Watching Jeff paint was a revelation. We had been struggling to emulate the effects of what we saw in his works through the printed medium. His paintings look so effortless, deceptively so. They seem to be a rare balance of delicacy and density, sensitivity and energy.
When we were landscape painting Jeff started with a simple line drawing, indicating shapes and positive and negative. He was designing from the get go. We, on the other hand, were seeing too much of everything in the field. We were trying to take it all in. Jeff focused on a manageable piece and designed the hell out of it. His compositions were so simple, iconic. He worked such a simple design into a sublime arrangement of simple value structure and limited color. And he attacked the canvas! Where we thought he was being dainty and delicate he was scrubbing the painting vigorously. It was an eye opener for us.
Then, after about thirty minutes, he would wander off into the woods and vanish. We continued to butcher our pieces, struggling vainly to pull the damn things around, trying to save the parts we liked, all the while killing them. Jeff would sort of show back up and look at what he was doing, assess it, then get back to it. That was another lesson. He didn’t just keep hammering at it trying to hew it out of the canvas against all odds. He assessed what he was seeing, looked at what it needed and solved for x.
He also talked about “air”. That we’re not painting objects but the air between us and the objects. That objects were like vessels for air. And if I would severely limit my pallet, like taking just burnt sienna and viridian green and white, and go out landscape painting I’d begin to see what he was talking about. A warm, a cool and something to shift value. He said there’s no way to effectively explain it, you just had to experience it to “get it”. So I did what he said. Went out with those colors, or lack thereof, and painted. And I saw it immediately. Atmospheric perspective made more sense that day than any other.
He talked about the use of grays, colorful grays. How the grays hold it all together, “binds the galaxy together” to quote Star Wars. And then the color that you do use is important, and it has a purpose.
I remember telling Jeff how I was trying to do more work out of my head as I was feeling trapped by my reference. He understood where I was coming from but said, “My work looks the way it looks because I shoot reference. I need that information, then I can play with it.” He said it was good that I was playing with doing stuff out of my head, but that the reference gives the work knowledge it wouldn’t otherwise have. He said he never understood why artists are embarrassed to use reference. It makes no sense. The artist shoots the reference, it’s their own photos, taken with their particular eye toward composition and light.