Friday, October 14, 2011

Artist Interview with Oil Painter Larry Leach (Part II)

Larry Leach has been painting in oils since the mid 1960's and has taught painting and drawing for LSU in Louisiana and Lamar University in Texas. His artwork is in numerous museum and corporate collections, and he has had solo shows in galleries and museums throughout Texas, Florida, and Georgia.  He is currently an outreach artist for ColArt America. For more than thirty years his work has been concerned with the rendering of the landscape. This is Part II of my interview with Larry Leach.  If you missed Part I of the interview you can read it here.
"Blue Lagoon"
Larry Leach
Oil on Canvas
52" x 64"
You've been primarily an oil painter throughout your career, although I know you painted in acrylics early on.  What is it about oil paint as a medium that attracts you?
I like oils for several reasons.  The first and probably main one is because of the addition/subtraction process in which I enjoy working.  I like to add color as an under-painting and continually scrape on it, add liquid glazes and scrape some of that away in a somewhat anal manner.  I continue this process until I like the kind of patina look with some areas that are thicker with thinner areas showing through.  I sometimes get to a point where I do a glaze of, for instance, "Indian Yellow" that becomes a highly transparent tonal unifier, then remove part of that before I start my process again.
Constable and Turner were the first to do this when Indian Yellow came out in the early 19th century.   Constable introduced the method to Delacroix, who showed Corot who then influenced Inness with his tonalism.  Needless to say, with acrylics, this process is almost impossible, as is the traditional painting method of wet on wet which is the stable of oil paint and easel painting.  Acrylic with its' quick drying time is essentially an addition/ addition process and is at its' best for masking off color, pouring methods, or collage, air brush, etc.  Unfortunately most people who use acrylic use it in a traditional wet on wet technique and that is a technical struggle for most artists.
The second reason I like oil paint is the choice of colors.  Acrylic has Titanium White, but no Cremnitz or Flake white which is a warm, opaque mixing white.  When you look at those beautiful Inness sunsets (or those of any painter before 1924 when Titanium White hit the market) he used a lead carbonate white (Cremnitz White).  So did Monet,  Cézanne, Renoir and all the other great colorists before 1924.  A lot of painters (Lucien Freud, Picasso, Balthus, Bacon), even though they had access to Titanium White, never used it because they didn't like its' strong tinting power.  It has no color temperature.  Therefore it tends to deaden flesh tones, for example.  Acrylic has Zinc White which is a transparent cold mixing color and now a few companies (Winsor/Newton) offer a mixing white in acrylic.  This is Titanium that is chemically milled in an attempt to copy the positive attributes of Flake White.  Zinc white is good but does not have the reflective brilliance of Flake.  Winsor/Newton calls it Flake White Hue in Oils.
Lastly, I just like the finished surface of oils in comparison to acrylics.  Our Beaumont friend John Alexander used to say acrylic is like eating at McDonald's and oil is eating the food of a French Chef.

