When Rhode Island artist Peter Hussey taught himself to paint, he noticed that great artists often used diagonal and curved shapes to bring viewers into and around their pictures. That lesson, along with many others he learned by studying both historic and contemporary masters, helped him establish a personal style.
by M. Stephen Doherty
Peter Hussey believes he made the right decision when he chose not to take classes in watercolor painting. Instead, he opted to teach himself by reading books and studying great paintings in museum collections. “I was concerned that latching on to others would only teach me how to paint like them,” he says. “I was determined to present an original vision in my pictures, one that wasn’t just a variation of my teachers’ paintings. And I made a conscious effort not to adhere to a rigid set of edicts about mixing colors, laying a wash, or composing a picture.”
Looking at Hussey’s paintings, one can understand why he feels strongly that teaching himself allowed him to create better and more original watercolors. The compositions of his pictures are engaging, the paint application is clean and controlled, and the range of his subject matter is personal and inventive. It’s hard to imagine he achieved this level of quality without spending years studying in an art school or in dozens of workshops. “I did study with masters, in a manner of speaking,” Hussey clarifies. “I owe a debt to Winslow Homer, John Singer Sargent, Frederic Edwin Church, John Henry Twachtman, Wayne Thiebaud, and David Dewey. Each of those artists gave me ‘lessons’ through their paintings and their statements.
“Most everyone who paints realistically in watercolor has been affected by Homer and Sargent,” Hussey points out. “The other influences are less obvious. Church gave me permission to record every leaf and nail head through the way he recorded the world with great detail. Twachtman reminded me to be original without abandoning my commitment to adornment. Thiebaud showed me how to establish a dialogue between the real and the abstract. Dewey showed me how to handle the medium with precision in his book The Watercolor Book: Materials and Techniques for Today’s Artists. [Watson-Guptill Publications, New York, New York].
One of the key “lessons” Hussey received from those artists concerned the value of geometric shapes that help in finding unexpected vantage points, leading viewers’ attention into and around the pictorial space, and establishing links between areas of the picture. “I was interested in painting the architectural forms around me in New England, but I realized early on that my pictures were boring when I divided the watercolor paper with the vertical and horizontal lines of window ledges, roof lines, doorways, and moldings,” he explains. “However, when I shifted my vantage point to give greater importance to a pitched roof, arched doorway, or bay window, the paintings suddenly became more exciting.”
Intervals of space, that is, the distance between sections of a roof, two chairs on a lawn, or two adjacent buildings, are also very important to the composition of Hussey’s paintings. “I never repeat the same interval twice nor do I repeat colors or shapes,” he tells. “I challenge myself to see each subject separately, not as a variation of what I’ve already painted. Those principles force me to develop original compositions for each watercolor, and they help me maintain a high level of interest while I’m working.
“I’m a perfectionist by nature, and I get frustrated with myself if a painting doesn’t accurately capture a subject,” Hussey continues. “I therefore spend a lot of time on the drawings, making sure the intervals, perspective lines, and architectural details are correct and appropriate. I work primarily from photographs, but I sort through them to find the most accurate and appealing way to present each subject.”
Husseyâ’s painting procedures are also carefully considered and labor-intensive. After making a detailed graphite drawing on 300-lb cold-pressed paper, he begins applying controlled washes of transparent Daniel Smith watercolors, eventually building up five or six glazes to achieve the depth and richness that satisfies him. “I mix up a large quantity of paint in a small cup and apply one color at a time,” he explains. “I need the paper to be drum-tight so there aren’t any puddles or striations as I guide a bead of wet paint across the surface with a Winsor & Newton synthetic-hair brush. I allow each glaze to dry thoroughly before applying another; and I am fastidious about maintaining clean, sharp lines between each painted shape. I occasionally use masking agent to hold negative shapes or hard edges, but I only do that when absolutely necessary because I don’t like the way paint accumulates along the edge of the dried mask.
“I paint almost every day, and it usually takes me about a month to complete a painting,” Hussey reveals. “That’s part of the reason I have only been able to supply one gallery with paintings. I would like to place my work with galleries in other regions of the country, but I’m in the fortunate position of exhibiting everything through The Harrison Gallery, in Williamstown, Massachusetts.
“My goal is to accurately capture the effects of light, value, contrast, perspective, and surface,” Hussey adds. “The paintings are meant to be pleasing to look at and, at times, intellectually stimulating. Some images are straightforward visual essays about New England architecture and space, while others are thoughtful abstractions of lines and surfaces caught in the push and pull of spaces that are near and are far.”
About the Artist
Peter Hussey earned a bachelor’s degree in history from the University of Michigan, in Ann Arbor, and a master’s degree in business administration from Babson College, in Babson Park, Massachusetts. After a 17-year career as a fund-raiser for schools, universities, and hospitals, he became a full-time artist in the 1990s. His paintings have been included in group and solo exhibitions organized by the Rhode Island Watercolor Society, the Newport Art Museum & Art Association, in Newport, Rhode Island, the Art League of Rhode Island, and The Harrison Gallery, in Williamstown, Massachusetts.