En Plein Air: A Conversation With Joseph McGurl

5 Mar 2009

Joseph McGurl grew up under his talented father’s artistic tutelage while cultivating a passion for boating and a love of the sea. This early influence, coupled with years of hard work and practice, has made him one of today’s foremost landscape painters, and in this interview he shares his knowledge, experience, and insight on the art of painting nature.

Sun Main Coast
by Joseph McGurl, 2008, oil, 18 x 24.
Courtesy Tree's Place, Orleans, Massachusetts.

Interview by Allison Malafronte

American Artist: Please talk a little bit about your art training, specifically the influential role your father played in inspiring you to become an artist.

Joseph McGurl: I should preface my responses by saying that I know many artists will disagree with some of the things I say. This is good and as it should be. If everyone agreed with my views, everyone would be painting like me, and art would be very boring.

Since I was about 5 years old, I knew that I wanted to become an artist. This was probably because my father was one, and it seemed natural, and I liked to draw. As well as being a role model, my father helped me correct my drawings when I couldn’t see why they didn’t look right. As a teenager, I helped him with his work, which included painting murals, marbleizing, stenciling, statue painting, wood graining, decorative painting, architectural rendering, monument designing, and pretty much anything having to do with paint. I mostly painted in backgrounds, cleaned brushes, mixed paint, and performed other associated tasks. At an early age I also became comfortable with using paint and exploiting its associated qualities. Probably the most profound impact my father had on me was his dedicated work ethic. He had to figure out a way to support a family of seven and was able to do it by his talent and hard work. We worked long days.  

Throughout my teenage years, I attended Saturday classes at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston under Ralph Rosenthal. He was another role model who, among many other things, taught me to analyze what I was drawing or painting to better understand it and portray it in a more convincing manner, which was important to me. I attended Massachusetts College of Art and Design and graduated with a dual major in education and painting. There really wasn’t a lot of the academic emphasis on the basics of drawing and painting, and I felt my education was incomplete. Later, I found out about the Boston School disciples and their approach to drawing, which was based on the teachings of the French Academy. This approach to drawing evolved over hundreds of years to become a very effective method of training students to see clearly and draw accurately. I studied figure drawing under Robert Cormier, and it really became a turning point in my ability to express what I was after.

Passing the Jetty
by Joseph McGurl, 2008, oil, 23 x 25.
Collection Robert Wilson Galleries, Nantucket, Massachusetts.


AA: After studying figure drawing with Robert Cormier, what led you to the genre of landscape?

JM: In my younger years I painted, sculpted, made prints, and did all kinds of art projects. Gradually the types of art and materials that gave me the most satisfaction trumped the ones I found less interesting. I received the most emotional feedback from landscapes and decided not to spend time on less enthralling work. If I’m not totally committed to what I’m painting, it loses its excitement, and I think the lack of passion becomes obvious. Although I enjoy figure drawing, it really was a means to an end. I wanted to draw better, and the method taught by the Boston School artists is the best way to do that.  

AA: How long did you study art in England and Italy? Was it during this time that you became interested in the traditional, Old Master approach to painting?

JM: These were summer programs I took in college. The England trip was at the University of London. Unfortunately, the fine-art department was not well run and turned out disappointing. The art history was better. The real value was going to the museums and seeing the Constables and Turners. I also went to Holland to see the Dutch masters.  This was when I realized that I could learn so much more from studying the art in the museums. The trip to Italy was run by Boston University and was excellent. The art-history professor, Sam Edgerton, was one of the best teachers I ever had. Once again, I became engrossed in the artwork in the museums. This taught me that the best way to approach my art was to learn from those who came before me and try to advance it a little while also developing my own identity.


AA: Artists often admire your artwork for your ability to capture light and create luminosity and atmosphere. Could you summarize how you do this, both from a technical standpoint, as well as from a mental standpoint?

JM: The technical aspects of painting light and atmosphere are fairly straightforward. It really comes down to mixing the right color and value for a particular location in the illusionary space in the painting. Sometimes I will modify a passage with a glaze or a scumble. I also use texture, or the lack thereof, to help define space and light. One of the things I learned from the masters is that thick paint helps bring objects forward and makes light objects appear brighter, so I will frequently use this “trick.” Thin, transparent paint gives depth to a painting. The importance of the exactness of color and value becomes obvious to me when I see a reproduction of one of my paintings. Sometimes a particular color or value will not reproduce correctly, and it jumps out of its position in space.

Mentally, it is really important to envision the scene in three dimensions. I have spent years studying the landscape and trying to understand what is happening and why. For instance, an object’s color changes as it recedes into the distance differently at sunset than it does at midday. By understanding how space and light affect color and value you can exaggerate or minimize colors in order to push the depth even more. Remember, you are trying to paint a three-dimensional space on a flat surface, and the light of the sun with just pigments, so you can’t just paint what you see.  You have to paint what you know, too, in order to exploit all the possibilities.
Across the Sea
by Joseph McGurl, 2007, oil, 24 x 36. Private collection.


AA: Please describe your connection to the sea, including your “floating studio,” Atelier.

JM: I grew up on the water and spent my summers swimming, boating, and exploring the nearby islands and coves. There are probably psychological reasons why I have such a strong connection to the ocean, but there are also artistic ones. The ocean and coastline have so many aspects of what interests me intellectually and visually about our world.  There is endless space and wonderful light, which are primary subjects in my art. It is not a static environment. The sun, tide, wind patterns, and cloud formations are changing by the minute. I am also drawn to the challenge of trying to paint the ocean’s depth, reflection, transparency, weight, and motion.

