It’s difficult for me to put into words the impact Charlie Hunter’s work has on me, maybe that’s what makes it so great. Attempting to explain his work from an analytical point of view leaves one empty and unfulfilled. At least for me, there’s such an emotional depth to his work that it leaves me with a feeling of ineptitude when trying to comment on it.
The fact that his work is mostly monochromatic in no way diminishes the emotion it evokes, in fact, it illustrates a very powerful truth…the power of a painting is not in its color. Hunter’s work reminds me of the old sepia-toned photos that so grabbed my attention.
When I asked Charlie to organize a group of key words that us artists use continually, his response received a big “Amen” from me…and his reasoning for each is not to be missed.
His painting techniques are “moderately unorthodox…such as manipulating paint with a window washer’s squeegee to achieve a suite of effects or impressing the pattern of paper towels into a painted surface to evoke the halftone screens and ben-day dots of classic photographic reproduction. I want these to be noted, almost subconsciously, by the viewer. Concurrently, the thin, semi-transparent paint film allows for somewhat random mark-making to appear almost photographic in detail.”
When asked to give his definition of a successful artist, he said: “Being a decent human being who acts with reasonable kindness and integrity, gives back to the community, is able to make a living and create art that is honest and exploratory to the best of their abilities and imagination. That seems like quite enough.” I couldn’t agree more.
I had the pleasure of meeting Charlie at the 2019 Plein Air Convention in San Francisco; got to watch his demo, laughed continually at his stories and sense of humor…and his intelligence. His ability to analyze a situation and offer a brilliant analogy is a gift and something you are going to appreciate in this interview.
I’m so pleased to offer this to you. (Click images to enlarge)
How did it come about that you are an artist? My father was a small-town printer; there was always a lot of paper and cool stuff to play with around the house. Even though my mom couldn’t draw her way out of a paper bag, both my parents were very encouraging of visual expression – there was a 3’x6’ bulletin board in the kitchen that was very heavily used. From my earliest memories, working things out in a visual language has always felt very natural.
What steps did you take to establish your professional career? I wanted to be a graphic designer – I had no real interest in being a painter; it didn’t even really occur to me. I took a year off after high school and, to earn money for college, worked at home in Vermont as a not-very-good sign painter. During college, I was an art major with a concentration in graphic design and was forced to take a painting class my senior year. All four years I painted signs and did graphics for a rock nightclub, and that led to a job designing tour posters for hundreds of touring bands of the eighties, during which time I joined a life-drawing group and started painting recreationally. I was a music manager for singer/songwriters for a dozen years, then moved back to Vermont in the early ‘aughts. There I started promoting live music events, including chartered music trains, and began painting more seriously.
All of which is to say that I had inadvertantly given myself a great background in what one needs to know in order to survive as a working artist. I started showing regionally, and, after I was invited to join the Putney Painters in 2009, Richard Schmid, Nancy Guzik and a couple of the other painters urged me to start working nationally.
How do you view your role as an artist? That’s a hard question. To a great extent, it is just the job I chose; it’s the thing I happen to know how to do; there’s an audience for it, so I can paint and make a living. I am just very fortunate that I love my work. I think art should be trying to hit a “truth,” so I suppose my feelings are a bit more nuanced than it just being a job; but how cool is it to have a job as an aspirational truth-teller, especially in such an imperfect, vulgar world?
Do you have a definition for art? Supreme Court justice Potter Stewart’s famous quote about obscenity in Jacobellis vs. Ohio sums it up pretty well: “I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced within that shorthand description, and perhaps I could never succeed in intelligibly doing so. But I know it when I see it.”
Your work is tremendously appealing and uniquely your own; how did this come about? I like to say that my style came out of ‘panic born of ineptitude,’ by which I mean that in 2004 I was water boy at a Stuart Shils workshop and I got really frustrated while trying to capture an outdoor scene in a limited amount of time, and I mashed all my colors together. Basically, I thought, “I have two hours, I have to get my drawing right, my composition right, my values right, my edges right, my colors right. What variable can I eliminate?” Shils was tremendously encouraging – he said something along the lines of “this seems to work really well for you,” and that kind of gave me the confidence to stay with it.
I am incredibly fortunate to have – as writing teachers say, “found my voice” – to have found a way to communicate my ideas authentically and forcefully. I think I was lucky to stumble across it as a fully-formed adult, so I wasn’t specifically trying to fit in or be accepted by a larger group.
