John Pototschnik | Everyday Realism

By Devon Jackson

Gustave Courbet, the pioneering 19th-century French realist, once wrote that “painting is essentially…the representation of real, actually existing things.” One could contend that it is more accurate to say that painting is the representation of real, actually existing things as they appear to the painter. Take the works of oil painter John Pototschnik, for instance.

Pototschnik’s life studies and landscapes share Courbet’s sense of realism but also soften and celebrate everyday moments and scenes—whether it’s a Midwestern farm at sunset or a quiet English country market. “The works of the realists speak to me. That’s what I try to achieve in my paintings,” muses Pototschnik from his home in Wylie, TX. “I want each piece to feel real.”

A Midwesterner to his core, Pototschnik was actually born in St. Ives, Cornwall, England in 1945, the son of a British war bride who brought her firstborn son stateside on the Queen Mary after her husband was discharged from the U.S. military. Pototschnik grew up in Pittsburg, KS, where his father worked at a printing press. It was a typical baby boomer upbringing. Pototschnik played the trumpet in the high school band, ran track, and competed in cycling. But, he says, he never gave much thought to art.

During his first year in junior college, where he started out as a business major, the school’s counselor gave Pototschnik an aptitude test to see what line of work he’d best be suited for. “It came back that I should be a desk jockey or a chicken farmer,” he laughs. “The counselor told me, ‘You need to be creating things with your hands.’ So I switched majors and started taking arts classes—metalsmithing, woodworking, painting, drawing. I discovered that I really liked to draw.”

Pototschnik transferred to Wichita State University and set his sights on a degree in advertising design. This was even after his father had taken him through the art department at the print shop where, to a person, everyone did their best to dissuade the young Pototschnik from going into art. He didn’t change his mind—or his major—but it would be some time before he could put his degree to practical use: His ROTC obligation required that he fulfill four years of military service.

After graduation, he entered the Air Force as an officer and was stationed in California at the Los Angeles Air Force Base, where he served from 1968 to ’72. Fortunately, he wasn’t sent to Vietnam. During those years, he took classes in illustration and design at the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena. “It was very practical and down to earth,” recalls Pototschnik. “That’s when I started getting pretty serious about art.

“When I got out of the military and decided to make a career as an illustrator, I was overwhelmed by the size of L.A. I figured I’d be better off starting out somewhere smaller. My parents by then had moved to Dallas, so that’s where we went,” says Pototschnik, who married his wife, Marcia, in 1971 (they now have two grown sons).

Focused on commercial art and his growing freelance career, Pototschnik only gradually took notice of what was going on in the world of fine art. “In the 1980s I started to read art magazines, and I found that some of the painters I admired—Howard Terpning, Ken Riley, Tony Eubanks—had backgrounds in illustration. Many of them had started out as illustrators and made the switch to fine art. Over time, that gave me the courage to do the same,” says Pototschnik, who often storyboarded TV spots. “The commercial work was rewarding financially and it taught me discipline, but basically it was bread and butter.”

The turning point came when a friend, a vice president at an oil and gas company, asked Pototschnik if he thought it was possible for oil and wildlife to coexist. More to the point, could Pototschnik execute a series of paintings that would demonstrate it? Pototschnik said yes and produced a limited-edition set of prints. “And that’s how I got started,” marvels the artist.

In 1982, he left behind commercial work for good. As tough as it was financially early on, he stuck with it, painting the things he enjoyed painting, and then painting them again and again until his own style emerged. A fan of realist painters of the Barbizon school, such as Camille Corot and Charles-Francois Daubigny as well as American tonalist George Inness, Pototschnik also cites artists Charles S. Pearce and Stanhope Forbes as influences.

Pototschnik is as reserved a painter as he is a person. He doesn’t exaggerate his colors, his subjects are often rural or small-town Middle America or European countrysides, and there’s nothing especially dramatic or showy in his paintings, either technically or narratively. “My paintings have been called soft,” admits Pototschnik. “They do have a softness to them, but I also think my paintings now have more emotional involvement. That’s probably from maturity and having a finer understanding of painting.”

One significant event that led to Pototschnik’s finer understanding of painting occurred in 1990, when the Dallas Museum of Art hosted The Wanderers: Masters of 19th-Century Russian Painting. The Wanderers, also known as the Itinerants because they took their works to the people in touring shows, were a group of artists who in 1870 formed their own cooperative in protest of the restrictions the Moscow Academy enforced on their art. The show included the works of Ilya Repin, V.M. Vasnetsov, Vasily Perov, and many others. “It was absolutely life-changing,” says Pototschnik, who spent many hours, if not days, at the exhibit. “It exhilarated me. Every painting in there spoke to me.”

Possessed of a boldness and an authoritative way of painting that Pototschnik had never seen before—qualities he’s still trying to capture in his own work—the Russians left an indelible mark. “That show had a huge influence on me,” says Pototschnik. “I spend more time on capturing a mood. Mood, for me, is always established by the values of light and dark. I determine the values, then decide what colors to use.”

Most of his paintings are practically done before he even picks up his brush. First he pores over sketches of field studies in his many notebooks to find the values he wants. He’ll then set to work on color studies. Once he has the values and the colors, he’s ready to apply paint to canvas. “When painting outside, I try to get that relationship between the sky and the land, but there’s a lot more to painting than just copying what you see,” says the artist, who has gleaned plenty about outdoor painting from books by plein-air master Kevin Macpherson.

When he brings his paintings indoors, that’s when the mood really shifts. “My studio works are much more moody than my plein-air pieces,” he says. In the studio attached to his house, Pototschnik sometimes works on a dozen paintings at once, shifting back and forth between them as his energy and interest dictates.

“I try to paint things that I know,” he declares. “I didn’t go into western art—as much as I like it, and as much as I admire and was inspired by people like Terpning and Riley—because I didn’t know it as well as I knew about my Midwest upbringing. I paint those things that move and motivate me. If something moves me emotionally, the painting’s a success.”

IT’S TIME FOR SESAME STREET! is a particularly successful painting. The idea for it evolved from a street scene he saw in Ohio several years ago, as well as from his own childhood memories. “I remember scenes like the one in the painting. Some of the things I added, like the soccer ball. But basically this is the kind of place where I grew up,” he notes. “I tend toward a slight narrative in my paintings, narratives usually based on memories. Good memories. Baby boomers really relate to my paintings and the nostalgia of that whole period. I do reminisce a lot.”

As comforting as those memories of the past may be, and as soft as his paintings sometimes appear, Pototschnik still aims for a certain amount of realism. Take his painting MEETING OF THE LINES, for instance, a railroad yard with grain elevators in the background. Pototschnik says, “People ask me, ‘Why in the world are you painting that?’ I tell them, ‘Because I see it every day.’ And that’s what I try to paint, real things you see every day. And that’s how I want it to feel. Real.”

Featured in May 2008