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Tim Kennedy: Oil Portraits and Figures

Tim Kennedy: Oil Portraits and Figures

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This article on Tim Kennedy by John A. Parks first appeared in the June 2014 issue of Magazine.

In Tim Kennedy’s paintings, we’re invited to witness the passing pleasures of life: friends stop by for a visit; a vase of flowers sits prettily on a tabletop; a wife or girlfriend steps into the shower; the sun, raking a living room, bounces light from wooden floors and soft cushions. The color is attractive and slightly more vibrant than strict realism would allow, conferring warmth and harmonic unity. Fine drawing is much in evidence, with forms carefully delineated in a way that betrays some effort at simplification. The paint, layered in an opaque manner, tends to sit in flat areas with only the occasional blended transition. The effect is to suggest three-dimensional form without going through the long business of rendering every last turn and twist. Leaving much of the color in fairly flat areas enables the artist to organize his compositions as a set of clear shapes locked together in almost classical formations. These are paintings that promise quiet enjoyment and pleasurable reflections, something that Tim Kennedy is well aware of.

The Allurement of Life

“There’s a famous statement by Matisse that compares a modernist painting to a comfortable armchair,” says Kennedy. “The idea is that when a person comes home from work—perhaps as an office worker—he or she might take refuge, comfort, and pleasure in a work of art. I more or less agree with this point of view.” The artist is quick to point out that he doesn’t take this to mean that the viewer should be merely passive. “I think of the viewer’s mind and senses as being in a heightened state,” he says. “I think that’s where the sensation of pleasure comes in.”

Tim Kennedy applies this approach whether he’s painting a landscape, still life, or figure, reorganizing the world in front of him until it yields a formation that allures and gratifies. To achieve this, he always works from life: “I normally paint directly from my subject, even if it’s a subject that I’m forced to reconstruct in some fashion in the studio” (see Modern Painters, below, and Poinsettia Mirror, further below). “For a landscape, obviously, I would paint outside. I might do still lifes in the studio, or I might create setups at little spots in our house. I paint directly, so each day I approach the painting I’m working on as if it were a new piece. I frequently paint over the previous day’s work—even if it was something that I liked.”

Tim Kennedy’s Method of Measuring Abstract Forms

Tim Kennedy clearly feels that the richness of information offered by nature, as well as his response to this information, is necessary for the success of his paintings. This wasn’t always so. “The big tug-of-war earlier in my artistic life was between abstraction and figuration,” he recalls. “The attraction of abstraction was that you could paint in the studio and that you didn’t have to refer to a motif. The problem that arose for me was that I was never entirely sure what painting without a reference meant. I ran out of ideas, and ultimately I felt a need to recharge myself from nature. Frankly, I’m never too sure what painting from life means either, but I find the variety in nature endless.”

While all of Tim Kennedy’s paintings are products of a fairly consistent vision, his modus operandi varies from work to work. “I don’t feel that I have a clear-cut, step-by-step process,” he says. “What I tend to do is to take a few simple measurements at the beginning of a painting. Lennart Anderson taught me a method for measuring the figure that he called ‘the three points.’ It’s an optical measuring system. In a standing figure, for example, you would measure from the heel of the weight-bearing leg to the crotch and then add that same length, measuring up from the crotch. The second measurement will land somewhere in the head, such as the nose or hairline, unless the model has unusually long legs.” Sighting procedures of this nature also help him approximate the comparative sizes of forms in his landscapes and still lifes.

Tim Kennedy’s Setup for Success

In setting up to paint, Tim Kennedy takes pains to be in the right position in relation to his subject matter. “When I’m working on a small canvas or board, I like to get as close to my subject as I can,” he says. “If I’m painting a landscape, I usually work with a French easel. I’ll set it up at an angle to the subject so that the distance that I turn my head is as short as possible.” To prepare his palette, he mixes a number of colors—usually yellow ochre, Mars orange, raw umber, phthalo turquoise, dioxazine violet, and terre verte—cut with Cremnitz white. He may also mix a few colors that he sees in the subject, setup, or landscape he’s painting.

Tim Kennedy usually paints in three-hour sessions. “The light will change after that,” he says. “If it’s the first day of a painting, I’ll measure a bit and mark units with lines and dots, which can look very abstract. I like to get the entire surface of the painting covered as quickly as I can. Working back into the painting during subsequent sessions, I might cover the piece with a thinned coat of medium (mixture of two parts sun-thickened linseed oil, two parts damar varnish, and one part Venice turpentine) before I begin the day’s work. This allows me to open up the painting again.”

In the Venetian Tradition

Tim Kennedy works in both watercolor and oil, and he relishes the strengths of each. “I like the stickiness of oil, its opacity, and the color action you get from color bumping against color,” he says. “I like how you can work over an earlier version of something.”