You are one of just a few artists that work basically monochromatically; why do you prefer this approach? Painting well is not easy. Painting outdoors with highly-variable light and weather is even harder. By not having to overly worry about chroma, it gives one more time to get the other components right. There is also an unexpected benefit – monochromatic painting triggers photographic comparisons in the mind of the viewer – so I can not only reference Monet, or Hopper, or whoever – I can also bring Cartier-Bresson or Walker Evans into the picture. I work with more color in the studio, but it basically comes down to the fact that, for whatever reason, I am more moved by the passage of light through a transparent paint film than an opaque one.
The limited palette, near monochromatic nature of my paintings are, I hope, somewhat analogous to the stripped-down writing approach of a Raymond Carver or Hemingway, attempting to eschew extra verbiage for imagery that is pared down to sinew and bone.
What is it that makes your work so emotionally gratifying? Probably the transparent paint film! Seriously, I think it is the fact that I have spent the time to learn how to draw fairly well, so I’m not having to expend energy on that particular battle, and instead I can concentrate on presentation of content. I try not to paint cliche or shtick. I may or may not succeed, but each time I put brush to surface, I aspire to be emotionally truthful.
To me, the prevailing mood of your body of work is introspective, even melancholy; is that a reflection on me, or does that reflect your personality and what you want to communicate, as well? I grew up in New England as small-scale agriculture and local industry were basically dying; railroad branch lines were atrophying, once-vibrant towns were hollowing out, farm fields were going fallow. That just felt – and still feels – tremendously important, especially when one sees that the dominant narratives in the media seem to be about stuff that has nothing to do with that. The challenge is not to be one-dimensionally nostalgic, but to strike a resonant chord that hopefully hasn’t been hit a thousand times before.
I strive for my paintings to reside in an uneasy calm, half way between a photograph and a memory. The work of photographers such as Lange or Evans resonate in manner similar, yet distinctively different than -say- the paintings of Hopper or Joseph Stella or Franz Kline. All, however, coexist in our collective visual language.
It seems to me, design/composition is the most important aspect of your work; do you hold to a particular set of compositional guidelines? Not really consciously, though I had four years of extremely rigorous graphic design training by the spectacularly dour Inge Druckry (https://youtu.be/ldSkPqZKBl0), and that seared a whole passel of compositional guidelines into my noggin.
I do think that the ‘rule of thirds’ is a really good one, though I often break it – but when I do so, I am doing it for a specific purpose. If I put an object dead-center in a painting, it is because I am very deliberately using the conventions of portraiture – I am saying to the viewer, “this is the subject of my painting.”
How do you determine the concept for a painting? A painting is really an abstract arrangement of shapes and values. The ostensible “subject matter” is just the way we -as creator and (hopefully) as viewer – step into that world. What I’m looking for is interesting lighting on an arrangement of objects that have enough emotional resonance to carry me into a more purely abstracted world.
When selecting a subject, what are you looking for? If painting plein air, I drive around until something strikes me and I figure out if I can set up in the shade and in a place where I can concentrate. If there’s going to be direct sun on me and my palette, or my surface, that’s sort of a deal breaker. Similarly, if it’s a busy, tourist-choked spot, I’ll set up elsewhere. The homeless population is generally okay to paint around, though someone, somewhere is always over-eager to show you their botched appendectomy scars. If working in the studio, I look through hundreds of photos I’ve taken on various trips and forays until something clicks. Then I’ll usually do a drawing from the photo in order to try to get at least one step away from working directly from a photo.
A notable characteristic of your work is seen in the various type of edges employed…from very soft to extremely hard; how do you decide which edges you want to emphasize? I do what my master told me to do. Richard Schmid drilled this into my head: “Squint at reality. Stare at your painting.” And the answer usually appears.
You’re using Cobra Water-Mixable Oils; why have you chosen them and how do their handling characteristics differ from traditional oils? WMO’s do not behave precisely like traditional oils and people just need to let go of a thought that they should. My analogy is that you can make a fantastic vegetarian dinner – just think of Indian food! But if you try to make a hamburger out of vegetables, it just isn’t really going to duplicate it – you want a burger? Get a burger.
The Cobras themselves are basically the same as Rembrandt oils – they are artist-grade oil paints – it is just that the linseed oil which serves as the binder for the pigments has been modified to also mix with water…and water, when used as the volatile, just does not behave precisely like mineral spirits. That’s neither good nor bad; it just is.
