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In the Studio: Thomas Kegler

by Allison Malafronte

Thomas Kegler lives in Western New York near Niagara Falls and is known for his powerful paintings that capture the spirit and grandeur of the region’s sublime beauty. A participant with the Hudson River Fellowship for ten years, Kegler has walked in the footsteps of such nineteenth-century Hudson River School luminaries as Albert Bierstadt, Frederic Edwin Church and Asher B. Durand and learned from their deep reverence for nature, as well as from their desire to reflect God’s divine hand in nature’s design. For Kegler, painting is a way to pursue beauty and celebrate creation, and his resulting landscapes become devotionals that pay homage to a higher power and the glory of the great outdoors. As such, each painting is titled with a biblical scripture, inviting viewers to pause and reflect on what those verses might mean to them personally. In this Q+A, Kegler shares further sentiments about his motivation for painting, while also discussing his self-taught educational path, his schedule and studio practice (which starts each day at 4:00 a.m.), the importance of closely studying nature for extended periods of time, several of his favorite art books and more.  

<em>Thunderstorm in the Catskills</em>, 2014, oil on linen, 23 x 36 in.<br/>Private Collection

AM: You are primarily a self-taught artist, which means you have had to learn the hardest lessons of art through miles of canvas. Do you think having never been indoctrinated into a specific school of drawing and painting has served you well?

TK: Being a self-taught painter has been a long journey, yet very fulfilling. There are two ways to look at it: If I had attended an atelier, I would have gained valuable experience learning from a master in a much shorter amount of time. The risk of working with a single master for an extended period of time, however, is that the student may develop tunnel vision and cling exclusively to the style and vision of that master, never blossoming and finding his or her own voice. The best approach, in my opinion, would be to study with several masters to keep your mind and eyes open as you grow. Having said all that, I would not trade my experiences of being self-taught. It has afforded me the benefits of experimenting, traveling, reading and studying and has nurtured in me a philosophy of life-long learning. I glean from other artists, both contemporary and historical. Painting from life and immersing yourself in nature is ultimately the best instructor. From these endeavors I was able to develop a knowledge and visual language that frees me to improvise and create a convincing depiction, as they are based on factual study and truth.

Trout Pool, Genesis 18:4, YEAR, oil on TBD, 11 x 14 in., collection?

AM: What is your studio and outdoor-painting practice like in terms of time commitment? In order to paint every day, do you have to keep a structured schedule and consistent time, or are you able to paint whenever and wherever you like? 

 Birch in Kaaterskille Clove, YEAR, ink and gouache on toned paper, 9 x 12 in., collection?TK: My painting time is very structured due to the fact I am a full-time high-school art teacher and am raising two wonderful young children. Most of my outdoor painting happens in the summer, while my studio painting occurs in the fall, winter and spring. This is much like the approach of the Hudson River School painters of the 1800s. My studio time starts at 4:00 a.m., and I paint for a couple of hours until I wake the kids and get them off to school. I paint almost every day except Sunday.

AM: Did you move to Upstate New York because you admired certain Hudson River School paintings, or did it work in reverse? 

TK: I experienced the Catskills (New York) and White Mountains (New Hampshire) because of the Hudson River Fellowship, a group I became involved with in 2008 and still participate in. These artists endeavor to mirror the efforts of the Hudson River School painters by slowing down and truly studying all aspects of our natural environment for extended periods of time. It is amazing to paint in the same footsteps (literally) as the Hudson River School greats. Seeing the same vistas that are depicted in some of my favorite paintings is both invigorating and intimidating. There is a strong camaraderie in this group that thrives on hard work, friendly competition, cooperation and high levels of quality.

Catskill Outcrop, YEAR, sepia ink and gouache on toned paper, 9 x 12  in., collection?

AM: When you first became aware of these nineteenth-century painters, how did you learn more about their approach, philosophy, and where they painted? What were your resources?

