Oil Painting: Colin J. Callahan: Seeking Energy and Light

0705call1_446x600_1A combination of variable brushstrokes, a warm and dark underpainting, and careful observation of environmental conditions help New Hampshire painter Colin J. Callahan capture light with a sense of energy.

by Bob Bahr

2001, oil on paper,
31 x 21. Collection the artist.

Colin J. Callahan can paint fairly tight realism. In fact, for years he has painted realistic still lifes on a regular basis, strictly as an academic exercise, because he wants to sharpen his skills. He seeks the ability to work quickly, yet accurately capture the fleeting light of a sunset or the perishable beauty of a flower. “I want the pieces to have an energy to them,” says Callahan. “Sargent could put on one or two strokes, delivered just right because he knew exactly where the paint would go. It takes years of experience to do this, and I’m trying to get there.”

The artist, who teaches painting and art history at a boarding school in Concord, New Hampshire, mixes an academic approach with an appreciation for a somewhat romantic or even whimsical spontaneity. A good illustration of this is Banana. Nearly half of the composition is painted in thin, obvious brushstrokes, but the three bananas are somewhat tightly painted, with turned forms and clear indications of a light source. “I was trying to paint it so the bottom of the work would be almost abstract and, as you move up, the brushstrokes would get tighter, bringing you very close to the subject matter,” he explains. “I was seeing how loose I could go; I was applying a plein air way of painting to a still life.”

Palette Knives
2006, oil on panel, 14 x 11.

Private collection.

Outdoors, Callahan finishes his paintings in less than two hours, and often in one hour. He attributes this ability to paint quickly to working with New York artist Thomas S. Buechner. “If I didn’t finish in two hours when painting en plein air with Tom, I couldn’t have a finished painting,” he says. “Also, I guess I fear that if I spend too long on a piece, I will fall into the trap of getting hooked on nonessential details.” In 1998, Callahan was awarded a sabbatical, and his family moved to France for a year. He painted six days a week, and when the weather was cold, he would visit the market and buy fresh vegetables or flowers to use in a still life. The artist approached these still lifes as exercises, executed them in one hour, and then passed the still-life objects on for the day’s meal or for decoration. “These were just skill-building sessions,” he says, but the results, as in Les Snobs and Pears, serve as both pleasing pieces and thought-provoking windows into a painter’s process.

Les Snobs
1998, oil on panel, 20 x 16.

Private collection.

Notice the dark band across
the middle of Les Snobs.
How does this technique affect the
painting? Do you use a similar technique?

Much of Callahan’s work looks textured and cool in temperature. A look at his approach explains why. The artist begins by gessoing either Multimedia Artboard or a canvas board, brushing the gesso in “a haphazard way,” says Callahan. “I don’t purposely put heavy brushstrokes down, but I do make it chaotic enough so you notice a little bit of texture.” He then tones the canvas with a warm color—usually burnt sienna. He prefers to prepare his surfaces in advance so they are completely dry before a painting session.

1995, oil on panel, 16 x 20.
Collection the artist.

When painting en plein air, Callahan surveys the scene to find which vantage point offers the best “geometry”—basic shapes in the composition that move the viewer’s eye around the painting. He quickly establishes the horizon line, then scrutinizes the scene to determine which elements are important and which are potentially distracting and unnecessary details. Then he squints to see the major shapes and begins laying in his underpainting. Callahan is purposely careless about covering the burnt-sienna tone in spots—he likes to have a little of the warm tone peeking out here and there. By the time the artist is at the stage for more careful and defining brushstrokes, the canvas has texture from both the gessoing and the underpainting. “I like the energy of the underpainting’s strokes,” he says. “The underpainting is always a little bit darker than the finished painting will be. I know that I’m going to paint over it with lighter colors, and I know that this scenario—lighter colors over a dark underpainting—will make the finished painting seem cooler in temperature and thus create space. This is another concept that Buechner explained to me.”

1998, oil on panel, 16 x 20.
Private collection.

