Paying attention is the secret to life—and it?s the secret to painting, too,? David A. Leffel says. Leffel should know. He?s spent most of his 40-year career weaving his life and his art into a seamless fabric by questioning how and why things work in both areas, finding the answers, then looking for better questions. ?The whole idea of painting is fascinating to me,? he says. ?It?s all about relationships?relationships of color, of value, near and far, big and little, more and less. And once you start to see these relationships in one field, you can see them in any field.?
Leffel soon discovered that he liked ?learning what made paintings go.? And as he delved deeper into these questions, some surprising relationships began to emerge. ?I was always trying to find the root of whatever it was that I was doing,? he says. ?I was trying to get closer to something more fundamental. And I found, over the years, that if you want to find out if something is true in paint, it has to have a corollary in life, and vice versa.?
As an example, he points to the oft-used statement ?less is more.? ?Less is simpler, it?s more powerful, it?s more direct in painting, just as in life,? he says. ?And of course the converse is ?more is less.? For example, people overeat, they overspend, they over-accumulate money. And it?s unhealthy mentally and physically. In painting, if you have 15 colors or 15 elements, they?re only worth one-fifteenth of the whole. But if you have two or three colors or elements, they become extremely powerful and important. And in painting, just as in life, it?s important to focus on what you?re doing so that you conserve as much energy as possible.?
Both life and art must be allowed to grow if they?re to thrive. To nourish this growth, you must remain open to reassessment. ?The more assumptions you have, the less you can learn—you?re locked in by your assumptions,? Leffel says. ?Of course, you?re looking for answers, but you?re also trying to figure out what the right questions are. You have to be a ballet dancer; you can?t be too heavy on your feet. Always be ready to move.?
Given his views on life and art, it?s no surprise that Leffel chooses subjects based first on their relationship to human life. ?With an inanimate object, I look for something that?s been handled, something that has the patina of time and a human quality to it,? he says. But while these objects offer an immediate, universal connection, light is the central player in Leffel?s work. ?I can look at somebody in a certain light and have no desire to paint them,? he explains. ?And yet, in my studio with the shadows and light, it just becomes magical.?
Loraine Crouch is associate editor for The Artist?s Magazine.