Memories of Richard Lack

Richard Lack, Self Portrait (1962)Richard Lack, Self Portrait (1962).

Few artists of the last half of the twentieth-century had as much impact on representational art as did Richard F. Lack (1928-2009). Despite that, neither his name nor his works are as well-known as are some of his contemporaries like Andrew Wyeth. That is a shame, because were it not for him and his teacher, R. H. Ives Gammell, contemporary art would not be what it currently is today.

In earlier times the quality, sheer number and range of his works would have ranked Richard Lack an equal to many old masters. Perhaps, had he chosen to live on the east coast instead of Minneapolis, things would be different.

His influence as a teacher is still present, even though time and in some cases the telephone game have watered down some of his teachings.* He authored a couple of books, of which only one is still in print (On the Training of Painters is available here). The official records of the school list the number of his full-time students as 99. In reality, if you include part-timers, he taught many more than that. I am one of those unaccounted for students.

This article is not a traditional biography like the others on this site primarily because what I write cannot come close to the recently released Richard F. Lack Catalog Raisonné (which I heartily recommend everyone purchase). Therefore, I decided to make this a personal remembrance, interspersed with images of his paintings. Scores of others knew him better than I**, but perhaps my short experience as a part-time Lack student might be of interest to those who are learning to see through Sight-Size.

Richard Lack, Evening Jet Trails (1963)Richard Lack, Evening Jet Trails (1963). The model for this painting was Mr. Lack’s wife, Katherine. Photograph courtesy of the Lack Estate.
Annette LeSueur owned this painting when I was studying with her. As such, it was the first painting by Lack that I saw.

I was sixteen in 1980 when I first met Richard Lack. The introduction had been through Annette LeSueur, a former Lack student who had taken me on as one of her private students. Both Annette’s and my intent was to get Mr. Lack to accept me as his private student. I recall driving to his house, about a dozen miles from my own, wondering what I would encounter.

Mr. Lack’s house was in a western suburb of Minneapolis. I should say is because although he has passed, I believe that his wife Katherine still lives there. She met me at the door, and in a gentle Hungarian accent, directed me up a narrow stairway that was perched at the edge of their living room. And there I went, with portfolio in hand.

Lacks-House-FrontMr. Lack’s house from the front. His studio is on the right side of the house. You can see one of the studio’s skylights on the roof in front of the chimney.

Lack's house, from above.Mr. Lack’s house from above. His studio is on the lower half of the building’s footprint (to the south). The viewpoint of the previous photograph is from the left side of this one.

The studio was in a rectangle shape, with north-facing skylights in a 45° angled ceiling. Decades later I learned that Mr. Lack had built the studio himself.

“You must be Darren. Annette has told me a lot about you,” were the first words I recall Mr. Lack’s saying to me. He was a tall man, at least relative to my 5′ 9″, and had greying red hair in a comb-over style. Perched on the end of his nose was a pair of reading glasses. He was wearing a beige-colored smock and was holding a palette in his hand. Off to one side was the still life on which he had been working and there was also a portrait setup, in progress. Both arrangements were clearly in Sight-Size. Hanging on the walls were numerous paintings.

Richard Lack, Homage to Paxton (1983)Richard Lack, Homage to Paxton (1983).

He showed me around the room, talking about some of his paintings and he asked my opinion of them. We then sat as he leafed through my portfolio. Having grown up mostly in Minnesota, it was filled with drawings of birds. This gave him pause, and he asked whether my intent was to be a duck stamp artist. I said no. Our conversation briefly turned to Sir Edwin Landseer, the famed nineteenth-century English painter known primarily for his outstanding paintings of animals.

Few memories remain of the rest of the visit, but he did agree to teach me at his atelier in Minneapolis. I was to show up at 3PM on the following Monday.

Richard Lack, The Flower Seller (1985).Richard Lack, The Flower Seller (1985). The model for this painting was Louise Gillis, a fellow student at Atelier LeSueur.

Atelier Lack was in a retail/office building southwest of downtown, next door to the Uptown movie theater. The school was on the building’s second level. As with Mr. Lack’s personal studio, you reached his school up a long flight of stairs. Here again, my first contact was with Mrs. Lack.

Atelier-Lack-2011.The building which housed Atelier Lack. This photo is from 2011 (via Google maps). The door to the school is on the far right.
You can just make out the remains of the school’s sign, near the top, beneath the green moulding: Atelier Lack . . . of Fine Arts.
Hidden under the moulding are the words Studio School. I have memories of the building’s bricks being painted gray and the letters black.

She led me down the hall, to a small room where I would purchase supplies (paper, charcoal, chamois, sharpening block, etc.). We then went to another small room that served as a break room. On the wall was a charcoal study for Lack’s 1977 Nativity painting. At least I think I saw it on that first visit.

