Nicholas Baxter

2016 Peto Biennial

I’m very honored and excited to have been among the artists whose work was selected for the John F. Peto Studio Museum’s 2016 Biennial. This marks my second time being included in the show, which is a juried exhibition with cash awards at stake.

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The piece selected this time around was my recent still life “To The Nadir,” which is first in a series of new work tentatively titled “Blood Rituals.”

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To The Nadir, oil on linen panel, 11 x 14 inches, 2016

I’ll be debuting this new body of work (which I feel is some of my best yet!) later this year. More details to follow on that exhibition, and hopefully some writing about the themes and symbolism of the series, so stay tuned!

For now, if you’re in the New Jersey area and into classical still life painting, don’t miss what will surely be an amazing show full of mesmerizing technical mastery.

On The Road 11: New England Plein Air

At the beginning of this month I travelled back to my homeland of Connecticut, hoping for late winter weather mild enough to endure some outdoor painting of the classic New England scenery I grew up with and now become nostalgic for after these last 7 years in the ecology of central Texas. I wasn’t disappointed, as Mother Nature provided a few days of sunshine with the slightest hint of spring.

Colder than it looks, trust me.

Colder than it looks, trust me.

My first opportunity was a very brief session in the late afternoon golden hour at Killam’s Point in Branford, where it was not just barely (baarrrely) warm enough to endure a stretch of time standing still with finger joints stiffening by the hour and legendary March breezes dropping the wind chill as the sun sank into the water of western Long Island Sound. The lapping of the waves into stony sand and the smell of seaweed washed ashore were both adequately satiating to my coastal longings despite the useless frozen digits and deep chill creeping into my core that didn’t fully thaw until much later that night. While far from my finest work, I appreciate the challenges overcome in order to paint something even this rough.

"Killam's Point Sunset", oil on panel, 6.5 x 5 inches, 2016

Killam’s Point Sunset, oil on panel, 6.5 x 5 inches, 2016

The following day was mercifully a bit warmer, especially being away from the coast, in the forest interior of Meriden’s Hubbard Park where I happened upon a softly babbling stream early enough into a failed quest to reach the summit of the small mountain that the park envelops. Up on that mountain, at the edge of a cliff, stands tiny Castle Craig, which overlooks the park and the rest of New Haven County to the south (and which I have never been to, despite growing up practically in its shadow in nearby Cheshire), and I hoped to reach it easily in order to paint the scenic vista of my homeland. But the limited daylight hours and weight of my painting gear upon my surgically repaired lower lumbar were enough to keep me resigned to the forest below, where I was thankful to find a secluded and easily accessible place to paint a forest interior that I’m quite pleased with. Juxtaposing the smoothly blended flowing water with the rougher chunks of loose alla-prima paint technique has become one of my favorite effects to attempt in my young plein air painting practice.

Hubbard Park easel

Late Winter Stream At Hubbard Park, oil on panel, 8 x 10 inches, 2016

Late Winter Stream At Hubbard Park, oil on panel, 8 x 10 inches, 2016

Notes & Advice 11

The popular text message shorthand TMI, as most of us growing up in the cell phone era know, means “too much information.” Normally not a good thing–except when it comes to my realism oil painting strategy.

To be specific, I find it useful to paint as much information as possible in the beginning stages and opaque layers of my photorealist paintings, so that I can pick and choose where to obscure it during the final (semi-transparent) glazing layers. There’s perhaps a bit of inefficiency involved in this approach, but it allows for a more organic development process overall, and a greater degree of control during the final artistic choices of what to emphasize or subordinate into shadow.

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“Dying In America” (detail). Before and after the final shadow glazes. Note the subtle loss of detail/information in the rose petals.

The human eye is capable of seeing every detail of any given view, but the brain, our computer processor of sorts, is wired for efficiency and baseline survival, and as such is instinctively tuned to only allow us to focus on what is most important in any given view. Details and countless bits and pieces of any scene get stitched together from memory, assumption, and expectation, while a vast majority of the remaining minutiae are simply discarded as inessential to whatever task is at hand.

Some of my favorite realism artists were masters of this concept, knowing exactly what to emphasize or subdue in order to pull the viewers attention towards their focus and tug at their heartstrings with an effective narrative or use of symbolism.

Notice in John Singer Sargent’s portraits how little attention was paid to large areas of dress, allowing inessential areas to become black or brown silhouettes with no detail. He created a hierarchy of importance within the picture that mimics the way our brains naturally function, using the aforementioned technique to subordinate certain areas.

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John Singer Sargent. “Madame X (Madame Pierre Gautreau),” 1884, oil. The dress and background, which comprise nearly all of the painting, are almost entirely flat areas of dark value.

Andrew Wyath used the technique of reserve just as brilliantly towards the goal of depicting scenic vistas and landscapes with a completely lifelike–yet surprisingly graphic and simplistic–appearance, setting the often somber and peaceful mood with just enough detail to draw us in and keep us looking.

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Andrew Wyeth. “Sea Boots,” 1976, tempera. Details in the boots and foreground tempered with the geometric simplicity of everything in the top half of the composition.

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Andrew Wyeth. “Barracoon,” 1976, tempera. Just enough accurate rendering in the figure and folds in the fabric, juxtaposed with large open fields of color and diffused texture.

 

And so I too try to keep the artistic concepts of hierarchy, subordination, and reserve in mind while envisioning my final result, with the goal of creating a visually appealing image, rather than chaotic overload containing a factually truthful amount of information, yet lacking cohesion and harmony.

I think these concepts become especially important when painting anything approaching the photorealism genre. Micro details are common and often necessary to complete the desired illusion in this style of painting, and yet conversely, a closed-minded and strict devotion to every detail of one’s photo reference or still life arrangement can result in a less aesthetically pleasing work of art.

"Dying In America" (detail).

“Dying In America” (detail).

Visual information, as with most things in life, can in fact become too much of a good thing. To make sure I hit my desired sweet spot on the information spectrum, I’m not afraid to paint more detail than will ultimately be needed, only to lose it in deep, rich, believable shadows. The most effective of these shadows will still contain the faintest traces of the details underneath, yet not so much detail as to clutter and distract from my desired focal point.

"Dying In America," 2015, oil on linen panel.

“Dying In America,” 2015, oil on linen panel.