Updated: May 7
"Concept. At the heart of every piece is a concept. A concept doesn’t have to be a grand statement. It can be as simple as the juxtaposition of two colors or shapes, or maybe an intriguing line, or a particular angle in a portrait," Wes Karchut.
Thus we have before us an unusual watercolor piece, one that covers a lot of ground thematically, as it plays upon on our ideas about time and place. We recognize in it the background designs that curve as beautifully as those silvery ones that sit atop the Chrysler Building that art deco wonder in New York City. The hair-do, the curves and shine of which are not unlike that in '30s drawings of fancy cars, is definitely of another era, as are the cut of the suit collar and the trio of tiny buttons. The final item that perfects this little piece of dejà vu is the blue bakelite bracelet with its small flat panels that circle the wrist of the hand that is so elegantly poised in a thinking (dreaming?) gesture. With these items, Karchut captures the mood of this early part of the 20th century when women began to emerge and dream very different dreams. It is that act of dreaming that brings this portrait forward in time, for we all have our dreams.
Dreams. Who has not looked upward with slightly unfocused eyes as if to see somewhere there the images that float in our heads as we create possibilities for ourselves, regardless of how easy or difficult the times we live in? All of this is captured in the skillful coordination of the colors and the movement of the lines in the suit and the background designs that present the dreamy-eyed figure. Something in her expression, a hopefulness perhaps, we don't see in the women of Edward Hopper, actually done in the 1930s. Of course the '30s was a distressed time, and Karchut, born on the other side of those times, can perhaps better represent hope, a key concept, that must have surely been present enough to see people through that difficult era.
"One thing I’ve learned is that watercolor requires a delicate touch and an infinite amount of patience. I liken it more to a performance art - one mistake and it’s over. I like that death-defying aspect," Wes Karchut.
Karchut says about this painting that he was fascinated by the challenge of doing a monochromatic piece, here a portrait of a model with a wonderful, quizzical expression, which is what drew the artist's attention. The challenge was not just to capture the expression but to do it as an exercise in tonality. In terms of a study in delicacy, this is definitely a wonderful item to analyze. Determining just how much of the darker tones to use to delineate the hairline, the end of the nose, the lips and the shadow under the chin, knowing when to use a light wash and when to leave the paper blank, and finally where to put a touch or two of a color variation (the eyes and around the chin), all show the craftsmanship that Karchut has pursued all his life. Here they come together as a wonderful piece of performance, a high wire act on a watercolor tightrope.
Karchut's subjects cover a wide range. Below we see his portrait of a Black Union Soldier from the Civil War period. The color blue is used not only as a way to represent the uniform of the soldier but also as a symbolic representation of what that war would have meant to a Black soldier. His face is awash in the color that represents not just the cause of maintaining the Union but for him also the freeing of his people. Karchut uses the fluidity of the watercolor in a way that lets the soldier emerge from it. Yet, that fluidity does not diminish the features of the soldier. His gaze is steady, his lips pressed shut, his jaw and chin firm, all of which indicate a quiet determination. He might have been one of the soldiers represented in the film, Glory. This is a person of quiet dignity, a man with a goal, someone for whom nothing is better than liberty.
Karchut was at one point exclusively a western artist, so painting the Native people was something that developed as part of that focus. Here, he says, it was the intensity in the eyes of this man that was the thing that captured his imagination. As one looks at this piece, yes, the eyes are penetrating. However, the planes of the man's face and the color variations in the skin are reminiscent of the craggy, colorful rocks and deserts that one finds throughout the western states. The curve of the nose and the deep lines on either side of a mouth with lips pressed into a hard line indicate someone whose life has weathered hard times. Yet still there is a fire and determination in the eye - true grit indeed.
"I am not a statement artist. My only aspiration is to communicate that special quality that attracted me in the first place - a special color combination, a light effect, a certain look or interplay of shapes. It’s my job as an artist to employ all of my skills to communicate that one special thing to the viewer," Wes Karchut.
Karchut does not limit his art to portraits of people. His artistic observation of animals has allowed him to capture the essence of their spirit also. In the Red Cardinal below, he says that there is something in the attitude of the bird that called forth a matching attitude in the brushwork. The feathered crest standing on end certainly gives the feeling that this bright beast is showing off. This piece became a favorite on Pinterest, being repinned more than 10,000 times! The jack rabbit in Running Hare 2 is dashing off somewhere at top speed. Only one of his feet seems to touch the ground, the other three aloft in his flight. The hare is so close to being airborne that it almost comes off the paper, with that one earthbound foot touching just a dash of violet to indicate any support. His muscular body is carefully shaped by the use of tawny colors, white, and highlights in a light red-violet. The tilt of its body seems to indicate that he is leaning into the wind as he makes his getaway.
Here in something a bit reminiscent of Piet Mondrian's approach to painting flowers - taking one stem rather than a bouquet - Karchut's attention was captured by the beauty of this luscious, amaryllis stem with three red blossoms. The freshness of his touch with watercolor gives the piece a delicate serenity. It moves from the simple sturdiness of the stem, which is a smooth transition of colors from spring green to yellow-green to yellow, to the robust reds of the flowers with their greenish-yellow leaves and violet and gold stamen. The representation is botanically accurate, yet the softness of the approach with watercolor gives it an appeal that a strictly botanical study would not have.
Karchut says of his art, " You have to distance yourself from your art. I consider myself a craftsman more than an artist. I believe art is what happens after you’ve achieved the highest level of craftsmanship. And whether any given piece achieves art, I leave for others to decide." So that means us. If the overall purpose of art is to communicate, certainly these paintings say many things. Karchut's craftsmanship, as well as his eye for the interesting aspects of things he sees, certainly makes for art in anyone's estimation.
For more on Marjorie Vernelle, see the author page at amazon.com/author/marjorievernelle
She also has an engaging art history blog that talks of painting and wine on ofartandwine.com