Interview between Mark Rengers and Patrick Lee.
Patrick Lee’s award-winning paintings can be found at fine art galleries across the country, from Philadelphia and Provincetown to Santa Fe and San Francisco. I’m thrilled to feature his art at my Sewickley Gallery & Frame Shop, as his paintings transport me to another place―and, often, to another time.
This interview took place at Patrick’s studio in Etna, Pennsylvania, a working-class town nestled beside the Allegheny River and ten-minute drive to downtown Pittsburgh. His second-floor studio features a towering 20-foot ceiling, flooded with light on one side where his desk and easel are flanked by a human skeleton and a bookcase packed with classics, including Freud’s The Interpretation of Dreams. The other side of Patrick’s studio is brimming with finished paintings earmarked for shows and galleries. If it were not 10:00 a.m. on a Tuesday morning in May, I’d like to sit and “talk art” with Patrick while sipping a Jameson Whiskey, savoring every drop of his knowledge and expertise.
Working with oils, charcoal, and watercolors, Patrick often paints en plein air―outdoors―to capture the natural forms of light, color, and movement. Our conversation focused on this topic.
Historically, 19th century plein air painters like Monet and Pissarro wanted to capture what was luminous and fleeting, moving away from what is realistic, in favor of what is authentic. Is this true for 21st century plein air painters like yourself, and can you help me understand the difference between what is realistic and authentic?
Answer to the first question, yes! I want to move away from making paintings that are realistic to paintings that are interpreted―where there’s a landscape directly in front of you, but you’re capturing just the idea of it. Rather than checking off a laundry list of “that’s where there’s a boat or a tree,” you’re expressing a feeling.
Second question: I think if something is depicted as real, you’re taking what’s outside of you and bringing it in; whereas, when something is authentic, you’re letting stuff stew inside you and then, expressing what is within, bringing it out. That’s why, when teaching students, I always encourage them to use their imaginations―not by envisioning unicorns or dragons―but by absorbing something in their minds, rolling around the perception and making a concept out of it; for example, I really like “x” about this subject and want to emphasize it. That’s where authenticity comes from―a natural gravitation toward things that interest you.
Like the Impressionists, you choose to work outdoors to capture the ever-changing light and shadow patterns of your subjects―a farmhouse or rowhouse, a harbor or ship’s hull, a church spire or storefront, even a tree. How do you choose what to paint? What compels you?
Usually, it’s the pattern of light and dark, or it can be a color. A lot of times I don’t focus on a subject because you can miss things. I think of subjects as having qualities like “that’s really cluttered,” or as large, flat planes of light. It returns to the matter of concept: What is the conceptual element I want to put forward, versus painting something exactly the way it looks?
So, I don’t look for subjects, rather it’s the way things hit me. For instance, recently, I was driving across the 40th Street Bridge to Lawrenceville, where a there’s new hotel, near an old gas station and Rite Aid. Off to the side, there were three dumpsters with their lids open―just the shapes of the dumpsters with the angles and intersecting planes of light―I could make a good painting out of that, so I took a picture of it. People might ask, “Why are you painting dumpsters?” but I’m not. I am painting arresting shapes and colors, not things. Rather than talking about objects―that’s a house, that’s a car, that’s a dumpster―I interpret them using a visual language of lines, shapes, edges, textures, colors, and values.
From Beethoven to the Sex Pistols, musicians can take the same twelve notes that everybody in western music has had to use and put them together in a certain way that sounds different. I try to do the same thing with lines and colors.
Tell me more about color…
When it comes to color, I’ll make up―literally create and use―any color I want. Why not?
We see images because of contrast, so if we took a black-and-white photo of any painting with fantastic and unseemly colors, it would be realistic so long as the colors in the painting match the values of the light scale, ranging from pure white to pure black. That’s very freeing.
It’s fascinating that every value on the light scale has an infinite number of colors―and new colors are still being discovered! As recently as 2009, a team of graduate students were experimenting with materials suitable for use in electronic devices. When the periodic elements yttrium (Y), indium (In), and manganese (Mn) were heated to 2,300ºF, they discovered a beautiful blue pigment more fit for art than consumer electronics: YInMn.
