SWA James Reynolds Article
Ask an artist his opinion
By Sheila Cottrell
Published in Southwest Art Magazine May 1993
The award-winning style of James Reynolds began in 1950 when he won the $100 purchase prize for a water-color. But that wasn’t as gratifying as the triumph over competitors the likes of Rex Brandt, Emil Kosa and Phil Dyke.
Through the ensuing years, Reynolds served in the Navy, then studied at the Kann Institute of Art, Los Angeles, CA, and the School of Allied Arts, Glendale, CA. After a few years of freelance work, he embarked on a career in the film industry as a production illustrator. His assignments included western films, among them Warlock, The Comancheros, The Tall Men, The Bravados, From Hell to Texas, and Alvarez Kelly. Jim left Hollywood in 1968, and moved to Sedona, AZ, and established himself as one of the most colorful recorders of the historic and contemporary western American landscape.
Jim Reynolds is an artist of consummate talent and strong opinions. His talent made him and early member (1968) and regular award-winner at the annual exhibitions of the Cowboy Artists of America. Reynolds has won 5 Gold Medals at the National Academy of Western Art. In 1992 he swept the awards: winning its Prix de West purchase award, as well as the gold medal in oils, the Buyer’s Choice Award, and voted in as a member. In May, 1993, a retrospective of his work was held at the Gilcrease Museum, Tulsa. It comprised over 35 paintings, and gave grounds to Reynolds’ preference for paint (and plenty of it) over subject matter. It also attests to why Reynolds has had so many emulators over the years; artists who try but rarely achieve his level of sophistication.
SC: You’ve been called a colorist – how do you feel about that term?
Reynolds: I don’t like it because it implies that there is a lack in the other areas that constitute fine art. I think the labels may say more about the inability of some painters to use color well. Many people think that a good painting uses all three primary colors, but color doesn’t work that way. Science has proven that the way in which the human eye takes in color information and interprets it in the brain is limited: You can only assimilate so much color and to overload the brain with an assault of pure, unrelated color is self-defeating.
SC: Is there a solution?
Reynolds: The objective of the painter is first to create a pleasing, harmonious balance of color and value relationships. Incorrect values are usually the cause of bad color. You can’t go wrong using a primary color and its adjacent colors and using complementary to gray it – for instance, graying yellow with lavender. Too many artists use black to gray a color. Likewise, the real charm in a work comes from the warm-and-cool color variation.
SC: Sounds like a good rule of thumb – do you follow it?
Reynolds: I don’t do it consciously. Some painters accomplish the effect by painting the canvas with an undercoat of one color and then painting over it so that the top color diffuses into each area. Edgar Payne, on the other hand, exposed the undercoat between his brushstrokes.
SC: I know that most rules are meant to be creatively broken, but is there any formula worth keeping in mind?
Reynolds: Normally I reject formulas… but there is one I use in keying my paintings. Before doing anything else on a canvas, I place the darkest dark, the lightest light and the brightest color. By working within those boundaries I have a better chance of obtaining that harmony of color and value relationships I was talking about.
SC: Many artists of your generation “apprenticed” in the field of illustration. Nowadays, that opportunity has been usurped by technology from the camera to computers. How will that affect the future of artists?
Reynolds: Technology is certainly the wave of the future, but nothing will replace a fine artist – which necessitates individuality. Speaking of illustrators, I think many of them have hurt their evolution into fine-art painters by limiting their use of color. They have placed too much emphasis on reproduction of their work and working within the color range of the printer. A painting should exist in and for itself – reproduction is secondary.
SC: You often refer to Sargent.
Reynolds: I like the incredible quality of his work and the fact that success didn’t go to his head. I’ve read that he felt his watercolors were unfit for sale in spite of the fact that they are wonderful. The point is, he was a great talent who painted beautiful pictures, period.
SC: Then again, Sargent became very irritated with the critics’ response to his work. He complained that the critics accused him of painting the inner or spiritual aspects of his sitter – which he saw “through the veil of the external man.” Sargent countered, if there were a veil, I would paint the veil. I only paint what I see.”
Reynolds: I feel the same way. All this analysis is ridiculous. Maybe that’s another reason why I like Sargent: Sounds like he had about as much patience as I do with people who ask that you explain your paintings. You wouldn’t ask writers to paint pictures of what they’ve just written – so why do people insist a painter be verbal about what he’s just painted?
SC: Would you agree with Tom Wolfe’s debunking of modern art? He contended that “without a theory to go with it [the art], I can’t see a painting… Modern Art has become completely literary: Paintings exist only to illustrate the text”.
Reynolds: I enjoyed Wolfe’s book. He exposed the fallacy behind abstract art by describing his personal experience of standing in front of thousands of abstracts over the years, waiting for some visual reward… and never getting one! Abstract art can have interesting shapes on colors, but it is nothing but decorative.
