By Gretchen Reynolds
For Kirk Richards, good painting is about balancing truth and beauty
If you wish to become a classical realist painter, it’s an advantage to have grown up in a place like Amarillo, TX, in the 1960s—although this may not have been evident at the time. As Kirk Richards, 52, one of the West’s most accomplished classical realists, remembers Amarillo back then, it was not filled with artistic ferment. “Amarillo is a city with a strong work ethic,” Richards says, “and back then, it was filled with ranchers and farmers, who are really practical, hard-working people.” Amarillo and its citizens didn’t have much time or patience for the arts at the time.
Richards’ family fit into this Amarillo nicely. “My father was a lawyer,” Richards says. “His father was a lawyer. Almost all of the men in my family, for generations, had been lawyers.” One of his aunts, Claire Richards, was a classical pianist who became the head of the piano department at the University of Illinois. But as a boy, Richards had few other artistic role models. “In my high school, art classes meant ceramics or jewelry making,” he recounts. “No one was very interested in painting.” Except Richards. On his own, he sketched and painted in the hours after school, because he enjoyed it and because he’d discovered that he had talent. But he received little guidance or encouragement.
Then one day, a teenage Richards stumbled on a book of Michelangelo’s paintings at the local library—and discovered his métier. “I wanted to paint like that,” he says. “Of course, I had no idea how to paint like that, or even what to call paintings like his. But I knew that’s what I wanted to do.”
And he has, in his way. Though not a pure acolyte of Michelangelo-style classicism, he has found a way to meld the formal beauty of what he saw in the art book that day with the workaday, plainspoken concerns of Amarillo, where he still lives. He creates classically inspired images of everyday lives and objects. He has manifested the art that has always been resident—if not apparent—in Amarillo.
The term classical realism sounds ancient and pedigreed, as if art critics have been applying it to paintings for centuries. They haven’t. Classical realism is a relatively new phrase, coined only in the 1980s. And it describes not an old-fashioned style of painting but a very modern approach to old-fashioned imagery.
“Classical realism is fundamentally an oxymoron,” Richards proposes. “Classicism involves idealized images, often from the Roman or Greek iconography, or religious images. It’s about a formal, even heroic kind of beauty.” Think Michelangelo or Raphael.
Realism, if not the polar opposite of classicism, is at least a hemisphere away. “Realism is about faithfully rendered, unidealized images,” Richards says. It’s slice-of-life iconography, images of everyday people in their living rooms or workplaces. This is what you see in the work of Caravaggio or Vermeer or, in more modern times, the Boston School of painters such as William Paxton, whose canvases show poignant, naturalistic scenes of families in their homes.
Classical realism is a modern-day attempt to combine the two traditions, to join the idealized, formal beauty and order of classicism with the faithful representation of sometimes messy scenarios that is realism. In classical realism, everyday scenes of families or workers are composed with a formal rigor, and images that have the cool order of classicism are laced with the ardor, the life of naturalism.
Classical realism thus requires a good eye and a good mind. The classical realist must be able to edit the image he sees before him. “Classical realism is not photo-realism,” Richards points out. “It’s not about showing every pore or every flaw. It’s about balancing the absolute, complete truth of what you see with the beauty of what you want to put onto the canvas.”
Richards came to his interest in classical realism rather late in his formal artistic education. After high school, he enrolled at Amarillo College, where he first began to study art. From there, he transferred to West Texas State University for both bachelor’s and master’s degrees in painting. It was at West Texas that he was introduced to the concept, seemingly obvious, of painting from life. “As a boy, I drew things from my imagination or maybe copied other paintings,” Richards remembers. He was captivated now by the process of setting up still lifes or posing models. “There’s an incredible joy to painting from life,” he observes.
But the joy couldn’t quell his growing sense that, even as he learned more about painting, he had yet to find his particular style. “I finished my master’s degree,” he recounts, “but I knew I was still nowhere close to being ready to be a professional artist.”
About that time, he saw an article in an arts magazine profiling the painter and teacher Richard Lack of Minneapolis, MN. This was in 1976. By then, Lack was practicing and championing the style of painting that would come to be called classical realism. Almost on a whim, Richards contacted Lack, who spoke to the young man at length. Enthused, Richards sent samples of his work, was accepted into Lack’s extremely competitive atelier (a kind of postgraduate program for serious artists), and moved to Minneapolis for four years. “It was there that I learned to paint the way that I really wanted to paint,” Richards says.
What Lack emphasized, and Richards still practices today, is a thoughtful approach to painting, supported by a sturdy foundation of craft, or what Richards calls “authoritative draftsmanship.” In his four years with Lack, Richards learned, he says, “the essentials—the ability to see, draw, and render, to understand form and shape, to see color correctly. We were taught a steadfast devotion to color truth, to capturing the right note of color.” This was combined with education in the fundamentals of strong design.
The goal, Richards adds, was—and remains in his work today—a “completed painting.” By this, he means a painting that is fully, deliberately realized, that has no sense of sketchiness, of rush. “Trained painters know that an unfinished look, a sketchlike look, can hide a multitude of sins, inconsistencies, and incompetencies. I want my paintings to have a deep sense of completeness. I like a finished, resolved image, not a sketch.”
This does not mean that his paintings are overworked. The oils all have a richly pigmented surface, enlivened by the flows and swirls of skilled brushwork. “What I hope is that my paintings look complete from a distance, but as you move closer, the interesting surface becomes clear,” he says.
Richards’ oeuvre tends to prompt a viewer’s desire to move closer. His subject matter is the quotidian world of the Southwest—the flora, the fauna, and the workaday lives of the people. Perhaps best known for his still lifes, often of carefully shaded flowers, he also paints commissioned portraits and uncannily revealing slice-of-life scenes of southwestern life. “I like to think that I’ve adapted the Boston School sensibility to the Southwest,” he says. Not a typical western painter—he eschews historic studies of cowboys and Indians or wildlife in full flight—he has nonetheless painted modern Native American potters at work and once carefully rendered a mountain lion. The lion was stuffed and on a pedestal, all of which is shown in his painting.
Always, if possible, he works from life. “I dislike using photographs,” he says. This stubborn adherence to life has its drawbacks, though. Flower petals, for instance, wilt and die over the course of several months, which is about how long Richards takes to complete a typical painting. “I try to rough in the general shape before that happens,” he says. “Then I replace the dead flowers. I think about how the original flowers looked at the start, how the light plays off of them now. I think about what it is that I need to remember, what I can forget, and then I continue.”
In this process, an astute viewer can get insight into the essence of Richards’ art. It is about truth, but not slavish truth. “I have, I hope, learned to see nature in a particular way, to use my brain to find what’s important and essential and what is not,” he says. “Too much information tends to break up the unified vision of a painting. Painting realistically is more than the accumulation of detail. A painting is like an ensemble—all the pieces have to work together, without competing for attention. My paintings are about a reality that is more visual than actual.”
Today, on any given day, Richards can be found in the airy, 20-by-20-foot studio attached to his Amarillo home, natural light flooding through its north-facing windows. “I paint every day that I’m home,” he says. He’ll assiduously study a still life or reposition a group of models, honing his particular artistic view of life, incorporating the precision of his lawyer forebears and yet tempering it with a respect for the fragility and loveliness of evanescent life. “I believe that all great art is representational,” he contends. “It communicates an idea. I’m not a fan of modern art that speaks only to the artist and a small group of his followers. That’s not what I want to do. I want my work to speak to people.” What it tells them is that there is great and lasting beauty in ordinary things, a truth that any son of Amarillo, of course, knows.
Richards is represented by Tree’s Place, Orleans, MA.
Featured in September 2005