There are scenes we paint now that the Old Masters never could have painted. I’m pretty sure Rembrandt seeing an Impressionist’s scene would say, “You can’t paint that.” Rembrandt would be able to draw everything, but not capture the light effect because, at that time, there were a limited number of colors, mostly earth pigments. Capturing the temperature changes of colors, how warm or cool they are, came along years later.
To capture the color changes in light, it would seem painting ‘en plein air’ requires you to work quickly. Does speed drive technique―rapid and unblended brush strokes, loosely defined forms, rough surface textures?
Because the light can change at any minute, you must readily establish the patterns of light and dark, and, yes, that relates to technique. But the poetic side of plein air painting is working simply. Think of it as a Netflix movie description: In two sentences, they encapsulate a two-hour movie. Painting outdoors, there’s a bunch of stuff that can be busy and messy, but I need to distill it, quiet it down, and capture the patterns―it doesn’t have to be real, but it must feel real.
I generally like to work fast and get something done in a short time, rather than beating it to death. For me, learning to paint plein air is like learning to write your name. In the beginning, you practice making your letters over and over and then, start connecting them. Eventually, you can write your name while making supper or talking on the phone; it becomes second nature. It’s the same with plein air.
How do you stay in the moment and avoid self-editing? Is painting outdoors a kind of mediative exercise for entering the zone?
It can be. Drawing can be, too. Working from life, I’ll make blind contour drawings―not looking at the paper at all.
A way to keep the self-critical, “you suck” voice at bay is by remembering the making part is different from the analyzing part. I’m not thinking about anything, just working from intuition. I like to think “good intuition comes from much tuition.” For me, it’s about learning and learning and learning and then, forgetting about everything. Like with music, you learn all your scales and modes and when it comes to playing, you forget about it and just feel the music. You can improvise because you’ve practiced all the fundamentals.
I always tell my students, “Be free. Let go. Just work―push things around! Later, you can put on your analysis hat and say, I don’t like the way that shape is taking form.” You can take things out―and still let your unconscious mind edit because, I think, everything that is authentic comes from not thinking about it, not trying to affect anything. It’s like when people recognize your gait and see you walking from 100 yards away, or how you throw your head back when you laugh, or your laughter itself… All of that is autonomous, just like breathing. It’s natural. That’s how creating artwork―when it’s good―should feel.
When painting outdoors, what obstacles might the weather present?
Wind is absolutely the worst thing. And, while you can keep blowing snow off your palette, it can be disastrous if it gets into your paint. When ice particles get into the oil pigment, the paint becomes crumbly, like cheese. In contrast, if it rains, it doesn’t do anything to the oil paints; rain just beads up on the palette. To protect my plein air artist’s box and easel, I coat and re-coat them with butcher’s block wax, always using protective gloves because it’s nearly impossible to wash off.
How about temperature?
In mid-July, I participate at a plein air event in Easton, on the eastern shore of Maryland. (Celebrating its 18th year in 2022, Plein Air Easton is the largest and most prestigious juried plein air painting competition in the United States.) The mid-day temperature always gets over 100 degrees, and you have to contend with ticks and other insects, so I usually paint early in the morning or in the evening. Yet, there are advantages to painting mid-day when the light gets flat, and the shadows are vertical. I’ve managed to pull off capturing scintillating heat in my paintings through colors and lines when painting mid-day.
Beyond the effects of weather, it seems painting outdoors is a full-blown sensory experience―train whistles, salt air, and exhilaration come to mind. Do these elements make their way into a plein air painting?
Sounds, smells, and feelings all relate to place. Sometimes, it’s downright dangerous to paint plein air because you don’t have a place to set up―imagine trucks and cars zipping by on a highway. So, you paint by memory, by your first impression, and these elements always take hold.
I am reminded of a quote by Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, whose expressive distortions of form and space influenced Picasso and Matisse and other modernists. Ingres said, “One of the best times to draw is when you don’t have a pencil in your hand.” This advice is echoed by one of my heroes and mentors, 95-year-old local artist Frank Webb: “You look at the scene and then, you close your eyes, and that’s what the painting’s all about.”
If I can summon a memory―a feeling that’s reminiscent of a particular place―I can paint something that’s related to that place. Even the sounds of voices can be interpreted as something visual. Sometimes, written words can rouse the poetic and emotional meaning―and journaling helps. Paintings can reflect noise, fragrance, movement… they’re ephemeral. When that happens, my mind is a thousand miles away. I’m simply immersed in feeling the feeling. But that doesn’t happen in an instant, it takes work.
