Oil Painting: Jimmy Sanders: The Structure Needed in Painting and in Life

0805sand4_600x527For almost 20 years, Jimmy Sanders has set specific goals for his art education, the types of paintings he creates, and the projects he undertakes. “Goals are dreams with deadlines,” he says. “They are important to realist painters who have to develop skills and focus on a style that is reflective of their personalities.”

by M. Stephen Doherty

Self-Portrait, Age 40
2004, oil, 38¼ x 33¼.
All artwork this article
courtesy Hirschl & Adler Galleries,
New York, New York.

Jimmy Sanders is something of a romantic artist, who sacrificed material possessions to remain steadfastly dedicated to the integrity of painting, and eventually gained recognition from astute collectors and critics. He worked for seven years to afford an art education, lived below the poverty level in a small apartment in Florence while he studied, and then developed a portfolio of painting, finally gaining the support of dealers and collectors.

But Sanders is not an aimless bohemian without social graces or a sense of responsibility. He is a well-grounded man who learned early in life that he would never achieve his dreams if he didn’t focus all his resources on those objectives. “Growing up in a small town in Tennessee with a single mother and three siblings, I knew I wouldn’t accomplish much as a person or an artist if I didn’t dedicate myself to those goals,” he reveals. “Painting saved my life because it gave me purpose, and I feel blessed that people are now recognizing and appreciating my work.”

The dream of becoming an artist formed in Sanders’ heart and mind when he was just out of school and read an article in the December 1988 issue of American Artist on Daniel Graves and the Studio Cecil-Graves, in Florence, Italy. Students enrolled in the private atelier followed a classical educational program of drawing and painting from plaster casts, as well as from live models. “I couldn’t afford to enroll in the school at the time, so I spent seven years working in an art-supply store in Memphis until I saved $20,000, enough money to live and study in Florence for two years,” Sanders explains.

Toward Borgo San Frediano
2005, oil, 27½ x 19?.

After studying at The Florence Academy of Art, the atelier Graves founded after parting with Charles Cecil, Jimmy Sanders and his brother, artist Kevin Sanders, shared a small apartment/studio on Borgo San Frediano in the Oltrarno district of Florence for 10 years and struggled to create paintings they could sell back in the United States. Jimmy began to exhibit his figure and still life paintings with the Grenning Gallery, on Long Island, and then Hirschl & Adler Galleries, in New York City. Kevin studied briefly at The Florence Academy of Art and then established himself as a landscape painter.

Starting in 1992, Jimmy Sanders began writing down what he wanted to accomplish over the next year, as well as the following five and 10 years. “I read the self-help book Unlimited Power by Anthony Robbins (Simon & Schuster, New York, New York) that recommended writing down one’s goals and the steps necessary to achieve them, and then taking actions and making changes to one’s approach until the goals are achieved,” he explains. “That helped me clarify what I wanted to accomplish and the actions I needed to take in order to reach those objectives. It also made me realize that I would have to make tough choices in order to remain on track. I still make lists and keep them in notebooks, posted on the refrigerator, and thumbtacked to walls in my studio. They remind me of what I need to do each day. And as I achieve those goals, I feel good enough about myself to believe I can reach more, even those that once seemed beyond my capabilities. Those successes also help me forgo short-term gratifications and remain focused on long-term ambitions.”

Tuscan Still Life
1998, oil, 30 x 34.
Collection J.D. and
Mary Susan Clinton.

The lists of long-term objectives included items such as securing a studio with large north-facing windows, learning to handle color in a manner similar to such painters as Johannes van Eyck (ca. 1395–1441), having greater financial security, and establishing a style of painting reflective of his environment and his values. “I saw some of Richard Maury’s paintings in 1990 at the Wichita Art Museum, in Kansas, and I admired the honesty and integrity of those pictures,” Sanders remembers. “That helped me clarify the direction of my own painting. Maury painted the rooms of his home, the members of his family, and his self-portrait, and also hired models. Every picture was an honest assessment of his life and the time in which he lived. I wanted to eventually meet Mr. Maury and understand more about the ways those remarkable paintings connected to him as a person. When I finally got the nerve to introduce myself to him in Florence, he didn’t want to talk about painting technique and that was fine with me. I finally enjoyed seeing his studio, meeting him and his wife, Anne, and witnessing his creative ability.”

One of the most ambitious objectives written on Sanders’ lists was to create a perspective box similar to one he saw at The National Gallery, in London. Later in this article he offers a complete description of how he finally realized that goal in 2007.

Portrait of Donald Sutphin and His Studio
2002, oil, 48 x 36.

Painting in a Classical Mode

Sanders’ paintings are always done from life, with the artist first making a series of drawings and transferring those to the wooden panels he prepares. The panels are usually plywood with a thin veneer of poplar that the artist seals with rabbit-skin glue, covers with linen, and then coats with several layers of true gesso (a combination of calcium carbonate, zinc white, and rabbit-skin glue).

Preparatory drawings are made with hard sticks of charcoal or graphite and then transferred by one of two methods. Sanders either puts charcoal on the back of the drawing paper, lays it on the panel, and traces the lines; or he spreads a thin layer of raw umber oil color on newsprint paper and uses that as an oiled transfer paper so he can trace the lines of the drawing to the gessoed panel.

“I start with thumbnail sketches and studies of various elements, and then I put everything together in a drawing the size of the painting panel,” Sanders explains. “I prefer using the sight-size method of positioning my easel in such a way that the image in the drawing or painting is exactly the same size as the subject when both are viewed from a measured distance. However, sometimes it’s not possible to get that far back from the easel, as was the case with the 4'-x-3' painting Portrait of Donald Sutphin and His Studio. I spent eight months painting that at close range in Donald’s studio.”

2004, oil, 12? x 10.

