Painterly Pumpkins

This fall, find new inspiration from a venerable autumn icon.
by McKenzie Graham

This is an excerpt from The Artist’s Life in The Artist’s Magazine (October 2013). Click here to read the full issue.

The squash is a humble vegetable. It’s violently catapulted across fields in a sport called pumpkin chunking. It’s subjected yearly to eager hands equipped with carving knives, and then, it’s inevitably left to rot on front porches across America, while our attention moves to plants of the evergreen sort.

Squash and Strainer (oil, 16x24) by Jeffrey Larson

Squash and Strainer (oil, 16×24) by Jeffrey Larson

 

In truth, perhaps no other vegetable in the world has quite so effectively unified the global art community. Squashes of various kinds can be found on nearly every continent, and they’re almost universally used as a subject or material. In many parts of Africa, squashes and gourds are dried and carved into beautiful cookware, while artisans in South America accompany their carving with burning cords or twigs to create intricate and delicate designs across the surface, usually depicting scenes of everyday life. Of course, squashes are also used in traditional oil compositions, and Vincent van Gogh painted, arguably, one of the most famous, Still Life with Two Jars and Two Pumpkins.

So what quality do winter squashes possess that makes artists everywhere run to their easels? I asked three artists familiar with the subject to weigh in: Sarah Lamb, Jeffrey T. Larson, and Hans Guerin. Larson finds alluring their “subtle textures, and the way the light flows broadly across the form.” Guerin agrees and adds, “They have an incredible variety of intricacies, creating almost endless possibilities for unique setups.”

Three Squash (oil, 20x28) by Sarah Lamb

Three Squash (oil, 20×28) by Sarah Lamb

While those intricacies can be a fun challenge, Guerin is quick to add that they’re exactly that: “As a subject, squashes will expose any weaknesses you have in the fundamentals. Squashes have hard edges, soft edges, detail, intense and dull colors, and usually a sheen that receives colored, reflected light.” That sheen is how Lamb determines her medium. “The waxy skin lends itself naturally to the thickness and opacity of oil paint,” she says; “however, the Wyeths (N.C. and Andrew) did a wonderful job in watercolor and tempera as well.”

While pumpkins are most recognizable in their signature bright orange, Larson and Lamb both agree that straying from that familiarity is the best way to avoid being cornered into seasonal art. “I’ve never painted an orange pumpkin,” says Lamb. “The blue Hubbard squash is probably my favorite.” Larson says his color preference leans toward white and celadon. “While there is the obvious association of celebrating the harvest,” says Larson, “I think, for many artists, it usually comes back to the inherent beauty and artistic challenge that each subject possesses.” Although Guerin bucks the trend and uses traditional fall colors, he also notes, “My still life paintings of squashes are often about concepts not confined to a time of year, whether it’s radiating colors, interesting textures, or a subtle narrative.”

Warts and All (oil, 19x19) by Hans Guerin

Warts and All (oil, 19×19) by Hans Guerin

Lamb recounts a narrative of her own, remembering her first experience painting a squash. “There was a great little farm stand near our house selling amazingly colored pumpkins. I fell in love and brought one home,” she says. “It kept me company in my studio for months—I became very attached—and it went through several color changes. I finally had to part with it in late spring when it started to rot and stain my floor. The painting hangs above our fireplace today, and I have fond memories of when I painted it every time I see it.”

I, too, cling to my favorite variety in fall, never tiring of seeing the earth describe a new shape with its delivery of another nutty brown, deeply ribbed beauty—and always remembering that wrapped up inside of each are seeds—promising an equally stunning visual inspiration for next year.

From Seed to Subject: Growing Your Art

Baker Creek

Photo courtesy of Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds

When it comes to buying seeds, quality is important. Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds has nearly 100 winter squash varieties, all ready for their close-up in your next great piece of work. I spoke with Randel Agrella, the seed production manager at Baker Creek, and he has three bits of advice for eager gardeners.

1. Squashes require a lot of plant food, so try to use organic fertilizer, compost or simply well amended soil.

2. Squashes are quite prone to certain insect pests and diseases, including squash vine borers. The key to preventing extensive damage is to keep a close eye on your plants, checking the leaves and stems often.

3. Squashes aren’t just for decoration. “The flesh, seeds, unopened blossoms, and even the new leaves are edible,” says Agrella, so make sure to enjoy them roasted, steamed, fried, or pureed.


Mckenzie Graham is the associate editor of The Artist’s Magazine and a graduate of Miami University (Oxford, Ohio).


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