The push and pull of the color temperatures, the texture of broad brushstrokes from the underpainting, and the relatively fast execution of the paintings all combine to give Callahan’s work a sense of life and immediacy. Two more factors help make Callahan’s work stand out: The first is the tug he expresses between his interest in painting as an intellectual challenge and his pleasure at depicting interesting visuals and experiencing the empowerment of creating something. The teacher in him appreciates the challenge of an exercise, whether it’s painting a realistic banana in a composition that dwindles into near abstraction in places or tackling the elaborate negative spaces in a wintertime scene of evergreens. “In Fiskhill in Winter I was inspired by the holes in the trees that I could paint,” Callahan recalls. “That’s a piece of property we own, and in the winter it is predominantly pine trees and a lot of brush with lots of light coming through. It’s pretty and bright, and there are many shapes on the snow and a lot of silhouettes in the trees.” The artist approached the work by painting the trees first and then added in the sky holes—even though this meant the lightest value in the painting was added rather late in the process. “I didn’t worry about the values in my underpainting—I just kind of have to know that the light value is going to be there. It comes with experience. I know that goes against what you teach students—and they complain that I don’t do what I said they should do.”

Abbey of Senanque
1999, oil on panel,
14 x 11. Private collection.

Callahan was similarly struck by a challenging scene in Southern France. “The Abbey of Senanque, with lavender growing beside it, was impressive,” he says. “It’s down where Van Gogh painted, where he commented on the colors to his brother Theo in letters. That area is not only colorful but the light is all white. The sky is usually the lightest thing in a landscape, but not here. The white-stone houses are often the lightest object. And if you jack the colors up too much, the painting gets out of control. I found that the key was getting the values right—it was about values over colors. They are related, but there’s a decision you have to make about how you are going to go about depicting the scene. I realized it was about value.”

0705call7_459x600 0705call9_472x600
Rock at Long Pond
2002, oil on panel,
14 x 11. Collection
the artist.
Rossview Farm
2005, oil on panel,
14 x 11. Collection
the artist.
0705call8_600x467 0705call10_600x290
Fiskhill in Winter
2003, oil, 16 x 20. Collection Mr. and Mrs. Walter Hawley.

“My dog walks slowly and forces me to see,” says Callahan. “Walking with her, I noticed the negative shapes in these pines and the patterns of light on the snow.”

Wings Neck,
Cape Cod

2001, oil, 14 x 20. Collection Mr. & Mrs. James Norris.

Again, the picture offered a strong intellectual challenge and an aesthetic appeal. And it touched on the second differentiating factor in Callahan’s work: his careful observation of light. Wings Neck, Cape Cod depicts a rather desolate scene, but Callahan sees it as a painting about the romantic, sunset light glinting off the water in the marshy landscape. The depiction of light is notable in most of his pieces, whether it’s the defused light of a misty day in Ireland, shadow patterns in a dirt farm road, or the warm sky of a summer day. The quality of light is what set him on his career as an artist. In high school, in Italy, Callahan had little interest in art until an innocuous question posed by a teacher made him realize how in tune he was to light conditions. In an art-history class, the teacher projected a slide of a train station designed by Henry Hobson Richardson and asked the students what they noticed about it. Callahan responded that it was late fall, in New England, about 5 p.m., and pretty cold. He was right—about the location and climactic conditions. “I immediately realized that I could pick up a lot in terms of light, and I’ve always had this fascination with the light at a particular time of day,” the artist says. “It made me realize that this was something I was good at.”

About the Artist
Colin J. Callahan teaches painting and art history at St. Paul’s School, in Concord, New Hampshire, where he also runs the school’s gallery. He holds a Bachelor of Arts degree from College of the Holy Cross, in Worcester, Massachusetts, and he studied painting at Centro Barbieri, in Rome, Italy. Callahan is represented by Anderson-Soule Gallery, in Concord, New Hampshire.

Bob Bahr is the managing editor of American Artist.

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2 thoughts on “Oil Painting: Colin J. Callahan: Seeking Energy and Light

  1. I see that the Banana was painted with oil on paper. Did Colin stretch the paper over wooden stretchers as he would canvas, or how did he stretch the paper and onto what? Did he gesso the paper as he would canvas before painting on it? If not, how did he prepare the paper to protect it from the oil as one protects canvas from the oil in the paint? What kind of paper did he use? How thick was it?

  2. The paper is heavy Rives or Arches watercolor paper with a coat of acrylic gesso. I pin it to a soft board and paint from there. It doesn’t warp or wrinkle because the thick paper and the heavy gesso are enough to keep it flat. Very simple and protected from the oil by the gesso.