In the Studio: Glenn Harrington
The resplendent moments in time that Pennsylvania-based painter Glenn Harrington captures on canvas may remind you of someplace you’ve been—or perhaps someplace you have yet to go. Painting figures in the landscape in a way that harmonizes the distinct design and movement of each, Harrington has an inherent lyricism in his brush that can just as easily describe the whirling folds of a flowing dress or the graceful beauty of a statuesque figure as it can the feeling of wind rustling through the trees or the sound of rushing rivers. These pictures are a reflection of what we see and experience in our environment now but have a timelessness to them that could conceivably come from any period or place.
The ability to paint in this manner and to suggest something beyond the here and now is not the result of technical aptitude per se, although with a forty-year career as both a professional illustrator and fine artist Harrington certainly has plenty of expertise in that department. Rather, it’s a maturity of perspective that happens first internally and then eventually affects the way an artist sees, experiences, and paints the world around him or her. Many would call this painting from the heart—Harrington describes it simply as being truthful.
Over the course of Harrington’s life, two things have grown in tandem to produce this internal and external harvest of beauty: his faith in God and his appreciation of nature, which often intertwine and express themselves in revelatory ways. From the time he was young, Harrington’s playground was the great outdoors, and living among the bucolic landscapes of Bucks County, Pennsylvania for the last thirty-two years has provided unending visual inspiration for him. When out in nature, Harrington sees the evidence of God’s handiwork all around him and finds purpose in celebrating the divine beauty of creation through paint. In this Q+A, Harrington speaks more about his ongoing journey toward truthfulness and timelessness while also sharing inspiring stories and advice from several stages of his life and career.
AM: You are a native New Yorker who has been living and keeping a studio in rural Pennsylvania for several decades. As a young artist, what did you love about going to art school in the city? And what do you love about the way suburban life and nature inspire your life and art now?
GH: As a young artist, I didn’t love going to art school in the city. I had visited the city often as a child and determined early on that I didn’t like the chaos of urban life, but rather preferred to be surrounded by nature. I grew up like Tom Sawyer on a bicycle, exploring the coast of southern Long Island, fishing, building forts, playing ball, and dreaming. However, occasional trips to The Metropolitan Museum of Art with my father exposed me to a new world, the one that I was familiar with from all the art books at home. Seeing Jules Bastien-Lepage’s Joan of Arc in person was like running into a celebrity; it autographed my mind. Dad had wanted to be an artist, and he was keenly aware of my early ability and passion, so he did everything he could to help me live out his dream by helping me build my own. I started college in Brooklyn in 1977, when street crime was rampant. I wanted to chase my parents’ artificial wood-sided station wagon down Willoughby Avenue as it disappeared into Bedford Stuyvesant after dropping me off. I had grown up thirty miles from Manhattan drawing boats and people and trees and water, not far from where the Abstract Expressionists had their studios. South Hampton Art College had considered me for a scholarship but ultimately determined the direction of my work was better suited for the city’s more commercial market. So I set up shop in Brooklyn and went to work living out my father’s dream.
When you grow up without the sound of car alarms, crime, and the sight of human degradation, the transition into the city takes some getting used to. Charles Dickens had an idyllic childhood in the countryside running past Gad’s Hill as a boy, a neighbor’s property he loved and hoped to one day own until his father’s work moved the family into the bustling city of London. He vowed to return one day and purchase the property, which he did. But no one would doubt that the dramatic shift in location and lifestyle and all that it exposed him to served as the basis for his rich stories and unearthed the tremendous author he became. The French artist Eugène Boudin, who inspired countless young Impressionists, including Monet, experienced a similar pilgrimage when he went from the Brittany Coast to Paris to study, only to return to paint the shore he knew so well at home. (I have one of his paintings. Few artists have captured the reality of water, atmosphere, and daily life on the French coast with such variety of design, color, and sincerity as he did). The city taught me a tremendous amount about life (the life I almost lost a few times while living there), most notably about human motives, commerce, accomplishments, food, and like-minded people—assets I couldn’t have learned anywhere else.
AM: What was the training and mindset like at Pratt when you attended in the late 1970s? What about the difference in preparation for a career in illustration vs. fine art painting—was illustration considered a more sensible and lucrative career path?
