Tuesday, June 18, 2013

My Interview with Larry Groff

Larry Groff is the author of one of the finest blog/websites on contemporary painters out there today, Painting Perceptions. Many of my heroes - painters like George Nick, Phillip Pearlstein, and Edwin Dickinson - have appeared in the pages of the blog so I was honored when its author, Larry Groff, invited me to do this interview, which appeared last April.


Saturday, May 18, 2013

Painting's Gift

An artist's works are like his children; they contain the imprint of his DNA. They go out from the safety of the studio to make their way in the world. For almost 25 years I've been engaged in a familiar ritual of taking new work to galleries and bringing home what hasn't sold.  Each time, a few of the earlier pieces remain with the gallery, ever hopeful of a sale. Eventually a time comes for galleries to clear out their storerooms. What comes forth can be surprising. Paintings I haven't seen for many years return home like lost children that have grown up. I hardly recognize them sometimes.

No artist can expect to sell everything he paints. I've been fortunate over the years to have had good dealers who have managed to find homes for a lot of my work, but it's still only a small fraction of what I produce. It can be discouraging bringing back boxes and stacks of older work that failed to find a home. I think, should I have my paint tubes tied and stop making any more of these homeless children? Does the world really need any more paintings? I spread them out all over my living room and enjoy our reunion. What my paintings might mean to another I can never know. No artist can. When I make them I don't address myself to any audience, imagined or real. Making a painting, for me is, ultimately, a soliloquy; a private, brooding walk in the woods, the end of which is to get clear about something.

This morning my eyes fell on the painting above, a small, twelve-inch square oil on canvas that I painted in northern Maine during my year as visiting artist at Colby College, from 2006 to 2007. It's one of the paintings I recently brought home from its rounds in the galleries and I'm actually very happy to have it back. It was painted in a transitional time in my life, the extent of which I hardly glimpsed at the time. An important relationship of five years was gradating, sadly, to its end, and what lay at the end of my time at Colby wasn't clear. Nature's indifference to human dramas is often a solace at such times. Looking at this little painting of mine always gives me an indescribable elation. My eyes seem to unpack the colors and shapes until I can actually smell and taste the damp salty air. I sense again the immensity of that wild northern landscape stretching out in my peripheral vision beyond the borders of that twelve-inch window. I feel the world turning. It makes me wonder what others see in a painting that makes them want to own it.

Recently at a local Habitat for Humanity "Re-Store" I spied a tremendous stack of paintings against a wall. An employee told me that a man had dropped them off that morning. Investigating, I discovered that they were all painted on high-quality linen canvas, tastefully framed. The paintings, while not great, showed that the artist had been engaged with the history of Modern painting. There were traces of conversation with Bonnard and Matisse. Figures and interiors, still-life and landscapes, gave me to realize that the artist had also been engaged with her own life. I was saddened to realize what this person's life work had come to. It's every artist's worst nightmare. All I could do was re-stack the paintings so that their corners would no longer press against canvas.

When I look at the growing stacks of my own paintings that have come home to roost, it's hard not to imagine a similar fate for them. Many of my friends are now retiring from long careers teaching art in universities. They are facing the same dilemma. Massive inventories of a lifes' work stowed quietly away in basements and attics do not make for restful sleep at night. Like parents, we think about our children and what's to become of them after we're no longer there to care for them.

The little twelve-inch painting of the Penobscot River in Maine now sits on top of a bookshelf in my house. I look at it and the peaty air of central Maine fills my lungs. I feel again the familiar cool dampness on my cheeks. I remember the healing that it brought to the close of a difficult chapter in my life. In the end, painting is not about what you made, but about the making itself. It's about the day by day decision to make time for it, to make room for it, among all the other competing pressures of an average life. To do it at all is a gift, and that's enough. And just as my Mother did when I left home, I will thank life for the gift, and trust that I did what I could.

Monday, April 1, 2013

Drawings in Motion

I remember a teacher in graduate school, Law Watkins, describing his vision of paintings by Rembrandt, Vuillard, Vermeer and others. A fellow student asked him, "Do you always see like this?" He replied, "Of course not; if I did I wouldn't be able to drive home after class!"

Painters who work with perception develop an ability to selectively "see" in ways that bridge the gap between the three-dimensional world and the two-dimensional flatness of the canvas. Color, shape, and texture variations in the visual field signify spatial changes in the forms before us. The language of painting teaches us that the planes and surfaces of the world translate into abutting color masses. Lines, while they don't actually exist in nature, as Goya said, are an important part of the artifice of our language, whether they serve as a useful construction device for locating edges, divining proportions, dividing the picture plane, or heightening the lyricism of perceived rhythms and repetitions of the subject.

