“When there is no one else around to distract me I can see myself more clearly. It is just me, responding directly to the thing in front of me. It’s being able to explore the difference between thinking who I am and knowing who I am.”
The simplest way for me to begin is to say: Kevin Weckbach is a humble genius. There. I said it. Rangy and with a quiet and thoughtful demeanor, he is a technical virtuoso who can articulate visual principles into comprehensible terms and logical approaches for his students. A popular instructor, he has a loyal following of students and friends from his many years as part of Denver’s painting community.Ten years ago, when I first traveled to Weckbach’s home state of Colorado to take his workshop, I was struck by both his philosophical approach and his emphasis on understanding how to see the world in front of us.
His first book “A Visual Palette” (2008) is a comprehensive description of the visual principles that underlie the abstract design of images. Currently, he is busy teaching and writing a second book; soon he will be making a trip to the East Coast to teach a workshop in Maryland. Last week we were able to catch up to talk art and philosophy.
Leslie Belloso (LB):
There’s a fleeting moment when you see an image as pure color and shape before your brain labels it as a thing. My favorite paintings prolong that moment of unlabeled visual engagement, and I enjoy them on the basis of their abstract design and color.
Kevin, the beauty of your luminous paintings strikes me in this way— the objects they represent become apparent after the initial reaction. Other artists whose work evokes a similar response are Andrew Wyeth, or Pierre Bonnard.
Your paintings have a clarity of execution, but also a sense of ease and spontaneity. You know where you’re going but leave room for adventure. How do you approach painting?
Kevin Weckbach (KW):
There are two ways that I approach painting: sometimes my work is driven by the subject matter and at other times I am interested in a certain technique, which directs the work. My paintings reflect the places that have personal meaning for me; many are places that I grew up around in Denver. They are a part of my past—for example the woods where as a kid I built tree-house forts. I have memories of being both a teenager and a college student in this city. So, they are places I experience over and over.
LB: Yes, you like to paint trees and forests. I can see the same patch of forest but you’ve painted it uniquely each time.
KW: I love nature and biology. I like to go hiking, that way I can directly observe nature—the animals and the geology of the landscape. The solitude of camping and painting is a form of meditation for me and allows me to get to know myself better. I think that is what drives me as an artist.
LB: Can you tell me more about that?
KW: When there is no one else around to distract me I can see myself more clearly. It is just me, responding directly to the thing in front of me. It’s being able to explore the difference between thinking who I am and knowing who I am.
“Through study and practice an artist attains sensitivity, technique, and even mastery. However, tapping into the intuitive state—the next level of execution— is about throwing chaos into that mastery.”
LB: Do you think it’s similar to the difference between telling and showing a story in writing? For instance, rather than describing a character as “wise and kind”, showing the person’s wisdom and kindness through an action or gesture.
KW: Yes, I think that’s a similar situation.
LB: How do you achieve the luminosity and freshness in your colors, both in watercolor and oil?
KW: I started out with oils which I still use, then when I was in my 20’s I began to paint with watercolor as well. I have been jumping back and forth between the two mediums ever since. Over the last four years I have been experimenting with my own form of paint which is a mix of egg tempera and oil. What I like about my mixture is that it behaves like watercolor but has the richness and flexibility of oil. My galleries are always calling me because they can’t tell the difference between the two mediums.
LB: In your workshop and also in your book “A Visual Palette” you talked not only about technique, but also about different levels of poetic or artistic perception and execution. Can you speak a little more about that?
KW: Yes—it is about becoming intuitive. Through study and practice an artist attains sensitivity, technique, and even mastery. However, tapping into the intuitive state—the next level of execution— is about throwing chaos into that mastery. The artist isn’t thinking about technique—he or she is just painting, just responding to the subject.
LB: I have used and also recommended your book “A Visual Palette” for years. Tell me about the book you’re writing now.
KW: It is about the visual language of painting, but it is also includes art history with some philosophy tied in.
What excites me about this book is how to observe life as an art form. Perception is how life and painting are intermingled. As an example, I speak about perfection versus imperfection. Visually you can see that perfection lacks human touch (chaos) and a painting that lacks structure lacks visual fortitude (order). Combine the chaos and order and you get a painting that is perceived in the same way we experience life.
Here is an excerpt from my book,
“Good observation should be taken into account when you paint a vase of tulips. If you begin by outlining the flowers instead of observing the actual shape of the flowers your brain thinks up how a flower symbolically looks. You begin to stamp flowers onto the canvas which does not look natural, then you wonder “Why do my tulips not look right?”. On closer observation of the actual flowers you will note that they all differ whereas your painted flowers are rather generic. Every flower in life differs and each petal is particularly definitive in element stature. They are two divergent shapes occupying separate spaces, nevertheless they are unified at one fell swoop. You change them as they really exist and voila your painting is now looking first-rate. What you have done is to vary the visual elements, thus giving it a more random melody, which is how we live and observe life. Life is not perfect and it is in flaws we find beauty. Perfect flowers do not exist or ones that do are of the cheap plastic artificial sort. Something so ordinary as flowers are unique and beautiful in its own way; this enhances the quality of living life.”
LB: The combination of chaos and order is something you talk about quite a bit. What philosophers have influenced your artistic approach?
“What excites me about this book is how to observe life as an art form. Perception is how life and painting are intermingled.”
KW: I am interested in the ideas of Friedrich Nietzsche—whose discussion of Apollonian and Dionysian forces of nature in The Birth of Tragedy applies to the preceding example of painting tulips. The example continues in the excerpt from the book below:
“Now that those flowers have Apollonian might they still lack a certain luster and they don’t seem to have real life. As Nietzsche’s explains it, they need the awakening of Dionysian emotion. The flowers visually work in accord to how life does but it lacks how we experience it; this is the differences between how we observe life versus how we live life. What is needed is a little sip of Dionysian wine. They require a versatile touch of intuitive flare. A common mistake when an artist paints is that they do not paint the shapes, instead they draw out the shapes. There is a sense of hesitation that carries over and the viewer becomes aware of this and feels the artist’s frustration, but when the artist does not hold back and allows the paint to fall off the brush it looks natural. A painting that is painted by Apollo is overly labored and is like reading an owner’s manual and one painted by Dionysus is an illegible mess, yet a painting that encompasses both Apollo and Dionysus is like reading a poem.”
LB: Do you have a title yet?
KW: I kept shifting the title of my book. It’s been called “Life Force”, “Kalos”, “Ghastly Exquisite” and now “Outlaws of Fireflies”. I am just about finished so “Outlaws of Fireflies” will be the title. I guess I couldn’t give it a name until it was complete. It should be coming out sometime next winter, hopefully before Christmas.
Kevin will be teaching a workshop called, “Visual Theories and how to direct eye movement in a painting” March 10th & 12th at The Art League of Ocean City on the Eastern Shore of Maryland