We recently had the good fortune to sit down with old friend and artist Galen Mercer to talk a little bit about his approach to painting, early influences, and how his time on the river informs his work.
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1) Tell us a little bit about your background - how did you get into painting? What were some of your early influences?
I was initially trained by my father, who was a watercolor painter and also ran a large commercial art studio. He inherited the business from his father, who'd employed about a dozen full-time draughtsmen and artists through the 50's & 60's - kind of a Mad-Men deal. I began painting with the old man on weekends. We'd head off to sketch in the countryside, sometimes accompanied by my grandfather. They were both excellent painters, and those were memorable and instructive sessions. It was a good way to find my early footing. There was also a fine-art school, but I left that ASAP and headed for the Catskills to paint and fish.
Influences have been numerous enough they really could be likened to a river, ever approaching, ever leaving. As a boy, I was very taken with Monet's idea of treating every inch of the canvas impartially. Giving no subjective weight to the image, just perceiving it as an arrangement of color and values. Of course, his eye and touch were matchless, plus he was fearless into the bargain. By genius and sheer force of spirit, he altered reality. This idea, of confronting a scene without pre-determining its essential subject, still fascinates me. I don't derive much from the traditional "sporting field", preferring artists who use their medium either with great daring or great poetry. George Bellows, esp. in his landscapes, comes to mind as one who did both.
2) What does the process look like from start to finish when you create a piece?
Well, they're not really set pieces. Of course, you develop a working method, but I've done good paintings in a few hours, and have also made things I liked that literally took several years. Having seen something that excites or fires the imagination, you essentially try to gather and convert it. There's a lot of desire involved, which is why its so depressing when things go off the rails. For me, it's important to keep this aspect - desire or stimulus - alive, fanning it and using whatever means possible to encourage it through the end. When a painting becomes over planned or formulaic, which is deadly, I either scrape the canvas clean or abandon things.
3) What makes a great painting? That is, what are you aiming for each time you sit down to a blank canvas?
A great painting is like a great anything - it's just really felt. There's a directness or urgency of experience which evaporates routine, takes us out of ourselves. At all costs, you want to avoid cliches, aiming to get to get the gist, the core of a thing, without undue elaboration. With every stroke, certain options go out the window. With a bad painting, it quickly feels like you've constructed a jail cell. The painting seizes up and its life escapes. This, I suppose, goes to the heart of it. You try to make something that feels vital, complete and essential, without using one stroke too many.
4) What are some of the biggest challenges getting to the result you want? How much does this change over the course of painting a work?
Overpainting. Rigidity. Predictability. All big concerns. Richard Diebenkhorn, the marvelous abstract painter, believed it was critical to enter the studio each day with a willingness to efface anything you'd previously done in a painting, effectively re-making it each session. This is excellent, if hair-raising advice. You see this functioning in high gear in artists like Motherwell and de Kooning. Having conceived your painting, the vital essence of a thing/scene is often found in some chance occurrence or miscue. Staying open to possibility, not trying to force things, is a good practice.
5) Where do you find inspiration? From your own fishing adventures? Photos? Your imagination?
Principally in nature, but also, and always, in other art. Not just painting, but every form. Often, I'll read a passage that will start a fire in my head, usually ending in the concrete reality of a painting. Once, in late autumn, I heard a snatch of Paul Desmond's playing in some luxury car commercial. As canned as this was, isolated, it was so poignant and redolent of fall - the sad, inexpressible side - that I virtually ran to the field to find some equivalent on canvas. 3-4 paintings came out of that moment. Go figure...... I tend to paint in runs of work. Typically, I'll make a trip, say to the Florida Keys, then return with a passle of sketches, notes, thoughts and ancillary material. Mulling this stuff, you get your propellant.
6) What’s next on the easel? What do you have in the works?
Having recently completed 20-some paintings for an exhibit of Catskill river scenes, I'm searching for different subjects. Meanwhile, with several friends, I just leased a small, former chapel, situated alongside a wonderful Gaspe' salmon river. It's a lovely spot, and I'm happily contemplating working and fishing next summer away.
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Grandson of two painters and the son of another, Galen Mercer was born in 1962 in Toronto, Ontario. Painting professionally since his late teens, after graduating from fine arts school Thornton Hall Academy, Galen opted for a life combining art and sport, gravitating to New York's Catskill Mountains where he maintained a studio for almost two decades. Today he is widely considered among the finest land-waterscape and sporting artists of his generation.
His paintings are in numerous private collections abroad as well as many others throughout North and South America. His art has appeared in several group shows and he has been afforded a number of one-man exhibitions at such venues as The American Museum of Flyfishing and Laurence Rockefeller's Beaverkill Gallery.
Galen and his wife Jaimie currently live in Arlington, Vermont, where he maintains his present studio.
(Photo Credit of Galen Fishing: Walter Hodges)
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