Finding Your Roots

For artist Carl Samson, finding his artistic lineage has been a crucial part of his development as an artist.

“Tracing your artistic genealogy gives you a sense of pride in your tradition and a sense of place in art history,” Samson says. “Only by understanding where you come from as an artist can you fully understand where you’re going.”

Since beginning his art training at age 14 under Allan Banks, Samson found himself intrigued by his artistic heritage. “I’ve always had a keen sense of where I came from because it was a large part of the lore I kept hearing as a student,” says the Cincinnati, Ohio, artist.

This interest in artistic ancestors led him to Minneapolis and Boston to meet Banks’ teachers Richard Lack and R.H. Ives Gammell, respectively. Gammell, who was part of the famous Boston School of Painters and worked with such artists as Joseph DeCamp and Frank Benson, offered Samson a post in Boston upon graduation. Samson studied directly under him for a year, then returned to Banks and finally completed his training with two years under Lack.

After 10 years of study, Samson traveled throughout Europe visiting museums and learning from these masters. He feels copying masterworks is a major part of uncovering your artistic lineage, as well as developing your skills. “Concentrate not so much on technique, but try to discover how they interpreted nature on the canvas,” he says.

In researching his artistic genealogy, Samson found that just as when individuals marry they extend their lineage, so too can artists. While you can’t change your historic lineage and its branches, you can set a new course by learning about other artists whose work speaks to you.

“You have to remain open-minded to different influences and if something in a particular painter’s work is speaking to you on some level, try to find out what that is and why it’s calling your name. Explore it and learn about it. You can’t change your family line, but you can add more painters to your artistic genealogy either by directly studying under them or one of their students, or by studying their works firsthand.”

But before you branch out to artists who interest you, Samson says you should begin with those who share your artistic lineage. By starting your genealogy tree with your immediate teachers and their teachers, you’ll be able to gain insight into their work as well as your own.

Studying the work of his antecedents has also helped Samson deal with different issues in his work. “I believe everyone is born either a mass draftsman or a linear draftsman,” he says. “My particular training seemed to revolve around people with a stronger linear bent. So I was faced with the question of how to address the difference between what I was taught and my immediate tendency to draw by the mass.” In his research, Samson discovered the more mass end of the Boston School in the work of DeCamp and Frank Duveneck, and by studying it was able to balance his earlier training with his natural tendency to focus on mass.

But there’s more to study than just the paintings. Reading about the environment in which your artistic ancestors painted will also help you understand what their work was about. And while books are a great resource, Samson emphasizes the value of talking to people who had direct contact with the artists in your tree.

“You really get a sense of why your teachers painted the way they did and figure out why you’re painting the way you are,” he says. “Then you can decide where to go with it..”

Mark Gottsegen teaches art at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro.

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