Allen Whiting on art, the season, and being Allen Whiting

The artist in his West Tisbury studio. — File photo by Susan Safford

The season for artists used to just be July and August, but now it starts in April and goes through Columbus Day. This is the time for artists to pull back and assess their strategies for the coming winter. If you had a good summer selling pictures, you can put your nose down and paint all winter. That’s the ideal – to make enough art to keep you going for the next summer. I’m pretty old fashion. I assess the season by whether or not I made a living, whether people came in, whether the work was liked.

The summer just seemed twice as busy as usual. My wife Lynne and I and our daughter Bea, who’s the backbone of our Davis House Gallery, work at the gallery during the summer. When you add that to summer’s chores and the other things going on, the summer becomes kind of a wash for me as far as painting — although I do paint a little bit every day. (If you can’t get in a couple of hours, you’re not trying hard enough.)

I turned 65 in July, and I realized how important it is to get the most out of the next 10 years. This is the time to do what I’ve got to do with my painting. But I spend a lot of time — I mean moment to moment — thinking I’m in the wrong place or doing the wrong thing. I shouldn’t be painting, I should be fixing the barn; I shouldn’t be fixing the barn, I should be painting.

Now I just want get into my work. I love landscapes. My work process is to do studies outside and come back and expand the more successful ones on to larger canvasses. Sometimes I’m sure I could go into my studio and paint the rest of my life without ever leaving that building because I’ve got all my studies in there.

My farming life keeps me in immediate contact with my subject all the time. If you’re a farmer you can just look over your shoulder and there’ll be a patch a trees that will look like the most beautiful thing in the world — that row of black trees that goes down to the ocean. And that doesn’t change. Am I copying myself? I don’t think so; I’m just hoping to get the right one painted.

So here we are. I’ve never been more excited and I’ve never been more challenged in a certain way — because life is really pretty good. I don’t have to do things that I hate; but I have to not do things that I want to do.

This year we didn’t have our big opening. It would have been the 30th year. But it just got too big. It was like having a wedding every single June: liquor by the side of State Road. But we had a big summer.

The best thing I can do for my image as a painter is to become a little harder to get to — not having a 400-person opening, not showing in Boston, California, or New York. Stan Murphy told me a long time ago, you have to line up your paintings and figure out what you need. The price of art reflects two things: your ego and where you place the product in the world scheme of things.

I know artists who try to figure out the summer’s buying population: What do they like to look at, where are the weddings, where do people go to watch the sunsets? That’s fine in some ways. But you could get pretty bored doing that.

My advice to kids is to be willing to explore more. Paint what you want to paint. Nobody really cares. My craziness was that I never had a doubt that I would make it. I entered into a field where someone is most unlikely to succeed. And I got into a place that was rewarding financially and spiritually.

I’m in the vortex right now. This is a quiet time. I’ve got some commissions I’m finishing, I’ve got lots of family and they’re all here. I have to finish up at the gallery, get the lawn mowed, and get the last of the hay done — everybody’s kind of stuff. And then I’ll start to paint.

I tend to start a lot of paintings in the fall, nothing’s ever done of course, and I think, “I’ve got to get back to them,” but never quite know how. So I sometimes pretend no one else is going to see these paintings, and then I just finish them for myself. It’s a game I play for a few months of the year — to pretend that I’m free of thinking that every mark I make has to turn into something to support my family. And its kind of joyous.

Anything that I have done, I think I could have done better. I haven’t yet, but I’m confident that I will. As Stan Murphy said, Nobody tries to make a lousy painting, and everybody always thinks they could do it better.

I will have an audience, but there’s always me, beyond the audience, and I have to satisfy myself.

Allen Whiting is the person I have to deal with in order to move on. I have to fight with Allen Whiting to get to what I have to get to.

I’ve got to move on to the next step. I’ve been blessed with the license to go to home ground – down by Quansoo somewhere. That’s my job at this point – to work harder, get up earlier and stay up later. I love doing what I do, I’m thrilled by the landscape around us, I’m happy.