Jim Wilcox: The Right Shape and the Right Color

11 Aug 2008

his Wyoming artist has a simple message—“put the right color in the right place, and use interesting shapes”—that unfolds into much fuller, useful instruction in his workshops.

by Bob Bahr

Jim Wilcox advised a student during a
workshop last summer in Grand Teton
National Park, in Wyoming.

With most workshop instructors, you can get a very good idea of what kind of teachers they are by carefully studying their paintings. This will work quite nicely for Jim Wilcox, as long as you remember to examine his signature.

The block lettering suggests the writing of an architect or engineer, and this is appropriate, because Wilcox both studied architecture and designed the Soltek easel, one of the most popular plein air easels on the market. This straightforward, practical side of him gives a strong backbone to his conscientiously observed paintings of the Teton Mountain Range. His brushstrokes can be bold or soft, the colors quite muted, the subject matter subdued, but each painting is based on a very simple premise.

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Throughout the
workshop, the
participants in
their painting
spots to offer
advice and
Wilcox put the
touches on the
he painted for
students at
String Lake, in
Grand Teton
National Park.

“Put the right color in the right place,” Wilcox states plainly. “Or, to say it more fully, answer the questions, What is the color? How do I mix the right color? What is the right shape? Where does that shape go?”

The right color in the beginning for Wilcox is burnt sienna acrylic paint—he tones his canvases in the studio beforehand with a thin wash of it in preparation for plein air painting. The artist says he appreciates the subtle warmth this tone gives his work, particularly because his subject matter is often cool in color temperature. Because the tone is put on in acrylic, it won’t wipe off if he makes changes in oil. As he paints, Wilcox doesn’t worry if a bit of the underpainting shows through—although one of the last steps in his painting process is reducing the largest areas where the burnt sienna is visible.

Student Critiques
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“The trees and bushes in front of the larger trees could be lighter
—they are getting more light from the sky,” said Wilcox. “And the trees in the back would benefit from more variety and punch. She minimized the lower part of the right mountain, probably a good and logical thing, although I wouldn’t have done it.”
“The artist has a nice, soft touch, and I’m enjoying the lack of definition,” Wilcox said. “The close greens could be a little richer, a little more saturated in the foreground. Nice variety of edges. The addition of a few rocks or details in the foreground should help.”
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"The right side where the sand meets the water is well done, but the area on the left, where the rock meets the water, should be darker, as it is wet,” said Wilcox. “Also, the water and sandy beach are equal in size; the artist should decide which element is more interesting and make that bigger. The artist should also pay close attention to edges—where the terrain is rolling, the edge is soft. An abrupt edge is a sharp one. And it’s better to soften the edges of distant mountains where they meet the sky.” “Even though she broke up her treeline, it still reads as a triangle and could be more interesting,” commented Wilcox. “The treeline could use a more sensitive line, one that moves. Usually nature’s lines are random. Also, remember that trees are as much horizontal as they are vertical
—sometimes a horizontal stroke is best to suggest a tree. Nice coloring on the left bank in the center of the painting. The depiction of light is the best thing in this painting.”
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“This artist should have spent more time on drawing to get it more accurately rendered,” commented Wilcox. “Again, the trees are as big as the mountains, which is counterproductive. This painting also needs something to keep the viewer from sailing off the right side of canvas, other than the blob on the right—the composition is too heavy on the left side. There needs to be more of the influence of the dark trees via reflections on the water. The artist needs to vary the line along the tops of trees—and the trees on the left are too tall. Keep in mind that when there’s not enough sky in the composition it can look like you ran out of canvas. My guess is the artist started at the bottom. When the frame goes on this, the mountain peak will be crowded by the frame.” Wilcox praised the colors and values in this piece but had suggestions on its design. “Remember that every shape in a painting should be interesting
—there are a few in here that could be more interesting,” he explained. “Also, one should avoid having dark areas on the edges of the canvas—it makes viewers feel like they are behind bars. There’s a dark band across most of the painting that is too much the same all the way across. Finally, to have trees as tall as the mountains contradicts what you have to say. It’s usually best to make the trees smaller than they may appear so the mountains seem bigger.”

