Curator of Early California Art
Laguna Art Museum
Timothy J. Clark began serious art studies during an era when representational art was out of favor with schools and critics. An inveterate draughtsman, he chose a path that was in keeping with his personal vision, a desire to record the radiant color and light of the world around him. He has stated that he “believed then, as I believe now, that there is a place for emotional and aesthetic figurative painting in today’s world.”1
He is never without a sketchbook. He gets restless if he hasn’t worked on a painting each day. In brief, he is a consummate artist.
Clark began his art career painting in oil. However, sensitivity to the solvents in oil pigments forced him to switch to watercolor. This was a serendipitous event because it was with watercolor that Clark would find his true calling as an artist and as a teacher.
Watercolor is recognized as a most demanding technique, one requiring an acute eye for color, light, and form, and a sure hand with the brush, every stroke carefully considered. At the same time, however, it is perhaps the most expressive technique. The fluidity of the pigment enables the painter to apply it in broad washes, sweeping lines, or short, gestural strokes. Its transparency allows for a layering of color resulting in brilliant light effects. That transparency also allows for the white paper to act as another color. Watercolor pigments can be applied in a wet-into-wet technique, with a dry brush, or a combination of both. Its fluidity also results in what is termed “accidentals,” i.e., shapes and drips beyond the painter’s control that become part of the composition.
In 1987, Watson-Guptill Publications published his book Focus on Watercolor, an excellent primer for beginning and intermediate watercolorists. The book—a companion book to the PBS series of the same name—also provides an insight into Clark’s philosophy of painting and his views of the watercolor medium in the history of art. For centuries, professional artists did not consider paintings rendered in watercolor as suitable for exhibition and it was used merely as a sketching medium.2
By the early twentieth century, however, as artists began to explore the expressive properties of the technique, this attitude began to change. Today painters using the technique are no longer called “watercolorists” or “aquarellists,” but painters whose medium is watercolor. And Clark is one of its most avid and skilled practitioners.3
Clark was born in Santa Ana, California in 1951 and showed a love for drawing at a young age. He attended his first art classes at the Bowers Museum when only nine and has said that from then on he was committed to being an artist. At eighteen he enrolled in the Art Center College of Design, studying for a year with Harry Carmean, a master draughtsman and realist painter. Lorser Feitelson, who was head of the painting department, praised Carmean as a true draughtsman—one who combined superior rendering with vitality and personal expression.4 Carmean proved to be the perfect teacher for Clark in providing the basic tools with which to express his talent. During that year, Clark also attended lectures by Feitelson on color theory and practices.
In 1970 Clark enrolled at Chouinard Art Institute, where his most influential teachers were Harold Kramer and Don Graham. Kramer, who was head of the illustration department, placed great emphasis on personal creativity. Clark recalled: “Kramer would have your head if you copied the model. You had to structure the drawing in a creative and personal way. . . . He set standards that led to doing your finest work and never being satisfied.”5 Don Graham was chairman of the painting department and taught drawing and composition—in fact, his strength as a teacher was in his ability to teach advanced figure drawing. In 1970, Van Nostrand Reinhold published his book Composing Pictures: Still and Moving. He became a mentor to the younger artist, giving weekly criticisms of Clark’s drawings and encouraging him with his developing figurative style. As Clark recalls, Graham taught him to draw and compose simultaneously. Clark received a certificate in fine arts from Chouinard in 1972, the last year before it merged with the Los Angeles Conservatory of Music to become the California Institute of the Arts. He continued his education at Otis Art Institute for one year and, based on his portfolio review, received a BFA from Cal Arts in 1974. That same year he began teaching for the Coast College District. He later enrolled in graduate school at California State University, Long Beach, where he received an MFA in 1978.
