Skip Van Lenten

Pencil Drawings, Watercolors, and Portraits

Art


My first experience with art was much like everyone else's; coloring books and crayons. I enjoyed the challenge of staying within the lines, but got tired of filling them in, and soon began to draw my own images to color. Not much has changed over the years, other than the medium.  At one point I wanted to be a cartoonist, but I painted a couple of dog portraits as gifts for my sisters, and got hooked on portrait art instead. I didn’t see it as a way to make a living, but when I do portraits on commission, I sink the money into more art supplies. If you have an idea for a portrait, or  like any of the drawings and paintings you see on this site, and would like to add to my supply fund, I can be reached at  skipvanlenten@gmail.com.

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I like to think of the difference between abstract art and realism as a linear progression between two points. On the far left (not to be confused with politics), are the extremely abstract and almost obtuse works that some say could have been done by a child. On the far right are works so detailed and finely rendered that they are indistinguishable from a photograph. Somewhere in-between, perhaps rising to the top of the Bell curve, are those works where the presence of the artist shines through, both in detail and spirit. In a way, what makes something a work of art as far as I can tell, is a form of abstract realism in which the power of the artist is as much a factor as the actual subject being created.

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My mind works like a to-do list. At some point in the morning, I begin thinking about what I would like to do each day, and if I am fortunate enough to have the time, I begin at the top and work my way down until I’ve completed everything I set out to do. It’s linear, but it's not always a conscious effort, and setting time aside to paint usually means having to wait until my list is complete, or postponing some of the things of lesser importance. And then there are some things that were not chosen by me. My wife could tell you something about that. If she asks me to do something in the middle of the day, it throws me off and puts a temporary hold on whatever it was I was going to do next. Getting back to my list can be hard at that point, because I forget where I was, and what I had intended to do. Some things never get done.

There is a certain peace involved in painting that doesn’t require a list of things to do; it just comes with the process, and leads me to a state of mind where lists are not important. I mix a few paints, set up a canvas, and begin. The rest of the time is spent watching the work unfold as if it had nothing to do with me. The term “peace and prosperity” comes to mind when I am done; peace from the process, with prosperity being my reward. People usually associate prosperity with money, but the Latin term also means “fortunate,” and although painting never appears on my to-do list, mentally or otherwise, it is something I always feel very fortunate to be able to do; after the kitty litter, the dishes, the laundry….

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I’m a person who loves change. It may be part of my desire to paint or play music, since activities like that have a forward moving energy that starts with an idea, and proceeds to a completion of sorts, and I love that feeling of being caught up in something so full of life that it creates its own excitement in the process. It’s like a parallel universe, or a world within this world, possibly more mental than real, and yet out of the process comes something new and unique to both worlds; something changed.

The mystery for me is why I am so compelled to get involved in these projects, why I play the violin or guitar almost every day, when no one else can hear me, or start a painting with no reward whatsoever, other than to once again experience the excitement of watching something come to life? Why am I not an accountant, or a truck driver, or a psychologist? I have the degree, I love people, and I enjoy helping out any way I can, but I constantly return to my solitary world to pursue a work of art (if I can be so pretentious), or the sound of my own music. I think the answer lies in the fact that whenever I do that, I become comfortable and content to be alone and yet aware of being part of the much larger world around me, as if what I’m doing is some sort of contribution to it, but if I dwell too long on these thoughts, I get caught in the trap of doubting myself, and thinking I should pack away my instruments, forget about painting, and find a job. That would be a change, but maybe not one that I would find half as satisfying as what I might do today.


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It's probably one of the most frequent questions people ask about art, and artists. From my perspective, the effort in creating something is both conscious and unconscious. My understanding is that consciousness comes back to us in the form of perception. What we see has as much to do with what we add or subtract from it as it does to reality itself, and the artist captures both.

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Someone once said that schizophrenia is more of a perceptual disorder than a mental illness; schizophrenics see and hear things that are not there. In our own way, I think all of us are limited by our perceptions, not to the extent that a schizophrenic might be, but simply by the fact that we all see things differently. When I paint, I like to give free reign to that difference, and avoid conforming to any particular style or expectation of what a painting is supposed to look like.

At some point in a painting my perception of what looks good on the paper or canvas begins to take over, and I start paying more attention to that than I do to whatever it is I'm actually trying to paint. The painting becomes the subject, and the satisfaction of working on it doesn’t come from whether or not it’s good enough, but whether or not it satisfies something inside of me. It may not look anything like whatever inspired me to start it in the first place, but that is irrelevant. It's not just a painting; it's how I see the world, and what it becomes through my perceptions. A schizophrenic might understand that. 

