When I first came to work with Tom Buechner in the summer of 2008 as his studio assistant, I had painted less than ten representational pictures during my short time as a painter. My primary focus (and consequently the focus of my senior exhibition at Houghton College) was on abstract works consisting of heavily layered stripes, whose muted grey colors originated from the Western New York landscape I had grown up in. It was both an exhilarating and daunting prospect coming to work with such a renowned master of figurative painting and staunch realist.
Though I was certainly much farther behind in technical knowledge and abilities than my predecessors had been, it allowed me to give myself over to Tom’s direction completely, having little or no bad habits to break.
I told Tom from the outset, “Please direct me in every step of this, as I have no idea what I’m doing”. Tom obliged, and steadily began building in me a solid foundation of technical and theoretical approaches to painting. I began to maintain two separate ‘modes’ of painting; the first being my realistic works (primarily still lifes and portraits) done exclusively with Tom, and second, the continuation of my abstract work done in my home studio.
As I worked for and painted with Tom on a weekly basis, I began noticing distinct lessons and techniques which I was learning from Tom, creeping into my abstract work. Prior to Tom’s influence, my work had relied mostly on thin, transparent layers of paint, confined to strict rectilinear spaces. I soon found myself applying copious amounts of paint to the canvas in heavy impasto; an extreme extension of the thick, deft strokes I had come to admire in Tom’s looser works and those he had done in throughout the 1960’s and 70’s.
While painting still lifes with Tom, I learned two simple yet effective techniques which drastically altered my approach to my abstract work. The first, glazing in black, was the result of a discussion Tom and I had on the approaches of the old masters (specifically Spanish) and the need to create tonal richness and unity within a picture. The results of this technique on a simple still life of ceramic and glass bottles were so exciting that I began to glaze everything in my home studio, sometimes applying as many as nine or ten layers. This ‘discovery’ led to countless new ideas and directions within my abstract work.
The second significant technique Tom taught me was the use of pure color over white to achieve the brightest and most luminous colors possible. This approach was ultimately part of a much larger process of thinking he stressed every time I started a new picture, and that was to nail down the BIG ideas first and worry about specifics later. Colors I had previously muted by adding raw umber in the paint were now muted by glazing over the paint, resulting in richer colors and more compelling pictures.
For Tom, living and painting traditionally in New York City during the rise and reign of modernism/abstract expressionism, taking a guarded and often unimpressed view of non-representational painting was certainly natural and understandable. On one occasion, after I suggested that it would be interesting to see a Rubens and a de Kooning hung next to each other, Tom looked at me as if I’d just smashed the Ten Commandments. I felt it my duty as a practitioner of abstract painting to expose him to my own work which I felt had enough ‘painterly’ qualities to appeal to his sensibilities. After having seen a number of my non-representational paintings, Tom encouraged me to try and bring some of my abstract strengths (surface texture, spontaneity, composition) into the realistic work I was doing with him. While this was (and is) a difficult task, I began to become acutely aware of the interconnectedness between these two ‘styles’ of painting I would otherwise have thought and kept completely separate.
Though he would never have wanted to take credit for it, there is no doubt in my mind that my painting, both representational and abstract, has improved exponentially since painting with Tom. I feel overwhelmingly blessed to have been a part of Tom’s wisest years, and the recipient of his immense knowledge and gracious friendship.