The landscape paintings of Charlie Hunter are anything but average. In this Q&A, he shares why he calls his style “drippy portraits of rotting American infrastructure,” which landscape elements feel vaguely pornographic, and his palette choices.
Cherie Dawn Haas: Please tell us a little about your artistic style and favorite subjects to paint.
Charlie Hunter: I call my style “drippy portraits of rotting American infrastructure.” That’s kind of a flippant response, but it is (a) fairly accurate and (b) nearly forces the person who hears that to go look at some of it to see what in the world that might look like. We are all abstract painters, in that our paintings are meant to be a visually pleasing or emotionally moving arrangement of shapes made with a variety of interesting marks. That said, we representationalists lack the overarching vision to just go in there and start laying it down, so we need to be jump-started by actual subject matter. So favorite subjects are — almost by definition — going to be things that have emotional resonance for us. For me, growing up in rural New Hampshire and Vermont, it is the hollowing-out of local industry and small-scale agriculture, and the attendant decline of the railroads, which had been the lifeblood of small-town America through the mid-20th century.
CDH: What’s your choice medium, and why?
CH: I use Cobra water-mixable oils, made by Royal Talens, the Dutch manufacturers best known for their Rembrandt line of conventional oils. They have a superb, buttery consistency and are a true artist grade. I like how one can utilize watercolor techniques (hitting a wet surface with a plant sprayer, for instance, or stippling with a toothbrush) without worrying about atomizing toxic volatiles and then go in and lay down a thicker passage of out-of-the-tube consistency paint. They also make a terrific quick-dry medium (their #93), which is light and stays open long enough to work.
I tend to really hate the water-mixable quick-dryers — they’re ropy and awful — so this has really been revelatory. Unfortunately Cobra still doesn’t make a water-mixable linseed or safflower oil, so I use Winsor & Newton’s Artisan safflower as a pure, slow-drying oil. I go into a lot of detail about this, and the other sort of unusual tools I use — like a brass window-washer squeegee and wooden Swim-U-Dents, kind of a designer toothpick — in the video we just shot down in Austin, Texas for Streamline (coming soon to streamlineartvideo.com).
CDH: You’ve said, “I like to paint what nature does to what man creates.” Can you expand on that?
CH: There seem to be a fairly limited set of subject matter topics for representationalists who like to paint outdoors. There’s pretty gardens, lovely oceans, and majestic mountains for the sentimentalists. There’s crowded cityscapes, townscapes, and bleak landscapes for the incipient depressives. I like thinking about the futility of human endeavor, myself, though I try to find nobility in it, rather than be a Debbie Downer or Glum Gus. To me, a vehicle that has a bunch of dings on it — but is still going — is a lot more interesting than either a brand-new or a beautifully restored car. Similarly, truly decrepit vehicles — those sunk-in-the-dirt ones that are never going to run again — or barns that are way past the point of no return . . . painting those always feels vaguely pornographic to me.
CDH: You’ve taken jobs designing tour posters for acts like The Clash, REM, and The Jerry Garcia Band. How did your path lead you to that type of gig, and what was it like?
CH: As a teenager, I took a year off before college and worked as a sign painter back in Vermont. I was a pretty terrible sign painter, but at least I learned to work under a deadline. Once I got to college, I had to find a job in order to pay for books, beer, and art supplies, and I was incredibly lucky to walk in off the street and land a job painting signs for the windows of the premier rock nightclub in New Haven, Toad’s Place.
I did that for five years, doing signs and t-shirt designs for every band that came through — from local bands like the Simms Brothers to bands that went on to become superstars, like U2. After graduation, that job led to my getting hired by Silver Screen Design in western Massachusetts, a company that had carved out a rather obscure niche doing tour posters for bands playing the college circuit. I designed hundreds of posters for them, and they are still dear friends. I still work with them — my REASONABLY FINE ARTIST t-shirts (available at CharlieHunter.art) are printed by Silver Screen.
CDH: Regarding your current body of work, what’s your typical painting process? Do you begin with a sketch, for example? An underpainting?
CH: It’s totally situationally dependent. If I’m outdoors and feeling a little rusty, or am not sure exactly how I want to compose a piece, I may do a sketch in my sketchbook first. If I don’t feel I have enough time to do a painting — less than three hours, say — I may just sketch; I think a regular sketching practice is extremely important for representational artists.
If I’m feeling in shape and have a strong sense of how I’m going to build a painting, I will plunge right in. In the studio, working larger, say four feet by four feet, I almost always do preliminary drawings or preparatory paintings. When painting from life, I never do a sketch on the surface I’ll be painting on. Sometimes, in the studio, I’ll do glazes on top of a painting that is dry. And I like fooling around with encaustic on top of totally dry paintings, and you can only do that in the studio.
CDH: Please tell us about your palette and/or color mixing techniques.
CH: I go into a lot of detail about this in the Streamline video, and also on the “Materials” tab at CharlieHunter.art. My go-to colors are Van Dyke brown and raw umber, both by Cobra. Van Dyke brown is a reddish, warm dark brown with a hint of opacity, whereas raw umber is greenish and very, very transparent. I do most of my plein air work using just those two colors, using the substrate as my lightest light. I also carry Cobra transparent red oxide, transparent yellow oxide, raw sienna, pyrrole red, ultramarine blue, permanent green deep (I wish Cobra made a viridian, but they say a true viridian has proved problematic in the water-mixable domain), titanium buff, and titanium white, though I try to stay away from those last two. You’ll need to watch the video to learn why.
My limited-palette style developed out of panic born of ineptitude, by which I mean that in 2004 or so I was a typical frustrated student painter, better-than-average at drawing perhaps but especially flummoxed by chroma and the attendant frustrations of painting outdoors with the light constantly changing. At a workshop, the great painter Stuart Shills, for whom I was working as water boy, suggested I try limiting my palette. I did so, and that worked out much better for me. I’m always trying out new colors and mixing combinations, so in a few years I may be using entirely different colors.
CDH: What’s the most common question you’re asked?
CH: Q: How do you get all that detail?
A: It isn’t detail. It is the illusion of detail.
CDH: Anything else you’d like to add?
CH: (a) If you want to improve your paintings, get a regular sketching practice going.
(b) Squint at reality, stare at your painting.
(c) Step away from the painting and drink coffee (if you’re a Mormon, you can drink Postum). But step away from the painting.
Visit www.hunter-studio.com to learn more about Charlie Hunter and his art, and stay tuned to learn more about his upcoming art video workshop with Streamline Publishing!