Richard Whitney, Portrait of Sandy.
Richard Whitney, PhD.H, a student of Sidney F. Willis and R. H. Ives Gammell, is one of America’s great representational painters. His paintings hang in collections world-wide. Among his many accomplishments are portraits of eight US Governors, three US Senators, and two Nobel Laureates. The subjects in his portraits seem as if they are alive, they are masterfully done, without being overly rendered or colored. He is a prolific landscape painter as well and nobody paints spring tree buds and apple blossoms like he does. Richard is also the author of the book, Painting the Visual Impression.
We have been acquaintances since the late 90’s, although I do not know him well. My wife and I, along with some other friends, had the opportunity to visit Studios at Crescent Pond, Richard and his wife’s home and studios, back in 2002 and that was a great pleasure. Recently, we shared a phone call and I was able to ask him some questions for this article.
Richard Whitney, Spring Willows.
Richard’s story, like so many who sought a fine arts education in the mid-twentieth-century, begins with a young man, earnestly wanting to paint. Educational opportunities that would help him achieve that goal in the way he intended were hard to find. Fortunately for him, he had adopted parents who encouraged his pursuit, as well as an understanding university professor.
During the summer of his freshman year at the University of New Hampshire, Harriet, Richard’s adopted mother, persuaded him to attend private portrait classes with Sid Willis (a former student of Robert Douglas Hunter who studied with Gammell). She had been taking classes with Sid and thought that Richard could benefit.
Recalling the first session with Sid, Richard commented on Sid’s initial critique:
“We had a live model. I worked on it for a couple of hours and I thought it was great. Then Sid came along and said that it stunk, grabbed the brushes out of my hand and repainted it.”
“I was shocked. I was literally shaking.”
When he returned the next week, the same thing happened, “and I saw that he made it better.”
At this point, Richard’s interests were more van Gogh than Gérôme and that resulted in a number of arguments. Eventually, Sid gave him a copy of Gammell’s book, Twilight of Painting. Richard described his reaction to reading it as being “thunderstruck, an emperor’s new clothes kind of thing, because everything that I’d been led to believe about art during my high school and early college years was the exact opposite.”
Twilight impressed him so much that he wrote to Gammell, seeking his advice. Gammell’s response was an offer to come study with him in Williamstown, Massachusetts, where Gammell held summer sessions. “From then on, from my sophomore through senior years at college, I would spend summers in Williamstown and go to Boston on the weekends and vacations to study with Gammell.”
Additionally, one of his college professors at the UNH, John Hatch, consented to give him a corner of his classroom to use as a small studio.
During his senior year, two events helped define his future.
First, he spent a month and a half, painting a portrait from life of one of the school’s janitors. The portrait was eventually hung at the annual senior art show – under a stair well, in the dark!
He also had to complete a senior opus project, the subject of which was a white on white painting. To create this project he visited an automobile junk yard and acquired some spare parts. “The day the painting was due, I glued the automobile parts onto a Masonite panel and poured a gallon and a half of gesso on it.” His art professor at the time said that this abstract work was one of the best pictures done at UNH that year and that Richard “would be a great abstract painter with just a little more training.”
The absurdity of that comment, considering the little amount of work needed to create the piece, convinced Richard to pursue his own path and focus on representational painting for good. His professors were not happy with his choice. Nonetheless, 45 years later, UNH gave him an Honorary Doctorate of Fine Arts. Richard spent another two and a half years full time studying with Gammell after college.
Richard Whitney, Portrait of Deborah.
I asked Richard to describe Willis and Gammell’s training methods and in both sets of responses he talked a lot about his teachers’ demonstrations. These were done directly on his work, just like Sid had done to Richard’s first portrait. You were expected to learn by example, and yet, these were not necessarily examples of how to paint. They were examples of how to see. During our interview, Richard said many times that Sid or Gammell would say something to him like, “don’t you see that tree is sort of a delicate shade of purple, not brown?” Then, after having painting it that way for him, he would more easily see it.
It was always thrilling when either Sid or Gammell would walk by and grab the charcoal or brush out of my hand.
Richard Whitney, speaking about critiques given by Willis and Gammell.
Gammell began Richard’s training with cast drawing in charcoal. “Starts, and grabbing the essentials” were more important than seeking a high finish. Most of the casts were simple, and, “did not have a lot of Greek curls.”
“We did do a lot of figure drawing, pencil drawing and charcoal, from the live model as well.”
Richard’s initial forays in paint, under Gammell, were in cast paintings. Color was introduced via still life painting and he also did similar exercises on his own, back in his corner studio at UNH.