Clark’s early work quite naturally focused in California. He worked for the most part out of doors, finding subject matter throughout the environs of Orange County just before rapid development urbanized many of its open spaces. He made his first trip to Europe in 1982, spending a total of six months painting and visiting museums, absorbing ideas and vowing to return every year, a vow he has kept. In 1990 he visited Maine, the home state of his future wife, Marriott Small Kohl. After their marriage the following year, they became a bicoastal couple, maintaining a studio-home in Capistrano Beach and one in West Bath, Maine.
When Clark began working with watercolor, California had a stellar history of artists working in the medium during the 1930s and 1940s. Works by artists such as Millard Sheets, Phil Dike, Rex Brandt, Emil J. Kosa, Jr., and Barse Miller won national acclaim for their splashy, bravura approach. These artists came to be known as the California School. Clark was familiar with this heritage, and, in fact, knew many of those older artists, who were still painting. Although some of his contemporaries working in watercolor followed the tenets of the California School, Clark instead developed a highly personal style. Some have said that his paintings bring to mind the works of the American masters John Singer Sargent and Winslow Homer.6 However, in essence Clark has brought together tenets of multiple styles—minimalism, abstraction, and realism—with perhaps just a hint of the California School approach.
One of Clark’s friends, artist Donald Holden, stated: “Timothy J. Clark’s delicious watercolor paintings remind me of the Italian word for a particularly fluent, graceful, and refreshing performance in any of the arts—sprezzatura—which means making a difficult task look effortless. . .”7 Clark combines his skill as a draughtsman with an innate ability to infuse spirit into his compositions. He is meticulous about compositional balance. In Focus on Watercolor, he discussed using the golden section in his compositions, i.e., creating planar relationships in which the lesser section is to the greater as the greater is to the sum of both. For Clark, such attention to the compositional arrangement creates a “feeling of harmony and balance.”8
His oeuvre includes landscapes, architectural exteriors and interiors, still lifes, gardens, portraits, and figures. He excels with paintings of interior spaces, which he infuses with color and light. Some compositions are a combination of subjects. One remarkable painting is The Four Graces, painted this year at the Scottish National Gallery in Edinburgh. Here is a depiction of a gallery interior showing Antonio Canova’s The Three Graces, a neo-classical work from 1815–1817. The marble sculpture of the mythical three daughters of Zeus—representing beauty, charm, and joy—dominates the foreground of the composition. A fourth female figure—a gallery visitor—walks just past the sculpture on the right. Clark has made her the exact height of the carved figures. She echoes the form of the Grace on the right side of the sculpture. It is as if she has come to life and stepped off the pedestal. Here Clark pays tribute to the timeless beauty of the female form.
Another figural work is Water Carrier Rhythms painted in 2008 during a trip to India. Here Clark has captured the graceful movements of the three women, one as viewed from the back and two in three-quarter profile. The movement of their garments and the positioning of their hands and feet contribute to the musical flow of the composition. The background is suggested with neutral abstract shapes, while the women are described in blues, pinks, and yellows.
Many of his most inspirational paintings are interiors of churches and cathedrals, where the architecture is bathed in a profusion of both exterior and interior light. Cathedral Luminescence, Rouen is a vertical composition that accommodates the soaring scale of the interior. The work was done during morning light, which Clark recalled was “incredible.” As his eye was drawn upward by the architecture, the light became more beautiful, streaming through the windows.9
Clark has also been drawn to gardens and floral settings. In California, his favorite locale for the subject is the Sherman Library & Gardens in Corona del Mar. There the intense sunlight creates beautiful patterns across the architecture and gardens. The architectural style allows for compositions that simultaneously reveal both outdoor and indoor elements. Clark successfully draws us into his paintings through the deft placement of elements and skillful use of color and value. It is the successful melding of description and sensation to create an accurate rendering of the scene.