GH: I was immediately impressed with the professionalism I encountered at school. All my childhood friends had gone to state colleges to party for two years before finally sobering up and pursuing career paths. It was like playing AAA ball instead of Little League. I was exposed to a variety of disciplines: painting, drawing, graphics, illustration, industrial design, fashion drawing, exhibition design. In the city, I found myself at the production epicenter of movie and play posters, fashion magazines, book publishing, and advertising. The buzz was a great motivator. I began frequenting galleries and museums, and by my second year in school I was already being published. The Golden Age of Illustration was long over before I arrived on the scene, but the marketplace was still thriving, and I found that illustration was a noble way to make a living while I searched for what I really wanted to paint. It provided a technical foundation for draftsmanship and design, a way of painting subject matter that I may not have otherwise attempted. It also introduced me to the business of art, socially and financially, and placed me in front of many talented art directors who sought my work for years.
School never taught me how to paint, or what medium to use, or how to think—and that was good. It challenged me to explore directions, have an opinion, verbalize concepts in a forum in relation to others’ work, and be very serious about this pursuit. Ironically, as illustration as we knew it died out, the reputation I built with high-profile projects helped bolster my gallery image later. Illustrating Shakespeare and the classics also gave me a chance to catch up on the books I should have read in high school, and it helped me develop a great love for literature.
AM: At what point did you make the transition from being an illustrator to becoming a full-time fine artist? What prompted that change/what were some of the key influencers of that decision?
GH: I’ve always been drawn to the illustrators who had more of a painterly quality to their work. Although the work of painters such as Burt Silverman, Daniel Schwartz, and William Edwards was more often based in galleries than in public print, they nevertheless widened the field of illustration to include their style of painting, expanding their audience. My interests then continued on to the work of Sargent, Velázquez, Waterhouse, Sorolla, and Klimt, which consumed me and still do to this day. It was difficult to find a good book on the work of Sargent back then, and thanks largely to Adelson Galleries, that has changed.
When I moved to Pennsylvania thirty-two years ago, we had our first son, and the illustrative commissions naturally started to slow as publishers were being bought out, their design departments dropped or down-sized, and new technology was being introduced. Photoshop forced many photo-realists elsewhere. A few illustrator friends who had made use of computer technology successfully suggested I try it. In the early 1990s ,I bought an enormous MAC computer the size of a large color console TV for $10K. I learned it, then ran fast in the opposite direction and started painting the landscape and the people that lay before me. I discovered the Pennsylvania Impressionists, realizing there was still a large art market for their work; I piggybacked onto it. There was a distinct unromantic, gritty pioneer spirit to their work when compared to their earlier French counterparts. Then I met a neighbor and friend-to-be, Frank Arcuri, an excellent local still life painter who was painting subject matter that related to his daily life. He introduced me to the Eleanor Ettinger Gallery in New York City. I went there with a landscape painting that I left on consignment after they said, “We don’t sell tree paintings, but this is lovely, we’ll give it a shot.” It sold in a week, and I subsequently began introducing figurative work to them as well. That first sale, River Sycamores, was also printed on the cover of D. H. Lawrence’s Women in Love for the BBC Books on Tape series.
AM: Technically speaking, was it a pretty natural transition from your process for illustrating to your process for painting? What were some of the main things you had to change, relearn, or adopt as you were coming up with your own ideas and practices for painting, and what were some of the skill sets from illustration that naturally translated to your figure and landscape paintings?
GH: I never differentiated in technical approach between my illustrative work and my gallery painting. The process was always drawing then painting. There was already a narrative quality in the fine art painters I admired. After years of experimenting with a variety of media—gouache, Dr. Ph. Martin’s dyes and salt, wine and typewriter white-out on plastic paper, oils on sandpaper (all conservators’ nightmares)—I settled on age-old oils on linen and focused on content. Oils were an accepted medium for galleries and a natural direction for me. After having painted for hundreds of clients I was ready to paint my own stories and I found myself living in an area that provided boundless inspiration. I was ready. “We don’t learn, we just get older, and then we know.”
AM: What painting(s) is/are currently in the works or the easel in your studio? What inspired the idea for the painting you’re currently working on and how do you find ideas for painting in general?
