No, this is not the painting I sold 40 years ago, but I have a story to tell, and I need an illustration!
I am continuing my study of Andrew Wyeth’s drybrush and pencil techniques, and realized a few moments ago that this spring marks the 40th anniversary of my first significant art sale, at age 18. I was a senior at Northwest High School in House Springs, Missouri. I really want to tell my story.
Throughout my four years in high school, I was competing seriously in student art competitions throughout the greater St. Louis area. During my senior year, while at the Two Rivers Art Association competition in Fenton, Missouri, I noted with astonishment the framed and glassed drybrush watercolors submitted by an 18-year-old from north St. Louis. He was competing in the professional category, rather than the student. I managed to win the student competition, but he won the professional. His technique was a carbon copy of Andrew Wyeth. I could not believe my eyes as I surveyed every square inch of his barns, wagons, broken down houses, rendered in sepias, ochres and grays, with not a trace of green or brilliant hue of any kind. They were all fall and winter landscapes, and his dried-out weeds and foliage and stark naked trees just made me stare in wonder. How could an 18-year-old produce such sophisticated work?
I encountered this young man’s work later that spring, further north, in the Warson Village Shopping Center. Again, he was competing with professionals, and again he won. And again, I stood before his work with an air of worship, overwhelmed at the understatement and sophistication of his pencil and dry brush technique.
I did not own watercolors. But I took a piece of white mattboard, and diluted my Liquitex acrylics to apply as watercolor, and attempted my first Andrew Wyeth-style dry brush painting. The subject was the one posted above, only much cruder, of course. But I left the sky totally white, and all the foreground, save for dry brush stabbings of grass and gravel, white. The old cabin was rendered in sepias and grays, and I worked plenty of graphite over the woodgrains of the worn-out siding. Once I finished, I knew I had something. The Andrew Wyeth signature was unmistakable, the large blank areas gave the composition a sense of remoteness, and I knew I was on to something better than before.
Returning to school, I approached my art teacher, Mr. Elfrink, under whom I had studied since 8th grade. He was unloading the kiln in the suite between the two art classrooms. His back was to me as I entered the room and said: “I tried to do a watercolor over the weekend.” His response: “And?” I said nothing, but just held the painting up. He turned around, and his dark eyes immediately focused and flashed, and his entire countenance changed profoundly. Searching for words, he said something like: “Now that is . . . , it’s got . . . , it’s . . . that’s good.” That was all I needed.
Soon afterward, our school art club sponsored a sidewalk art exhibition and sale on the high school parking lot, during school hours. We were able to attend the show during our art classes and study hall, but not during regular classes. So . . . during my stay in one of my real classes, this is what happened: A vending truck pulled to the shoulder of Highway 30 in front of our high school. The driver hopped out, walked down the hill to our parking lot, looked at the work on display up and down, then stopping in front of my easel, asked: “Are these for sale?” Someone told him “Yes.” He responded: “I’ll take this one.”
Forty years ago this spring. My first Andrew Wyeth-style painting sold. And now I’m still on his trail, studying his work for clues, trying to understand his magic, and hoping some of it will rub off on me.
Thanks for reading.