Summer afternoons in Williamstown were for landscape painting and, surprisingly for Richard, this was a subject with which he fell in love.
Portrait painting was also something on which Gammell had his students concentrate. Richard says that portraits were begun in charcoal, on paper. Once the main shapes were drawn in, the drawing would then be transferred to the canvas. He recalls noticing that, “after you transferred the drawing, when things looked very, very good, and you then went to see it in color, things were off here and there that you wouldn’t have noticed before in the black and white.”
This idea that shape is more than a value impression is one reason why Richard currently tends to limit himself to only brief charcoal indications of shapes when he paints. “You see in color, you don’t see in black and white.”
Richard Whitney, The Thomas Carter Family.
Another aspect of Gammell’s teaching methods, of which I have also heard from others, is that he wanted his students to have a well-rounded education. He was not simply interested in just teaching them how to paint, he wanted to educate their minds as well. To that end, he often took his students to the opera and classical concerts. There were even a few students whom he sent to Harvard in order to help them learn how to write better.
I was curious to know what kinds of advice Richard would give a beginning student. His initial response was for them to learn how to draw. “Start out with cast drawing, exactly as Gammell suggested – simple casts. Focus on how to see the shape. You don’t need to spend two weeks learning how to tone the background. Gammell never had us work months and months on a cast drawing.”
Surprisingly, to me anyway, was his suggestion to “learn how to pick up a brush as soon as possible.” “Remember, Sargent’s mother used to have him go out and do a sketch a day. A few years of that and he learned how to masterfully manipulate paint.”
He also recommended that beginning students do numerous little landscape studies in order to learn how to see color. At this stage, “don’t worry composition or how to paint pictures.” “When the lighting effect is happening, stop whatever you’re doing and get the colors and values of those big masses. When the effect is not happening, work on the drawing of the scene.”
“If, after doing dozens of small studies, you find a scene you really love, render the living hell out of it. Spend a month, a month and half on it. Work on it, labor it. Over-labor on it and force yourself to see it as accurately as you can in terms of color, shape and everything else. Push it to the limit. Do that with one or two paintings each year, those are your calling cards, the things you show in national exhibits to get awards. The rest of the stuff you do to sell, to try to earn a living.”
Richard Whitney, Changing Seasons, Crescent Pond.
He advised painting small still lifes to learn how to blend and manipulate edges. “Gammell would sometimes have us spend two or three days, just going over our still life, redoing the edges.” This statement I took to mean both the mechanical aspects of turning an edge as well as the visual, observational aspects.
To those who have just finished training, he recommended finding a part-time job which will provide a living and the opportunity to paint during your free time. Do the best you can to find a studio space, as ideal as possible. If you can only get light from the east, instead of north, paint in the afternoon, and so on. Don’t let anything stand in your way, be it materials, space, etc. “Spend your time painting and learning to see, finding your vision and saying what you want.”
“Never give up. Never surrender.”
“Don’t be a follower.”
He also wanted artists who are just beginning their careers to understand that some things are not worth fretting over. “Choose your battles. You don’t have to finish everything you ever start. If it’s just not working out, throw it away.”
Similarly, when painting deaders (what Mr. Lack called a posthumous portrait from a photograph), Richard stressed that no one could do a perfect job on that type of subject. Do your best but don’t waste too much time.
Richard then relayed a conversation that he had with the late Sam Rose, one of Gammell’s longtime students. Sam told Richard to remember that many of the great nineteenth-century artists who we admire were either born into money or married into it. Those few who came up from the bottom, and made it, did so because they were also very good businessmen.
Richard Whitney, the cover of Painting the Visual Impression.
The book’s genesis lay in the fact that Gammell asked his students to keep notes of his comments and critiques. Richard did just that, and over the years has taught many of his own classes out of that notebook.
If repeating himself to his students, year after year, was not enough of an inducement to make a book out of his notes, one night after a class he accidentally left the notebook on the roof of his car. Forty-five miles later, he realized what had happened. It took him until 4AM, driving back and forth in the dark, before he finally found it lying in a ditch by the side of the road.
In the late 90s, Pat and Jeff Jerde printed Richard’s book into booklet form. Years later he took it upon himself to do a full color version (which is still available here), and in 2014 he spent five to six weeks, revising the book in order to go digital.
Painting the Visual Impression is a book which covers the principles of painting, rather than a presentation of techniques. It presents the why behind others’ how’s. It is highly recommended, and should be in every representational painter’s studio.
Richard, his wife Sandy Sherman, and a number of friendly black bears, live in the woods of south-western New Hampshire. Their home, Studios at Crescent Pond, is nationally recognized as a Backyard Wildlife Habitat.