An Interview with Jeffrey Reed by Elizabeth Johnson, edited by Matthew Crain
An Interview with Jeffrey Reed by Elizabeth Johnson, edited by Matthew Crain
ART SYNC: THE SKY IN YOUR POCKET
An interview with Jeffrey Reed
by Elizabeth Johnson, edited by Matthew Crain, 2022
Elizabeth Johnson: I grew up on a farm. Open green spaces dotted with farms equates home, security, and privacy to me. What does rural beauty mean to you?
Jeffrey Reed: I grew up just north of Annapolis, Maryland, in a small community on the Magothy River. It was a rare day when I wasn’t outside on or near the water. Nature has always had a strong pull on me and being outside is where I feel most alive and curious.
Being on the water made me keenly aware of the weather and the relationship between the sky, water and land. The skies were always of special interest to me. Skies can be dynamic, beautiful and unique while offering a sense of the moment and the anticipation of change.
EJ: Does painting the wildness of Ireland versus painting in the USA crop up as you work?
JR: Forgive the cliché, but beauty can be seen in a sublime sunset and in a leaf. I can have a sense of wonder in my backyard here in Philadelphia or on the coast of Ireland. A big difference is that the Irish landscape and weather are very dramatic and constantly changing. No two days are the same.
EJ: Is focusing on a leaf like focusing on sky only or on landscape only? It seems that two large changing things seen together is very different than depicting a small, still thing by itself.
JR: I always consider a sky or a plant in context. Perhaps this is where light comes into play the most. Light serves as a unifier, a definer of form and a tool for design and expression.
In teaching I talk a lot about the relationship between elements. Think of it in the sense that a shape or a color can’t exist in a void. They exist in relation to the other shapes and colors. The same with a sky. If we think specifically of the light in a sky, it must work with the light in the land. Light is democratic. A great place to look for these relationships in the landscape is at the horizon. This is where I will often find the “key” in a painting. I’ll look at temperature, color, and value contrast here.
A painting of a plant and a painting of a sky are different as images and subjects, and I like that. One thing that may surprise you is that I also feel a sense of intimacy in both subjects. This has always been very important to me. Vuillard is a painter that I have always admired. When I look at his paintings, I always get a sense of his subjects being embraced by their environments. The visual and sensual in harmony.
EJ: I notice you don’t have figures or animals as subjects in your work.
Does painting lots of open, natural space in contrast to few buildings and few figures amplify basic forms? Do you avoid humans and animals because you aren’t interested in narrative?
JR: You are correct: avoiding the human figure and animals is a way of avoiding a narrative. It is an interesting question that I haven’t fully answered in my own mind. A figure in a painting can be such a magnet for the eye.
EJ: After recording color, basic forms, and light outside, you take the painting into the studio, where, to quote you, “the painting and subject are separated.” It’s interesting to me that this is a dramatic moment. Does this mean that you pursue what’s apparent outside, but switch gears to use memory and invention in the studio? Do you sometimes find yourself inventing or working from memory even though you are outside and have not yet separated the painting from the subject?
JR: Working outside, I react to what is around me. Working in the studio, I react to the painting. Working in the two different ways has been beneficial overall. I get information outside that I can’t invent such as light, atmosphere, color, and a range of shapes and relationships. In the studio, I feel freer to move these elements around to create a design or dynamic. I have come to realize that I can’t recreate the onsite experience in the studio. I am more reactive outside, working with a sense of urgency. In the studio, I am more measured and deliberate.
A good scenario for me is returning from a month in Ireland with 20-30 small paintings done on location that I can put on my studio wall. These studies might get reworked or serve as a genesis for a new painting. It isn’t unusual for me to combine elements from several studies in a studio painting. Painters such as Corot and Church were known for doing studies of their studies. They would distill their studies back in the studio to create more solid compositions.
I must make a disclaimer at this point: I have no one way of working. Some paintings are 100% true to the subject, done on location; others are 100% invented. I hope that whatever the process, there is an element of truth and that the image is cohesive.
EJ: Is the sensuality of working en plein air almost always more important than your acquired skills of being a painter?
JR: I’ll try to answer this with an anecdote. My first fellowship at the Ballinglen Arts Foundation, in County Mayo, Ireland, was for two months. At the end of the first month, I looked at my paintings and they seemed to be missing a dynamic. I was overwhelmed by the visual beauty and nature. I had created a lot of nice images but not good paintings. I learned that I had to pursue painting objectives along with the natural elements. I couldn’t just focus on the beautiful ocean, I had to frame my questions and observations around light, space, design, or another of the painting elements. When I started doing this, I got better paintings that also happen to be of the ocean. The motif isn’t enough.
