Oil Painting: Ismael Checo: Color, Richness, and Light

This Dominican-born artist uses rich color to create an exotic and intense experience of the world.

by John A. Parks

Standing Nude Study
1988, oil, 20 x 16. All artwork
this article collection
the artist unless otherwise indicated.

Although he has long lived in New York City, Ismael Checo paints light with a richness and vibrancy of color that harks back to his boyhood world in Santo Domingo. This quality is evident even in his early color studies completed at the Art Students League of New York, in Manhattan, under the tutelage of Nelson Shanks. In Sitting Nude Study he shows the figure simplified into clear color areas in which various components have been exaggerated. The greens of the shadow are more saturated than they would appear in real life, but then so are the mustard yellows and oranges in the lights. “It’s a matter of balance,” says the artist. “You have to compare one color to another. It’s about relationships. If the relationships between the colors stay the same, then the painting works even if the colors themselves have been ‘pushed.’ The important thing is to keep looking at the whole painting.”


The wisdom of this approach can be seen in another painting completed while at the league, Standing Nude Study. Here, the figure stands next to a folded wooden chair while a straw hat rests nearby. The color of the chair is very close to the color of the flesh, challenging the artist to retain the subtle differences between the two. “Sometimes, if things are very close in color, you are better off lying a little bit and making them more different than they are,” says the artist. Again, the general exaggeration of the color confers a rich unity to the work, a distinctive taste and vision. This strategy also allows for more dramatic rendering of color changes within shadows, evidenced here in the large shadow the model is casting on the wall, which shifts from brown violets to gray turquoise. “It’s much better to make the color strong early on in the painting than to get too gray right from the start,” says Checo, “You can always go back later and make it more subtle.”

2002, oil on linen, 28 x 38.

Checo always paints directly from life and begins his paintings by making the broadest statement possible. “I start with a grisaille using a mixture of burnt sienna, ultramarine blue, and flake white,” says the artist. “It’s a warm color but not too warm.” This is applied thinly, in washes, to establish the drawing and to mass the light into the simplest, boldest shapes that the artist can find. Next he will lay in broad areas of light and dark in simple, generalized color. Only then will he start to build more complex color ideas and to make statements about how the color changes within individual areas. “I don’t premix,” he says. “I mix as I go, making one judgment and then another.” As he lays in the paint, wet-in-wet, Checo is always careful not to overwork a piece. “You have to control everything,” the artist explains, “but you also have to know just how far to go. The key is to make it look easy even though it’s very hard.” All of Checo’s early work was accomplished with broad strokes of paint and very little detail. “The main thing is to keep the viewer’s eye moving,” he says. “You don’t want it to stop too long anywhere to get caught up in detail and incident. What’s important is the whole painting—how it all sits together.”

Sitting Nude Study
1988, oil, 14 x 18.

Checo uses oil paint from a variety of manufacturers: Holbein, Winsor & Newton, Gamblin, and Liquitex. “Different companies produce pigments with slightly different properties so I find myself mixing them up a lot,” he says. “As long as you stay with a high-quality product everything will go well.” The artist lays out the paint around the edge of a big wooden palette with the warms on the left and the cools on the right. “I run the warms from dark to light, starting with a burnt sienna and finishing with a warm yellow,” Checo says. “And then I run the cools from light to dark, starting with a cool yellow and ending with a deep violet.” The artist mixes a painting medium from turpentine and stand oil. He prefers stand oil to cold-pressed linseed oil because it is less likely to yellow with age, although he admits that cold-pressed oil gives a better impasto. “If I’m using a lot of impasto I don’t use much medium,” Checo says. “I just use the paint on its own. The medium helps the paint flow, so I use it for more transparent passages anyway. In most paintings I’ll keep the shadows thinner than the lights. Highlights are often built up to quite a heavy impasto.”

1990, watercolor pencil
on paper, 11 x 14.
Collection Ms. Magdalena Checo.

Once the painting is completed and dry, the artist uses Rembrandt synthetic varnish as a final protective coat. “You need protection for oil paint just like a watercolor needs glass,” he says. “Traditionally, people used a damar varnish but this can yellow in a very short time and is very hard to remove from a surface. The synthetic varnish looks exactly the same and can be taken off using mineral spirits as a solvent.”