Our normal sense of sight is driven by a spatial imperative. Along with the native language that we absorbed throughout our infancy and childhood years, we also learned the three-dimensional significance of colors, lights and darks, textures, shapes and so forth. Our senses orient us in the world with such certainty that as we grow into adults we stop taking notice of the raw sensory data impinging on our eyes, ears, nose, mouth and skin, and, in less time than it takes a meteor to streak across the sky, we deduce the meaning of it all. (See my earlier post of Annie Dillard's essay on seeing.) We reach infallibly for the glass on our dinner table and bring it to our lips. We drive our cars expertly through the visual signs and signals from which we deduce "road," "curve," "hill," "obstacle."

Some years ago I commuted almost two hours one way, twice a week, to a teaching job at Randolph-Macon Woman's College (now Randolph College) in Lynchburg, VA. On a long straight stretch of interstate highway I used to pass the time by doing little blind drawings of the landscape in a sketchbook positioned comfortably on my transmission hump, never taking my eye off the road ahead of me. In the distance, despite my car's forward movement, the landscape's shapes remained fairly stable, but there was a definite, slow morphing of the subject as distance yielded to proximity. Observed silhouettes and shapes, perspectival distortions of the parallel edges of the roadway, momentary glimpses of things before they disappeared behind me - all of these shifting facades imparted a necessary urgency to the drawings.

I rarely view my drawing and sketching as preparatory to anything. The process of drawing, and what results on the page, is a self-sufficient experience, a personal notation of time spent in the passage of my life. You can view an album of these "blind" drawings of the landscape by clicking the image below.

Wednesday, March 27, 2013


vestige |╦łvestij|
a trace of something that is disappearing or no longer exists: the last vestiges of colonialism.
• Biology: a part or organ of an organism that has become reduced or functionless in the course of evolution.
ORIGIN late Middle English: from French, from Latin vestigium ‘footprint.’

Italy is a country filled with footprints of the past. Etruscan walls, Roman aquaducts and roads, medieval towns and Renaissance palaces. America too has its share of vestigial remains, none so ancient as Italy, but they are a growing feature of our evolving landscape. As a young painter I argued that my attraction to these now empty remnants of America's once-thriving industrial past were driven by formal interests alone; but as I've reached my middle years I've become more and more fascinated by the narrative implications of my choice of subjects.

Some years ago I was musing with a student on the magnetism that abandoned places exert on us as painters. Is it just the vestiges of Romanticism, or perhaps some sublimated symbolic impulse hiding in these empty, decaying sites? My student offered another explanation. "It goes back to childhood," he said. "These are the places we sought out as children to play in; places where there are no adults." I haven't stopped thinking about that since. Play, as every child knows, is the most serious work there is.

 Frank Hobbs
 Abandoned Silo Along the Western Shore of Lake Trasimeno, Tuscany,  
oil on canvas, 18"x14," 2013

Frank Hobbs
 Factory Remnants, Tuscany, oil on canvas, 16"x19," 2013

 Frank Hobbs
 Abandoned Factory On the Road to Poppi, Tuscany,  
oil on canvas, 16"x19," 2013

All images copyright 

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Walking Down a River

 The Cowpasture River, Bath County, Virginia

I never throw away a book I have bought. They line my work spaces, my studio, my bedroom. One glance at a shelf reminds me of where I have been, what has occupied my mind and my time, who I am. They are like oracles. Pulling out Edwin Way Teale's Journey Into Summer recently my eyes fell on this, from a chapter entitled, Walking Down a River, :

"...the way to become acquainted with an area intimately, to appreciate it best, is to walk over it. And the slower the walk the better. For a naturalist, the most productive pace is a snail's pace. A large part of his walk is often spent standing still. A mile an hour may well be fast enough. For his goal is different from that of the pedestrian. It is not how far he goes that counts; it is not how fast he goes; it is how much he sees.

And, in deeper truth, it is not just how much he sees. It is how much he appreciates, how much he feels. Nature affects our minds as light affects the photographic emulsion on a film. Some films are more sensitive than others; some minds are more receptive. To one observer a thing means much; to another the same thing means almost nothing. As the poet William Blake wrote in one of his letters: 'The Tree which moves some to tears of joy is in the Eyes of others only a Green thing that stands in the way.'