When in Maine, Clark naturally produces more studio work. Here the focus is on interiors and still life. A painting of hoes and shovels leaning against a wall bears the whimsical title Brotherly Ties, reflecting Clark’s ability to humanize the simple utilitarian objects, eliciting an appreciation for their purpose. The subtle color shifts from blue-green to reddish-orange to brown follow the vertical lines of the shovel and hoes. If the images were blurred, the result would be a color field painting. Such technique is also seen in The Black Bicycle. The carefully rendered bicycle stands against an array of vertical stripes of color, painted using a wet application, the flows and drips of the pigment clearly visible. Both works are examples of Clark’s successful melding of abstraction and representation.
As his career blossomed, Clark was called upon to teach watercolor painting at various institutions, including as a faculty member of the Art Students League of New York and as a guest lecturer for the Yale University Graduate School of Architecture in Rome. In 2000, he was offered a studio in the Studio Building on Union Square in New York. In September 2001, he ventured to a still smoldering Ground Zero and began sketching fervently. Aware of what he was doing, the police did not disturb him. The sketches were later acquired by the Museum of the City of New York.
Clark continues to travel extensively, always sketching and painting, expressively and colorfully interpreting the world as he sees it. He describes his style as “a spirited realism with a positive vision born of its Southern California roots.”10
1. Kelly Compton, “Timothy J. Clark: Master of Color, Light, and Shadow,” Fine Art Connoisseur (July/August 2008). Accessed October 1, 2012 at http://www.tclarkart.com/pdf/FA_Clark_jul.aug.pdf.
2. In the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, English artists—most spectacularly J. M. W. Turner—were the first to elevate the technique to the level of painting. In England, watercolor societies were formed to support and encourage their members. The United States, however, did not have a formal watercolor organization until 1886, when the American Society of Painters in Watercolor was formed (today, the American Watercolor Society). After its founding, the technique began to gain in stature as one that a serious painter could employ. In California, a significant watercolor movement rose to prominence in the 1930s, led by artists such as Millard Sheets, Phil Dike, Rex Brandt, Emil J. Kosa, Jr., and Barse Miller.
3. Noted artist and long-time friend Will Barnet in acknowledging the difficulties of working in watercolor, observed that Clark “has a special feeling” for the technique. Brad Bonhall, “His Art and Soul,” Los Angeles Times, March 27, 2000. Accessed October 1, 2012 at http://articles.latimes.com/2000/mar/27/local/me-13256.
4. Quoted in Robert Goldman, “Figure Studies by Harry Carmean.” Accessed October 1, 2012 at http://www.thedrawingstudio.org/Exhibitions/HARRY%20CARMEAN.pdf
5. Jean Stern, “Timothy J. Clark,” in Jean Stern and Lisa E. Farrington, Timothy J. Clark (Petaluma, California: Pomegranate Communications, Inc., 2008), 13.
6. Both Sargent and Homer turned to watercolor late in their careers. Sargent began using watercolors in 1900, painting prolifically for nearly fifteen years. Most were painted outdoors as he recorded the many diverse places his visited. Homer began using watercolors in 1873 when he was thirty-seven and by 1905 was considered a master of the medium. He considered the works to be paintings, not mere sketches, describing them as “exhibition watercolors”—works that could be seen as an equal to oil paintings. He remarked: “You will see, in the future I will live by my watercolors.” Accessed October 1, 2012 at http://www.winslowhomer.org/.
7. “Timothy J. Clark: Weekend with the Masters Instructor.” Accessed October 1, 2012 at http://www.artistdaily.com/blogs/theartistslife/archive/2011/05/01/may-i-introduce-timothy-j-clark.aspx.
8. Timothy J. Clark, Focus on Watercolor, (New York: Watson-Guptill Publications, 1987), 44.
9. Cathy Thomas, “An artist’s palate on a plate,” Orange County Register, April 6, 2011. Accessed October 2, 2012 at http://www.ocregister.com/articles/-295319–.html.
10. “Timothy J. Clark: California Missions,” 1999. Accessed October 1, 2012 at http://www.tfaoi.com/newsm1/n1m38.htm.