"Sea Oats VI"
Larry Leach
Oil on Canvas
72" x 96"
Many of your paintings are quite large and feature extensive brushwork and impastos.  How long do you spend on a typical painting?
This is variable with what else I have going on.  Right now, for example, I'm going through one of my worst painting draughts because I have been building a woodshop that houses my table saw, miter saw and such with room enough to house my tractor and yard tools, compressor,etc.  This is a 40x40' pole barn that  I have enjoyed building,  but it obviously takes away painting time.  My next project is a deck off of Sheila's side of the studio.  Then of course, we are both gardeners.
I am also busy as a ColArt America outreach artist doing workshops.  I enjoy doing them and it is lucrative but is time consuming also.  I leave Tuesday to do a three day painting workshop for the University of Tennessee in Knoxville.  This fall, I have already done workshops for the painting departments at the University of Georgia in Athens, the University of Florida, and SCAD of Savannah.
I paint best when I can have uninterrupted time.  When I can do this the process flows, large paintings can happen very quickly, and the work is usually better.  I usually have solo museum shows about every three years in which I try to have fairly new work.  The sales usually come as offshoots of this work that go out to various galleries in several states.  Before a show, I'm always very busy and I tend to be at my best.  I also usually have four or five commissions a year (some big, some small) and I tend to knock those out very quickly.  A 6’ x 8' painting usually takes about two weeks, but then I like to keep it in the studio for a few days to look at it as I usually see something I want to work on.
Are there times when you can't be creative or the paint just isn't flowing?  How do you handle periods of artist block?
If other artists read my answer here, I'm sure they may want to differ, but I don't really believe in the idea of artist block.  I saw the Pollock retrospective a few years ago at MOMA.  It was a great show in that they showed his very early work down to his last.  The best and greatest was the "Spring" series (1948-51)  For this period, they reconstructed the barn he painted in down to the music he listened to (Benny Goodman).  You could really feel the energy and see it in his work.  The next area covered his last works which were few and sad and truly looked like it was from a different artist.  So what happened?  The writers of the time told of him complaining of artists' block.  This may be one of the most famous examples of artists' or writers block.  From my readings of history and of being an active painter since the mid-sixties, I personally feel that in Pollock’s case he succumbed to the depression that he had throughout much of his life.  With the tragic addition of extreme alcoholism  he simply didn't go to his studio and stay involved with his materials.
I believe that so-called artists' block is from a lack of discipline which can reduce us to our lower natures.  Woody Allen felt that good work and creativity begins and ends with "showing up".  Various artists "show up” in various ways.  For the last 40 years of his life Wayne Thiebeaux would meet his friends every morning for coffee at someone’s studio, and as a group hire a nude model and draw for an hour or so.  They would then go to their own studios and do their work.  A lot of artists like the energy of the city and having a lot of other artists around for self-support.   Because of the way I was raised I need and am inspired by being alone in my studio. 
The only time I have had a problem with creativity was when I went through the devastation of a divorce from my first wife and my so-called train got off track for a while.  If you haven't already, read the biography of the great Winston Churchill who was a very regular oil painter even throughout the war.  Someone asked him how in the world he got in the "mood" to paint with all his other important considerations.  He basically replied that if he waited to get in the mood, he probably wouldn't do anything other than smoke his cigar and drink a bit of whiskey.
"August Afternoon"
Larry Leach
Oil on Canvas
54" x 68"

How do you know when a painting is finished?  Is it sometimes hard for you to decide a work is complete?
I try to listen to my emotive self.  When in doubt I try to walk off and work in my garden or something.  I don't have a formula other than that I usually know when I'm pleased.  This has become much easier as I age.
When you taught at Lamar you were stretching your own canvas and preparing your own mediums.  Do you still complete those steps yourself, or have your methods changed?
I still mostly construct my own stretcher strips (1x4" with 3/4" quarter round ) and always stretch and gesso my own canvas.  Before I left Lamar, I started hiring a student to cut and put together my stretcher strips.  When I was in Melbourne Fl. for 6 years I successfully hired a retired industrial arts teacher to construct the frames, but for the last ten years I can't find anyone anal enough for perfection to do it.  I tried with a couple of people, but the money was wasted for their time and also for my materials.  We live near Ga. Southern University which has an MFA program, so I might find someone there, but I can't bear to even try to find someone to do the stretching.  I'm extremely critical of the perfection there.  If you remember, I always ordered my canvas from New York Central Supply and still do.  I stopped using rabbit skin glue before I left Beaumont as I found out on my own in that old humid studio that it very much attracted moisture.  I use a very high quality acrylic gesso from Winsor/Newton and sometimes I cover that with an Alkyd Oil Gesso, but mostly I don't.
When I was in Beaumont, I made my own Damar varnish from the crystals and then used turpentine and refined linseed oil to make my medium.  I stopped doing this about 15 years ago.  I know you're aware about my connection to Winsor/Newton.  I'm one of seven outreach artists for them in North America.  It's a contract each year in that they hire me to visit university painting departments (in my case the southeast U.S., and the reason that I was in Dallas last spring) to do demo/lectures concerning the technical aspects of painting.  Through this connection, I have received training each summer for the last 14 years.  These sessions have been held in England, New York, Washington D.C., Etc.  Through this, I have become familiar with the chemistry of these materials far more than an artist probably needs.  I have been inside the Tate, the National Gallery and several other major museums where the cleaning and repair of art work is done. The reason that I stopped using the old recipe of 1/3 portions each of Damar Varnish, Turpentine and Refined linseed oil that was used through the centuries is that the artists that employed this have all had problems with their paintings being cleaned.  Artists using a lamination of this glaze in their process (Cézanne) have color come off when the old varnish is removed.  This is because of the drying contradiction inherent with laminating the Damar Varnish.  It causes the turpentine to evaporate much slower and is trapped amongst the linseed oil which dries through oxidation.  The layers cannot sufficiently dry.  A Cézanne painting is therefore technically unhealthy.

