Thomas R. Dunlay, Summer Breeze.
Thomas R. Dunlay is a Boston-area artist who specializes in cityscapes and outdoor figure painting. In the early 70s he was a student of both Robert Douglas Hunter and R. H. Ives Gammell. Tom and I met online a few years ago, through Facebook, and recently he agreed to a phone interview. Our discussion often drifted to talk of Gammell, his teachings and philosophy. As such, this article is perhaps as much about Mr. Gammell as it is about Tom.
Tom Dunlay’s story is like that of many artists from his generation, when opportunities for learning how to see1 were almost unheard of. Tom lived in Boston, which was also home to R. H. Ives Gammell. Unfortunately, proximity does not always equal awareness. His initial influence was his father, a World War II veteran. Tom remembers his dad drawing every day, at a small easel he had set up in his the bedroom.
As he became a young adult, Tom knew that he wanted to paint like Sargent and Homer, two of his favorites.
In the middle of the Vietnam war (1969), he began studying at the Massachusetts College of Art. It was a very odd time as many were trying to close the school down in order to turn it into an anti-war poster factory. Instructors there discouraged his pursuit because representational art was then considered passé. Clearly, his needs were not being met, so he starting looking elsewhere.
He did not really know exactly for what or for whom he was searching, but he spent the following two years reading American Artist magazine, looking for and contacting artists with whom he might be able to study. For one reason or another, all inquiries resulted in dead-ends.
Thomas Dunlay, Nantucket Harbor.
In 1971, while still at Mass. Art, he was fortunate to be able to see a major retrospective of the Boston Painters which was held at the Museum of Fine Arts. That show reaffirmed his belief that there had to be someone still alive who knew how to paint as he yearned to; someone who had a connection with Sargent’s generation (Sargent had died in 1925, only 45 years before Tom’s search for a competent teacher).
One day while visiting the Copley Society he met the manager, an octogenarian named Bill Pitt. Still on the hunt for proper instruction, Tom took the opportunity to discuss his dilemma and asked Bill if he knew of anyone who might be able to help. Tom described Bill’s answer as follows. “Oh yah, there is.” Then he walked out the front of the building and pointed Tom down to the end of Newbury street. “There’s a gentleman who paints at the Fenway Studios, named R. H. Ives Gammell, and he’s been doing what you’re looking for since the 1940s. You should give him a call.”
Massachusetts College of Art was a mere mile and a half away from the Fenway Studios – the place where Gammell worked and taught. Without being aware of it, Tom had been within two miles of Gammell’s studio for the last two years. Furthermore, Gammell had been a student of many of the men whose works were in the aforementioned show at the MFA.
Tom was able to set an appointment. While at the time he had no idea who Gammell was, looking back on the event it was like getting an appointment with God. You entered Gammell’s studio through a balcony. As Tom remembers, on first sight he knew he was home. Finally, someone who focused on seeing and painting what you saw.
Thomas R. Dunlay, Summer Thoughts.
After the usual portfolio inspection and questions about who the painters were that Tom admired, Gammell told Tom that he had no room for another student. However, he asked that Tom go down the hall and speak to one of his former students, Robert Douglas Hunter. More impressive to Tom than Gammell’s studio was what he next saw.
At the time, the Fenway Studios housed a number of painter’s studios. In addition to Gammell’s studio was one for his students. Hunter also had one and so did his students. Tom’s first encounter down the hall was of David Lowery and Ernest Principato, two of Hunter’s students (as well as future Gammell students), were working at their easels.
Tom recalls that, after two years at Mass. Art, “where many talented students left due to the institution’s direction, to walk into the studio and see two people your own age working on cast drawings which looked like the source cast was an amazing experience.”
It was late spring and Hunter’s students were going to Provincetown, MA for the landscape painting season. Tom had a van and offered to drive. Hunter arrived in June and eventually Tom was able to get critiques from him. He stayed the summer and as such Tom’s first brush with learning to see was painting landscapes with Hunter. Over those few months he did numerous small, 8″ x 10″ starts, sometimes a half dozen in a day.
When the group moved back to Boston that September, Tom followed and continued to study with Hunter at Fenway for the winter and spring. During the course of the school year Hunter had him do a number of cast drawings.
Late that spring Tom found a note under the door of his studio. It was from Mr. Gammell, asking Tom to come see him later that afternoon. The result of that conversation was an invitation to study directly with Gammell. After a few weeks of cast drawing in Gammell’s studio, Tom went to Williamstown, MA with Mr. Gammell for the summer season – something which Mr. Gammell often did with his students during the summers. The morning schedule in Williamstown was identical to that in Boston: cast, still life and portraits in the studio. Afternoons were for landscape painting.
Mr. Gammell critiquing one of Tom’s out of door figures in Williamstown, Massachusetts.
The transition from Hunter to Gammell was an easy one, since both artists taught the same principles.
Tom told me that studying with Gammell was the single most amazing thing he has ever experienced. “He did not just teach you in the studio, he taught you every aspect of life.” When you became a student of Gammell’s you were given a library card for the Boston Atheneum and you were expected to use it. He demanded that you read, it did not matter what, and on Fridays you would discuss what you were reading with him. You were also provided with season tickets to the Boston Opera as well as frequent trips to the New York Metropolitan Opera and Symphony. Gammell’s goal was to give you both the visual and intellectual tools to succeed at painting and life.
Looking back on it, there was one benefit Tom received from his time at Mass. Art. During the purge of the school’s cast collection, one of the attendants gave him two life-size Caproni cast reproductions: the Discobolus and the Germanicus. Tom had these brought into Gammell’s studio. Given that they were life size, the students were able to do cast drawings as one would a figure model.