The artist lives in Jackson, Wyoming, a part of the country known for a lack of color-moderating atmosphere. This can be a problem if distant mountains appear to be much closer than they are. Wilcox doesn’t hesitate to invent a little atmosphere and gray down distant objects to make a painting read more logically. In this case, the “right” color is one more subdued than what is visible in the actual scene.
He has strong feelings on the use of grays and blacks. “Grays should always have a recognizable color,” Wilcox says. “Never mix a drab gray—grays should always be at least pinkish or bluish. Nature very rarely makes neutral grays. Sometimes in the middle of winter you’ll see a neutral gray.” The artist doesn’t apply black directly to his canvas; rather, he mixes his darkest darks when they are needed. He says he keeps black on his palette to shade other hues. One example would be the color used for trees on a distant mountain. “Most people painting these mountains would mix a green color for the trees at the bottom, but it’s best to just modify the mountain color with a little black. That will do it.”

Mixing colors can teach an artist more about materials and color theory, but it will most certainly slow a painter down. Wilcox says he experimented for two years with painting using only the primary colors to see if it would make a difference in his work. “It didn’t,” he recalls. “So I moved on to adding a warm and a cool of each color, then I added others that seemed like they would save me time and energy.” His palette is still not large, but with four reds, three yellows, and two greens, it is quite versatile.

The next topic in Wilcox’s list is one he repeatedly discusses in workshops: Choosing the right shape to place on the surface. In critiques of student work, you will hear him ask, “Is this an interesting shape? If you cut out that treeline, would it be interesting on its own?” It may be the most important question for any painting. “There’s a difference between a subject and a painting—there’s always a subject, but a painting is design, color, and value. And a painting can have nice grays or great color, but you have to ask, Can you cut out any shape on the canvas and enjoy it? If so, then it is likely to be a successful painting.”

The issue is particularly important in the area around the Tetons, which are some of the most recognizable and iconic mountains in the country. “If you are painting one of these mountains, you are painting a portrait, so you had better get it right,” said Wilcox in a workshop this past September. “For parts of the ranges you don’t have to be too worried—they are quite generic. But with the Cathedral group and Grand Teton, you must be very accurate. “ The rocky parts of the mountains are usually very close to the sky color, and the atmosphere between the viewer and the peaks softens the contrast between light and dark considerably. The result is several related shades of gray. In the absence of strong contrast, the shapes of elements stand out; snowfields, glaciers, and crevices become enormously important. “Snow patterns usually define what is going on up there,” says Wilcox. “The way snow lays in crevices is what makes a mountain convincing and evident. In some areas they can be nondescript and not well delineated, but most of the time, you had better pay close attention to the shape and pattern that is there. Usually snow patterns are more interesting than what you would make up. Around here, you could cut up the mountain shapes and make beautiful jewelry out of them, they are so perfect.”

Other notable shapes that Wilcox frequently discusses are trees, reflections in water, and exaggerated elements used to keep the viewer’s eye on the canvas. He points out how many artists could vary the size and dark-light pattern of their trees (and even intersperse some dead trees for variety and verisimilitude), and how their depiction directly affects whether the mountains in the background appear grand enough. Wilcox reminds his students that water is rarely mirrorlike, so the reflections are soft-edged and broken—and are crucial for any lake painting that wishes to be representational. (He also reminds them that dark objects appear lighter in reflections, and lighter elements darker.) On several pieces during the critique portion of a workshop, the instructor discussed shapes near the edges of the canvas that pulled viewers out of the composition, or objects at the edge that were designed to stop the exit of such eyeballs but were either not strong enough or didn’t lead the eye back in—just stopped it in a heavy, dark blob.

Placing the shape in the right place is a matter of observation and composition, once the right tool for applying the paint is chosen. Wilcox advocates using the biggest brush you can stand. “Two brushes allow you to do most everything you want to do—a size 3 filbert and a size 7 flat,” he says. “With these two you have everything—the slender width of the size 3 to the fatness of the wide size 7. I can sign my name or add little branches with the size 3—but I don’t need to do this much. You shouldn’t add little tiny trees on the hillside, even though you know they are there. It’s like the artist who asked the model what color her eyes are—if you can’t see it, you shouldn’t paint it.”

The drawing should be done deliberately, and only after careful observation. Wilcox says he often eats his lunch and stares at his subject before tackling it. And he recalls a demonstration by artist Bettina Steinke he once watched—her method was to look at the subject for 30 seconds, then draw one short line. “It was a wonderful lesson,” says Wilcox.

