George Hallmark | Shadow Play


By Virginia Campbell

If George Hallmark had to choose one painting from anywhere in the world to have on his wall and live with for the rest of his life, he knows exactly what it would be. “A John Singer Sargent,” he says with a Texas Hill Country lilt and absolutely no hesitation. “And I don’t really care which one.” When it came down to it in this hypothetical moment, though, chances are Hallmark would pass up all of the American master’s famous portraits and go for one of his Venice paintings, in which the perspective and architectural detail of palazzos, churches, fountains, and alleys are rendered with such a sure eye and painterly grace that they carry an almost psychological weight. Hallmark has spent his adult life working through the challenges of representing three-dimensional structures in two dimensions—something many otherwise accomplished painters never get right—and, having made one leap early on from mechanical finesse to pictorial sophistication and another in middle life to committed, artistic vision, he has a late bloomer’s respect for the magic Sargent seemed born to find in accuracy.

The paintings on which Hallmark’s established and still fast-growing reputation is based are oil investigations of light and color on buildings placed sometimes in the distance, but more often close up, where shadows cast on walls and walkways can lend an aura of human drama even when there are no figures present. He is especially interested in windows and doorways, where the contrast of shadow and light has a special power to evoke the quiet mystery of daily life: What lies beyond a sill or threshold? “If I put a door in a painting, nine times out of 10 I’ll leave it open,” he says. “And now I often put a door inside the door.” He also might have light bleaching a swath across red stucco wainscoting, because it raises questions about how we see. “Red is probably the hardest color to paint,” he says. “When light falls on red it doesn’t make it pink, so you can’t add white to lighten it, which is what you’d do with other colors.” Occasionally he’ll paint a dynamic, dappled shadow and show only the edge of what’s casting it. “Shadows are transparent,” he points out, “so you can have a lot of things going on in them.” Hallmark has, in other words, found for himself an open-ended visual language with which he can describe the beauty of life’s surface and imply the endless narrative of interior existence.


But it took a good long time for him to find his way to this level of expression. He was already in his 40s—he’s now 53—when he embarked on the shift in his career that significantly raised the ante of his ambition and accomplishment. He’d had his own doorways to pass through and shadowed rooms to wander about before moving into a creative arena in which he now feels his best work is constantly ahead of him. “I’m glad it took as long as it did,” he says with easygoing conviction. “Now every day I’ll be pushing the limit.”

Hallmark grew up not far from Fort Worth, TX, as the only child of a father who was a musician and a mother who was an accountant. “I got about 50 percent from each of them,” he says affectionately. “My dad was a drummer with swing and country bands and encouraged me to find a way to make a living that would let me enjoy my life. My mother taught me to keep things in order and deal with deadlines.” Supported by the balanced influence from his parents, Hallmark brought a precocious talent for realism with him to study art in college, where he ran smack into the dominant culture of abstract art and dropped out. He got a job in Cleburne, TX, doing delineation and design at an architectural firm that specialized in churches and ended up serving an apprenticeship that prepared him for a career in architecture. But his passion was for creation in the two-dimensional medium, where he’d mastered the formal techniques of drawing complex three-dimensional inventions and was moved by the expressive possibilities beyond their geometry.


The first turning point for Hallmark came in 1979 when, at the age of 30, he was invited to study with William Whitaker, then an artist in residence at Brigham Young University. “I had only worked in colored pencil and mixed media up until then. Bill taught me how to paint in oil,” Hallmark says. “He didn’t charge me one dime. And I didn’t actually paint at all. For months I just watched him paint.” Whitaker, primarily a figurative painter who took inspiration from Joaquin Sorolla and Sargent, brought Hallmark to the kind of painting he wanted to do, “that fine line between impressionist and realist.” The transformation in purpose that Whitaker prompted in his student was profound—to this day Hallmark’s basic oil technique remains exactly what Whitaker taught him, down to the brand of paint. But equally important was a single sentence Whitaker uttered: “What you have in your head will take years to trickle down to your fingers.”

