My career was nearly derailed by thick paint. It seems a small thing today, but at one time it was the focus of all my energy and threatened to prevent me from becoming a painter. The painting professors all encouraged us to use “thick paint” and they showed us the heroic impasto of artists such as de Kooning, Guston and Franz Kline. The message was clear: painting was not to be an exercise in parsimony. It was a man’s work and sissies need not apply.
The credentials of most of my instructors were above reproach. Don Smith had been an Abstract Expressionist in a former life. Working in an unventilated basement studio in New York had put him in the hospital, close to death, from an undiagnosed allergy to turpentine. This was the moral equivalent of cutting off part of your ear and sending it to Ducinea. Sam Ames had studied with Wayne Thiebaud, a Pop Art painter it had to be admitted, but no slouch in the thick paint department. Angelo Rosati didn’t stress thick paint as much, and I was suspicious of him as a result. He once told me as I struggled with the drawing of a forearm in a portrait assignment, “The arm is like a sausage.” I was enrolled in Anatomy at the time, a holy and anachronistic pursuit of extensors and flexors. His analogy seemed nothing short of sacrilegious to me. Now I realize, he was trying to tell me something about the tension between the articulation of form and the elastic connections between its parts. The hubris of youth prevented me from taking advantage of his insight. But that’s another story.
Thick paint was important because it apparently expressed the nature of the materials, a philosophy that I supported completely. I was sold on the idea of being a painter, but I wasn’t good at using thick paint. It always seemed so wasteful. I tried to slather on the paint, but it simply wasn’t my nature. I despaired, and after a year or two of struggle, I was ready to accept my fate. I lacked sufficient aggressive tendencies to be a painter. All that remained for me was one of the lesser arts: silkscreen maybe, or scrimshaw.
Around this time though, I began to look critically at the work of my macho painting mentors. The thickness of their paint was something less than Homeric. Closer inspection revealed that the paint was, at times, downright thin. On a road trip to Boston with Sam to hear Wayne Thiebaud lecture, I confronted him with the facts. This dedication to fat, meaty paint application seemed to be more talk than action. He sheepishly admitted the truth of my accusation and one confession lead to another: it turned out that paint has a multifaceted nature. Yes, its structure can be revealed by heavy application, but it’s also a liquid and can be layered. We studied a Toulouse Lautrec painting later that day at the Fogg Museum and I became committed to layering.
I still feel a pang of guilt when someone sees my work for the first time and remarks, “The paint is very thin!” But I deal with it. I believe my work is sensitive to the materials I’ve chosen to use, and also true to my own nature. At the best of times, the depth of surface in my work reinforces the mystery I try to build with my choice of subject. But I still encourage my students to use thick paint. Let them figure it out for themselves.