When I was in college, I would wait until inspiration struck to paint. Making a living as a professional artist is work―you can’t wait for an inspiration. You have to paint when you don’t feel like it. Similarly, you have to work on your novel when you don’t feel like it, you have to practice your instrument when you don’t feel like it. Being an artist is work.
In order to have good ideas, you have to have lots of ideas and, if you’re not working, nothing’s going to happen. That’s why I’ll make Notan studies to warm up and get in the groove―Notan is a Japanese term for “light-dark harmony.” Similar in appearance to a Rorschach test, I use a knife and acrylic paint to improvise on paper, exploring different arrangements of light and dark elements to draw inspiration. With creative work, such constraints are useful.
Do you finish a plein air painting on site or at your studio?
I usually finish a plein air study at my studio to make into a painting. Even if it’s a vivid idea from the start, you have to mold it, shape it, fashion it into something―you have to make it into a painting. There needs to be an emotional payoff, be it excitement, enjoyment, mystery, or a quieting effect. So, I generally finish my plein air paintings in the studio.
As an example, for years I had wanted to paint my brother-in law’s house in Bucks County, a 100-year old farmhouse covered in stucco. The stucco gleams bright white in the high sun and the color changes in the evening when the sky is a deep blue. The concept I wanted to push forward was about the color, not the house itself. I’m not doing an architectural rendering; I’m trying to create a mood.
At dusk, I laid out the painting in their driveway and wished I had a piece of bright blue paper to stick on it―the way a child would cut out a house shape, really simple―and opted for an intense phthalo blue. To invoke an accidental quality, I let my thirteen-year-old nephew use a knife to scrape the paint off the palette and move it around on the canvas. I often scrape my paintings face down on the sidewalk to create accidents, marks that I would never consider. An artist needs to create drama.
You don’t go to a concert and expect to hear musicians playing scales. You expect an emotional payoff. I can listen to Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony ten thousand times and never tire of it―even though I know the structure of it, know how it’s going to end―because it’s a struggle between a dark minor key and a brilliant affirmative major key. For me, for something to be considered art, it must have structure and it must have emotional content.
Music is a prominent theme in your paintings and in this conversation. What brings musical instruments to your attention―a humble, black upright piano, punctuated by brilliant white light, or ensemble players dressed in red with string instruments?
I love music, especially the structure and patterns. I studied piano and classical guitar when I was a child, played Van Halen and Rush later, and now, find myself turning to jazz and improvisation.
I play my guitar while I assess my paintings critically and to daydream. There’s a cross-pollination that works.
For me, your paintings blur the lines of memory, reality, and imagination. The subjects can be as varied as a kitchen sink or a skinny girl on a bicycle―and they evoke nostalgia for a bygone era. I’m reminded of “the greatest generation,” people and scenes from the 1940s. Is that what I bring to your paintings, or is this what you intended?
I’m the youngest of seven and my Mum, who passed away in 2014, was born in 1934, so I have old tintype photos that I use as themes. I like the idea that things are temporary. Permanence is an illusion―everything changes, just like light. This isn’t sad or depressing; I think it’s profound, it’s beautiful.
For me, the difference between making a painting and making a piece of art is acute skill coupled with unfettered imagination. If my work takes you to a place or time―or conjures a memory or story―then I’ve been successful. I don’t have anything against abstract paintings but, for me, it’s important to make sense of the content. The meaning of a painting is in the way things are put together at the intersections of lines, shapes, colors, and values. Ben Shahn does a great job of explaining this in his book, The Shape of Content. I return to it regularly.
The Old Masters ground colored pigments by hand and added linseed or walnut oil as a binding agent. Pigs’ bladders, knotted with thread, or glass syringes were used for paint storage. The paint tube, invented in 1841 by portrait painter John Goffe Rand, revolutionized paint storage and gave birth to en plein air painting. Pierre-Auguste Renoir said, “Without colors in tubes, there would be no Cézanne, no Monet, no Pissarro, and no Impressionism.”
What do you make of contemporary innovations in art like non-fungible tokens (NFTs) and immersive van Gogh exhibits? Are we in the midst of an art revolution?
I think we’re always in the midst of a revolution. While there are general principles, they can never be exhausted, as long as people continue to be creative.