EJ: On Maureen Mullarkey’s blog, Studio Matters, she says of realist painters: “Attention to light and atmosphere, respect for line and disegno––the architecture of an image––are painting’s primary obligations. These alone are the intellectual elements of visual art.” Do you consider painting from life intellectual? If so, would you think of the studio side of your practice as being the most intellectual part?
JR: Yes. Working in the studio can be more of a chess game. For the past few years, I have been more deliberate with the compositions outside, doing small pencil studies before painting. I still enjoy the sense of discovery and reactive nature of painting outside. “Disegno,” as I understand it, is a merging of drawing and the exploration of form, two-dimensional and three-dimensional. Often when I draw, I will start in the middle of the page exploring a form such as a building and let the drawing evolve based on my curiosity about the motif and the design/composition.
EJ: Can you elaborate on “working in the studio can be more of a chess game”?
JR: Paintings done outside often have a sense of immediacy. I can't recreate this in the studio, I've tried, and it feels false. So, the studio work is a separate entity, often more deliberate in its design and structure, perhaps a slower read. That's what I mean when saying it's like a chess game. These paintings take on different challenges
EJ: In the John Thornton video, you talk about working. You mention using a reduced palette, as few colors as possible, “to make a more cohesive painting, sense of light.” Is this because you are working on a small surface that stands in for the larger, more varied landscape, making the intellectual work a visual poetry of simplification? Have you ever experimented with large surfaces? Is there a reason for staying small aside from the aims of simplification and portability?
JR: I might use a limited palette for several different reasons. I might want to push the light in a certain direction and bracketing the palette can help with this. Certain color groupings can evoke different emotional and sensual responses. Yes, there is a pursuit of a visual poetry, but I would never say that out loud.
My paintings have gotten smaller. Initially, it was for practical reasons, such as travel, and not aesthetic reasons. Mark making does come into play. I can spend as much time on a small painting as a larger painting. I am not too deliberate about the size of the paintings. I know that looking at a small painting is a different experience than looking at a larger painting.
EJ: Does painting small transform a place into an idea? Does turning a vast space into a miniature version approximate capturing or comprehending the boundless subject in the mind’s eye?
JR: I referred to mark-making, and I think that I tend to develop small paintings to the same degree as larger compositions with the same degree of development, number of marks involved, and sense of space pursued.
As an artist, I want my paintings to work when viewed from across the room and up close, no matter the scale. Design is what one responds to from a distance and the mark-making is a more intimate experience.
EJ: Do you wonder about the people who occupy the farm buildings? Their absence makes me anticipate them, which may be poetic provocation.
JR: I do wonder about the people in the buildings, their lives, and their relationship to the environment. Perhaps this question touches on an earlier question about the presence of people. I feel that people are always there, whether in the painting or outside as the painter or viewer.
I heard Seamus Caulfield, an Irish archaeologist, once describe the difference between landscape painting and paintings of scenery. In short, he was saying that a landscape painting incorporates a sense of humanity and history, whereas a painting of scenery is more superficial. Of course, he was much more articulate than I am. I hope that I am not just painting scenery.
EJ: Do you align painting farms in cultivation with cultivating poems? There’s a certain steady patience, a sustained interest in your basic, everyday subject that reminds me of Wendell Berry, John Updike, or Robert Frost writing about their farms.
JR: I imagine that there is a similarity in collecting and cultivating imagery in painting and poetry. There is certainly a shared experience with the poet and the artist leading lives with their eyes open to experiences and using imagery. Somehow, the question reminded me of an E.B. White story where he described visiting the grave of his beloved dachshund, Fred. Expecting a profound experience, he was disappointed when nothing profound struck him, and he “turned from the grave and peed on an alder tree.” I like this story. It reminds me that I never know how a painting will turn out. The final painting is very much about the experience and what is discovered in the process.
EJ: And he specifies an alder. Being disappointed seemed to sharpen his attention. If you were advising students, how would you describe the balance between trying too hard (forcing profundity) and not trying hard enough to capture beauty? How do you describe the combination of letting go and willfulness that painting requires?
JR: Perhaps White’s senses were sharpened or perhaps he was using his literary license. Either way, it gives us a better sense of his experience and truth. Artists are always making decisions. I encourage students to follow their passion and curiosity as they develop their craft. I ask them to identify an objective and to make decisions based on the pursuit of that objective. Painting is visual storytelling. Students need to learn how to tell their story, and how to share their passion for a subject in a direct and clear language using the tools of painting.
edited by Matthew Crain