I have since used Winsor/Newton Painting Medium which gives the same effect without the drying contradiction. This is thinned stand oil.

"Bull Creek Series III"
Larry Leach
Oil on Canvas
54" x 84"
You've had numerous exhibitions in both gallery and museum settings, and have received some very important public commissions as well.  What do you think made the difference in becoming established as an artist, and what advice do you have for young and emerging artists looking to develop a career.
In my world, I'm still trying to make it.  With my rating system concerning artists, the top are the “Blue Chippers.”  They’re the ones that we talk about in Art History class and whose works are in the major museums around the world.  Collectors scramble for their works worldwide.  The next group are the “Red Chippers” which I'm a part of.  We make a living and are full time artists.  Some of us in a given year might rival the “Blue Chippers” for sales and income but there is no worldwide connection and the important museums are very few.  Our collections in museums tend to be mid-size, not MOMA.  As a group we have to work much harder and usually have several galleries because the Marlborough in NY is interested in the” Blue Chippers,” not us.  We tend to make a killing though with art in public places.  Most of these projects are for less than $200,000 and the “Blue Chippers” don't want to bother for such a pittance.
My only advice for any artist no matter their particular level is to stay within themselves and do what interests them.  Whatever that may be, do a lot of it and a certain passionate depth will develop sooner or later.  When and only when this depth develops, it may be time to exhibit the work and hopefully receive criticism that they respect.  Most of us go to school in this developmental stage and then hopefully we continue development throughout our career.  Sales of art is fickle and in this economy very hard for the entry level professional artist.  Most of us (like you) at some time in their career develop their connections to the art world of sales while under the safe umbrella of having a teacher’s salary.  Some leave teaching when they feel the umbrella is no longer needed. 
You taught for many years and continue to give workshops.  Do you feel that teaching has helped you as an artist, and if so, in what ways?
I can give you several quotes and ideas about this from my old professor and my contradictory feelings, but as a long-time teacher yourself, I would be interested in your personal answer to this.  My old painting professor who is now passed away, told me when I started teaching at LSU: "Spending your time as a teacher helps your development in only becoming a better teacher, not necessarily as an artist."  I have mostly felt that with my teaching days, but here and there I would have an energetic, curious and talented student like you and I would feel personally enriched and energized.
What’s next for Larry Leach?
I do not plan on anything different.  My path is clear and happy for me.  I have ideas for my next group of paintings, but they will certainly be a continuation.  I am connected with several galleries and the sales and commissions come and go.  Over the years they have kept me with enough work to survive, and at other times the commissions have been an overload and I had trouble keeping certain galleries with enough work.  In my case, this is the lot of the artist.

View more paintings by Larry Leach and learn more about his exhibitions and workshops at

"Farm Road"
Larry Leach
Oil on Canvas
54" x 68"

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