I think my appreciation of art, but perhaps, more importantly, my appreciation of nature has been affected. Ironically, when I grew up spending time hunting and fishing outdoors, I was certainly gaining an experience of interacting with nature, but I had been so focused on whatever I was doing out there that I never slowed down to really understand how nature reacts in itself; how a big tree can affect small trees in the area, how the soil can affect the water or terrain. I was always aware of it, but never really took the time to observe it in depth. I think that is the real beauty to this approach to the landscape and this approach to painting; you are really forced to slow down and analyze what is in front of you, and then interpret it in your own way. A big part of that is distilling – it’s so complicated out there you can’t possibly capture it all – it’s a matter of choosing what you want to capture, and everything else becomes sort of an impression. I don’t really like using that term because of what it connotates, or suggestion might be a better word. You are suggesting a lot, and specifying choice areas. That approach has helped me take what is visually very intimidating, and being able to pull out the essence of that scene or the essence of that object within the scene.
The focal point can come in many ways, whether it be with contrast, a jump in chroma, or impasto. A lot can be done with transparencies and veils of paint in the suggested areas, with thick impasto work on the center of focus.

How much do you identify with the 19th century Hudson River School painters?

I identify with their process a lot, and their approach to going to nature as their education. If you look at the Letters on Landscape by Durand, where he is giving advice to a prospective student that wants to study with him, he says that the risk of studying with a master is that you could become to influenced by the artist, when ultimately, the best reference is nature and getting out there and struggling with it. That will teach you far more than painting alongside somebody and interpreting something the same way they do.
As far as their approach; I think it’s a great approach and it goes hand in hand with what’s going on in the ateliers and the resurgence in classical realism. Really understanding what you’re painting on a very intimate level, the structure and anatomy of the landscape – trees, plants, rocks – what they’re forms are, what they’re composed of, and how they all interact. It’s a matter of collecting all of that information in your field studies and trying to create a studio painting that encompasses and congeals all of that into one message that resonated with you when you were at that spot.

Do you have any tips or advice for aspiring landscape artists?

Advice is tough; it really depends on your goals. You have to ask yourself, what is it that I want to get out of this? The reason I say that is because I see a lot of people who are drawn to and connect with the impressionist approach to painting; and I think that a lot of people here at the Fellowship, and at the workshop, are looking for a lot more, a deeper intimate connection with the landscape. Certainly the impressionist methodology is a lot more like a photograph, and it’s not really immersing yourself in that location. I don’t want to be seen as bashing impressionists, because it certainly has validity (and I use some of their techniques and approaches); it’s just not the process that I chose. So as far as advice – if you find this process to be something that you’re interested in, then get out there and start drawing and dissecting it by the process that I outlined earlier. What is the big picture, what is it that you want to capture from that location? A large studio piece as your goal is a good way to think about it, because then you can start dissecting that location, or that composition into its elements, and then doing your data collection of each element individually. Drawing is the best way to do that, I think you really study something on a much deeper level through linear drawing. Slowly work your way up to tonal sketches, and transition that from dry to wet media in the form of a grisaille. Then transition that into a series of small intimate color studies as the components. Finally, figure out what you want to say about your particular spot – the time of day, the mood, the weather – and then keying all those studies into that concept somehow.

As far as advice, there are no shortcuts; it’s not an easy process. You’ve got to work hard, and work through the frustrations. If you think that this is something you will enjoy, be prepared for setbacks and frustration. Yet, when you have those successes, they’re very gratifying. You’ll always learn more from your failures than your successes, and that’s what builds that knowledge and confidence. From confidence comes efficiency. Then when you start going to new locations, you can be ready to just do it in a very efficient manner. The benefits of being efficient with your time are being able to deal with constantly changing weather and lighting conditions.  It ensures that you’re not chasing a light or straying from your original concept.
If I can paint a landscape, anyone can. I am self taught – owing my current outlook and approach to a lot of reading, observation and the invaluable experiences related to the HR Fellowship: the mountains, the participants, its founders - Jacob, Ted, Travis, & Nick and the dear friends I have met through the group.

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