Although viewers may first be attracted to the beautiful and romantic subjects of Steve Hanks’ extraordinarily detailed watercolors, they soon become engaged by the expressions of love, loss, and hope conveyed by the images. That’s because each element of the scene is carefully chosen to be a metaphor for a particular aspect of the artist’s life. For the first time, Hanks has written about those personal connections.
by M. Stephen Doherty
|To Dance Before Sea and Sky
26½ x 28¾. All artwork this
article © Steve Hanks.
All photographs this
article courtesy The Greenwich
The best representational paintings are those that offer something more significant than the accurate depiction of a person, place, or object,” says New Mexico artist Steve Hanks. “For me, the aim is to tell the viewer about my life at that particular moment—the issues I’m struggling with, what stage my children are at in their lives, what I’m feeling about my place in the world. Sometimes I don’t really know what the story is until I’ve almost finished the painting, but eventually I recognize why I was attracted to a subject and how it serves as a metaphor for some aspect of life.”
A new book with more than 160 of Hanks’ paintings shows the full range of thoughts and emotions that inspired him to create the watercolor pieces, and it includes short essays by the artist about the various series of paintings reproduced. Portions of the text of Moving On: The Art of Steve Hanks (The Greenwich Workshop Press, Seymour, Connecticut) are straightforward explanations of why the artist chose certain subjects or used specific techniques to realize the painting; other essays delve more deeply into the emotions expressed by the figures depicted. For example, when introducing the section on paintings of nude women, Hanks wrote, “The unclothed figure, or what is commonly known in the art world as the nude, is basically the foundation to everything I paint. In art, I tend to gravitate towards subjects that challenge me the most; in my case those have always been women and children. … My instructors used to say, ‘If you can draw the human figure well, then you will be able to draw anything.’ That is because there is nothing that we focus on more, visually or otherwise, than people.
|Love for the Unattainable
15 x 46.
“Painting skin tones can be very tricky,” Hanks wrote in another essay about his paintings of nudes. “If you look at your hand you can see there are many colors. You can also see that it is transparent. Notice the colors of the veins coming through it. Artists often ask me what colors I use for my skin tones, but skin is so many colors that there is no one answer. It changes by the light, the objects around it, and the lights and colors that are reflected onto it.”
Hanks works primarily with the following Winsor & Newton tube watercolors: cadmium yellow pale, yellow ochre, cadmium red, alizarin crimson, burnt sienna, burnt umber, permanent sap green, Winsor blue (green shade), Winsor violet, and ivory black. “Quite often I will make a dark brown by combining cadmium red, Winsor violet, and permanent sap green, rather than using the more granular earth colors,” the artist explains. “I work with synthetic-hair brushes on 300-pound or heavier paper, and I never use masking agent or frisket. In recent years, I’ve also been using Claybord and varnishing the pictures once they are finished. That way I don’t have to frame the paintings under glass.”
|Streets of New Orleans
2001, watercolor, 26 x 59¼.
When describing a series of paintings of a model posing on the steps of a historic building in Savannah, Georgia, Hanks wrote in his book about deeper emotions being expressed through the woman’s pose, the steps, and the sunlight unifying the composition. “The paintings on these pages are another expression of the healing process shown in the previous pages,” he described. “This model was going through an unexpected divorce. I was a few years farther along [in my divorce experience] than she was at this time, so I felt going back over these steps would be good for me, too. One Step at a Time shows the model sitting at the bottom of the stairs. I had the opportunity (with the sidewalk perspective) to put people in the distance, to represent either what she was thinking or what would be coming into her life. There was nothing down that sidewalk for me when I was on the first step, so I left it empty.”
|Traveling With Dad
2000, watercolor, 26¼ x 13.
The paintings that expose Hanks’ most personal feelings are those of fathers with their children. “After my wife left, the mother-and-child paintings looked different to me, as if the man had been cut out of the pictures, or cut out of the children’s lives,” he wrote in his book. “I needed to balance that feeling with a few paintings of fathers and children.” And in explaining the meaning of Traveling With Dad, a portrait of the artist holding his son on the platform of a train track, Hanks wrote, “This was, without a doubt, the lowest point of my life. I was on my own raising two kids. We had taken the train to visit my parents. … This painting truly captured that feeling of the unknown future that we were heading toward. Even now, when we are a long way down that track, this painting still evokes strong emotions for me. If there were any painting that I could buy back, it would be this one.”
Reviewing Holding the Family Together, one of two paintings of a man, woman, and two children on a beach, Hanks wrote, “For me it is about the man in the painting more than anything else. It is about the man’s place in society these days and how the pendulum has swung the other way and put men in this position—trying to keep the family together while they’re all going in different directions. Dad is almost down on his knees trying to hold this family together, and everyone is ignoring him.”
