My day with Kenn Backhaus

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Listen to Kenn Backhaus speak and you quickly realize he is an excellent teacher. His knowledge of art, love of painting, and brimming enthusiasm for the work of many great painters of the past just flows from him as water from a beautiful fountain. Walk with him through a museum and he is ever curious, ever learning, ever inspecting, ever marveling, ever thinking of his students and what he can impart to them. He sees things others don’t see, and always finds something admirable to say about the works of artists he doesn’t particularly care for. He’s a darn good painter himself, being confirmed by his Oil Painters of America peers as a Master painter.

Another side of Kenn revealed itself during my show with Elizabeth Robbins at the Highlands Art Gallery in Lambertville, New Jersey. He not only helped gallery owner, Cheryl Macdowall, unpack and hang paintings for our show, but he selflessly devoted two days of his time to be there to help us with whatever was needed, and even promoted our work to visitors.  When I asked him if he was going to demonstrate along with us, he said, “Oh no, this is not about me, this is about you guys. It’s your show.” He was there to serve and his kindness did not go unnoticed.

Following our trip to The Met (HERE), my wife and I extended our stay in New Hope, Pennsylvania for a few days in order to explore some of Bucks County. Kenn suggested we take a day to paint together. Two sites were recommended, one of which was to artist Daniel Garber’s homestead in Cuttalossa…about six miles north of New Hope. That appealed to me.

I was familiar with the Daniel Garber name but would have been unable to tell you much about him or his work. I have since become a fan and will feature him in next week’s blog. For now, I’ll mention that he studied under Frank Duveneck at the Art Academy of Cincinnati, and later, at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Art, when in 1905 he won a Fellowship from the school which allowed him to study in Europe for two years. Greatly influenced in Europe by the work of Claude Monet, Camille Pissarro and Alfred Sisley, his work was changed forever.

Daniel Garber – “Lowry’s Island” – 28″ x 30″ – Oil (1927)


Driving through the countryside to Garber’s farm, large trees pressed against the road’s edge. Red, yellow, orange, brown and green leaves formed an intricate patchwork of color as autumn began to take hold in Pennsylvania…and suddenly we were there…a clearing, a group of buildings, all illuminated by the beautiful afternoon sunlight. (Click images to enlarge)

Part of the Daniel Garber farm: House, studio (barely visible behind small building), grounds.

Daniel Garber’s former house. Studio is off to the right.

Across the road from the Garber house and studio.

Kenn Backhaus painting at Daniel Garber’s former home on Cuttalossa Road.


Here, I’ll let Kenn Backhaus pick it up from here.

