Marking the Moment: The Art of Allen Blagden opened to the public February 12 at The Hyde and runs through April 16. Allen Blagden (American, b. 1938), Victoria Crowned Pigeons, 1984, watercolor, 22 x 30 in., Private Collection, © Allen Blagden, Photograph by Don Perdue.
“It’s the eyes…if you don’t get the eyes right, man or beast…you don’t have it.”
by Deborah A. Kaufman
Allen Blagden is regarded as one of the most important artists of our time and is often compared to Winslow Homer and Andrew Wyeth for his vividly realistic paintings. They are created with a master’s skill of expressive brushwork and powerful lighting sensibilities. Over the years, he has exhibited nationally and internationally. His work has made its way into many of the nation’s museums including the Addison Gallery of American Art, Adirondack Museum, Woodson Museum, New Britain Museum of American Art, Shelburne Museum, and private collections like Billy Joel, David Rockefeller, David Rockefeller Jr., Lawrence Rockefeller, Donald and Beth Straus, William Scranton and Gerald Vander Kemp, just to name a few.
Blagden is among a unique breed of painters who found their passion in American Realism, at a time when abstraction was the prevalent style. Like Homer and Wyeth, their strikingly accurate and penetrating renderings serve to enrich and broaden the viewer’s perspective; which is one of the reasons that American Realism has remained popular with collectors and continues to build audience.
When you consider the reserved color palette and their penchant for depicting accuracy in portraying people, landscapes or wildlife, it’s easy to see why people view Blagden’s work in the same fashion as Homer and Wyeth. There are also some interesting background details shared by these artists that may explain some of the nuanced similarities.
Homer, Wyeth and Blagden all began their careers as illustrators and transitioned to painting. Homer was a commercial illustrator for magazines and sheets of music, Wyeth produced illustrations under his father’s name while a teenager and Blagden worked for the Smithsonian as an ornithology illustrator after receiving his BFA at Cornell. As Blagden explained, “Working at the Smithsonian was very exacting illustrative work. You could spend a lifetime there rendering through a microscope. I missed painting.”
Their parents also played an early role in nurturing their artistic pursuits. Both Wyeth and Blagden were taught by their artist fathers and Homer was taught to paint in watercolor by his mother. There are common geographic influences in their work as well. Both Homer and Blagden were inspired by the Adirondacks. Blagden summered at his grandfather’s cabin at Upper Saranac Lake and Homer was known to be particularly fond of the Lake George and Schroon Lake areas. Also, Wyeth and Blagden were influenced by time spent with their family in Maine. Blagden’s work, “The Mooring, Maine Coast” is one such painting that highlights this influence.
Another interesting crossroad is the friendship that Blagden had with Wyeth’s nephew, Denny McCoy, when he worked for a short stint as cinematographer for a film on Billy the Kid.
It’s clear there are a number of common threads among the three artists, but the one that is perhaps most striking is their powerful artistic vision developed over the years through experience and innate knowledge of nature, wildlife and people.
Blagden’s work, while precise in photo-realistic detail, is made more powerful by a perspective gained by having traveled extensively and witnessed first-hand the unique character of his subjects in their natural environments. His knowledge of tigers from time in Kenya as an illustrator for the National Serengeti Park, no doubt, played a role in the development of a recent painting. In his self-deprecating style, he explained “After the opening night at the Hyde, I was ready for another challenge, so I decided to paint an oil of two tigers in a pool of water up to their neck. Tigers love the water you know. While I tend to speak the language of watercolor better than oil, I like a good challenge and oil continues to challenge me.”
“I took a wood panel, gessoed it four times and then painted it with a bright orange acrylic to give the background some interest. I needed a dark jungle background for this one. Next I painted the tigers in place and glazed it with overlaying color a few times, ultimately using a fine needle to scratch into the paint to make the hair on the tigers. It worked nicely, but was a real challenge, especially the background. My first attempt looked like a salad mix that went stale. What saved it was a little of the orange underpainting showing through and a swipe with my finger of a chartreuse green, that I hardly ever used because it was so bright. It created a brilliant fern effect. It was a happy accident.”
Looking at Blagden’s body of work you can see that he prefers to paint quiet tonalities rather than vivid color. When asked what it takes to achieve the ‘wow’ factor in one of his paintings, he was quick to respond, “It’s the eyes…if you don’t get the eyes right, man or beast…you don’t have it.”
We also discussed the level of detail necessary in a realistic painting. He explained, “You can get the sense of a bird with a loose stroke; there is not always the need for extraordinary detail. Take a look at Homer’s work. It’s not exact, but the mood, shade and lighting are right. I often squint at a subject to get the essence of it. It helps to look at a painting from a distance and then up close. It should look good from both perspectives. A friend of mine always says ‘where is your source of light coming from.’ It’s a basic concept, but surprising how often it is missed in paintings.”
When asked about the future and if there were any items left on his bucket list, he explained “I’m enjoying my wood stove this winter surrounded by my dog of 16 years, cats, parakeets and other birds…all rescues. I enjoy skiing both downhill and cross country. However, I may have to give up skating unless I can find a bubble suit to break my falls and someone to lace up my skates.”
It’s easy to see that at age 79, Blagden’s life has been well lived and an inspiration for many artists and art enthusiasts who value his many contributions to American Realism.
Forty-seven of Blagden’s works are currently on display at The Hyde Collection in Glens Falls, NY. “Marking the Moment: The Art of Allen Blagden” runs through April 16th. For details, visit www.hydecollection.org or call 518-792-1761.
For more information about Allen Blagden and his work, visit his website at www.allenblagden.com.