We’ve all experienced it…certain works of art that embed themselves in our consciousness; although seen many years ago, James Tennison’s, “His Life-Giving Touch”, is one such work for me…profound in message and execution, it is reminiscent of his many striking and memorable works.
Important to the dramatic impact of his paintings is his close observation of the effect of light – sunlight and shadow – and the colors seen in shadows and reflected light. “I try to always be aware of the light source – its brightness and temperature. I determine what the temperature of the light is and then look for colors in the shadow that are opposite on the color wheel. Of course getting the values right is critical.”
Although he often works from photographic reference, it’s the local geography, neighborhoods and landmarks, as well as landscapes and other subjects from his travels that inspire his work. “I paint those things that I find beautiful and fascinating”, he says.
It’s with pleasure that I share with you this interview with James Tennison. (Click images to enlarge).
Why are you an artist? It feels as though I was called to be an artist. There is nothing else I’d rather be.
Who have been your strongest artistic influences? Dan McCaw and John Asaro were my greatest influences in art school. John Singer Sargent, Joaquin Sorolla, Vermeer, Andrew Wyeth, Sir Alfred Munnings and Frank Benson are just a few of the artists who continue to influence and inspire.
“I believe that mankind is born with a God-given creative spark. I’m not sure that you can teach creativity but you can teach skills and methods that can nurture a talent.”
How did your illustration background prepare you for a fine art career? How did you make that transition, and what difficulties did you encounter? I am very grateful for my illustration background — initially for the great education I received in the fundamentals of drawing, design, color and composition and then for the discipline it taught me as a professional illustrator. When computers entered the illustration world, I knew I didn’t want to go that route. Having tired of commercial art, I wanted to do paintings that would hang on a wall and be enjoyed and appreciated, hopefully for a long time. I sort of stumbled into doing commissioned portraits, which proved to be a good way to make a living. Since I had always enjoyed painting people, the transition from illustration to fine arts was not too difficult.
How much does your work reflect your personality? If I am painting honestly and naturally, then I know that my work reflects my personality, even in ways that I am not fully aware.
Your subjects vary greatly, what satisfaction do you find in each? I thoroughly enjoy the challenge of painting a variety of subjects — portraits, animals, landscapes, architecture etc. The common thread running through my painting of all of these subjects is the joy of observing light and shadow as it falls on them.
A significant part of your oeuvre is portraiture; you’ve received some impressive commissions and have won several awards from the Portrait Society of America…How does a portrait commission generally work, and how difficult is it for an artist to step into that field? When a client has chosen me to paint their portrait, we meet for a portrait sitting which can last anywhere from a couple of hours to a full day. During this time I get to know my subject and strive to make them as comfortable as possible, looking for a pose that is characteristic and natural. I take numerous photos which I then use as reference for painting their portrait in my studio. There are many artists in this field and it is quite competitive, but there’s always room for another good portrait artist!
What do you hope to communicate through your landscape subjects? I hope to share my emotional response to the amazing beauty found in the natural world.
“As a visual artist, art to me is my response to and expression of my feelings and emotions toward the beauty I encounter all around me.”
You paint some very complex architectural subjects, how are those constructed? I do a lot of measuring and use a straight edge to make sure my lines are straight. For a very complex architectural subject I sometimes place a grid over my reference photo and a grid on my canvas to make sure they both line up.
All your work has a solidity to it, almost a sculptural quality, convincingly occupying 3-dimensional space…How do you achieve that; how do you achieve that sense of volume/form? I’m not entirely sure. Perhaps it has something to do with trying to get the values correct and thinking in terms of the subject being made up of sculptural planes. Many of the subjects that I paint are strongly lit and have definite light and shadows and maybe this helps give them solidity.
Your use of color is dramatic, intense, yet sensitive. You must have strong opinions pertaining to the way you use color; what are they? I love the colors found in nature. Whenever I paint, I am seeking to honestly portray the colors that I see. I am fascinated with the color wheel and the principles of warm light vs cool shadows and cool light vs warm shadows.
I sense in some of your works a Maxfield Parrish influence, is that my imagination gone awry? You’re very perceptive, John! Early on in my art training at a university that mostly taught abstract expressionism, I came across a book by Maxfield Parrish. It was like a breath of fresh air to see a representational painter use color the way he did — particularIy the way he painted sunlight and shadow. I now look to other artists for inspiration but he was certainly a big influence when I was younger.
What colors are typically found on your palette? Titanium White, Cadmium Yellow Light, Cadmium Yellow Deep, Yellow Ochre, Cadmium Orange, Cadmium Red Light, Quinacridone Rose, Transparent Red Iron Oxide, Viridian, Cerulean, Cobalt Blue and Ultramarine Blue.
How do you determine the color scheme for a painting? For most paintings, I rely on nature to guide me with a color scheme. I feel that the closer I get to nature, the better the color will be. Although, sometimes it’s not only a matter of painting the color you see, but painting the color you feel. For an indoor painting, such as a portrait with a neutral colored background, I will do some color studies to determine the color scheme. I want the painting to have a color harmony and so will often incorporate some of the colors in the figure or their clothing in the background color.
“I try to always be aware of the light source — its brightness and temperature. I determine what the temperature of the light is and then look for colors in the shadow that are opposite on the color wheel. Of course getting the values right is critical.”
Many of your works exhibit a wonderful sensitivity to reflected light; what determines the value and color of reflected light? I am fascinated by reflected light and how it affects the color and value around it — and particularly in the shadows. In the shadows there is more temperature change than value change. I never want the value in the shadow side to be as light as the value in the light side. I often think in terms of planes and how light is reflected off of them. For example, outdoors on a sunny day I’m conscious of planes facing up being affected by the sky, and planes facing down being affected by the warm reflected light of the earth bouncing back up.
Please explain your painting process. Simple to complex; general to specific. I like to start my paintings by drawing in the big shapes with a brush, then placing my darkest dark and brightest color early on so that I can determine my values and colors accurately. After that it is series of adjustments and refinements over the entire canvas. I rarely finish a painting in one go, but prefer to work in stages, letting each stage dry before I add another layer. I often scrape off excess thick paint with a palette knife, which creates a smoother underpainting upon which I can build.
How much knowledge of human and animal anatomy do you possess? I have a basic knowledge of human and animal anatomy.
Place these words in order of importance: color, technique, drawing, composition, framing, value, concept. This is tricky and I feel the order can change with different paintings. Concept, drawing, value, color, composition, technique, framing?
How do you suggest someone go about improving their drawing? Work, work, work. Keep a sketchbook. There is just no substitute for mileage on your pencil or brush.
What advice do you have for those wanting to make fine art their full-time profession? Work hard at doing the very best work you possibly can. Never stop learning and growing. Follow your heart and passion. Keep the overhead low. It has been an extremely rewarding profession for me and I heartily recommend it!
How do you determine the price for your work? Discussing money is my least favorite part of this job. I have relied on my agents for guidance in the area of pricing. They usually price my work quite a bit higher than I would, so that has worked out well!
If you weren’t an artist, what would you like to do for a living? Maybe a guitar player, except that I don’t like performing.
Any exciting things in the works? A possible three-man show with two much-respected friends and a possible relocation. But I’m not at liberty to discuss either of these at this time.
Thank you, John, for this honor of appearing on your blog. I have long enjoyed reading your informative and insightful interviews with so many talented artists.
For more of Tennison’s work
I sincerely thank you for taking the time to do this interview with me, James. I’m so pleased to be able to share your extraordinary talent with others.
John Pototschnik is an Art Renewal Center Associate Living Master
To view his art and bio, please click HERE.