“Over the years that I have lived in the area, I’ve had the chance to paint on and around the Daniel Garber property, known to the locals as the Cuttalossa Farm. Years ago, when first moving here, I conducted a workshop with a local workshop organizer. The organizer had acquired permission for myself and my students to paint at farm. Obviously, who would turn down such an opportunity? I took advantage of this offer and brought my workshop students for a day of painting on and around this historic location. There are many out buildings, including Garber’s home, studio, sheds, a rental house, and across Cuttalossa Road, which runs right by the property, a wonderful old mill with a working waterwheel and small pond which yields great reflections of the mill.  The owner at that time came out to visit my students and offered to give us a tour of the studio, it turned out to be a great experience for us and remains today a wonderful memory of that particular workshop. The property is rich with views and subject matter. Now, given all those opportunities and the introduction of an interesting lighting effect, the artist can almost stand in one spot and find many scenes to paint. Because I have painted around the property many times, bringing a fellow artist, John and his wife Marcia, to this special property, was a treat. To see John’s eyes light up and listen to his excitement was very satisfying; I knew we are off to a great start. Having a guest artist join me for a day of painting is to allow them first choice of a scene that they find irresistible. John soon settled on a great view looking up the driveway, giving him an opportunity to observe some of the outbuildings in the wonderful fall sunlight. Walking around, searching for myself, I chose a scene that did not necessarily reveal any of the recognizable features of the property, but one that revealed the splendid fall afternoon. I chose a view looking up Cuttalossa Road just down from the driveway of the property. Running through the property is the Cuttalossa Creek and my chosen location was looking up the road on the other side of an old bridge which crosses the creek. The view was back lit with great dappled light both on the road and the bridge itself. For me, a day out painting is an opportunity to address nature and its challenges. It’s all about learning, so I usually go with a purpose and set goals. Other times, I am looking for a good idea and an opportunity to gather reference for further creative development and use in the studio. This day had no great mission in painting, other than introducing John to this historic property. After searching and finding an idea I would like to pursue, I usually walk around the subject viewing it from various vantage points. Comparison of various vantage points offers me the best that I can observe of that particular chosen idea…it might be a different light effect or a better description of the idea I have for the subject. In my earlier years of painting I was so eager to just sling some paint, I often grabbed the first scene and started to paint away. Sometimes painting with other artists, especially seasoned ones, a newbie (as myself then) can learn much from them. In those earlier days, after grabbing a scene and painting for a while,  artists like to take occasional breaks just to clear the mind and eyes; it also gives one an opportunity to see what the other artists are painting. While taking breaks and visiting other artists, it allowed me to compare what they chose to what I had chosen. Many times I found my scene disappointing in comparison. Most of the time their views had better light effects, much more interesting dark and light shapes, all of which can either make or break the final pictorial. To say the least, it was a great learning experience and so now I take my time, search and compare one possible scene with another. I have also learned in those beginning years that I was what I now consider to be a happenstance artist..meaning, I would come home with a good painting some of the time but many times I came home with what eventually became a scrapper. I soon discovered that the successful days were days in which I was more in tune, closely following sound and historic principals that guide the representational painter. Scrapper days were those days that I did not apply those important guidelines…lessons learned very quickly!!!”

When we arrived at Garber’s place, I became one of those newbies Kenn speaks of. I knew instantly what I wanted to paint and set up immediately to capture the view. Later, when inspecting more of the property, I was still happy with my choice. I did not, however, consider how quickly the light would change during that part of the day. After placing the subject elements, I set the major shadows, but as you can see, I didn’t get very far before there were significant changes to the scene.

I used a Jack Richeson Premium Gesso Panel toned with an umber wash.

“Daniel Garber Homestead” – 6.25″ x 9″ – Oil  (Completed in studio)

This is the view Kenn chose to paint.


The way Kenn begins a painting varies, sometimes he tones the whole canvas with the complement of the dominant color of the scene. Other times, he will start with a thinned application of various colors all over canvas, generally capturing the subject at hand.

Kenn started with large masses of relatively thin paint, giving general colors to the various elements of the scene. Detail is of no interest at this point; establishing the foundation, or what he often refers to as “the bones of the scene” is more important. The moment of light can quickly be frozen by using this approach.

After a general massing in of the proper value and color, the painting can continue to be refined with more attention given to individual shapes.


Backhaus continues, “Sometimes my quick studies reveal only good color and value of the scene without bothering with additional details. These studies are used back in the studio along with some sort of photographic reference. There are situations either late or early in the day that the light effect goes away or changes too rapidly. A quick small study can still produce valuable information to be used at a later date.”

Some outings are just for gathering some good color, value and a possible light effect. At this point the original light effect has changed and left for the day. “But, its always great to be out observing nature!”

Back in the studio with fresh eyes, Kenn is pleased with the light effect, but believes the idea is questionable as a stand alone piece. “It may need an addition to the idea…maybe a figure or two walking in the distance. Either way, it was a great time to share with John this wonderful historic location here in beautiful Bucks County Pennsylvania.”


When I interviewed Kenn in February of 2016 (HERE), I asked him a few questions related to plein air painting. You’ll find his responses helpful.

