In Conversation with Jack Richardson-Landscape Painter, Gallerist on the Eastern Shore of Virginia

On a recent visit to the Eastern Shore I stopped in to see Jack Richardson in his studio/gallery. I met Jack in 2009 on my first visit to the Shore. It’s always a treat to enter his warm and welcoming studio/gallery and to see what he's working on.

The open, rural and marine nature of the Eastern Shore of Maryland and Virginia has inspired Jack to pursue his interest in landscape painting, mainly done on location, while his studio/gallery allows him to explore his art and to teach.

Jack's paintings are in collections worldwide and are featured in 100 Plein Air Painters of the Mid-Atlantic.

Jack Richardson before sketches in his studio.

Describe your creative process.

The creative process for me starts with the eyes. We are surrounded with such beauty in terms of color, light, texture etc. that I react to it in a visceral way in the need to document those feelings.

Describe your working routine.

Every place has its time. The most ordinary scenery can come alive with the seasons, time of day, conditions of climate, like covered with snow, early evening, breaking fog, sunrise etc.  As an artist it’s important to realize your muse and be at the right spot at the right time to let it happen. So the process starts when I respond to a scene and know what it is I am responding to. Next step is to capture it with my viewfinder which will tell me which proportions to use as a support for the painting.  Not every scene can be captured meaningfully, and the viewfinder helps determine that.  Usually I have an assortment of canvasses stretched and ready to go.  I primarily use linen as a support with the old- fashioned method of sizing with Rabbit Skin glue and top coated with Winsor & Newton oil ground.

Sometimes I will take digital images of the subject or make a small oil sketch on site to work up into a larger format.  Often I will take the larger canvas to the site and paint right there on the spot, returning sometimes over a period of weeks at the same time each day, and the painting becomes, then, a time study.  One, in particular, measured about 32" x 48” and took about 6 weeks to complete.  During that time the prime motivator went from full bloom to nothing, but other interesting things were captured growing through the painting; a table and chairs were moved into the space, and they got recorded and sunflower spouted and grew to about 6 feet in height.  This wasn’t a problem because the joy observing and of painting allowed everything to be included.

What do you think is the key elements in creating a good painting?

The key element in creating a good painting is one’s heartfelt response to the subject and the technical ability to know how to make it happen.  This technical ability can’t be underestimated and comes from an understanding of your medium and work, work, work.  Every painting, sonata, pot, photograph etc. is a stepping stone to the next one and hones your understanding of your medium.  If you pay attention to your work, as well as the work of others, over time, your work will mature, and you will get more and more satisfaction from it.  One of the keys is to not negate what you have done, but if it doesn’t quite come up to what you aspire to, put it aside and start a new one.  Without all the lousy work coming forth, there will be no cleared ground for the fresh sprouts of good work to germinate in.  Acuna mattatta baby.

Jack RIchardson in front of unknown painting1

How has your style changed over the years?

Over the years, I have realized that what I do is OK, no matter what it is.  After all, I do it for myself.  When I was in Art School, (before they invented rocks) lots of my fellow students were making ART, abstract art, intellectual art, organic festering art etc., and I thought I should do the same, so I went ABSTRACT!!,  even though I was a landscape painter.  It was not fun, because I had no idea of what it was I wanted to say.  After a while I gave that up and started painting portraits of my friends, the dog, the model, my visual stimulation. That was it.  Fun, rewarding, and even profitable as portrait commissions came my way. That year I won a prize to travel in Europe, one of the biggest prizes at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. Needless to say, I am still painting landscapes and the occasional portrait.

How long have you been an artist and how did you get started?

As a kid growing up in rural Maryland and working on a tobacco farm, I had no cultural influences in my family. Even though I loved the music of the church it was forbidden because children had to attend the children’s mass on Sundays.  Only God knows how those children got to sing in the choir because it was unknown in my family.  At around age 17, a neighbor friend showed me a painting he had done on a bed sheet, and I thought that was so cool, so I varnished a sheet onto a piece of cardboard and made a giant painting of a nude woman leaning against a wall. That was the beginning of painting, and later some drawing with another friend and painting on my own in the countryside nearby.  Mom, seeing all this activity, encouraged me to enroll at Corcoran School of Art in Washington, DC.  That’s where I came in contact with real art students and real art.  The rest is still going on.