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I've always said, “If I had to do it over again, I’d be a farmer.” These days, I’m beginning to think I’d rather be an artist. Painting is something I have been doing almost my whole life; just not in art. I remember painting my bedroom when I was 14, with gray walls and red trim, and sensing my father’s bemusement when I took him upstairs to see it. I thought it was cool, but all he could say was, “You did this in one day?” as if to say it didn’t take me long to ruin an otherwise perfectly good room. Later in life, I painted the entire exterior of a couple of houses while going to grad school to become a psychologist, and several years later, sidelined with problems of my own, I ended up working as a painter in the small town of Kent, CT. It was easy in those days to establish a painting business. There were few regulations, and basically, all you needed was a trade name, a good ladder, and a commercial truck. I was successful enough to work for a few prominent people and household names over the next 32 years, but when work was slow in the beginning, I painted a couple of dog portraits for my sisters as Christmas gifts in 1983. Feeling the rush of seeing them come to life on canvas, I was hooked on doing more. I knew I couldn’t make a living as an artist without any background or training, so it became nothing more than a hobby, but since then, I’d say I have probably completed close to 50 paintings in oil, acrylic, and watercolors. Now that I am a grandfather, and retired, I find myself reading a lot of children’s books again, just as I had for my son and daughter, but with a fresh eye toward the artwork. I am amazed at how creative the illustrators can be in telling a story with pictures, but something else strikes me as being indicative of their talent. Whereas my paintings are fairly straightforward, and I strive for something lifelike in my portraits, a good illustrator can capture the feelings of the book’s characters and the emotions of the moment with a simple gesture, a look, or the sweep of a brushstroke, bringing to life something that most artists would envy, and most of it is done in the name of entertaining kids. It makes me think I wouldn’t like farming after all. I would have enjoyed the life of an illustrator.

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Watercolor is a difficult medium for me. It's hard to make the change from oils, because an effective watercolor depends on allowing light to pass through the paint, coming up from the paper and infusing it with a delicate sense of color, while oil is more opaque, and heavy. I rambled around with that idea for several years before I realized that the real problem was not watercolors, but my inability to be patient enough to work with them. Apparently, the trick is to allow a thin layer of paint to dry before adding another layer. It sounds simple enough, but  I was more accustomed to controlling paint in the way that oils and acrylics are applied to canvas. I keep working with oils before the first layer dries, and move around the painting, from one part to another, constantly cleaning my brushes, changing colors, and smoothing things out as I go along. It took several tutorials to realize that I was moving too quickly with watercolors, and making the classic mistake of trying to cover up the light with paint. You can paint light with oils, but it can’t be light in the same way that it is with watercolors. It almost seems like a good analogy to life.

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The tension between thinking that a painting is going well, and being afraid that it isn't, is probably behind everything I've ever done, and evident to anyone who looks at any of my paintings or drawings. A couple of months ago, I was invited to hang some of them at a local library. They are still there, but this morning was the first time I've had a chance to look at them again in over 6 weeks. I was shocked. Since hanging the 30 or so works, I have been busy with other things, and not doing anything of significance in the way of art. I could say it’s been too hot, or I’ve been babysitting a lot, or just didn’t feel up to it, but drawing and painting have been on hold during the same amount of time my favorite works have been hanging in the library. I guess I should lament the fact that I haven’t done anything during that time, and from the way it appears, willing to sit back on my laurels, but the truth is I’ve been feeling as though I’ve lost some of the motivation to paint; until now, that is. Seeing what I did in the past, after a 2 month hiatus, was like looking at someone else’s work. The shock was that some of it looked good! That is not usually the way I think about what I’ve done. I rarely feel confident enough to tell myself a painting is good, or a drawing is worth framing, but even if I never think that way in the process of creating something in the future, at least I know now that I might feel differently if I just set it aside and forget about it for a while.

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Before my father retired from The Port Authority, he went to night school, earned a teaching degree in Industrial Arts, and became a shop teacher at a local junior high. He also set up a shop in the basement for his own projects, and after he passed away, I discovered a folder of plans he had drawn up for each one. Some were simple diagrams, indicating the measurements and basic designs, but others were three-dimensional drawings that showed an obvious talent for drawing. With only a few exceptions, we never saw the finished projects.

After I took up painting, I found that I enjoyed drawing, too. It's a necessary step to begin a painting, but there are times when I don’t want to go over a drawing with paint because of all the work I put into it. Maybe that explains why my father left behind very few completed projects; why build something out of wood when you can satisfy your imagination on paper? Whatever was on his mind, finding that he had a talent for drawing was a connection to him I never knew I had, and could be the answer to the question I sometimes ask myself when I look back at some of my own work, “Where did that come from?”

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Whenever I look for something to paint, I tend to go back to familiar landscapes and do them more than once. My favorite is The Point, where a rocky ledge angles down into the water just off the shore of Indian Lake, NY. The combination of the lake, the mountains beyond the far shore, and the pine trees that spike the sky is a scene I have painted many times in oil, watercolors, and acrylics. Another is a little island I can kayak to north of our camp. I sometimes paint it from the boat with watercolors, or take a lot of pictures to use as a reference for paintings when I am home. I always thought the reason I keep going back to these two scenes is because they are pleasing to the eye and easy to do for their simplicity, and as a basic form of composition, they represent the three most common elements that inspire me to paint them: sky, mountains, water. Now that I’ve painted them so often, I’ve come to realize that the real reason I choose the same scenes is not so much for the potential they might have for a good painting, but because each time I go back, I learn a little more about mixing colors, applying the paint and setting up the composition of the painting. I am teaching myself to paint, and trying to get it right. Hopefully, I can apply the lessons to fresh scenes in the future, but for now, I’m not willing to let go of The Point and The Little Island. They’ve been my best teachers.

“Learning what you cannot do is just as important as learning what you can do.” Robert Genn

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