You paint a wide variety of subject matter; what is the motivating factor when choosing a subject?   It took me a while to figure out why I am all over the board when it comes to subjects that interest me. Most of it first comes from loving a variety of subjects. I now realize that it’s more about the challenge of creating the illusion of light and shadow,  or the light effect of a subject, that seems to be a motivating factor.

What colors are typically found on your palette?   Titanium White, Cadmium Lemon, Cadmium Yellow, Raw Sienna, Permanent Rose, Alizarin Crimson, French Ultramarine Blue, Transparent Oxide Brown, Ivory Black.

Kenn’s palette used during our paint out. Looks like the same colors as listed above.

This one might be ready for the Museum of Modern Art


How do you achieve color harmony?   A lesser mother base of colors on ones palette will naturally help to keep harmony. We can easily visualize a painting constructed only with black and white possessing a very simple harmony. Add one additional color and you will probably still have harmony. Add twenty additional colors, and if not managed properly, you could lose the harmony very quickly. In addition, the understanding of the various light effects (cool and warm) on the subject will automatically aid in controlling and developing harmony in the scene.

How do you determine a painting’s concept, and what steps do you follow to make sure that concept is carried through to finish?   Every painting should first start with the concept. That concept could be subject orientated or effect orientated. It may be the atmosphere that is the overpowering element, it could be the complexities of the subject or its simplicities. Whatever the concept, that concept determines the technique used…more rendered, less rendered, broken color, impressionistic, high key, middle key, low key value, or a more graphic approach. All these considerations contribute to the goal of the painting. This keeps me always focused, otherwise it’s too easy to lose focus and you may, for instance, start rendering elements that should only be placed in suggestively.

When you paint on location, what are your purpose, motivation, and goals? Is it your desire to capture what you see, or is there something more you want to achieve?   Observation is the key goal! Looking for a subject to paint is a personal experience. What moves me may not move you and vise-a-versa. Usually when I find myself turning my head twice to look at something, there’s an interest to that particular scene from those viewed just prior. By nature we can’t help but compare, so go ahead and compare one scene with another and find out why one scene is attracting your attention over another. For me it could be the particular subject, the light and shadow on the subject, or the atmosphere and mood of the scene. So many various elements could be the reason one becomes attracted.  At this point I will determine which element is the attraction, it could be only one of those mentioned or it could be a couple that peak my interest. I feel it’s best to determine which element or effect I should portray in this pictorial. By establishing the direction, I automatically set a goal that I will work to achieve. This keeps me focused on the important elements of the scene and allows me to better edit out information that does not aid in the direction I decided to take the pictorial. One never knows what can happen along the way while painting on-location; fog rolls in and changes the mood or focal point, or something enters into the scene that is irresistible. So, I always leave the door open to the possibility of changing the goal of the painting.

***If you’re looking for a good mentor/instructor, Kenn’s your man. Seeing him in action at The Met, always thinking about what he can show his students that will help them, convinced me that he cares about those that seek his instruction.

You’re offering online instruction, and your classes are very popular; what can a student expect to gain from them?   My teaching formats and philosophies haven’t changed, whether teaching on-line courses or in-person. My educational programs stem from the historic principles and foundations of art that guide us in creating a quality pictorial. Teaching preparation, structure, and developing good habits will result in an opportunity to create good art. When this is harnessed with the student’s passion, it’s a recipe for great results.

Thanks Kenn for contributing your insights and images for this article and for taking me to the Garber farm. It was a day I won’t soon forget. I appreciate your friendship.

For more of Kenn’s work, click HERE.

Next week: Pennsylvania impressionist, Daniel Garber


Wishing all the readers of my blog posts a wonderful Thanksgiving. There is much to be thankful for, and much we need to pray about, but I am most thankful that God sent His Son as our savior and redeemer. There is no greater gift to be thankful for than that. May God bless each of you.

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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.



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