When he works in oil, he doesn’t completely resolve the drawing before he starts to paint. “There seem to be two traditions dating from the Italian Renaissance in painting: the Florentine and the Venetian,” Tim Kennedy says. “Florentine painting was dominated by sculptural ideas and tended to establish a contour, which the artist would work within. The Venetian tradition is a painterly one in which the artist might start at the center of a form and work out to an indistinct edge. I consider myself to be part of the Venetian tradition.”

Tim Kennedy says that he also finds the Venetian practice of layering warm and cool colors over each other to be helpful. “If I’m working on a landscape in oil, for example, early stages of the painting can look like a loose version of a Mondrian,” he says, “with a few measurements that might resemble a grid and blocks of color.” He likes strong color, and as he continues to paint, he responds to the way the color of light might influence his subject, but he doesn’t go so far as to “consciously exaggerate color.”

He works wet into wet and, for the most part, doesn’t use mediums that accelerate drying.
Tim Kennedy tries to take a similar approach with watercolor but finds that for this medium he needs to create a more established drawing to paint on top of. “In watercolor the transparency and liquid quality of the marks are appealing,” he says. “I like it when two transparent colors that are far apart on the color wheel can cross over one another to create a new, third color (see Neighbors in Chief, above).”

Design as a Balancing Act

Even though Tim Kennedy begins his paintings with an open, exploratory approach, the finished works have a resolved and balanced feel. In Poinsettia Mirror (below), for instance, a nude young woman stands with her back to the viewer, turning her head to one side. The subject is placed just off center in the composition, supported by the rectangle of a chest of drawers. Carpets, wall, and shadows join with hanging robes and furniture to form a taut interlocking design of clear shapes. Even the shoes lying on the floor form a triangle that’s reflected in the lamp on top of the chest of drawers. The color harmony is also nicely balanced with rich ochres, yellows, and oranges playing against a variety of restrained blues, and one sweet green in the hanging towel on the closet door.

Return Trip (below) displays a more active narrative, featuring a young couple that has just arrived home. The woman is opening the front door and glances back anxiously to her partner who is staring at a letter he has just taken from the mailbox. “My narratives tend to be on the minimal or thin side,” says Kennedy. “I don’t go in for overdetermined stories or dramas in my paintings, but I do have to give the narrative some consideration; otherwise the viewer’s reaction will be ‘Why are these people together?’ Painting people in a space is fun and interesting. I like working out a composition, and human subjects have an inherent warmth that’s missing from inert things.”

Some of Tim Kennedy’s paintings are pure portraiture. In Malcolm, LuAnn and Owyn (below), a family group sits on a wicker sofa on a porch. Outside, beyond the sun-swept lawn, is a parked station wagon. The painting is bold and clear but contains enough subtlety and detail to endow the figures with real character and identity. The details of the subjects’ dress and the casual footwear suggest summer vacation with time off to enjoy life and relax. Still, the man intently reads a paper, and the boy immerses his attention in an iPad. Only the mother gazes outward, alive to the situation.

Who’s Who of Tim Kennedy’s Admired Artists

A keen student of art history, Tim Kennedy claims many influences. “I could go on forever,” he says. From among the modern artists, he cites Hans Hofmann and Arshile Gorky: “Hofmann,” explains Kennedy, “because of the constructed, experiential attitude that he brought to his teaching and painting, whether he was working from a subject or not; Gorky for the changes he went through and because his forms had a particular meaning to him that he wasn’t casual about.” Kennedy also admires Joseph Cornell, Philip Guston, and Anselm Kiefer. Selecting favorites among the American representational painters, Kennedy naturally respects Winslow Homer, John Singer Sargent, and Edward Hopper—and has a special admiration for Charles Burchfield, whom Kennedy points out was “a really extraordinary and underrated artist who worked primarily in watercolor.”

Tim Kennedy’s wide appreciation of art, ranging from the Spanish Baroque to contemporary minimalism, is in part the result of a broad art education, starting with his observation, at a young age, of his mother painting in their home. “Eventually I became interested in Modernism and read biographies of Duchamp, Picasso, and Matisse from the Time Life series,” he recalls. “I liked the Pop artists very much at this time; I liked that Pop had something in common with Realism. I became interested in Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns, so Pop led me to an interest in Dada.” Shortly after receiving his bachelor of fine arts degree, Kennedy discovered Fairfield Porter. “I admired that he saw his work in a modern context,” says Kennedy, “but that he approached painting as he did, painting his family and his surroundings because doing so felt natural to him.” In addition, while earning his master of fine arts degree at Brooklyn College, Kennedy studied with Philip Pearlstein and Lennart Anderson.

Going Public

As for the future, Tim Kennedy sees himself continuing to paint group portraits, but he does have some changes in mind. “In previous shows I focused on the house that I was living in and the activities that might be encountered there,” he says. “I’ve been thinking of setting my pieces in public spaces.” Accordingly, he has been painting in a state park lately. “From this material I’d like to develop figure compositions,” he says, “such as people camping, enjoying the beach, or playing volleyball.”


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Watch the video: Blocking In The Composition - Daily Art Vlog - Episode 060 (July 2022).


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