The way I work, which is basically a Schmid monochromatic block-in melded with an adaptation of Dennis Sheehan paper-towel-tonalism, is well-served by water-mixable oils. I start out very watery to get my big shapes in, and then use less and less water, until I’m working with straight out-of-the-tube paint, and by the end I’m doing my fat-over-lean with a little bit of water-mixable safflower oil.
I moved to water-mixables because breathing the volatiles from traditional oils makes me want to throw up after a couple of hours. I also like how one can get a lot of watercolor effects using WMO’s that I think would be harder to achieve with conventional oils. So you can have some nice, ethereal, drippy passages in a painting next to a lovely, built-up, gritty bit of oily density.
The Cobras are very buttery in consistency. If people like a stiffer paint, I think the Holbein Duos are of excellent quality. There are numerous other brands -a couple I’d steer folks away from- but also several others with which I’m unfamiliar. I am an “ambassador” for Royal Talens North America, manufacturers of Cobra, and also Rembrandt oils and pastels, and Amsterdam acrylics. That means I get free stuff, but it also means trying to educate folks about how Cobra works.
The Talens people are wonderful – they have real integrity and a commitment to quality and honesty.
Please put these words in order: Values, Composition, Framing, Color, Concept, Drawing/Edges, Technique. Concept, Composition, Drawing, Values, Edges, Color, Technique, Framing
Concept – You sort of have to know why you’re expending energy painting something. It’d be the same as starting to write a short story with no idea why you are doing so…it probably isn’t going to end well. A concept can be as simple as “I have this character I’ve thought of – now let’s see how she reacts when I have X happen.” That’s the same as saying “I like the way the light is hitting that barn door.” Which means you don’t have to have thought the whole thing through (perish the thought – that’d be pretty boring), but it does mean there has to be some impetus for putting brush to surface.
Composition – Having a sense of ordering the objects and where they go seems pretty crucial.
That flows naturally into Drawing. Drawing is what everybody should be doing a lot more of. I realize people don’t want to draw; they want to paint. But they’re going to be miserable painting if they’ve got no idea how to draw. The best analogy for this that I can think of is found by listening to the Portsmouth Sinfonia – a group of people who had no idea how to play their instruments – performing “Also Sprach Zarathustra” (https://youtu.be/hpJ6anurfuw). It’s recognizably “Also Sprach Zarathustra” but that doesn’t mean it sounds good.
Values. Squint at reality; stare at your painting. Concentrate on values.
Edges. Again, squinting is crucial. Counter intuitively, things will “read” so much better when you let go of edges. Dare to do so.
Color is the visual equivalent of adverbs and adjectives in writing. The rudiments of a story should be able to survive without those parts of speech, but a well-placed one makes a sentence sing: “…when he came downstairs and found that Muggs had moodily chewed up the morning paper, he hit him in the face with a grapefruit” works so much better than it would without the “moodily.” Everything about that sentence by James Thurber -from “The Dog That Bit People”- is wonderful, and has a corollary in painting.
Technique must evolve naturally or else it feels artificial and contrived. We all have ways of solving visual problems that work best for us; a mix of upbringing, previous jobs, how our brains work, range of physical movement, etc. Harnessing those factors to be in service to a visual truth is what “technique” is. Just using a lot of a particular tool, or color, or bravura brush-strokes because one thinks it looks cool isn’t “technique,” it’s “bullshit.”
I’m assuming the word “Framing” is referring to the frame itself, and not the act of trying to figure out what to paint by using a visual cropping tool. In terms of frames, I like a frame that does its job – protecting a painting from getting damaged – and then gets out of the way. I use simple dark, oiled wood frames with no ornamentation. Totally a matter of taste, but a mediocre painting in a gorgeous frame is still going to be a mediocre painting.
From what I can tell, you just dive into a painting without much, if any, preliminary work; is that because you know beforehand what you’re going to do, or is it because you like the painting to evolve and give direction as you go? Assuming you are talking about plein air work, then occasionally I will do a quick thumbnail on site, but most of the time, yes, I just dive right in. First, I’ve put in – and continue to put in – my hours drawing in the hardbound sketchbooks I carry with me. Secondly – I have four years of Inge Druckry’s design principles seared into my head. Thirdly – I really like the spontaneity of solving problems on the fly – it’s part of the appeal of plein air painting. And yes, very often the painting will end up in a much different place than where I thought it would go when I started.