As Checo’s work progressed he discovered that he could build his paintings to an increasingly delicate finish. In Dried Flowers, for instance, he shows an exquisitely realized bouquet of long-stem roses together with an open book in which the fineness of the paper is quite palpable. “I paint with the bristle brush for as long as possible,” says the artist, “and then I change to a sable to get really fine control.” In spite of the increased finish and wealth of detail, Checo manages to keep the color alive even in the most subtle of the gray shadows.

Underlying Checo’s paintings is a foundation of fine drawing, and the high quality of his eye is very much evident in studies such as Melissa’s Back No. 1. Here the artist has toned the paper with a thin watercolor wash of burnt sienna before drawing with a Caran d’Ache watercolor pencil. The work is at once thoughtful and yet quickly and surely achieved. “You have to know how to control accent—where you need a heavy line and where you can have the line disappear altogether,” the artist says. “In this case the line is reinforced by a modest application of tone—just enough to suggest the light without overworking the drawing. Apart from his studio studies, Checo has produced many drawings of a more personal nature, specifically portraits of friends and family. In Nana, for instance, he lovingly records his former wife feeding their daughter, a work of great intimacy achieved with considerable sureness.

Melissa’s Back No. 1
2003, watercolor pencil
on paper, 19 x 12.

Perhaps it was inevitable that Checo’s delight in exotic color would lead him back to paintings about life in his homeland, the Dominican Republic. In Dei Conuco he presents a large still life showing a basket laden with corn, mangoes, and bananas all set on a table. Lying to one side is a slingshot, together with a group of small stones. “The title means From My Backyard,” explains the artist. “Many people from Santo Domingo grow their own fruits and vegetables, and here I’m showing a group of these things. The slingshot is something we sometimes use to get the mangoes off the tree if they are too high to pick.” Checo’s interest in his homeland takes quite literal form in Calle Las Damas. “This is part of the old city built by the Spanish in the 16th century,” says the artist with obvious pride. “Santo Domingo was the first city to be founded in the Americas and had the first university. It is something that people sometimes forget.” Here he shows the famous street in a golden afternoon light and empty of people. The buildings have been simplified and many details omitted so that we are presented with the gracious geometry of the place blazing with color.

Checo’s most resplendent work of nostalgia is Caretero, a narrative picture in which a man is shown preparing one of the traditional masks worn by Dominicans for the Independence Day festivities in the spring. A warm, late-afternoon light is illuminating the scene from the right and a wealth of detail is used to convey a powerful sense of place. The newspaper clippings and flyers taped to the rough wall, the well-used undershirt, and the intense thoughtfulness of the mask-maker all serve to catapult us into a world that is intensely felt and one very different from our own. Here the rich color, with its consistent exaggerations, help to reinforce the sense of heat, humidity, and sheer foreignness.

Dei Conuco
2000, oil on linen, 20 x 24.

In recent years Checo has achieved still lifes of increasing complexity in which he has often used overt narrative strategies to comment on matters both private and public, as well as playing a number of entertaining games with the art of painting. In Vermeer Grapes, for instance, he invents a new section of Vermeer’s painting Young Woman With a Water Pitcher. He shows a detail at the bottom of the famous picture and extends it to accommodate a bunch of grapes wrapped in bubble wrap. The picture is at once a cheerful visual joke and a serious reminder that it can be just as rewarding to paint a cheap plastic object as a beautiful natural one. “It’s not what you paint but how you paint it that’s important,” says the artist. In Warhol Checo plays a delightful game in which he incorporates materials from the pop artist’s world into his own, more traditional studio setting. The harsh printed colors of the Marilyn poster and the sharp lettering of the soup can are set against the enormous subtlety of the browns and grays of palette and brushes. It is as though Warhol’s appreciation of the glitz and immediacy of popular culture has been subsumed into this slower-moving and much older tradition. In this piece, it is particularly instructive to look at the complex color changes along the edge of palette. “Every tonal position has a different color,” says the artist, “and this is what I must paint to get the light to work.”

Dried Flowers
1990, oil, 14 x 11.