Mr. Lack then arrived and took me to the cast room. I recall it being a large room, partitioned off with curtains. My space consisted of an easel and a still life stand. They were arranged in Sight-Size, with the easel physically next to the still life stand. As I recall, the room as a whole had no windows. Regardless, my setup was lit only by a utility light.

Mr. Lack critiquing a cast drawing (1974).Mr. Lack critiquing a cast drawing (1974). Photograph courtesy of the Lack Estate.
Notice that the drawing board is as close to the cast as possible and the background tone on the paper is shaded all the way to the edge nearest the cast. (See Mind the Gap).

After a brief discussion of the principles of Sight-Size (he knew that I already had some experience with this through Annette), and how to sharpen charcoal, I was assigned to draw the cast of Voltaire. To make sure that I understood, he did a quick block-in of the cast. What I found most interesting was the walking back and forth. Up until that time with Annette, all I had ever done in Sight-Size was copying from the flat, and pencil figure drawings (which were done at a small enough size so that the easel was only an arm’s length away).

He then taped a new sheet of paper to the board, gave me the charcoal and told me that he would return in half an hour. I was, of course, to block-in the cast as he had.

Mr. Lack critiquing James Childs Cast Drawing (1973).Mr. Lack critiquing James Childs’ Cast Drawing (1973). Photograph courtesy of the Lack Estate.

Lack’s first critique of my drawing was an eye-opener. Yes, I had made numerous sight errors, but the biggest surprise was that he drew all over my work! Annette had never done that and I could think of no polite way to ask him about it. Eventually he explained that when learning to see students often needed visual direction from a trained eye, and the best way for him to provide me with that was literal correction. He then told me that his teacher, R. H. Ives Gammell, regularly corrected directly on his students’ work.

I was fortunate to have studied in that way with Mr. Lack, two to three days per week, for a year and a half. That he gave me so much of his time, after hours and almost for free, was something I did not realize until years later.

Dave Erickson and Jeff Larson.A few Lack students as well as some of those who taught for him would occasionally pass my setup and give me a critique.
Pictured here are Dave Erickson and Jeff Larson working on a portrait painting during the time I was there. These two, along with Stephen Gjertson, are those whom I best recall.
Photograph courtesy of the Lack Estate.

A few years later, while at Atelier LeSueur, I was able to return to Atelier Lack on a fairly regular basis in order to attend part-time evening classes with him, and others with Steve Gjertson. Despite that, I will always regret deciding not to formally attend Atelier Lack after high school. Richard Lack was a rare find, especially one so close to home.

The last time I saw Mr. Lack was at the same house where we first met. It was in the late summer of 2008, about a year before he passed away. I was working on my next book at the time, Cast Painting Using the Sight-Size Approach, and wanted his opinion on some of my ideas. So I called him to set an appointment.

As before, Mrs. Lack met me at the door. This time she directed me into a sitting room. Mr. Lack did not get up to meet me, due to complications from old age, a tumor on his pituitary gland, and peripheral neuropathy. After a discussion about my previous and upcoming books he gave me two pieces of advice.

  1. Look to the little Dutch masters.
  2. Keep doing potboilers.

In a later phone call he further clarified those statements. Rather than a brand of cigars, the little Dutch masters were artists like Vermeer and Metsu. They had learned how to see and record those observations into art. The word little referred to the fact that much of seventeenth century Dutch painting was done on a small scale. There is a wealth of information to be gleaned from studying these masters and many of their contemporaries.

Potboilers were Mr. Lack’s way of describing the still life paintings that he would do each year. No, they were not often the subjects which he would have preferred to be painting. But at times they were the paintings which kept his family going because they always sold well.

Richard Lack, Nude with a Red Robe (1983).Richard Lack, Nude with a Red Robe (1983).

If you would like to learn more about Richard Lack, you would do well to purchase the Richard F. Lack Catalog Raisonné. The catalog is a tour de force as far as catalog raisonné’s go. The information presented is well written and thorough. The images are abundant, often large, and the color is usually good.

If you are at all like me, reading through the book and looking at the images will make you realize how little you yourself have accomplished. But I suppose there is no remedy for that but to keep on keeping on. The past is past, so make the present better. Let the catalog be inspiration, not self-condemnation.

As I mentioned near the beginning of this article, had he been born in different times Richard Lack would be widely acknowledged as a master. He was a true artist. The Richard F. Lack Catalog Raisonné is worthy of his talent and tenacity. It captures Mr. Lack as well as any book could.

Lack-Catalog

*An example of this would be Classical Realism, a term which Lack coined, however reluctantly. Its current meaning is no longer what it was.
**In addition to his contribution to the Lack catalog, Stephen Gjertson has written a number of articles about Mr. Lack here. Kirk Richards has also written an interesting article here: Notes on the Atelier, by Kirk Richards.

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