Searching for the rightful place of representational painting.
by Helen Dwork | April 14, 2015
Garin Baker holds a BFA in painting and art history from the Pratt Institute. His works address a range of subjects through traditional figurative painting with an expressionist bent. He has exhibited extensively and is the recipient of numerous awards, notably Plein Air Easton’s 2013 Grand Prize. In addition, he is nationally recognized for his large-scale public murals. As founder of Carriage House Art Studios, he supports artists studying in the atelier tradition. More information is available on his website.
You have extensive experience with plein-air painting in numerous settings and circumstances. What is unique about New York at night?
My experience painting en plein air goes way back—I remember we used to call it “painting outdoors”—and was originally an exercise toward a greater understanding of true color and atmosphere. When I was studying in my early teens and twenties, great teachers like Irwin Greenberg would stress the importance of going directly to the source, avoiding secondhand information like photography. The only way to get to the truth is to stand in front what you’re seeing and respond directly.
The ability to remove the cerebral assumptions of what you think you know and just respond honestly can be key to developing authentic work. That’s why the workshop I’m offering, “New York at Night,” is a wonderful opportunity for students and artists who have become set in their academic approaches. Even the most advanced student tends to develop a rigid approach that can only benefit from the freedom of being outdoors amidst distractions, moving objects, and limited light. This focuses one’s energy upon the visual stimulation in a spontaneous way, adding virtuosity beyond the still nature of studio work.
My work en plein air over the last few years and specifically in the Plein-Air Movement has received quite a bit of attention lately. My painting A Buck Twenty a Bushel received the grand prize from Plein Air Easton in 2013 (the first figurative plein-air painting to win in the competition’s ten year history) and was featured in Plein Air Magazine.
How are the form and function of a plein-air painting different from that of another work?
For me, plein-air paintings are a wonderful exercise and can stand alone as unique and intrinsic works. The Plein-Air Movement and all the plein-air festivals sometimes put artists in precarious fundraising situations, so I choose only to participate in events that raise the bar and cater to the artist and art in the most positive way. In the past, I’ve done a few that use the art and artists as fodder for organizational fundraising and cater to a mass appeal. In those cases, pricing suffers, as does the quality of the work. The older I get, the more interested I become in the solitary nature of the plein-air painting, and in using these studies as notations and inspiration for larger studio works. The function of plein-air work, for me, has been to travel to places, soak in the environment, and then go back to the studio and create larger works with what I have gleaned and experienced.
You once said in an interview that you are interested in depicting “common life that most people walk by and don’t give a second look.” Is this the case with all your work, regardless of medium? Does the medium influence how these phenomena are depicted?
Since I primarily work in oils, the chosen medium always influences the subject matter and outcome. I have, in the past, used watercolor and pastels outdoors, but I seem to gravitate again and again to oils, for their fluidity and ability to paint directly, without having to plan for multiple stages. I like the finality of the paint stroke, and oils speak to me on that level. My choice of subject matter has to do with what fascinates me. I’ve always been intrigued by common life, no mater how mundane; I’m interested in the stories people tell about their lives. These simple tales document a profound and poignant narrative, offering clues as to what’s truly important.
How do the experiences of painting murals and painting smaller plein-air works inform each other?
Painting en plein air helps me see things for what they are and then see how it relates to my murals. I have, on many occasions, used plein-air studies as notations for detailed portions of large mural works where a landscape area was called for compositionally. It would be fun to turn a small plein-air study into a large mural, but in most cases the purpose for a mural is quite specifically related to its function. Clients have a purpose for using public art and murals—something they wish to convey or an atmosphere they’re trying to create—while a plein-air painting is a moment in time in a specific light or place. Murals are much more complex, even though, for me, they should include the former. A mural’s composition should serve the space and be designed in such a way that it creates harmony and adds to an architectural point of view.
Can you describe your composition process for a mural and how it differs from the process for a smaller piece of art?
