Stapleton Kearns interview

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What do you ask a guy that has blogged about art for several years…in fact, every day for 1000 days? Is there anything he hasn’t discussed, opined about, or revealed within what ultimately amounted to 1023 postings? That was certainly a concern when I contacted Stapleton asking if he’d submit to an interview.

I first learned of Kearns several years ago when one of my workshop students encouraged me to read his blog. I was instantly hooked and began following his writings daily, being continually impressed with his knowledge, clear thinking, and generosity. When I began my blog in 2010, it was Kearns that was its inspiration.

Stape doesn’t blog much anymore. When I asked him about that, he said there isn’t much more he can say. It’s all there in his blog archives.

To all readers of this blog…if you have a question about the art business, art history, techniques, drawing, design, materials, color, brushwork, etc., etc., then Stapleton Kearns has most likely discussed it. Additionally, I’ve just learned that Pequod Books will be publishing a book in the near future that will be a compilation of the best parts of his more than 1300 pages of art related postings. Did you catch that? This is exciting news. So, congratulations, Stapleton…just shows what can come of a worthwhile blog.

Anyway, back to the questions. When it came to formulating the following questions, I decided to ask Kearns things of interest to me, knowing you too would benefit from his responses. Probably most of these questions have been dealt with in some form in his blogs, but you like me, haven’t read all 1023 of them. I suspect however that he hasn’t previously answered the last question.

I know you’ll enjoy this interview from one of the most knowledgeable art bloggers around.

sk - portrait 1 r

19 Questions

You are a huge admirer of the works of Edward Seago and Aldro Hibbard; what is it about their work that you find so attractive?  Both of these artists’ paintings are instantly recognizable. They have a unique and individual idea of “what to do” to a landscape. I am interested in style and design, both of these artists have lots of that. You always know their work when you see it. That is not because of their unparalleled scrutiny of nature, but the result of decisions they have made in how to represent nature. I am excited by the style they use to make their work unique and individual. They both looked at nature and said, not “what does it look like, but what can I make out of this?”

Your work seems to be most influenced by Aldro Hibbard, and yet it is distinctly different; how does one achieve that?   Someone once said if you copy one artist, that is plagiarism, if you copy a dozen, that is research! I have studied a lot of other artists and Willard Metcalf in particular has been an influence on me. He was a big influence on Hibbard too. Metcalf actually arranged to visit HIbbard in Vermont once. Also, I still have a streak of old Dutch painting in my work. I have always loved the “little Dutch masters”. My work is different though, because I am not Hibbard. After years of painting, who you are shows in your painting. I have similar goals as Aldro Hibbard, and work many of the same areas of New England, but our personalities are different and his skills and mine are different. His shoes are still much larger than mine.


“A Vermont Farm in Winter” – 18″x 24″ – Oil

"Waiting for Spring, Vermont" - 24"x 30" - Oil

“Waiting for Spring, Vermont” – 24″x 30″ – Oil


I believe you have said that you’ve copied the works of some master artists; whom have you intensively studied, and when you do that, what are you hoping to glean from their work?   Years ago when I was studying with Ives Gammell I copied a lot of Ingres drawings. That was time well spent as I have retained a great respect for his sinuous and expressive line. I did a painted copy of Rubens’ head of Isabella Brandt, at the Boston museum. It led me to a startling conclusion, at least for me. I realized I stood next to students every day whose work looked more like nature than this head I was copying, but the Rubens was far better. I was confronted with the idea that I could not get to where I wanted to be by just assiduously copying nature. I realized that the great paintings in the museum would never be mistaken for windows. They were poetic evocations of nature, rather than dry accountings of its facts. That may sound like an obvious thing to you, but it was a thunderbolt idea for me at the time. I figured out, you cannot observe art into a picture, you must bring it in with you

You’re a traditionalist painter; is there anything we can learn from abstract expressionism?   I look only very occasionally at abstract painting, but some of it is beautiful, and I can enjoy it for it’s shapes and color arrangements. Usually though, it doesn’t hold my attention for long. There is something in me that craves representations of the world. I have nothing against country music, being a rock and roll guy, but I am not its enemy, I just don’t follow it.

What three periods of art history do you consider most significant and why?   The renaissance, the baroque, and the late nineteenth century seem the obvious answer. For me personally though, I have mined the late nineteenth and the first half of the twentieth century of American painting. I have tried hard to make “American” paintings and in more recent years “New England” paintings. My heroes like Metcalf and Hibbard were here and I am on that ground now. I have tried to append my self to the open end of that tradition.

