Three painting friends exchanged photographs and then produced paintings of the same 15 subjects in an experiment designed to teach them about different approaches, challenge them to push beyond their comfort zone, and allow them to work on a common painting project.
by Bob Bahr
Line up three painters in front of a landscape vista and the result will almost assuredly be three very different paintings, with each zooming in on a different aspect of the view. If Thomas S. Buechner, Thomas Gardner, and Martin Poole are any indication, similarly disparate paintings will result even from reference material that is tightly controlled. Last spring, the three upstate New York painters supplied one another with five carefully selected photographs they shot. By doing so the vantage point was fixed, the weather conditions were set, and the subject matter was chosen. Despite this structure, the three artists together created 45 paintings from the 15 photographs that display enormous variety.
Every artist has a distinct way of interfacing with the world and expressing what he or she sees, but something else was going on with this trio. Buechner, Gardner, and Poole are friends who paint together, and there’s a tinge of competitiveness in their relationship. “Yes, there was a little bit of a spirit of competition to it,” says Poole. “There was also a playful bit of ‘Hey, look what I’m doing to your photo.’ It was kind of like playing poker with your friends and cheating a little bit.”
Of course, it’s hard to cheat when there aren’t many rules. The artists had to produce a painting for every photo based on something in the picture, “We each put our five photos down, and it was ‘like it or lump it,’” says Gardner—but they could choose any part they wished. The photos were ostensibly subjects the artist/photographer wanted to paint, but even the owners of the specific photographs often took great liberty when making a painting from the reference photo.
Gardner’s photo of a boy patting a horse amid a group of four horses provoked comments from all three artists—and their treatments of it varied widely. “There was definitely the sense of, ‘Oh, I’ll never be able to turn that into a painting—and that was the fun of it,” says Buechner. “We chose things that would challenge the others. Gardner put in that one with the boy and the horses, all seen from the rear, and I thought it was the last thing in the world I’d want to paint.” Buechner’s solution was to have the boy leaning against a tree instead of patting a horse, and to contrast the “ordinary-looking” boy with an imagined troll-like creature that the artist says is “sort of a self-portrait.” Gardner re-imagined his own photograph to place the boy and the horse in a field. Poole read a lot into Gardner’s photo, saying, “Gardner gets the weight and power of the relationship between the small boy and the powerful horse, so the problem became, how do you make a visual version of this idea?” Evidently, Poole was fascinated by the challenge—he executed two paintings of the scene.
For the most part, the three artists didn’t see their colleagues’ paintings until the end. In some cases, the paintings in progress were shared—Gardner recalls seeing the paintings by the others of the pond photo and feeling stuck. “I was stymied,” he says. “How did they come up with their ideas from this photograph? They have such great imaginations. So I just laid in what I saw, and while I was looking at my canvas, I noticed a reproduction of Sargent’s piece of Paul Helleu painting by a pond that I had hanging beyond my easel, and I decided on a lark to try to learn a little by copying a Sargent (see The Pond Painting below). So I incorporated his painter into the pond scene from the photograph. I looked at it like a learning tool, as an exercise.” In contrast, Gardner didn’t see the others’ paintings of the snowy creek, but he found a novel way of getting a different feel into his version anyway. “The difference from theirs to mine is subtle—I spattered it with snow flurries that had to be treated carefully,” says the artist. “I wanted to have a little bit of action in it.”
|The Pond Painting
by Thomas Gardner, oil.
Poole says he wasn’t stumped by any of the photos, but some did push him as a painter. “Some were far enough afield from my predilections that I had to work on them more, and sometimes the photos were hard because they were just so beautiful,” says Poole. “I had to find a way to deny their picturesque quality. It’s interesting to have a photo so beautiful that it actually could make a less interesting painting.”
The painters had a tight deadline for the project. Poole had a show booked with Rodger LaPelle Galleries, in Philadelphia, in April, and the photographs were distributed in January, with Gardner receiving them more than a month later due to travel. The trio had to finish 15 paintings each in less than three months. “I wasn’t nuts over the idea, to be kind of frank,” said Gardner, who shoe-horned the project in between two shows of his own. “None of the pictures really knocked me off my feet. But as I got into the project, it started opening up. Plus, by getting the photographs so late, I got to see some of what they had done before I got started, which I thought was a real advantage. I got a big cheat on it! There was definitely a competitive aspect to this project.” The gallery owner was intrigued by the concept. The artists were glad to be able to work on a project together. And the last step in the process offered them all food for thought.
|The reference photo.||Tom's Trees
by Thomas Gardner, oil.
by Martin Poole, oil.
by Thomas S. Buechner, oil and alkyd.
Shortly before the opening of the show, which was dubbed “Three Views,” the artists gathered in Buechner’s studio, grouped the 45 paintings by subject matter, poured martinis, and critiqued every piece in a marathon session that stretched from late afternoon until 11 p.m. “We weren’t overly kind to one another,” recalls Gardner. “It’s hard to take out a hatchet and hit your friends’ paintings, but it was a tough-love situation. We would pointedly ask, ‘Why did you do that?’ I’m always amazed how I can walk through a classroom of students and instantly see the problems and say, ‘Oh, you need to do that,’ or ‘Here’s what I would do,’ boom, boom, boom. But then I walk back to my own painting and am absolutely stupid. It’s hard to divorce yourself from the picture and the subject and really see your painting.” Comments Poole, “We talked about whether a painting was successful, and took notes. In some cases, the advice proved very useful, and adjustments were later made, and on others, we insisted on our idea and stuck with our approach for a painting.”
|The reference photo.||White House
by Thomas S. Buechner, 2008, oil on board, 16 x 20.
by Thomas Gardner, 2008, oil, 24 x 30. Courtesy West End Gallery, Corning, New York.
by Martin Poole, oil.
The three artists have known one another for more than 20 years, with Buechner serving at first as a sort of mentor for Gardner and Poole, then later as a colleague and plein air-painting companion. The project allowed them to have a show together and to enjoy one another’s company—Buechner says quite a bit of humor infused the process. And equally important, the venture allowed them to grow as painters. Says Buechner, “It stimulated us, and we may have done some work that was better than we would have done otherwise.”
Bob Bahr is the managing editor of American Artist.