Galleries : The Art Of Allen Whiting
"I try not to make a big deal about the fact that I work on the Vineyard," West Tisbury painter Allen Whiting says. Though the statement may seem ironic - Mr. Whiting is known for his oils on canvas that capture the essence of Island landscapes - his work boasts a maturity and a unique style that prevents its appeal from being limited to an Island audience. Each painting breaches abstraction with distinct color combinations that draw the eye across the piece.
The painter's story is anything but untold: His pursuit of a career in baseball, his life as a farmer and his local fame as a landscape master have been the subject of countless articles over the past three decades of his distinguished career, as well of the subject of his book, "Allen Whiting: A Painter at Sixty" (Vineyard Stories), published two years ago.
Yet few people are aware of the artist's habits and techniques: how his eye is attracted to simple forms, how he uses the dominating colors of a landscape to dictate his compositions, or how he believes he has yet to learn how to paint water correctly.
As a plein air painter, Mr. Whiting is constantly motivated by natural landscapes, though he notes that light's whimsical characteristics along with his own creative edge prevent him from painting too realistically. "My work is never a literal copy," Mr. Whiting says, noting that aiming for perfection can be both disappointing and exhausting. "But I always try to pretend I'm there; I try to capture as much as I can from nature first."
The artist prefers to rely on his own paintings, and his memory, as studies for his larger works, rather than photography, which he finds to be both frustrating and stifling. "You almost have to be a better painter to use photographs," he says. "We all tend to mistake them for reality versus a chemical interpretation of nature and we end up trying to copy the image too tightly." Mr. Whiting smiles and exclaims: "I don't want to work that way. I want to dance! I want to play ball!" He adds, "You give up control, but hopefully you get lucky."
Once set up on location, Mr. Whiting will work for three hours without a break, a process he equates to a live concert. "After that, either it's okay or it's not," he says. The artist always talks himself into a completed work, though he notes time often brings him back to many of his paintings. "Moonrise at Sepiessa" was finished for two years, until the artist revisited it. "It had gotten too tight," the painter says. "I turned to the mediums and the whole thing smoothed out." While he admits changing a painting can be dangerous, he insists, "I've got to take the chance of destroying it."
In August, the Davis House Gallery, which doubles as three rooms in the West Tisbury family farmhouse, displays new works to accommodate the empty spaces from a busy July. Among Mr. Whiting's new pieces are small charcoals of oystermen, studies for larger paintings that are also included in the show. "The charcoals are more personal, in a way, and harder to part with," the artist says.
The series of oystermen paintings were all done on a private property overlooking Tisbury Great Pond. "The oystermen allow me to work from life. Day after day they do the same thing and assume the same attitude without posing. I don't talk to them and they don't talk to me. They offer me an opportunity to paint a human form without photography."
The artist describes "Culling" as one of his most abstract works. In the oil on canvas two oystermen in bright yellow smocks rest on their small boat in a pond. Large, visible brushstrokes of purple and green make up the aqua-colored water and encircle the grey boat in the center of the piece. A yellow strip of beach is visible in the distance beneath the coral and blue sky.
"I try not to really stop and think about the painting until I've completely eliminated white from the canvas," Mr. Whiting says, noting that very few things in nature are actually white.
Though the medley of colors in each painting is unique, Mr. Whiting claims his palette never changes. "I've been using the same 13 colors for the past 30 years," he says. "It's all a matter of what moves me. If you look carefully, you'll see every color in every different space. Every sky has the same color in it, they're just all a little different."
Samantha McCoy, a student at Cornell University, is a frequent contributor to The Times.