The challenge to see well is a more formidable one—but one that any artist can immediately address. “There’s no reason to be intimidated by various subject matter,” he says. “No matter what it is, you just have to look at it. It’s nice to know the anatomy of a horse when painting one—the bones, muscles, and all the rest—but all you really need to know is what you see.” And sometimes the best way to see is to squint—and see less. Wilcox points out that artist Richard Schmid spends an entire chapter on squinting in one of his instructional books. Squinting lets an artist simplify the scene and more easily determine the dark-light pattern.

Wilcox strongly recommends that students in his workshop paint on relatively small canvases and that they complete each painting in one session. “Carl Rungius said you should paint many small paintings because you solve all the problems in a small one that you do in a large one, but you do it more often, and thus, grow faster,” explains the instructor. “You should see, observe, and remember—it’s best to paint it all on location so you don’t have to remember for too long. If you work later from a photo you won’t get all the nuances of color and value.” He tells students to paint on canvases 12"-x-16" or smaller, and to plan to finish the painting in two to three hours. Wilcox prefers students complete two of these quick plein air paintings per day.

Wilcox's Work
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Old Faithful
2007, oil, 24 x 18.
Canyon Reflections
2006, oil, 40 x 30.
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Fiery Farewell
2007, oil, 48 x 36.
Winner of Prix
de West’s
Remington Award.
Aspen Glow
2007, oil, 20 x 16.
Wilcox Gallery,

The first step is, of course, defining the composition. Wilcox is experienced enough to freely move elements in the scene to suit his design, but he is sympathetic to artists who opt to closely depict what nature has presented. “Just remember, if you are trying to be accurate, the question becomes, ‘If I paint I right, will it be a good painting?’” the instructor asks. “If it’s not, then there is no point in painting it.” Once he has his composition, Wilcox starts with the farthest element in the painting, which is usually the sky, then works forward. Clouds are laid in first so their color—which he modulates from a cool gray to a warm gray—isn’t contaminated. “Remember that clouds should have a direction—they indicate the wind direction,” says Wilcox. The instructor mixes a zenith sky color and a horizon sky color and blends them from top to bottom.

In workshops, Wilcox continually reminds participants that the first challenge is to truly see the scene, rather than rely on what they intellectually know about what’s happening in the far hills and farthest branches. Then, the challenge becomes accurately capturing the values. “As Harley Brown says, if you get the value right, you can do almost anything with the color,” the instructor comments, harking back to his earlier message about squinting.

Wilcox says these basic lessons are something artists of all levels need to hear. He recounts how he prescreened applicants for an advanced workshop, yet he still found himself saying the same things to them that he did to relative beginners. “They progressed quicker, of course,” Wilcox recalls. “They understood the lessons better, but they needed to hear the same things. No matter where students are at the beginning of the workshop, I try to move them to a higher ground.”

Wilcox structures his workshops so that some days the participants paint late to capture the setting sun, and some days they start early to catch the morning rays. Early on the last day, Wilcox oversees a group critique. When the workshop is over, the artist is adamant that no trace of the workshop remain in the pristine landscape around Jackson Hole. “There should never be any sign that you were there,” says Wilcox. “It’s about being a good citizen.”

About the Artist
Jim Wilcox is a member of the National Academy of Western Art and has received several award from that organization, including its most prestigious honor, the Prix de West Award, in 1987. He also won the Remington Award for best painting at the academy’s national exhibitions in 2002 and 2007. Wilcox is a member of the Northwest Rendezvous and has won their Juror’s Choice Award of Merit in 1986, 1989, and 2006. During his years of participation in the Arts for the Parks competition, from 1987 to 2006, the artist won an unprecedented seven awards, including three Region III Awards. In 1994 Wilcox won their $50,000 Grand Prize. The artist is the subject of two instructional DVDs. His work hangs in numerous public and private collections, including the National Museum of Wildlife Art, in Jackson, Wyoming; Brigham Young University, in Provo, Utah; the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, in Salt Lake City, Utah; and the Buffalo Bill Historical Museum, in Cody, Wyoming. He is a graduate of Brigham Young University and has taught workshops at the Fechin Institute, in Taos, New Mexico; the Scottsdale Artists’ School, in Arizona; and the Loveland Art Academy, in Colorado. Wilcox is represented by DeMott Gallery, in Vail, Colorado; Dodson Galleries, in Oklahoma City; Montgomery-Lee Fine Art, in Park City, Utah; and Wilcox Gallery I and Wilcox Gallery II, in Jackson, Wyoming. For more information on the artist, visit www.wilcoxgallery.com.

Bob Bahr is the managing editor of Workshop.

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