Thomas R. Dunlay, Winter Snowfall.
As mentioned above, both Hunter and Gammell started Tom’s training with cast drawing. During our conversations Tom said a number of times, “Sight-Size was paramount for Gammell. It was all about seeing, simply seeing the shapes and the values accurately – about learning how to model and to turn the edge.” These skills were more important than seeking an high level of finish. “He [Gammell] was not as interested as a lot of people might think in making incredibly highly finished drawings.” Tom remembers Mr. Gammell saying, “‘Don’t to try to render it up,’ meaning, don’t get consumed with details and tickling it up, concentrate on the big look.”
“Seeing shapes in a big, truthful and painterly way” were Gammell’s focus. “Seeing them truthfully and accurately, and then moving on. Not dwelling for the sake of technique and modeling.” One help for succeeding at this was the proper viewing distance. Tom quotes Mr. Gammell: “When setting up your arrangement, whether a head or still life, make your viewing spot a distance of three times the height of the tallest object, so you can see it as a whole.”
With Mr. Gammell, cast drawing began by measuring with with plumb-bobs, levels, mahl sticks, etc. – tools that were merely used as steps in the process of learning to see. All along students were encouraged to simply make one-to-one comparisons and to see the shapes and measurements truthfully by eye, not relying on mechanical aides. Why? “Because although it can be helpful initially, with [mechanical] measuring you rarely get it exactly right.”
Gammell’s biggest catchphrase was, “Take advantage of what nature offers you.”
During the interview Tom highlighted how much emphasis Gammell placed on landscape painting. According to Tom, Gammell thought that “landscape painting was one of the most vital things a student needed to learn and master, regarding all forms of painting. It is absolutely vital. You could not possibly become a complete painter without acquiring a complete knowledge of painting out of doors.”
A common Gammell critique inside the studio, whether it be for a still life, figure or portrait, was to: “Paint it as if you were painting a landscape, don’t paint it as if you were painting a still life. Paint it broad and simple. If you approach your indoor work in the same way as your outdoor work, you will convey the truth of it much better.”
The discussion then shifted to Tom’s work and even through that his admiration and respect for Mr. Gammell showed through. He instilled in Tom “the appreciation for the beauty of nature out of doors and rendering the appearance of nature.” That’s what excites him the most.
He loves painting architecture, but not in an architect-type manner. Tom prefers the appearance of things over what they are composed of.
He and his family spend their summers on Nantucket. Every summer for the last 25 years he has hired a model in order to pose her on the beach. This aspect, among many others in Tom’s work, reminds me of Frank Benson and Edmund Tarbell. Like Tom, both painters enjoyed painting from the out of door model.
Thomas R. Dunlay, The Blue Dory.
Tom works on-site almost all the time, regardless of the size of the painting. Occasionally he will do a small, preparatory painting in order to work out the composition, etc., but more often he’ll simply get right to work on the main piece. One goal is to continually “paint the thing as a whole.” That process requires one to “always go for the back straggler – the thing that’s furthest wrong.” There is no sky, tree, ocean, etc. Everything together forms a single unit. He wants to “capture that magic moment, the time of year, the time of day, the hour of day.” And to do that requires a careful observation of nature.
Tom, painting The Blue Dory.
His process, as learned from Mr. Gammell, helps him to keep the spontaneity of the effect in a painting, even after many sessions of work. Relative to that, Tom mentioned “controlling your surface” a number of times. After the first session, while the surface is still wet, he scrapes it down, “bone flat” with a palette knife. What’s left has a smooth, ghosted out and stain-like appearance, while still being texturally like a fresh canvas. The remaining paint also retains the drawing and composition of the piece. The painting might then be set in the sun to thoroughly dry, or “bake.” The result for the next painting session is a surface on which it is wonderful to paint. As the painting progresses, he might repeat the same process on sections which need it. This process is important because, being a painter who chases visual effects, he sometimes needs to keep a painting alive for years before finishing it. All that scraping does not mean that Tom is in pursuit of a flat, polished surface, quite the contrary, Tom revels in surface, painterly effects. He likes to “let the paint build up, drag a dry brush, and to create a wonderful crumbly effect.”
As an aside, Charles Cecil taught me to do the same thing, even with studio pictures. I had seen the resulting look in mid-to-late Velazquez paintings as well, but always wondered from where Charles got the idea. Was it indirectly, from Velazquez, or was it from someone else. Now I know that it was Mr. Gammell.
Besides Benson, Tarbell and Metcalf, Tom is enamored with Dennis Miller Bunker. “Bunker is the standard to aspire to, he says it all. When you look at a Bunker you see the amount of effort, made to look effortless.” He then took me back to our earlier discussion of the painting’s surface and quoted Bunker directly, “Everyday was in preparation for the next day.”
In a follow-up conversation, Tom added another saying of Bunker’s which Gammell would quote:
“The painting of a picture from life is a process of making corrections each session until the day arrives when you do not have the skills necessary to correct the picture further.”
He is optimistic about the current state of representational art. Young people have far more opportunities to learn and there are many more gallery options available than there were when he was just out of school. The market as a whole is now much more receptive as well.
Thomas R. Dunlay, Quince Street, Nantucket.
Tom also owns a number of palettes once used by the likes of John Singer Sargent, Frank Benson, and R. H. Ives Gammell. He and his son offer reproductions of them, for sale here.
For five years Tom was the president of the Guild of Boston artists. When not teaching workshops, Tom will likely be found somewhere on location, oftentimes near his studio on Nantucket Island, Massachusetts.
1The concept of learning to see is not something which I came up with for this site. It is one of the hallmarks of Gammell’s teaching. Tom mentioned Gammell in this respect a number of times during the interview.