As well as commenting on art, Checo has also used his paintings to address some of the more painful events in recent history. His Flight 587 is a poignant memorial to the victims of a flight bound for Santo Domingo that crashed after takeoff in Queens in 2001. The airline ticket, the travel brochure, and the boyhood slingshot are presented in a simple grouping attached to the wall with string. In Thanksgiving the artist uses a spectacular trompe l’oeil technique to depict a collaged image of a turkey made as a child’s school project. He adds to the image a picture of the World Trade Center under attack and a postcard of the Statue of Liberty. Here the childish absurdity of the traditional Thanksgiving turkey is juxtaposed with the very grownup issues of violence and liberty, a reminder that the things we cherish are wrested from a very difficult and dangerous world.

0706chec11_540x600 0706chec12_600x387 0706chec13_545x600
Flight 587
2002, oil on linen, 16 x 14.
2003, oil on linen,
18 x 28. Collection
Mrs. Maria Familia.
1996, oil on board, 14 x 121/2.
Private collection.
0706chec14_457x600 0706chec15_457x600 0706chec16_431x600
2003, oil on linen, 18 x 14.
2003, oil on linen, 18 x 14.
2004, oil on linen, 22 x 16.
Mr. Samuel Checo.

Checo has also used still lifes to address the central human mysteries of relations between the sexes. His admiration of the strength of women is evident in Perseverance, where a much repaired statuette of a woman shows her still hauling a heavy bucket in spite of the extensive damage she has suffered. A more complex view of women is presented in Beauty, wherein a Chinese statuette of a young woman is shown with a dragon deep in the background shadow. Separating them is a single white flower. “All women have a dragon inside them,” says the artist. “It is the role of the man to keep the dragon from appearing—that’s why we give them flowers.”

Calle Las Damas
2002, oil on linen, 10 x 18.

No examination of Checo’s work would be complete without a look at his fine accomplishments in portraiture. His self-portrait Cibaeño is an essay in introspection as the artist looks deep into his own eyes as they peer steadily from the shade of a straw hat. Meanwhile Maria shows the artist working with great pleasure at high speed. This painting was done in a couple of hours and yet displays all of the artist’s finest qualities, his sure draftsmanship, vibrant color, and a ringing sense of light and clarity.

Checo admits to many powerful influences as a painter, including Sorolla, Sargent, Rembrandt, and Caravaggio. “They were all wonderful at different times and in different places,” he says. “You cannot really compare them but you can learn from all of them.” In fact, Checo is a great believer in lifelong learning. He continued to take classes at the Art Students League of New York for years after he began his professional career. “You can always find another way to look at things,” he says. “Then you can take it back to your own studio and incorporate it into your work.” Checo’s enthusiasm for ongoing training led him to become one of the founding members of Studio Incamminati, an atelier-styled school in Philadelphia, where he used to teach workshops.

Vermeer Grapes
2000, oil on linen,
12 x 16.
2002, oil on linen,
20 x 20. Collection
Mr. Alexis Mendoza.

Talking of his plans for future paintings, Checo says that he is working on some scenes of people visiting museums and looking at art. And then, of course, there will always be more still lifes. “What I’m trying to do in all of my work,” says the artist, “is to capture my experience and memory in a simple and honest way of painting.”

About the Artist
Ismael Checo was born in Santo Domingo in the Domincan Republic and studied at the School of Fine Arts, in Santo Domingo, before coming to New York in his early 20s. He began to take classes at the Art Students League of New York, in Manhattan, in 1984, eventually studying with Nelson Shanks and continued his studies even as he began exhibiting his work professionally. Since then he has pursued a career as a fine artist and teacher, helping to found Studio Incamminati, in Philadelphia, and teaching many classes and workshops in and outside the United States. A retrospective of his work was recently mounted at the Galeria de Arte at the Manhattan Campus of Boricua College, and another exhibition of his work is planned for November 1 through November 16 at The Baum School of Art, in Allentown, Pennsylvania. Checo is represented by Objects & Images Fine Art, in Bronxville, New York, and he makes his home in Astoria, Queens, New York.

John A. Parks is an artist who is represented by Allan Stone Gallery, in New York City. He is also a teacher at the School of Visual Arts, in New York City, and is a frequent contributor to American Artist, Drawing, Watercolor, and Workshop magazines.


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