Studying Past Masters

The Importance of Learning from Past Masters

If you haven’t listened to the current Art Chat featuring Joseph McGurl, you should. In that Art Chat, Joe talks about his favorite past masters and how they affected how he paints and his philosophy. We want to examine the work of Past Masters in a series of blogs that Artistic Harmonies will post over the coming weeks. The first in this series is a summary of our discussion of Joe’s favorites.

As with all Art Chats, my conversation with the guest starts with a series of emails or phone calls in which we discuss various topics. I approached Joe with the idea of talking about the artists that influence his work, knowing that this series of blogs was on AHA’s project list. Joe sent me the list, and I began my journey into studying Joe’s favorites.

It is no surprise that the Hudson River School plays a major role in Joe’s work. He captures light and atmosphere in similar ways, and yet, he applies his personality and spirit in each painting. Artists remember seeing masters’ work in person and feel transported to that place represented. In our many discussions, Joe has talked about how he uses his memory or imagination, never uses photographs, paints, studies en plein air, and utilizes them in his studio work. In this clip, Joe talks about the Hudson River School and Fredrick Church.

Joseph McGurl on Hudson River School and F. Church

Ask yourself if you understand nature enough or have the confidence to create a painting from your imagination/memory. Joe’s philosophy is strongly grounded in his study of nature, understanding of science, and his ability to construct his work from his travels and where he lives. I remember walking down a golf course and studying the light on various objects, or as I hike the Blue Ridge Mountains, I observe colors, atmosphere and try to take it all in! Joe is constantly observing nature, light and questioning what interests him. Our conversations have instilled that practice in me. Seeing his work in person is a jaw-dropping experience. I remember when and where I saw his work in person and was blown away by his use of color, atmosphere, texture, and exploration. In this clip, Joe talks about the many hats a landscape painter should be wearing when we are creating or even studying nature.

Joseph McGurl –The Hats We Need to Wear

I chuckled at the yacht maker only because Joe has a yacht he aptly calls “Atelier.” Hopefully, someday, we’ll capture Joe on his boat around Cape Cod, providing us with the many details of painting a seascape! Joe’s study of the Hudson River School painters has formed a bond to his work, a natural excursion from the past to the present. Joe’s knowledge of all painting styles and past masters is diverse, and their mark on Joe’s work is subtly strong. But most of all, what struck me in our many conversations is Joe’s desire to explore. From snatching a turkey baster on Thanksgiving because he was curious what kind of texture and stroke it would make to using sand with his paints to create a more realistic textured surface, Joe never stops exploring.

Joseph McGurl on Gifford and Illuminists

In the preparation of our discussion, Joe introduced me to another past master, Sanford Gifford. It brought to mind how focus we might be on the big names and miss the other masters who society didn’t grace with the same celebrity. Yet, the painters unknown to us can provide the most information to us. Joe discusses Gifford as his favorite because of the way “he conveyed a sense of space and atmosphere.” While Joe was talking, I remembered my discovery of lesser-known past masters and what I experienced. We will present these in the upcoming series.

We encourage you to watch the YouTube video of our Art Chat so you can enjoy seeing the paintings Joe discusses (don’t forget to subscribe to our YouTube Channel!). In addition, we hope the coming series of Past Master Studies will provide an additional view of their work and start you off an adventure to find other masters who will influence your creative and personal philosophy.


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