To the lost man, to the pioneer penetrating new country, to the naturalist who wishes to see wild land at its wildest, the advice is always the same - follow a stream. The river is the original forest highway. It is nature's own Wilderness Road." 

Some of the rivers that I have "walked down:"

The Yellowstone, Montana

The Maury, Goshen Pass, Virginia

The Gihon, Near Johnsonville, Vermont

The Gihon - Sunset
The James, Richmond, Virginia - Evening

The Kennebec River, Maine - Evening, Looking South from Waterville

The Penobscot River, Maine - On the Way Home from Lubec

The Hocking River, Athens, Ohio, Winter

The Scioto River, Columbus, Ohio

Friday, March 15, 2013

"Cortona Palcoscenico" in Motion

Ah, Spring Break. Time to work in the studio, and to fool around with new things. I made a new video that puts my series, Cortona Palcoscenico, into motion along with a backing soundtrack that I composed and mixed a few years ago. (A bit rough in quality admittedly but not excruciatingly so, I trust.)

Monday, March 11, 2013

The Village Idiot Will Find You!

Painting outdoors on site has figured large in my work ever since my last years in college at Virginia Tech. Working in situ has its own set of risks and trials that have nothing to do with the aesthetic or technical problems of painting. I'm talking about people: curious, mostly well-meaning, people. Ask any painter who works outdoors and you'll hear stories of encounters with interesting folk.

Here's a little known fact. In every town or city there are lots of people who apparently don't do anything but wander around. A friend once cautioned me, "If you paint outdoors, sooner or later the village idiot will find you."An artist working on the street casts a magic spell that apparently turns adults into children. Probably because painters share certain characteristics in common with clowns and jugglers. We're entertaining. But we outdoor artists also share characteristics with criminals. Before the easel comes out, we've likely loitered too long in one place, and looked a little too hard at things, as if we're casing the joint for a robbery. Maybe that's why Degas said, "A painting takes as much cunning as committing a crime."

Some of my encounters have been pleasant and enjoyable. Other times I've felt a bit threatened. (I often work in some pretty sketchy places.) Very seldom has a chance encounter on the street led to a sale, a commission, or a lasting, meaningful relationship, except once when the president of a paper mill near Lynchburg, VA, stopped and later bought the painting that I was doing of his mill. Mostly it's a vexation to be interrupted while you're deep in thought, struggling with a problem, searching for something you can't seem to find. That difficulty is likely what occasioned Degas' to make his famous remark, "Art is a battle." (That, and the Franco-Prussian war that Degas experienced about the time he made the comment.)

When I'm deeply entrained in the work, fighting my way back to the verbal side of consciousness in order to respond to a question from a passerby is like running underwater. Voices sound like the adults in Charlie Brown cartoons. Why is it that no one thinks to chat up the guy or gal in a ditch working on the city's water main? But then those folk have serious work to do, unlike painters, who we all know are probably out on holiday enjoying a day off from their real work.

I read somewhere that the use of free-association in psycho-analysis has fallen away because they discovered that it doesn't reveal much. People, it turns out, are pretty predictable in their associations: egg-bird; cat-dog, night-day, etc. Same with the questions that people ask. These are the ones I most often hear when painting, and my answers (in parentheses):

1. What are you painting? (Follow my eyes.)
2. How long does it take you to finish a painting? (I don't know.)
3. Do you sell them or is it just a hobby? (It's not a hobby.)
4. How much do you sell them for? (Probably more than you want to spend.)
5. How long have you been doing this? (As long, or longer than you've been alive.)
6. Did you study art or did you just learn it yourself? (I studied art but I learned it myself.)
7. Why are you painting THAT!? (Do you want the short answer or the long one?)

Over the years I have learned a few things from passersby (in quotation marks):

1. You don't have to actually paint to be an artist. ("My [fill in blank: daughter, son, uncle, aunt, etc.] is an artist. He/she hasn't painted in 25 years but he/she is so creative...") and so forth.

2. Subject matter is all that matters in art. ("Man, them buildings MEAN something to you?" Me: "No, I just like the colors and the light." Angry reply: "Then WHY are you painting them!?")

3. People naturally understand that the chaos and mess of actual construction sites is a necessary stage of a building process but a painting should look like a picture from the first marks. ("My son paints, but he can make it LOOK LIKE a picture." And, "Man, you doin' some of that New York-y shit!")