TK: Most of my learning regarding the approaches of the Hudson River School greats occurred during the first few years at the fellowship. The other fellows introduced me to many artists from this movement whom I had never known. I also read several books and articles that targeted the process and philosophy of these artists. Our field study was enhanced by evening talks and presentations by historians, botanists, biologists, meteorologists, and physicists. This imparted an anatomical knowledge and sensibility that opened our minds and provided a trajectory for growth. These are some of the books that I have found very interesting and helpful: The Artistic Anatomy of Trees, by Rex V. Cole; The Book of Clouds, by John A. Day; How to Read Water, by Tristan Gooley; and Light and Water, by Montagu Pollock. For me, understanding the science of the landscape is a very important aspect of painting the landscape.

Afternoon Respite, Psalm 3:5, YEAR, oil on linen, 18 x 24 in., collection? 2015 - Private Collection

AM: In his column for The Crayon, Asher B. Durand encouraged his students to spend countless hours studying the intricacies of nature through close observation and continual sketching. I notice that you have done many sketches and drawings in this spirit. Do you think scrutinizing nature and copying it scrupulously is one of the reasons you have been able to develop a deep sensitivity to the landscape?

 Autumn Rain, Job 36: 27-28, YEAR, oil on linen, 5 x 7 in., collection? 2014 - Private CollectionTK: Slow, careful drawing from observation is the most important skill a painter can develop. Removing the need to concentrate on color or paint handling allows the artist to slow down, scrutinize, inquire, take valuable notes and focus on studying not only what is seen but also why the optical occurrence is happening. 

AM: The Hudson River School painters were committed to the divine and showing God’s design in the majesty of creation. Are you of the same spiritual conviction?

TK: Perhaps my strongest conviction of my work and life is the pursuit of accepting and sharing experiences in the light of God. My philosophy of painting harkens back to the HRS spiritual associations with landscape painting. Integral to all aspects of my life is my Christian faith. I look at my work as devotional paintings. My time at the easel starts with a prayer asking for guidance from the Holy Spirit to prosper and bless the work of my hands to glorify His name. My paintings are an invitation to the viewer to consider the sublime and are about pursuing and celebrating beauty and truth. Here are a couple of great books that have been inspirational in this vein: Knights of the Brush: The Hudson River School and the Moral Landscape, by James Fenimore Cooper and Painters of Faith, by Gene Edward Veith.

AM: When you include a Bible verse in the titles of your paintings, does the correlation between what you’re painting and the scripture come to you before, during or after you have painted the scene? 

TK: The scripture verses that accompany the titles come to me after the painting is complete. Once I sign a work, I ponder the deeper meaning of the painting and search for verses that echo that sentiment. The verses are meant to inspire the viewer to open the Bible, look up the scripture, and consider how the words relate to the painting, themselves, and society as a whole.

Midnight, Romans 14:19, 2017, oil on TBD, 15 x 30 in., private collection 2017 - Private Collection

AM: In looking through your portfolio, it’s hard to believe that some of these scenes exist regularly in real life. Are stunningly beautiful sunrises and sunsets and unspoiled landscapes just a natural way of life where you live, or are you embellishing or exaggerating some of the effects? 

TK: Many of the mountain ranges in the U.S. such as the Catskills, the Adirondacks, and the White Mountains still afford the artist unspoiled views, if you are willing to strap on your boots. The landscapes near where I live and the places I have been are incredibly inspiring to me. When composing a scene that moves me, the initial location and experience become a springboard for the direction of the work. In the end, I take a great deal of artistic liberty to add to, edit from and manipulate the elements within the composition in order to capture and evoke the emotion that I felt at the time. Many of my works are quite contrived yet could certainly exist. I hope the scenes depicted in my work speak to people, and they feel they have been there, or would like to be there.

AM: When I look at your paintings, three words come to my mind: Solace, Serenity and Sublime. What words or feelings come to you when you look at your paintings as a viewer instead of a creator?

TK: Thank you for those three words as they are exactly what I hope people experience when standing in front of one of my paintings. That means a great deal. I might hope to add “transcendence” to the list. I hope my work points our eyes to God.

AM: Any upcoming projects, exhibitions or events that you would like to share?

TK: I am teaching a workshop in Central Park in New York City this July, and will be part of a three-person show at Trees Place Gallery in August titled "The Eye of the Beholder." I’m exhibiting in the "American Masters" exhibition at the Salmagundi Club in October, and I am also working on a book that I am very excited about, planned to be released in 2019.