Greg Skol | Magic Hour


By Virginia Campbell

Cinematographers have a term for the fleeting moments at the end of the day when light takes on ethereal hues and clings to surfaces, lending everything the richest, most enchanting colors of twilight. They call it “magic hour,” and they wait patiently to film in it, because whatever transpires in that light becomes invested with emotional resonance.

Santa Fe painter Greg Skol doesn’t wait for magic hour; he invents it on canvases. It is his very subject. Skol’s small-scale landscapes are typically illuminated either by twilight or by the light of that other time of day blessed with unlimited powers of evocation, dawn. The paintings are, in fact, devoid of anything that might detract from the mystery of time, memory, and feeling that this light unleashes. “I’m interested in the times of day that come before and after all the activity,” says Skol. “They offer the possibility of being in a quiet place.”

Quietness is no simple thing, of course. There is the calm before the storm and there is the silence of the grave. The quietness of Skol’s very often perfectly square paintings, in which there are no animals, no birds, no insects, no people, is of a different sort. It is the visual equivalent of a state of mind with no agenda. Unapolo-getically beautiful and ecstatically ordinary, this quietness seems to offer proof that light is the ultimate medium of the soul, the purest means of expression. A musician would disagree. But Skol is a painter, and early on in his experience with painting, he learned, he says, “not to pay attention to what doesn’t interest me.”

Skol’s landscapes are so lovely to the eye that it’s easy to miss, at first, this fundamentally uncompromising character. The longer you look, though, the more they draw you in with their multiple, translucent layers of sky and their surreal detail of leaf and grass. And you find yourself wondering how someone came to paint this way. The personal history behind the painter is an interesting mix of the accidental and the inevitable, which is how you could describe the paintings themselves. Skol was born and raised in, of all unlovely places, the Bronx, one of three sons of a single mom and an eventual stepfather who encouraged in the unformed artist what the New York school system did not notice, much less nurture. “This was in the ’70s when you were supposed to be grateful to have seats in schools,” says Skol of the complete absence of art classes in his early years. As a boy, Skol pored over the World Book encyclopedia, endlessly pleased with the small, precise illustrations and photographs. The positive aspect of not having guidance when he began his own forays into recording the world in images was that he was unimpeded by demands or influences. “I was validated by my own pleasure,” he says.


He experimented with every medium, and before ever going to art school Skol instinctively did what an old-fashioned academy might have had him do. “I painted my way through the history of art,” he says. In the process of investigating firsthand the creativity of everyone from Tiepolo to Thomas Eakins, he learned something of overriding importance: “I loved handling paint. I loved the smell of linseed oil. I loved all the mechanical, sensual parts of painting.” When Skol did go to art school—specifically, the School of Visual Arts in New York—he found it more useful as a backdrop to his own efforts than as a form of education in itself. “I consider myself self-taught even though I went to art school,” he says drolly. “In classes, we were talking way too much and not working enough.” The New York art world of lower Manhattan where he lived at this point helped him indirectly for years—“There were interesting people living lives that seemed apart from the rat race”—while he painted dark still lifes, created intimate collages, and gradually approached the point when it was time to get away from the city.

In 1989, Skol left New York with his girlfriend and drove across the country, through the Southwest and on to his intended destination, San Francisco, CA. When life in San Francisco was neither what he expected nor different enough from life in New York, he ended up in the place in between that had left the deepest impression on him: Santa Fe, NM. “The light, the landscape, the air, the people—it just seemed right,” he says.

The radical difference between New York City and Santa Fe was bound to have an impact on eyes as sensitive as Skol’s, but “it took a while for me to react,” he recalls. Given the dimensions of the sudden change that would ultimately take place, it’s not surprising that this change was three years in the making. While Skol continued to paint his somber still lifes, he and his girlfriend-then-wife bought land 30 miles southeast of Santa Fe at the edge of the Pecos wilderness and built themselves a home that includes his studio. “Building your home, especially when you’re living in it while it’s only partially finished, makes you keenly aware of your environment,” he points out. The New York night owl turned into a dawn riser, and the expressive possibilities of landscape crept up on him. One day about a decade ago he stopped painting still lifes and started painting the landscapes that have since earned him attention from galleries around the country (including Hahn Ross Gallery in Santa Fe and Gail Harvey Gallery in Santa Monica, CA), invitations to shows throughout the West, and his first one-man exhibition, at the Museum of the Southwest in Midland, TX, where the largest of his landscapes now resides in the permanent collection.