What’s the most difficult part of painting for you? In the realm of the mundane: the endless packing, shipping and attendant paperwork of inventory management and self-promotion. In the realm of the personal: self-doubt and having to fight the impulse to do what I know will win praise but doesn’t make me push my boundaries.
Who are the major influences in your life and career? Oh, golly! Almost everybody I’ve ever met in one way or another. But, for sure, in terms of life, my parents and my beloved; in terms of work – teachers Inge Druckry, Bud James, Alvin Eisenmann, William Bailey, Dennis Sheehan, Stuart Shils, Paul Ching-Bor and Richard Schmid. In terms of business – my former partner in music management Carol Young, and my old clients Chris Smither and Dar Williams. For a start.
I’m not aware of you entering art competitions, why is that? I feel like getting involved in that world is not a path I wish to travel. I’m a fairly competitive person, but I really don’t think “competition” has much of anything to do with “art.” Striving for prizes can create a whole bunch of false summits that I think can pretty easily cause us to lose track of things that are of greater importance. I don’t snort coke, either. Same thing, really.
If you were stranded alone on an island, what three books would you want with you? For sure, I’d want my copy of HOW TO SURVIVE BEING STRANDED ALONE ON AN ISLAND along with me. BUILDING AND PROVISIONING A BOAT OUT OF RANDOM DETRITUS would also be handy. And maybe a very large sketchbook if none of that works out.
Do you set artistic goals? Are you willing to share them? I want to be making the best art I can in the time I have here on earth. I’d love to have gobs of money and be super-well-respected, but not at the expense of my soul.
Tell us about your video, “Rule Breaking Landscapes” We went to Texas in December and filmed for a week. We came up with two videos – the first, RULE BREAKING LANDSCAPES, was released this Spring and goes into fairly substantial depth about my materials, while I paint a landscape. The painting that I did isn’t going to set the world on fire – it’s competent enough, though not transcendent – but that wasn’t the goal – what we were trying to do was show why I do what I do with what I do when I do it. The second video isn’t edited yet, but focuses more on the problem solving as I work through a composition and resultant painting. It has a very cool truck and some barns in it.
Finally, please share with us what is cleverly named “En Train Air”; what is it and what is its purpose? The purpose of En Train Air – a name created by the idea’s originator, Larry Moore – is at least four fold. One is to encourage painter friends to go on adventures together. Two is to bring attention to advocacy efforts to preserve a truly national passenger rail network – one that serves the whole country and not just urban corridors. Three is to introduce people to the fun and surprisingly good quality of long distance train travel (what Larry – a very funny guy – calls “a 3.5 star hotel on wheels”). And four is to utilize the arts as an economic driver for small-town America.
Knowing that I’ve always been fairly batty on the subject of trains, Larry approached me last fall about an idea he had of riding a rail line, stopping at stations along the way to paint for a day. Concurrently, I was deeply involved in efforts to thwart Amtrak plans to eliminate the train that runs daily from Chicago to Los Angeles – Amtrak management was proposing to truncate it at each end and substitute a bus for 550 miles between La Junta, Colorado and Albuquerque, New Mexico; can you imagine? So in April, Jason Sacran, Randy Sexton, Shelby Keefe, Aimee Erickson, Larry and myself rode from Chicago to La Junta, painted for a day, then on to Trinidad, Colorado (which smells like weed), Raton, NM, Las Vegas, NM, Lamy, NM and ended up with a show at McLarry, the gallery I show at in Santa Fe. It was a blast.
Now we are working on turning that journey into a painting pilgrimage a la the Camino Real in Spain, or hiking the Appalachian Trail. If you ride the train, stopping for a day to paint in each of those towns, once we verify you actually did it, you’ll get your name on a brass plate on a display at the Lamy train station. We are working on a dedicated website, EnTrainAir.org, but until that’s ready, the page on my website, https://www.CharlieHunter.art/calendar-EnTrainAir has the basic outline. Also we have a Facebook page, https://www.facebook.com/EnTrainAir. Join us!
To view more of Charlie Hunter’s work, click HERE
Next week: The creative process behind the creation of my painting “Of the Land”.
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I’m pleased to announce the release of my latest teaching video and book. The video and accompanying book, shown here, along with my first video, “Limited Palette Landscape”, include everything I’ve taught in my workshops. You can now take my oil painting workshop right in the comfort of your home, and for a lot less money than physically being present. (Click image to learn more)
To own an original painting from the book, please click HERE
John Pototschnik is an Art Renewal Center Living Master. To view his art and bio, please click HERE.