The artist tends not to realize the full potential of a subject until he becomes involved in drawing it on the watercolor paper and applying layers of transparent color. “I’ll have an idea of scenes that might be interesting, and I’ll hire models to travel with me to a beach or to pose inside the rooms of a house, but I don’t have a preconceived painting in my mind or drawings of the various poses I want the models to hold,” Hanks explains. “I’ll suggest they wear something simple—a long white dress, a dress shirt, a halter top, or khaki slacks—and I’ll take hundreds of photographs as they walk along a shoreline or sit near the window in a Victorian home. I am very conscious of how the light is revealing their form because sunlight is very important to my paintings. I often say I am painting life, love, and light; so I’m always thinking about how to instill those ideas in my watercolors.
|Holding the Family Together
1999, watercolor, 25¾ x 59.
“Although I have converted to digital photography as most artists have, I still like using film to photograph the models, and I process the rolls and make 8"-x-10" prints of those that might be useful in creating the paintings,” Hanks continues. “No single photograph ever captures what I want to express, so I take elements from several different prints and then adjust the images as I am drawing them lightly with graphite on the watercolor paper. Most times I start painting at the center of interest—the person’s face and body—and then I move to the adjacent sections of the paper. The exception is when I want to pose the figure against a dark background and need to establish that before I can accurately gauge the values within the figure and foreground elements.
|One Step At a Time
2004, watercolor, 31 x 53.
“My personality is such that I have to complete one painting before I can start another, especially because I tend to work wet-in-wet and need to have smooth transitions between one area of the painting and another, and between the sunlit shapes and the surrounding shadows,” the artist continues. “It’s especially important to have soft edges between the skin tones, so I might paint a shape and then lift off color with a brush or paper towel to avoid having a harsh, unnatural line between the bright shapes and the shadows.
“Although one painting usually connects to a series of similar pictures with themes such as everyday life, healing, families, and so on, I don’t focus on just one subject at a time,” Hanks adds. “I work so intensely and for such long periods of time that the process would start to become mechanical if I did a dozen paintings in a series without interruption. However, there is usually an emotional thread that connects one painting to the next because all of them are responses to what’s going on in my life at that particular time. For example, I would find it hard to go back and paint babies now that my children are grown, and I’m less inclined to pose women looking down at the ground as I did when I needed to express the sense of despair I felt at one time. If I were to do that now, it would be to express a sense of introspection, not despondency.
|The Pride of the Parade
2007, watercolor, 20? x 56.
“Every once in a while an unexpected subject passes in front of me and I have to respond to it,” Hanks says. “For example, I took my son to a Halloween parade in Santa Barbara, California, and suddenly realized the scene would be an interesting tableau about the changing roles of men, women, and their children. I stood in one position and took dozens of photographs as the parade passed in front of me, and then I picked elements from those to compose a picture of mothers and children in costumes and fathers sitting and standing along the curb. I had a similar experience in New Orleans when I looked down Royal Street and recognized I was observing what might be interpreted as an essay on my life, with the street musicians and tourists being characters in that story.
|Beyond the Horizon
33? x 52.
“For years people were urging me to write another book about my work as a sequel to The Art of Steve Hanks: Poised Between Heartbeats [Hadley House, Minneapolis, Minnesota], but I first needed to reach a point where I was ready to look back and summarize what I had been through,” Hanks explains. “After I went through the healing process, figured out how I was going to maintain my career while raising my children alone, and was finally able to celebrate life again, I was then ready to put together this new book. The message I hope it conveys is that the goal of life is to appreciate the journey, not the potential rewards at the end of that journey. Every moment, every sunrise, every laugh, every breath is wonderful; and it is our shared enjoyment of those moments that can be expressed in art.”
About the Artist
Steve Hanks studied at the Academy of Art University, in San Francisco, and received a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree from the California College of the Arts, in Oakland. He won the Arts for the Parks Marine Art Award of Excellence twice, and he was one of the Arts for the Parks Top 100 artists for several years. Hanks received the National Watercolor Society Merit Award and a Gold Medal from the National Academy of Western Art. He was also named Artist of the Year at the Pacific Rim Show in 1999, and since 1993 he has been one of U.S. Art magazine’s top 10 American artists. Hanks was one of the five winners selected to the U.S. Art Hall of Fame in the year 2000. He lives in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and is represented by the E.S. Lawrence Gallery, in Aspen, Colorado, and The Greenwich Workshop Gallery, in Fairfield, Connecticut. For more information, visit www.steve-hanks.com.
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