A view of Jack's studio.

How does living on the Eastern Shore of Virginia influence your work?

Living on the Eastern Shore of Virginia has its good points as well as some not so good points.  One has to like FLAT to live here, as it is that.  Either you can paint a horizon or not, and the loblolly pines get to you after awhile, but there is beauty everywhere.  My particular favorite spots are the streams that make their way through the woods with all the underbrush, reflections of sky and leaves and the sense that we all started in this primal wet spot on the planet. The Eastern Shore of Virginia also has deer ticks from which I have had my fair share of Lyme Disease, and still take Chinese herbs to keep it at a reasonable level. In order to paint on location with the tick in mind, I look for spots where I can work from the roadway or other paved surface.

What does having a physical space to make art mean to your process?  Describe your studio space and how, if at all, it affects your work?

My studio is located on a back street in the backwater town of Onancock, VA.  When I first came here, I used the front room with north light to paint in.  Passersby's would look in the windows and eventually come in and buy paintings.  After a while, other artists wanted to show their work and I agreed, keeping a critical eye for quality, and eventually there was quite a group of talented artists showing here, so it became a Studio/Gallery.  At first it was disconcerting when visitors would make a bee line for someone else's work, ignoring my splendid efforts.  But, if I admired what the other artists were doing, why would I object when someone else responded to their work?  Eventually I really came to enjoy living and working around all the art being shown in the gallery, and I think it expanded my thinking about my own work.  Through the gallery, I have made friends with a great group of artists and share the space on Friday afternoons by hosting a model for drawing or painting.  Also on Thursdays, I have painting classes in the morning and afternoon.

What are you currently reading, listening to or looking at those fuels your art?

Music is a great love of my life and has grown from the warhorses to the esoteric.  I was recently at a concert in Philadelphia.  Where the program was 20th century French impressionist Albert Roussel; 20th Century Serge Prokofiev, Francis Poulenc, and Camille Saint-Saëns.  All these pieces were very exciting in ways I’ve never heard before (except the Prokofiev). As an uneducated listener, I’ve enjoyed the programming of WFMT in Chicago, as they have very enlightening  announcers with great comments and insights into the music they are playing and a diverse program.  Opera is also a great influence, and even though I don’t know the words, it’s as though through the singing and emotion, the words are not necessary.  I think opera is to painting as orchestral music is to drawing.

What advice would you give other artists?

My advice to other artists is “do your own thing”!  As the “T-shirt” said, “Be yourself, everyone else is taken.” You will be influenced, how can you help otherwise; take what you can humbly use and turn it into your own statement.  Some say my sunrise paintings look like Turners, my water paintings look like Monet's, etc.  Who cares?  It all started in the caves in Europe, and since then, everyone has been copying everyone else.  The difference goes back to one’s heartfelt response to the subject and the technical ability thing.  We have modern materials (which may or may not be an improvement on the past) at our disposal and the whole history of art to bath ourselves in. How can we not be saying something timely?

What’s next?

Next for me is more of the same.  When you’ve found the groove, why change, although I’ve recently been working in charcoal (like a caveman) from the model. I find that a very satisfying medium with great possibilities.  I’m also ready to go outside with the warmer weather and work on large canvases for long stretches of time.

Thank you Jack.

Jack Richardson studied at Corcoran School of Art in Washington DC and at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in Philadelphia where he was awarded the highest honor of a Scheidt Scholarship for Study and Travel in Europe in 1971.  He taught painting and drawing through the Division of Education at the Philadelphia Museum of Art before becoming Co-Owner, President and CEO of South Street Art Supply in Philadelphia. He sold the business to his partner in '86, moved to the Eastern Shore, married, started a family, and continued to paint and to teach. Jack opened his studio-gallery in 2002 called Richardson Gallery located at 24 King Street in the rural, historic town of Onancock, VA.