Artist Peter Corbin: capturing love of the outdoor life lived well
Peter Corbin: An Artist's Creel - Portfolio
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There are some subjects about which I can carry on a conversation and sound like I know what I am talking about. Art is an area where I wade very carefully.
I am not a fan of splotches of paint or indecipherable images that may have some deeper meaning. Call me a traditionalist, but I like things to look like things (don't try to impress anyone with that line at a swank receptions).
When I think about the paintings that appeal to me, they are works where the image is secondary to the emotion evoked by the picture. Some artists are technically proficient, but the best are able to use their brush skills to capture an element that is not so much about recreating an image as it is about conveying feeling and place within a frame.
I was thinking about the art that appeals to me as I looked through "An Artist's Creel," (Hudson Hills Press), a collection of more than 200 picture by sporting artist and landscape painter Peter Corbin.
Peter Corbin and his son Parker.
The opening image, titled "The Pool in the Meadow," shows a solitary trout fly fisherman caught stripping his line as he stands on the bank of a stream that emerges from distant woods and runs alongside an open field.
The angler is slightly hunched over in a posture that evokes his anticipation of a strike and efforts at stealth to avoid spooking a waiting trout. The quietness inherent in the painting made me lean forward slightly as though I shared the moment.
In "Standing Corn," two goose hunters hidden in a yellowed stand of corn take aim at a flock of geese that have just set their wings and are about to land in a spread of decoys. The image made me think about how much I enjoy goose hunting and the feel of my well-worn shotgun.
The reflections and play of light on the rippled water in "Evening Stripers" would be familiar to any Island striper fisherman who has fished Lobsterville Beach.
Peter's work has an air of authenticity that speaks to his understanding of his subjects. His pictures make me want to fish, to hunt, and to be outdoors.
Jay Bonanno of Edgartown fishes for stripers in "Evening at Lobsterville."
I suppose that is why wealthy people pay Peter thousands of dollars to preserve their favorite outdoor experiences.
How nice it must be to be able to look up from a desk and be reminded of fishing for Atlantic salmon on the fabled Cascapedia River in Quebec, jumping a huge tarpon on a Bahamian flat, or quail hunting with a favorite dog.
An Edgartown property owner and frequent Vineyard visitor, Peter lives and paints in Millbrook, Connecticut. I ran into him recently at Coop's, where he was buying some flies in anticipation of fishing for striped bass.
Peter said he would be leaving soon to fish for tarpon in Florida. He travels often to wonderful locations in the course of his work.
In a career that spans more than 30 of his 62 years, the artist has carved out a unique niche. He paints wealthy sportsmen and women doing the things they love to do.
It is a world of classic images, of wooden canoes and gun lodges, which Peter understands well. He grew up in a hunting and fishing family that was imbued with the traditions of a gentleman's sporting life.
"Beg, Borrow or Steal."
Peter's father was a banker by trade and an avid sportsman who tied his own salmon flies and made his own bamboo fly rods. The family home in West Orange, New Jersey, contained much outdoor literature and art.
His great grandfather, William O. Corbin, was one of the founders of the Hartwood Club in the Catskills in the 1890s, where Peter was introduced to the pleasures of trout fishing and bird hunting in the deep pinewoods. He got his first shotgun when he was six.
"It was a 410 with two hammers, and I was given shells for it when I was nine and a half, after I had walked in the field with my father and older brother for three years learning gun safety and how to handle that gun," he said.
Peter's artistic talents were nurtured as a student at the private Pomfret School and at Wesleyan University, where he became interested in the study of light and abstract sculpture. More formal training followed at the California College of Arts and Crafts.
But, like many successful men, it took a woman to set him on the path to a career. Peter married Lillian Stokes Pyne. He was working in the jewelry business. His wife was in banking.
"I was living in New York and just wilting," said Peter. His wife suggested they move into a house at the Hartwood Club in the Catskills for one year and see if he could make a career painting.
"After the Hunt."
Peter has no doubts about who is responsible for his success. "I owe absolutely everything to her," he said.
Early on, his father had told him that if he paints rich people at play, he probably would not starve. "And that tuned out to be very prophetic," said Peter.
The price of a standard sporting portrait commission starts at $20,000. The final price is based on the complexity of the desired image, according to information on his web site.
Peter speaks about his art in the context of balance and reflected and transmitted light. "The light is everything to me," he said.
His subjects do not want a portrait in the strict sense of the word. "My real job is to capture somebody's love of a place or love of a sport that they do, or of a place that they have created," he said.
To do that, Peter is hired to accompany his subjects as they hunt, fish, or shoot. The job may take him wing shooting in Patagonia, fly fishing in Quebec, or riding horses on a southern estate.
He takes hundreds and hundreds of photos in an effort to capture his subjects in every pose and mood. "I am looking for a balance, I am looking for a sense of light, I am looking for mood most of all, and something that can lead to a mood and painting," he said.
Then in the same way that a writer distills pages and pages of notes, he distills what he has until he arrives at the essence of the experience. He creates a pencil drawing, and once the client approves, he begins work on the oil painting.
Dealing with something as subjective as art, there must be unhappy clients. He has had just two returned in more than 30 years and 600 paintings. "Both of them were more matters of communication," he said.
He has also turned down commissions, telling would-be clients he is not the right artist. He describes what he does as a collaborative relationship, but in the end he lets his clients know that he is the one who wields the brush.
He divides sporting art into three topics: "You paint anticipation, you paint the moment that time stops, and you paint reflection. And everything that you paint in the sporting field is one of those moods."
He says he loves the Vineyard for its varied fishing opportunities and the light as it reflects off Island waters. His favorite moment is watching a big bass come up to take a fly.
The fisherman with a large striped bass in "Trophy Fish" is Tom Taylor of Edgatown.
In an age of digital photography, Peter finds it no substitute for fine art. A photograph may help prove that the unbelievable is believable, but art, he said "is there to capture the essence."
"It is that quieter moment of reflection that painting handles much better than a photograph."
His book was the product of 10 years of work. It includes "Blue Boat on the Ste. Anne," a 1958 watercolor by one of his biggest influences, the late outdoor artist Ogden Pleissner. It shows two guides and a fisherman in a blue canoe on a salmon river. It is about mist and mood.
Quoting Pleissner, Peter said that realism is one thing, "but to capture the mood is the most difficult." In a good painting, you can feel the cold and smell the air. "It becomes that tactile when it works that well."
For more on Peter Corbin and his work, go to www.petercorbin.com.
About noon Tuesday I received a cellular telephone call from Billy Chipman of Medford, who was fishing off Gay Head with John St. Onge of Watertown.
Billy wanted me to know that John had caught a bonito that weighed about five pounds while the men fished for bluefish. He sent me a photo using his cell phone of John and his bonito.
"We were trying to fill the smoker with bluefish for the year and just got lucky," he said.
Phil Cronin took this photo of Scott Patterson last week holding about a nine-pound fluke he caught in very deep water.
Fluke fishermen will be out in force participating in the eighth annual VFW Fluke Tournament. Information and registration forms are available at local Island tackle shops and the VFW on Towanticut Avenue in Oak Bluffs.
Tournament director Peter Hermann can be reached at 774-563-0293.