Masterly Advice from Henry Fukuhara

When you were a child, you no doubt played with wood blocks. Remember the forms? Cubes, arches, rectangles, diamonds, pillars, etc.,–&#151shapes you could use to make anything you wanted. Painting is not an entirely different proposition. First you have to see past the details (color, texture, etc.)&#151stepping back either literally or figuratively&#151so you can zero in on the contours. Henry Fukuhara is a master of this. As a painter, he continually asks, ‘How can I make what I see into a shape?’ A related question, when he approaches a subject, is: ‘How can I make it different than it is?’ He reports: “I see my students struggling with shapes&#151trying to find the courage to change things around. Too often, they get fascinated by the little things that are before them. I say, ‘Let the big shapes count. The little things will take care of themselves.’ You don’t have to paint every brick on the wall when two bricks will do.’” In Hahn Park II, Fukuhara makes shapes of the clouds, the trees, the bushes and also the land. He draws these shapes in pressed charcoal. “It’s like a conte crayon, but it’s pure black,” he says. “I make a line with charcoal to define my areas. I don’t put in details! I make a shorthand designation of whatever I’m looking at: trees, buildings, etc. Later, when I touch the charcoal line with a big brush loaded with water and paint, the line dissolves a little, so in the end, there’s a lost and found feeling to the charcoal lines.”

Strategic Tips

Henry Fukuhara started painting only after he retired, but he made quick and dazzling progress, partly because he had the good fortune to study with Edgar Whitney. The legendary teacher emphasized that every element&#151land, sky, water, face, hair, torso, etc.&#151can be a shape.

1. Large, well-chosen shapes are what a solid painting is built on. “When I start a painting, I don’t start looking for the warm foreground or the cool sky; instead, I look for shapes. I start painting the sky shape first,” says Fukuhara.

2. Painting with a large brush will make it easier for you to create big shapes. Fukuhara uses a 1?-inch synthetic Grumbacher brush for 90 percent of his painting.

3. When painting a landscape, think “three.” Fukuhara starts with the shape of the sky; then he makes two more shapes in varying sizes in the composition—whether there is really something there or not.

In Trees and Vehicles, Fukuhara drew three horizontal lines to create three planes. Notice how the trees are simple shapes, rendered expressive through paint. The cars are not cars but shapes that represent cars. As a result, the painting has an exuberant and wacky energy. “My goal,” says Fukuhara, “is not to recreate a scene but to paint what I feel about a scene.”

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