SC: Ayn Rand once said that “the essence of art is integration”. She saw modern art as a “war against reason” and “mental disintegration”.
Reynolds: I get a kick out of her. I recently read a series of her essays on art in the magazine Aristos. I especially liked her comment that if a modern artist tells you he doesn’t know what he is doing, take his word for it and forget him! The point is, people want something they can relate to, and in my opinion, that’s representational art.
SC: I recently heard a comment that “art evolves but does not progress”. Do you agree?
Reynolds: I’d need to think about it. I guess that’s right, but the painter should progress. There is no professionalism out there – too many painters lack authority. Painters need to be bold, but you can only be bold when you know what you’re doing. That comes from a good education and lots of experience.
SC: How have the awards you’ve affected your life?
Reynolds: They’ve made me grateful, especially for the quality education and great teachers I’ve had. When I was a student, there were good art schools in almost every major city and they emphasized fundamentals: perspective, composition, drawing, design, paint handling, color and such. Now there are barely a handful of good schools. I worry about art students today who will call themselves “artists” tomorrow.
SC: Is that why you set up a painting scholarship at Arizona State University?
Reynolds: I’ve wanted to do something like that for years. Can you believe that with other 12,000 scholarships at ASU, this is the first painting scholarship? I hope my example encourages other successful painters to do the same.
SC: I understand you will have some involvement with the students.
Reynolds: I will have some say in who is selected. I’m anxious to get to know the recipients and to watch their progress. I’ll offer advice or critique their work. But the bigger problem is that students need help long before they reach the collegiate level. I’ve also been involved with art for children – they’re coming out of the school system unable to hold a brush. In my opinion, the school system went from being too regimented years ago, to the opposite end of the spectrum. Students need guidelines, not total freedom of expression. They should also study the masters, artists like Joaquin Sorolla and John Singer Sargent.
SC: Any last words for the art students out there?
Reynolds: Well, too many students are in too big a hurry. They don’t want to pay their duties. There are no shortcuts in learning the basics and gaining experience. Students sign up for a workshop and the first question they ask is “Where do I buy frames?” They need to think in terms of their commitment to a lifelong effort, to the best that they can be, to learn and study, to work hard, and to ignore flashy styles and gimmicks. Their unique style will emerge naturally. Their goal should be to produce the best possible paintings they can, both for themselves and to give real value to their collectors.
SC: Speaking of collectors, I came across an article in a June 1970 issue of Business Week recommending your paintings as good investments. I think it would be fair to say that prediction has proven to be correct. Your paintings have consistently increased in value but without any outrageous price increases or wild fluctuations.
Reynolds: I always keep the collector in mind. I want my collectors to enjoy the painting and appreciate what I saw and how I interpreted what I was seeing.
SC: Everything I read indicates that the collectors of the 1990s are most concerned with receiving what they perceive as full value.
Reynolds: That’s probably the best point you can make to students. If they concentrate on being the best painters they can, the money will follow. The best advice I can offer is to search for what I’ve found: namely, a life that has supported me in doing what I love most – painting.
[Sidebar] Reynolds on…
Art Critics… I wish the public would call the bluff on the “Emperor’s Clothes” theory of art appreciation. People are terrified of forming their own opinions. It’s like the movies: Even though you read a bad review about a film, you still go to see it and form your own judgment. If you agree with the critics, fine. If you don’t, you conclude that the critic doesn’t know what he’s talking about.
The same should be true about art. I’ve seen too many people walk in a gallery, look at a signature on painting and ask, “Is he any good?” If the artist sounds important, only then will they look at the painting seriously.
Early California Impressionists… Their work is wonderful – and the reason is that the artists had traditional educations.
Jan Vermeer… His paintings are layers of luminosity.
Thomas Eakins… Eakins was a fine draftsman, but he produced the most spiritless paintings I’ve ever seen.
Joaquin Sorolla… My favorite painter. He had it all: great technique, wonderful color, fine draftsmanship, everything. And he did it with heart. He inspires me more than any other painter, living or dead.
Pablo Picasso… He was the biggest firm-flam man of all time. He was great painter/designer in the beginning but he got bored and tried to deceive the public with all this wild stuff. On several occasions he confessed to it, but no one wanted to believe him. The “experts” had been buying the deception for so long, they didn’t want everyone to think they were stupid.
Sculpture… The sculptures of Bernini and Michelangelo rank as the most beautiful art ever created.
Best Advice… I don’t know if it is “the best”, but I’ve never forgotten the advice a teacher gave me: “Never fall in love with a hot lick”. To make his point, he painted out something I’d just decided was a stroke of genius!
Art Instruction Books… Other than good how-to-books, I recommend Charles Hawthorne’s Hawthorne on Painting and Robert Henri’s The Art Spirit. They should be read over and over and over again.
Modern Art… Comic relief.