A Touch of Scarlet

Thomas Nash and a woman named Martha are shoulder to shoulder at an easel looking at her painting. "There’s a lot right going on here," Nash says, "but you didn’t come here for me to tell you that."

"Here" is a room in a bright new community center 20 miles north of Atlanta where 10 other artists – seven women, three men – stand at easels earnestly mixing paint and applying it to canvas.

Gray-haired, erect and tanned from a recent trip to Antigua, Martha wears bifocals, blue rubber gloves and a black apron over a red flannel turtleneck and dark slacks.

Nash is a tall, lean man with dark, curly, collar-length hair, a pink complexion and an all-black wardrobe: jeans, golf shirt and athletic shoes. Now in his mid-50s, Nash is a nationally recognized portrait artist – among his current commissions is a portrait of former Atlanta mayor Maynard Jackson for the Atlanta airport – and is in the fourth day of teaching a portrait-painting workshop.

In the center of the room are two low platforms, back to back. Each has a chair facing in opposite directions bathed in light from overhead lamps and separated by a curtain. In one chair is a regal African-American woman named Mollie who is wearing a billowing multicolored outfit and purple jacket. In the other is your correspondent, wearing jeans, navy turtleneck, dark sportcoat and red paisley silk scarf.

The artists have come from Cincinnati, Miami, South Carolina, Savannah and north Georgia as well as Atlanta, paying $600 plus room, meal and gas (artists have more paraphernalia than golfers; flying is not an option) for the pleasure of Nash’s company, his seemingly inexhaustible knowledge and his boyish enthusiasm.

"Ach!" he says, clapping himself on the forehead, "I forgot to tell you you can hold your hand up to the canvas and compare your skin tone with the portrait." 

The price of admission ensures that there are no garage-band wannabes in the group, and the quality of the work is uniformly high. Several of the artists are gifted professionals, and Martha, who weathers the 18 hours on her feet without complaint despite her 80 years, is one of them. She has come from Savannah with her friend and designated driver, Sandra, whose soft, whimsical demeanor gives no hint of her remarkable talent. Says Martha, lowering her voice, "She’s much younger than I am."

The opportunity to be among artists is itself a gift. Fifteen years ago, I re-connected with a high school classmate named Claire Watson Garcia, whose accomplishments as an artist (http://www.foxhillstudio.com), illustrator (three children’s books, two of which she also wrote), teacher and author ("Drawing for the Absolute and Utter Beginner") leads you to conclude that she nearly drained the talent pool before anybody else could get there. 

Claire gave me a single painting lesson before I moved to Atlanta, and took me to an art show, an experience that felt like a homecoming. Despite my lack of education, I loved the play of form and color, loved especially the use of bright colors (and still do), and reveled in the unaccustomed glow from being among kindred spirits.

I also attended a Matisse exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, and while studying a huge still-life was startled to find that my eyes had filled with tears. It was in that moment that I understood what art was: taking everyday objects and infusing them with spirit and energy, finding truth and beauty in the mundane.

I felt that same energy at Nash’s workshop: expansiveness, generosity, warmth and a childlike enthusiasm, an intensity in which the artists lost all track of time and place. And no one was more generous than Nash, whose passion for his work is consuming. He nearly had to be dragged away from the lectures that preceded the painting sessions, and at lunch his sandwich lay half-eaten while he talked about John Singer Sargent and colorist Henry Henche, about half-tones and shadow, about the pecking order of light from forehead to cheek to chin, and so on.

His advice ranged from the complexities of craft — "If you get the sequence right you’ll get the form right" — to simplicity itself: "A disorganized palette makes for a disorganized painting."

"Put a touch of scarlet on your canvas," he said at another point, scandalizing the artists who had labored for hours to get the colors right. "See how your colors compare with it. You can always wipe it off later."

He moved from easel to easel, tirelessly guiding, encouraging, correcting, praising. When I complimented him on his generosity, he seemed embarrassed. "No point in holding anything back," he mumbled.

Nash used the word "discover" often. Indeed, it seemed to me that it lay at the very heart of his message, and works in any context. For all the tricks he shared about mixing colors, darkening one color to lighten another, roughing things out on a "thumbnail" canvas before starting on the big one, it was this understanding that seemed most profound.

That is, truth is not something one brings to the canvas, but rather a mystery that reveals itself in the process. To be an artist is not about having answers, but having the courage to ask the questions.  Art, like a life well-lived, is not so much about determined creation as it is an adventure of optimism, discovery and – that touch of scarlet – play.

To respond, click below on "Post a Comment." To contact me directly, send an email to jc@johnchristensenonline.com.


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