Once a drawing is transferred, Sanders begins applying thin washes of the local color over the entire pane. “Some artists tone the surface of their panels with an imprimatura, but I like the way the bright white surface causes the transparent colors to glow,” the artist says. “The painting looks flat and general at first, but as I build layers of color and focus on subtle relationships, the image will hopefully come alive. I want a bold, overall feeling at first, and then I can glaze thin colors with meticulous brushwork.

“As I continue working, I use various combinations of oil color, beeswax, sun-thickened linseed oil, turpentine, and Canada balsam in a traditional fat-over-lean procedure,” Sanders adds. “The key is to establish color sensitivity because I believe the subtle differences between colors contribute a deep sense of meditation. Toward the end of the painting process I apply retouch varnish or a thinned version of final glazing medium to even out the surface of the painting.”

Sanders usually works on two paintings at a time, taking advantage of the light illuminating a subject for three or four hours during one part of the day, and a similar amount of time later in the day. When the light in his studio isn’t consistent enough for continuing to paint a specific subject, he works on drawings or outdoor landscape paintings.

Portrait of Julia
2005, oil, 16? x 12½.

The Perspective Box

As was explained earlier, Sanders became fascinated with artists’ efforts to create deceptively believable three-dimensional images in frescoes, oil paintings, and boxes by carefully drawing perspective lines, making sure every person and object adhered to the correct scale based on his or her distance in space, and having viewers look from a single vantage point. These anamorphic images have fascinated artists from the early Renaissance to the present because they allow painters to explore various ways of creating the illusion of three-dimensional objects on two-dimensional surfaces.

This curiosity was a natural extension of Sanders’ education in realistic drawing and painting because it connected to his training in understanding and carefully recording observations. He set a goal of creating his own perspective box and, after researching the subject in London and Florence, made a full-scale model using poster board. Finally, in March of 2004 he began making drawings for a wooden box with painted panels on the three sides, top, and bottom that, when viewed through either of two holes on the sides, would give viewers the sensation of looking into a room in which everything was three-dimensional. Some of the furniture would even seem to be resting in the middle of the room.

Pears and Grapes
2005, oil, 9¾ x 11.

Just as the 17th-century Dutch artists had painted the interiors of churches, their homes, and their studios, Sanders decided to use his apartment studio as the model for the room inside the box, but he expanded it beyond its actual limits so the space would project farther. “To make it more interesting, I added views looking down the hallway, into the studio from the vacant apartment next door, and from a third vantage point that really didn’t exist,” he explains. “I knew that as long as the logic of the perspective and the lighting were accurate and I painted everything from life, viewers wouldn’t know the composite scene didn’t really exist. It seemed like an extension of the idea that I was creating something that was at once undeniable and impossible.”

Sanders recognized that the perspective drawings for his box could conceivably be devised scientifically or with a computer program, but he wanted to use a simple two-point perspective system and make observational judgments. “The goal was as much to teach myself about painted illusions as it was to have viewers question the nature of realistic perceptions,” the artist says. A carpenter made the six panels with tongue-and-groove and rabbit joints so Sanders could assemble and disassemble the box as he painted, and then check the accuracy of the perspective. A family of craftspeople made the outside panels of the 2'-x-2'-x-3' box from cherry veneer wood using traditional Florentine furniture.“I worked from empirical knowledge based on observation, and I made careful measurements and projection,” Sanders notes. “I wanted to focus as much on the subtle manipulation of colors and values as on the linear structure of the design. The painting process by which I developed the panels was quite straightforward. As with other interior scenes, I worked from a detailed drawing and added or subtracted elements as the painting of each panel developed. I also made adjustments to maintain a consistency in the light and depth of field.

“I couldn’t work on the box exclusively during the first few months because I wanted to complete a commission in Florida while painting pictures to sell through the gallery, but after meeting those obligations I went into the studio each morning filled with excitement about the project,” Sanders adds. “I completed the perspective box in 2007.”

Looking Ahead

Sanders was fortunate to receive a grant from collectors who were impressed with his perspective box and his easel paintings. They provide the means for further explorations through the Melinda and Paul Sullivan Foundation for the Decorative Arts. “I was thrilled and humbled to receive their support, and I reviewed my list of goals and wrote new objectives that might be realized with those resources,” the artist explains. “Chief among those is the longstanding ambition of having a proper studio with abundant north light. I would never have been able to afford that in Florence, so I moved back to Tennessee, where I’m now in the process of determining whether I have to build a new studio or renovate an existing structure. Several people have advised me against taking on a big construction project because that would consume the time I could spend painting, but I know myself well enough that I won’t be satisfied just making do with an existing space. I’ve done that for too many years and want to finally realize my dream of having a proper north-light studio.”

About the Artist

Jimmy Sanders studied at Dyersburg State Community College, University of Memphis, and Memphis College of Art, all in Tennessee, as well as at The Florence Academy of Art. His paintings have been included in numerous gallery and museum exhibitions, and he is represented by Hirschl & Adler Galleries, in New York City. He currently maintains a studio in Brownsville, Tennessee.

M. Stephen Doherty is the editor-in-chief and publisher of American Artist.

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5 thoughts on “Oil Painting: Jimmy Sanders: The Structure Needed in Painting and in Life

  1. I would love to learn more about Mr. Sanders painting process and style. I have often felt that the white ground would better luminate my glazes. Have you any dvds produced.
    Thank you in advance

  2. As a lover of art, Jimmy’s paintings are as real as most artists try to get to. His art tells stories and takes you into another world. Jimmy Sanders, I love your work!

  3. I met Jimmy as a freshman art student at Dyersburg State, in 1981. his passion and talent was evident always. I knew he would do amazing work and so proud to see all he has accomplished in the art world. Mary Lee Cathey (Johnson)