"Near Cazenovia, New York" - 18"x 24" - Oil

“Near Cazenovia, New York” – 18″x 24″ – Oil

"A New York Farm in Snow" - 18"x 24" - Oil

“A New York Farm in Snow” – 18″x 24″ – Oil

"Birches, Sugar Hill" - 18"x 24" - Oil

“Birches, Sugar Hill” – 18″x 24″ – Oil


You are a noted plein air painter, just as Hibbard was; what percentage of your work is done en plein air?   Everything I do is begun outside, everything I do is worked on in the studio. I would guess about a quarter of my painting time is on location outdoors. I throw away about half of my outdoor “starts” and work in the studio to finish the rest. I do a lot to my paintings in the studio often reworking them extensively. Outside I seek information, inside I seek to add art.

Is your studio work approached differently than the plein air work…other than being outside of course?   Well I seldom use my photo references in the studio, they make me too literal. When I work using a photograph I tell myself, “this goes here, and that goes there”, when I work out of my head I ask myself, “ what does this painting need?” So in the studio I work mostly out of my head. I think that the more I work out of my head, the more individual my art becomes. I only use references for things that are manmade and require that I have particular information. That would be like details on buildings or boats. Almost anything that occurs naturally I can figure out how it works and invent it using that knowledge.

"Workshop Demo, Canton, MS" - 18"x 24" - Oil

“Workshop Demo, Canton, MS” – 18″x 24″ – Oil


Many artists begin a painting with some sort of preliminary work…thumbnail sketches, a value block in…you don’t. Please explain your procedure as you work through a painting.   Well, sometimes I do, I sometimes do a monotone wash drawing of the entire picture. I sometimes put down a line drawing with a small flat brush. One thing I never do is window shading, that is, start in one part of the picture and progress outward from that. I work the entire image at once. I find that is the only way I can get my paintings to hang together, rather than being a dozen paintings on one canvas all clamoring for the viewers attention. I know there are fine painters who can work using the window shade method, but I am not one of them.

"Barn and Goldenrod" - 22"x 28" - Oil

“Barn and Goldenrod” – 22″x 28″ – Oil


You have contributed so much to the art world through your blogs. They are just loaded with mountains of helpful information for artists of all levels. Is there one post that stands out more than any other?    I like the Dirk Van Assaerts posts best. They can be found on my blog by clicking “The encyclopedia of stupid design ideas” I like the posts on the blog best which I think convey thorny philosophical ideas using metaphors. The best blog posts for me are the ones I had the most fun writing, those which are informative and funny (hopefully). I wanted to not only convey information but make it fun to read as well. Each time after I have written a blog post I have stopped and asked myself, “will this be useful to my readers?”

What advice do you have for a part time painter that would like to make art their full time profession?   These are tough times in the art world. I would suggest you work to get your chops together as best you can, try to run with the winners and enter slowly. Start with local art shows and plein air events, when you begin to see a little income, work to improve that. People do make a living with their art, find them and imitate how they do it, but not their art. You will always be handicapped if you are a pale imitation of another artists, find what you can make that is your own and stick with it. Get a specialty. Learn how to do some particular kind of painting well. Don’t try to be a figure painter and a landscape painter while painting heads. Be patient, building a career as a painter can take a long time. Don’t get your reputation or prices out ahead of your abilities. You don’t want to be a shooting star! Be in it for the long game. Don’t compete, contribute! Bring something of value to the table. If you compete, the strength of other artists will intimidate you, you make of them adversaries. If you contribute, you take all of that pressure off yourself, and you will make your brother artists into your allies. Find and listen to Earl Nightingale!

You do not refer to yourself as a plein air painter, but rather, a landscape painter; why the distinction?   As I said above, I do a lot of studio work and seldom show my outdoor starts. I sometimes do a full sized painting by returning to the site several times. But I rework my paintings extensively in the studio, so I am not a plein air painter in the conventional sense, even though I have painted outside for forty years. I had painted landscape for twenty years or so, before I heard anyone speak the words “plein air” out loud. I knew the phrase only from old books. I just painted outside. There is a plein air movement today, but I have never felt a part of it, my working methods and intentions are different from theirs.