4. Art teachers are generally useless and incompetent, if not crazy. ("My teacher at the community college told me not to use so much green, but leaves ARE green!")

Not all exchanges are so bad. Usually it's the children who stop to watch who seem to just get what it's all about. I once had an audience of some Mennonite children on their way home from school. They were mesmerized by the likeness of the painting to the buildings and houses I was painting. For them, whose religious upbringing proscribes "graven images," I imagine it was like that Walt Disney animation of a painting flowing, finished to the last detail, in one stroke from a paintbrush wiggling across the canvas from top to bottom.

My favorite meeting was with two young boys who stood behind me quietly watching me work on a cropped composition of a railroad overpass in the downtown of Waynesboro, VA. I overheard one say to the other, "You want to be an artist when you grow up?" His friend replied, "I don't know, don't you have to wear one of those funny hats?" The boy's parting remark to me was priceless: "Mister, next time you paint that bridge you should bring a bigger canvas so you can get the whole thing on there."

No Ideas But In Things

To William Carlos Williams' argument for the primacy of sensuous contact with the world is added the voice of American poet/critic John Crowe Ransom in his 1938 book, "The World's Body:"

"… the image is the raw material of idea. It cannot be dispossessed of a primordial freshness which idea can never claim. An idea is derivative and tamed. The image is in the natural or wild state, and it has to be discovered there, not put there, obeying its own law and none of ours. We think we can lay hold of the image and take it captive, but the docile captive is not the real image but only the idea, which is the image with its character beaten out of it."

 Frank Hobbs, Pears, oil on canvas mounted on panel, 9" x 12," circa 1997

Friday, February 22, 2013

Some Caseins

My first break into college teaching, many, many years ago was a sabbatical replacement gig at Mary Baldwin College in Staunton, VA. One day the phone in "my" office rang. A woman's voice explained that she'd just bought a house in town that had belonged to a German painter who, for some reason, had had to sell quickly and return to Germany. The caller wanted to donate "some art supplies" to the college. I asked the chairperson of the department about it and she said, "Oh, just take the stuff for yourself and consider it a fringe benefit." I imagined arriving at the house to find the typical inventory of the Sunday painter - a cheap box, palette still in the slotted lid, a few paint encrusted brushes and so forth. Instead I walked into a full basement of stuff. Boxes of every sort of media you could imagine. Against the wall, what looked like a rolled up rug turned out to be a 6' x 20 yard roll of heavy linen canvas.

Among the boxes I discovered a collection of casein paints, a medium I'd read about but which I'd never used. Casein is a kind of tempera paint that was often used in illustration before the advent of acrylics. The binder is basically milk, or a milk protein, casein. Cottage cheese is casein protein. Add a little ammonia and cook it and you've got the binder for casein paint. If you've ever tried to wash a glass or dish on which milk has dried you can understand what a durable medium casein paint is.

The paint itself is wonderfully silky to work with, has a pleasant smell, and dries chalky and opaque, like liquid pastel. It dries fairly quickly and becomes nearly unwettable with time, unlike watercolor or gouache. However if re-wetting is desired, a little scrubbing with water and brush and you've got it. It can be built up to oil paint-like impastos, or used transparently. For me casein combines the best qualities of acrylics, the fast drying and potential for overpainting, without the plastic feeling or look.

Like so many other once arcane art media, the art suppliers have obliged us by making these available easily at our local art supply houses, or online. Much as I enjoy playing medieval alchemist in my studio, cooking up strange concoctions of this and that, making things from scratch, I suppose I should be grateful that I don't have to start with the actual cottage cheese in order to make casein paints.

Some recent work in the medium. All the paintings are around twelve inches, on rag paper:

Tobacco Country, Southern Virginia, casein on rag paper, 9" x12," 2013

Northeast of Winchester, Virginia; Winter casein on rag paper, 9" x12," 2013
Northeast of Winchester, Virginia; Winter - Single Tree, casein on rag paper, 9" x12," 2013
In the Hocking Hills at Sundown; Winter, casein on rag paper, 9" x12," 2013

In the Valdicchiana, Tuscany; Summer,  casein on rag paper, 9" x12," 2013

In the Valdicchiana, Tuscany; Summer - Cropped Hayfields,  casein on rag paper, 7" x12," 2013

Vineyards on the Road to Montepulciano, Tuscany; Summer,  casein on rag paper, 9" x12," 2013