GH: I just finished painting a girl in a petite, ornate chocolate shop. I’ve been frequenting this sweets boutique for years, then one day the image appeared, like a flower. So I picked and painted it. It was the first painting completed for a solo show coming up. I hadn’t planned on it, but the pleasantries that accompanied the experience initiated the commitment. I’m following that piece up with oils celebrating common people going about their day: in gardens, at work, in cafés, etc.
Commissions are spaced out through the year. Lately, I have received a cluster of commissions involving horse portraits. So I wrote an article on the subject and sent images to a magazine, and they published it. In tandem, an elderly man walked into my gallery and asked me to paint his dream: the relationship he’s shared for thirty-five years with his two beautiful old horses. My challenge is to create an image that is somewhere between perceived reality and his emotional recollection over many years.
AM: So many of your figures are painted in the context of nature, which for many is a place of peace, solace, and comforting beauty. What do you love about the great outdoors, and do you ever find it difficult to do justice to the vast beauty and subtle nuances of creation?
GH: I recall as a boy a long Friday afternoon drive off of Long Island and over the Throgs Neck Bridge to arrive at a campsite in the Catskills late at night. In the morning I found myself in the middle of a Hudson River School painting, high up on Artist’s Rock. The trip was a talisman. I felt somehow destined to live and paint in such a natural setting.
In New York I had loved drawing and painting for the fashion world and thought it would be interesting to incorporate fluid figures into natural settings wearing fabulous fabrics—almost timeless, wrapped garments intertwining with the textures, patterns, and motion found in nature. The scenes were predominantly single figures, blending with their environment, simply exploring and enjoying nature; roaming alone, when we are most at ease and honest. I hoped that everyone who looked at these paintings feel that they themselves would like to be there, or had vaguely experienced something similar. Human gesture and limbs are repeated in the boughs of twisting trees. Feet disappear, merging into the understory. Running creeks mimic the flowing folds of clothing. Figures rise as living statues, iconic and as uninhibited as the forest inhabitants. Strobe spots of dappled light shift with the wind. Figures catch patterns of sun that speckle through the canopy. At times the softness of skin is contrasted to the roughness of tree bark or jagged rocks. Sometimes the focus is the play of pattered fabric to the motif of the echoed leaves. Nature is about curves; cities are where the straight lines live. I’ve never found a place in the city where no human had ever been. Each step in the forest seems new.
AM: In all of your work, a great sense of storytelling and narrative is naturally woven in to the way you express your subjects. As someone who likes to read and write as well as paint, what similarities do you see between writing and painting?
GH: I started reading and writing once I left college. I had taken courses in history, sociology, and writing, but I was so immersed in the process of painting early on that it left little time for serious writing or reading. I needed physical activity after eight hours in the studio. But as time went on, a great curiosity for reading blossomed in me, and writing naturally followed. Writing and painting are thinking, reacting, sharing. Both evoke a response and develop a relationship with the audience. Writing became another way of painting, of saying with words that which you cannot with paint. I think that’s why there’s an inherent respect between the two disciplines.
I’ve not written as many poems as painted paintings, but both processes are intriguing and engaging. Paintings are the fossils of feeling, mosaics of life. It’s an artist’s interpretation of an experience or idea that drives the picture. Poets don’t relate a scene or relationship verbatim, journalistically, but rather a unique, personal perspective emerges from their words.
My brother is a writer, we’ve been exchanging a Haiku poem each Friday, a “Friku”, for many years. The majority of his content tends to be physical and visual and the majority of mine are often literal or conceptual. It’s very satisfying at times to express a thought within a different discipline, within a syllabic cadence as opposed to the 2-D fence of a frame. There may be a sense of suggestive narrative in my paintings, we all have an inherent opinion or something to say about what we see or feel. Painting is a way of combining the emotional and physical elements of what we experience. Sometimes the subject is lying right in front of us and capturing it in all its veracity is the approach taken. Other times giving order to chaos, redesigning, pruning a scene is required. But both are inevitably overtaken and managed by our editor and introduced to our imagination. Writing is no different.
AM: I know that art is something that was passed down in your family, and that you learned from your father and had sisters and brothers who were also very good at drawing and painting. What about your two sons? Did they follow in your artistic footsteps?