“Vermont Sugar Shack” – 16″x 20″ – Oil

"Old Wharf in Provincetown" - 24"x 30" - Oil

“Old Wharf in Provincetown” – 24″x 30″ – Oil

"Fall Scene, Jeffersonville, VT" - 18"x 24" - Oil

“Fall Scene, Jeffersonville, VT” – 18″x 24″ – Oil


I know you have written about this, but for the sake of my readers, what in your mind qualifies as a plein air painting?   There are lots of organizations that sponsor events that spell out various ratios concerning how much of a painting must be made outside on location. They are probably correct in their assessments. That makes me a landscape painter and not a plein air painter despite the phenomenal amount of time I have spent outdoors painting. This is true of lots of folks I admire on the national landscape scene as well, maybe most of them. Many of them make tiny pochades outside, but exhibit large paintings derived from those when in the studio.

When selecting a motif to paint, what are you looking for?   I am not looking for nouns, that is “ the old red barn, or “the road home” I look for arrangements of shapes that are attractive, or rhythmic, or have some quality I can use to build my design. Design is my number one consideration, not subject matter. I care much more about how it is a picture of, than what it is a picture of.

When painting en plein air, do you try to accurately represent what you’re seeing, by that I mean, the observed values, color, and proportions?   Well…. I do and I don’t, individual parts of my paintings may be very true to life, but I make arrangements from nature in front of me, I leave stuff out, move things around, leave out the inessential, simplify, and allot space on my canvas to the degree to which a part of my motif interests me. I rearrange things a lot!

Do you have some compositional guidelines that you always adhere to?   I always strive for unity of effect, everything in my paintings is subordinated to the larger whole. I don’t know if that counts as composition but it is important to me. I like to link my darks, meld adjacent shapes together and form strings of details, or shapes that chain the sides of my paintings together. I often throw myself further back from my subject than I am actually standing, and I am always thinking about the thrusts and oppositions of my shapes. I am a shape builder, I want them unique, varied, and interesting.

What colors are typically on your palette?   I use lead and or titanium white, cadmiums yellow , yellow medium and lemon. I have cadmium red light, burnt sienna, cobalt violet, cobalt blue, yellow ocher, ultramarine, viridian, chromium oxide, quinacridone rose, and ivory black. I always have all of those colors and don’t vary them for different subjects or when moving from outside into the studio. I have used this palette unvaried for many years.

What’s the key to achieving color harmony in one’s work?   I do it by my personal taste and not a formula. I sometimes skew my color in a certain direction by avoiding the use of the dominant color’s complement. I am always aware of the color of my light and varied color temperatures. My color is as much invented as observed. I try to keep my mixtures simple and I am fond of the earth colors. If I had to choose to lose either my earth colors or my cadmiums, I would keep the earth colors, they are my workhorses.

"Owls Head Light" - 30"x 40" - Oil

“Owls Head Light” – 30″x 40″ – Oil


Your works contain a beautiful orchestration of grays. Please explain why grays are so important to a successful painting.   I like a darker and quieter pallette than more sensible artists, so I mix a lot of greys and lean heavily on my earth colors. Still, when I go into the museum I often feel my pictures are garish by comparison. I like restrained color. My paintings are deliberately quiet, I don’t want them shouting at you. It has been an expensive habit, the market preference has long been for more highly colored, higher keyed and more assertive pictures. I live in a home with brown furniture and dull colored old oriental rugs, so they look good in my house, anyway. Still there has always been a segment of the market that wants what I do. There is a country song that goes “most girls don’t like boys like me, yeah but some girls do!” That is true of my paintings, most people don’t want pictures like mine, yeah, but some people do. I have my market niche, there is always someone in my gallery that the public wants far more than what I do, but a certain slice of the clients will always want my art.

How does your work reflect your personality?   I suppose it does, it certainly reflects my taste. I have always been sort of an odd duck, sometimes I can cover for it, other times not. The paintings are something I make. I am who I am. They are two different things. The paintings are a lot more serious than I am, I like to be a little irreverent, like to make jokes and clown around. But when I am making the paintings I am very serious. I like to tell a good story, but in my art I avoid narrative. I guess that is a Whistlerian aesthetic. He has been an enormous influence on my thinking about art. I get way too hung up on what the paintings actually look like.


Thank you Stapleton Kearns for a very informative interview. You have been an inspiration to artists for many years. Your goal from the beginning was to make sure every one of your postings offered a lesson to be learned. Because of that, more than 30,000 people read your blogs each month. For your kindness and generosity in sharing your knowledge with us, we thank you.


Stapleton Kearns website

Stapleton Kearns blog


John Pototschnik is an Art Renewal Center Associate Living Master
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