I have learned many lessons looking at and reading about the works of the great British muralist Frank Brangwyn, who was primarily trained as a designer. In many of his works he strove to flatten the perspective and create designs that work on the surface plane, while using a harmony of dark against light shapes to frame his compositions. In this way, his murals sit on the wall and eliminate the need for illusionary space and trickery. Many great painters and illustrators throughout the 19th and 20th century learned from Brangwyn, and many of our most familiar images from the golden age of American illustration are heavily influenced by his work. Pyle, Wyeth, Rockwell, and especially Dean Cornwall used many of these compositional approaches, realizing that the printed form of the illustrative arts was similar in that respect. Although each mural project requires a fresh approach, towards that end my studio paintings and plein-air work reflect compositions that embrace the concept of illusionary space. Since these works stand on their own, I want the viewer to feel as though they can walk in and around the subject matter, gaining further insight towards the nature of the scene.
Do you use different approaches to teach different media?
Not really. The choice of media is more about technique and mannerism. In my teaching approach, I stress understanding form, atmosphere, and color. Regardless of what medium is used, the challenges of solid draftsmanship and of achieving as sense of volume and form are primary. Often, I find students don’t draw from life as a regular exercise, and the things that I usually end up correcting are drawing issues. Once I’m able to help a talented and committed student get past that, the real fun begins as they explore their own inner voice and develop the confidence to dig deeper and bring more of themselves out into their work.
How has your work as an art teacher and administrator influenced your own artistic practice?
I’ve been truly blessed to learn much more from my students than I sometimes feel I have offered them. Many of my students have gone on, through their own dedication and brilliance, to achieve some marvelous benchmarks in their artwork and careers. My own artwork has always benefited from this association and my own career has progressed quite profoundly based on knowledge brought to me by my students. As an arts administrator working and collaborating on many public art projects across the US and Europe, the challenge of managing teams of paid artists and artisans has allowed me to focus my energy on the hands-on aspects of creating large-scale public works. With clear goals in mind, and through applying the right talents to the task at hand, many of the logistical challenges of each project can come together seamlessly. The most important aspect of administration is putting the right people in the right places, trusting each on his or her own merits, and leaving them alone to do what they do best.
You’ve written about being inspired by important artists who “moved beyond the rigid, limited methods and styles requiring artists to paint acceptable subject matter” and “used their skills, talents, and moment of commercial success to explore personal subjects of their own choosing.” What does this kind of initiative look like in the twenty-first century?
This is a great question since when writing this I was trying to remark about what might be in store for the new representational painting in the postmodern era. I was trying to challenge contemporary representational art and go beyond the prevalent subject matter. The lovely portrait of a beautiful woman: Yes, we’ve all done them and they can be done marvelously, but what did artists in the past choose to paint once their economic nests were feathered? They painted scenes and subjects that spoke to a personal vision, which told a story about their lives and their personal existence in their own times. These inward investigations speak to us today on a visceral level and stand as great benchmarks in art history, not just because they are so marvelously done, but also because they are so authentic and honest in their purpose and vision. I see so many young artists, spawned from the new ateliers and art schools, expertly developing the skills of rendering and competent traditional works, but void of any personal vision apart from a stylized approach or pleasing subject. I’m not saying it’s not marvelous to see the explosions of new talent and the promise of a new generation of representational art, but combined with the task of earning a living, the distractions and benefits of social media, and the notion of artist as celebrity, we sometimes forget what it is we’re trying to express. I believe that’s the fault of the many art institutions that preach academic proficiency, stylization, shock-value, and the significance of early recognition. I firmly believe in work that reveals a personal inward exploration and what it means to be human and alive today, which needs time to develop. I feel strongly that when representational artists take the chance to truly investigate, with all the stumbles and pitfalls along the way, these works will be as amazing and profound as those of the nineteenth century. The art world, collectors, and museums will not be able to keep representational painting from its rightful place much longer.
Garin Baker will teach “New York at Night—Plein Air on Location in NYC” on five consecutive Tuesdays, beginning April 14. More information about this and other workshops is available on the Art Students League’s website.