In the early 1980s, Hallmark settled in Bosque County in the northern Hill Country of Texas, the land of bluebonnets, spring-fed creeks shaded by cedar and live oak, and congenial artists. “My banker got me jobs,” he says drolly. “He realized I wasn’t going to be paying back my loan unless I worked.” The banker’s proactive approach to customer relations quickly led to an unlikely but ingenious and lucrative win-win scheme that kept Hallmark busy over the next decade. Basically, a bank opening up a new branch in some nearby town would commission him to do a large painting of one of the town’s important buildings, endearing itself to the town, and he, having done extensive research and patiently listened to the concerns of the town’s historical society, would paint a period piece with exact historical detail. Then there would be an official unveiling, and prints of the painting, each of which Hallmark would sign, were sold to benefit the historical society. It was, so to speak, a well-oiled machine, and it permitted Hallmark to build a gracious Texas limestone house of his own on a hillside with a view for miles and a white-frame, 14-by-24-foot, tin-roof studio where he has worked ever since.

EL CUBO ROJO, OIL, 48 x 36.
EL CUBO ROJO, OIL, 48 x 36

A little over seven years ago, Hallmark resolved to change his life again. “I was tired of dealing with committees,” he says, but the scope of his desire for freedom clearly went well beyond that. This turning point amounted to leaving behind the last vestiges of commercial art and becoming a painter answerable to nothing but his own eye. His accountant mother’s influence was still very much with him, however: “I talked to my banker about what I wanted to do, and when he asked what I thought would happen, I said I’d probably go broke. He said, ‘Hell, you’ve been broke before.’ And he supported me.”

Now free to find inspiration at will, Hallmark traveled extensively, particularly in Mexico and France. He’d hire a driver and ride for hours, looking, remembering, and taking photographs to record details for the later reconstruction of composite images. The architecture he now painted was older in time, but newer to his eye. On canvases unhindered by the strictures that come with commissions, he honed in on what compelled him, framing his compositions of weathered adobes draped by vines and shade trees and earthy Mexican street scenes with more personal intent.

Though often presented from a perspective that tilts them at a slight angle within the frame, the churches, homes, and plaza scenes in these paintings sit on the earth with palpable conviction, reflecting authentic light that resonates with a viewer’s own vast library of personal memories. This has the effect of triggering a sense of recognition that is then superseded by a desire to look more closely, to discover how brushstrokes have conspired to pass for the known world. “I think art should be pleasing,” Hallmark declares, with no small awareness that in the post-modern and post-post-modern eras, his statement is in many ways radical.

The trepidation that had accompanied Hallmark’s resolve to paint exactly as he wished was eased remarkably quickly. His new paintings sold well, and these days he has trouble keeping up with the demand. Three years ago he was invited to show his work in the Masters of the American West Show at the Autry Museum in Los Angeles. “When they put you in a show with people you admire, it scares you to death and you try harder,” he says. When he was invited back the next year, one of the artists he most admires, Howard Terpning, whose work was also in the show, bought one of his paintings. “That was like, if you’re a singer, Barbra Streisand telling you you’ve got a good voice,” laughs Hallmark.


At an age that finds many people stymied in their lives, Hallmark is exhilarated with his personal adventure. “The more I paint, the more interested I am in it,” he says. “I used to panic when I got into a corner with a painting. Now it doesn’t bother me. I just start over with the thing that isn’t working. And there have been days when I felt like someone came into the studio and did some of the painting for me.” The reality of being able to paint exactly as he likes is still a joy to him instead of the problem it can become to people who’ve had that freedom and responsibility a long time. Hallmark paints a solid eight-hour working day seven days a week, and approaches each day with the feeling, “Let’s have another bowl of ice cream.” The mentor who opened a door for him almost 25 years ago, Bill Whitaker, would probably tell him that’s because what he had in his head back then in Utah has now trickled down to the fingers that go to work every day on a Texas hillside.

Hallmark is represented by Trailside Galleries, Jackson, WY, and Scottsdale, AZ.

Featured in August 2003