GH: Our son Evan is a painter, a pilot, a carpenter, and a dad twice over. He’s good at all of the disciplines. He’s been showing in galleries with me since leaving high school. He’s been flying the same Cheyene 400 double prop airplane that Chuck Yeager set a corporate speed record in from New York to Paris. He’s the only artist I’d trust flying a plane. He’s been focusing on still life painting predominantly as of late, but I’ve got a feeling aviation will start flying into his art at some point. Very few artists have such availability to see cloud formations and the graphic earth patterns that lay below.
Our son Sean is a talented pianist. He used to play for hours from his head, filling our old stone schoolhouse with pleasant musical patterns while we all listened. He draws very well, but his great gift is for the language of sound. I thought he would go into music in some form, but he navigated toward maritime risk management instead, moved to Seattle and took a good job in the high-end cruise industry. He’s a team player and has been very successful at adapting to challenges, never letting adversarial conditions limit possibility. He’s learned to turn adversity into personal and professional achievement. His piano and guitars are waiting for him backstage right now, but music is a life-long love, and I’m sure he’ll be back at it at some point.
They’ve watched their parents adapt to changing technology and marketplaces, while remaining strong in their faith, and I think that’s helped them adjust to diverse situations. I painted them into my pictures often as children. I hated to sell the pictures, but if I didn’t, they’d be forced to leave home and look for food. Selling the paintings kept them eating and happy at home. Being a father has been, and continues to be, a tremendous joy and blessing.
AM: What is the main message or goal you hope to communicate with your talents as a painter/what do you think your purpose is as a painter?
GH: I read on the wall of an old woodworker’s shop that “a laborer works with his hands, a craftsman works with his head and his hands, and an artist works with his head, his hands, and his heart.” It’s similar to a successful musician; you can play the guitar well, but can you also sing? Write songs? Perform? A successful artist is the full package.
I didn’t make nature and I didn’t make myself, but I can make paintings of what I see and feel. I’m an Aesthetic; painting is a celebration of beauty for me. I’m well aware that God is the ultimate communicating creator and any beautiful work I may create is a pastiche of His divine handiwork. I love sharing the discoveries I find in our world. My work is an eclectic mix of many artists over time. It’s not new, what may be new is my take on our time. I was born with a certain gift, a natural visual inclination and memory for observing and conveying imagery. Many of us are. Interestingly, in the Biblical book of Exodus, the first time God’s Spirit is endowed to anyone, it’s to an artist, Bezalel, and then to his assistant Oholiab, when they are “filled with the spirit of God” to devise artistic works to build and decorate the tent of the tabernacle where God dwelled. I hope my work will relate to people as a respite while honoring the glory of God’s creation.
AM: As someone with a long and successful career as a realist artist, and someone who has witnessed a lot of change in the ways this type of art is created, exhibited and sold throughout the years, what would your advice be to someone who is just starting their training and who is considering spending their life as a professional painter?
GH: Things I still tell myself: Get a Gad’s Hill, a long-term Dickens dream, a purpose. Pursue what you’re passionate about and once you sense it, don’t let anyone derail you—especially yourself. Don’t let the fashion fads seduce your plans, look for the overall trends, and trust yourself. Study the artists that move you and then find out why. Don’t dismiss bad pictures, but rather find out why you think they’re bad. It’s easy to fall into the trap of wanting a life retrospective before you’ve started. Be honest with yourself, examine what you want, and ask why. See if you truly enjoy the process itself, and change what you don’t like about it until you do. Learn to enjoy the entire process, from the initial groundwork to finishing touches as often as you can. Don’t save ideas for later, use them now. Doubts creep in—keep them out. Keep a sense of perspective in your personal life and in history and set a trajectory, and then be willing to abandon it at any time for something better.
I was born too late to have been a part of the Golden Age of Illustration or the Paris painting scene of the 1920s, but maybe when people look back on our time, they’ll say wonderful and unattainable things about our era too—especially if things continue to get worse. Great art was produced through the wars, pandemics, and within shorter life spans. If you were born, you were born at the right time. My journey has been circuitous, and as I look back, that’s what made the trip interesting. Oh, and one more thing—get a dog!