I have been painting from boats since I was a teenager. In my early 20s I worked as a yacht captain and have used painting vessels since then. The Atelier is the latest. It is a 44-foot-long ketch-rigged sailboat. It was built in 1965 and has nice, classic lines. So many modern boats are ugly and look more like kitchen appliances than boats. My family and I spend the greater part of the summer sailing around New England, and I paint very frequently from on board, or I take the dinghy to shore and paint from the land looking out. Sailing gives me a better understanding of my subject.

AA: What is your plein air process? How important is it to you to create on-site studies and sketches, as opposed to using photographs as references for your studio work?

JM: I am trying to portray my response to the real world—not a flat visual representation of it. I am trying to paint the whole tree, even the side you can’t see. I am also trying to paint a living tree that will die in the winter and bloom again in the spring. Science has taught us that space and time are not static and that on the subatomic level there is a frenzy of activity. Knowing this, I cannot paint from a photo that is devoid of all these realities. I am also trying to understand nature in the most complete way possible, and studying it intently while interpreting it in paint is the most effective way I know to accomplish this. The challenge of going into the field with just my paints and coming away with a useful picture is also appealing. Sometimes I don’t have enough time to capture a certain effect, but that’s just the way it goes. It’s difficult relying on just my own observations, and it may seem easier to paint from photos, but my goal isn’t to do it the easiest way but the best way. Like everyone, I sometimes have tendencies to be lazy, and if I know I have a photo to back me up, I may not look as hard or work as long at the sketch as I should.

AA: For those artists who are unable to get a highly coveted spot in one of your two annual workshops, please give them an overview of what you focus on in a typical workshop.

JM: I try to help the participants see the landscape in more simplified terms and show them some practical tricks I have learned to make it easier to paint outdoors. There is so much information to sort out. I believe plein air painting is the hardest form of art to master. In addition to the usual concerns of conception, composition, drawing, value, and color, plein air painters have an infinite amount of detail to simplify. The range of value is not nearly wide enough to paint the brightness of the sun or the depth of a shadow, and how does one paint five miles of distance, the movement of waves, or all the leaves on a tree? Additionally, the light is constantly changing, it may be hot or windy, the sun is in your eyes, and you have to limit your supplies to the bare essentials.

In my workshops, I start with an overview of my painting process and show the students my painting gear and things that have made the procedure a little easier. Then I address through demos and critiques some of the main problems most participants have in painting the landscape. An example is that they lose sight of the fact that every object has a definite form. A rock and a tree have similar underlying forms. The superficial surface textures confuse students. I discuss the importance of seeing the true form of the object and then devising shorthand ways of implying the texture of that object. I also spend a lot of time on linear and atmospheric perspective in order to help them create depth in the painting. I will usually do a demo in the morning, and then they work on their paintings in the afternoon. I spend at least one demo session in the studio showing the mechanical process of making a studio painting out of a sketch. I also show some of the unique tools I sometimes use and discuss how I’ve set up the studio. This demonstration includes some methods of manipulating paint, such as glazing, impasto, and scraffito.
Peace
by Joseph McGurl, 2008, oil, 24 x 36.
Courtesy Tree's Place, Orleans, Massachusetts.


AA: Do you think it’s possible to teach artists to paint at the level of skill and ability you have achieved? Is that transferable, or do you think it’s something you’re innately born with?

JM: I think it’s a little of both. You have to have some talent, and you have to have some training. You also have to work really hard at it for a long time. Just as doctors or plumbers have to pay their dues, artists do too. When I look back at the artwork I was doing in my 20s, it was really bad, but it eventually improved.

AA: What landscape artists, past and present, do you admire?

JM: Past artists include Frederic Edwin Church, Sanford Gifford, Worthington Whittredge, John F. Kensett, J.M.W. Turner, Arthur Streeton, John Singer Sargent, and Hugh Bolton Jones. For contemporary artists, Andrew Wyeth, Jamie Wyeth, Antonio López García, Don Demers, William Davis, Matt Smith, Marcia Burtt, Ken Auster.

AA: What inspires you most as an artist? Where do you turn for creative motivation?

JM: I sometimes become inspired by seeing a show at a gallery or museum. When I’m painting outside with other artists, I’m inspired by how they will take a different approach to the same scene. Also, nature in all its forms—sometimes with the imprint of man—is probably the most inspiring way for me to become excited about painting.

To get motivated creatively I just go to work. Sometimes I have been thinking about a particular problem all night, and if I think I’ve found the solution, I get excited about the coming day’s work. Other times I don’t feel particularly creative, but I have to be productive. I go about my work and often the inspiration comes after a while. Sometimes these end up being my best days, and the day passes too quickly.

For more information on Joseph McGurl, visit his website at www.josephmcgurl.com.

 

Weekend With the Masters Instructor
Joseph McGurl will be teaching two master workshops and giving a demonstration during American Artist’s Weekend With the Masters Workshop & Conference, September 10–13, 2009. For more information, visit www.aamastersweekend.com.

 


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Comments

MikelW wrote
on 24 Mar 2009 10:04 AM

Excellent article Allison. Great insight from one of America's greatest artists.

-Mikel

pbranch wrote
on 29 Mar 2009 5:32 PM

Your paintings truly capture the beauty of God's creation.  Your value are fantastic.  Wished I could grasped them like that.  Thank you for a great article.

on 3 Jun 2009 7:17 AM

Thank you both for your comments. Glad to see that Joe's responses inspired you as much as his work!

MariaB35 wrote
on 11 Jul 2009 7:50 AM

What a great article.  I am so excited, since I got into the workshop Joseph is teaching at WWTM in September.  I am a novice plein air painter, but know I will really get alot from this workshop and the others I am attending.  It's a great opportunity I wouldn't normally have.  Thanks.