“The first landscapes were a clean break from everything before,” says Skol. “It was a complete shedding of my previous life. It was my first genuine response, simple and straightforward and honest. It occurred without forethought.”

Unpremeditated as they are, Skol’s paintings have the concentration of deep necessity about them, the intensity of dreams that are anything but idle. They are not, strictly speaking, realistic paintings, and they are not painted en plein air or from photographs. “There was never any intention for my paintings to look the way they do now,” he says, but when he began painting them, they turned out to be pictures he was perfectly prepared to create: “I brought a good bag of tools and skills with me,” is how he puts it. He had, of course, always been responding to the capacity of light to harbor whole worlds in a single moment. “There are qualities of light that spark memories,” he says. “Even in the city, the streetlights have their own emotional quality.” Ah, but in the unimpeded rise and fall of hills, rivers, and mesas, and in the color-drama of southwestern cloudscape—here, clearly, Skol sees the opportunity for a scale of visual and technical inquiry that’s open-ended.

Now in his early 40s, with a wife and son in the home he built for himself, Skol has come to at least a temporary stability in his work. Having more or less happened on the place he now senses he was meant to find himself in, and then having been more or less overtaken by the painting style that arrived so fully formed, he is, he says, patient in the midst of the “chaotic” process by which his “quiet” paintings of lighted earth come into being.

For as quiet as they may be, his paintings are nothing less than volatile in the making. Skol paints his compositions from top down, beginning with sky and clouds and applying successive, thin layers of paint as the deepening atmosphere of the incipient sky acquires color and character. The acquisition is not always as smooth as the final paintings make it seem; plenty of paint has been scraped off and replaced to achieve the flawless, dreamlike finish. The plentiful, active brushwork of the foliage is a study of spontaneity in stillness. Only the grasses, done in discreet, visible, repetitious brushstrokes, suggest deliberate control. Skol works on only one painting at a time, and for the days it takes to paint each canvas, the wet paint remains ever subject to mishap or discovery.

The ability of Skol’s paintings to convey what feels like an entire interior world through what looks like an infinite external one is wonderfully at odds with their actual dimensions. Some are as small as 5 by 5 inches. Most fall somewhere just short or long of 12 inches in height or width. This is the size they seem to want to be. Skol thinks the intimate scale underscores the resonance of the image, but he explores larger scale as well, though the dynamic he pursues in his paintings becomes more difficult the larger they get. Square paintings, an unusual format, remain his favorite because of their “neutral, Zen” nature. “It’s a format that doesn’t dictate how the painting should be viewed,” he suggests.


Skol doesn’t worry about where his work stands in the tradition that he personally traced as a young man on his way to becoming an artist. “When you think about how difficult it is to build on an art form that’s hundreds of years old, that’s just too much weight,” he demurs.

Though his paintings suggest he paused longer over artists like Jan Vermeer, whose smallish, light-bathed paintings surely impressed him, and with the American luminists like Thomas Cole and John Frederick Kensett, who knew all about magic hour, than, say, Pablo Picasso, Skol has little interest in categories of art he does or doesn’t fit into. “The purpose isn’t for you to find out how you fit into art history,” he says. “You can’t help but be in the present.”

Skol is represented by Leslie Levy Fine Art, Scottsdale, AZ; Hahn Ross Gallery, Santa Fe, NM; Gail Harvey Gallery, Santa Monica, CA; Greenwood-Chebithes Gallery, Laguna Beach, CA; Wally Workman Gallery, Austin, TX; and Cavalier Galleries, Greenwich, CT, and Nantucket, MA.

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