William Haskell | In Reality

  Afternoon Siesta, drybrush watercolor, 15 x 22

Afternoon Siesta, drybrush watercolor, 15 x 22

By Wolf Schneider

Realism is a complicated topic for William Haskell. “Realism—or paintings that people think are realistically done—can be very abstract,” contends the artist, who paints earth-toned watercolors of northern New Mexican landscapes, animals, and architecture. His paintings accentuate sun and shadow in compositions that usually involve horizontal, vertical, and diagonal planes. An adobe church in a mountain village is comprised of blocks of color; a plowed field appears geometric and abstract. And perspective changes in the foreground, middle ground, and background. The foreground is where Haskell concentrates on detailed realism.
“People think that my work is very detailed and that I sit and agonize and paint every blade of grass. In the foreground of the picture it is detailed, and I do paint a lot of single-bladed grass. But actually I call what I do ‘implied detail’—it looks detailed, but it isn’t really,” Haskell explains. “I use a lot of different brushes.”
While many would consider Haskell’s work realism, he demurs and says that it borders more on magic realism. Usually he emphasizes a single element and then alters aspects of reality with a modernist bent. “I want to simplify rather than make the composition complex. That to me is a modernist standpoint,” he says. “I draw on what gives me a feeling of peace. That’s what I like about the New Mexico landscape—the rolling hills and grassy plains and trees.”
November Shadows, drybrush watercolor, 22 x 15

November Shadows, drybrush watercolor, 22 x 15
Haskell, 44, lives in Galisteo, NM, just south of Santa Fe, and often paints scenes of the surrounding landscape. Other favorite locations are north of Las Vegas, NM, along the High Road to Taos, and in the small village of Rancho de Las Golondrinas. In his watercolors, real-life images often shape-shift. Take ALONG THE RIO GRANDE, for example, a painting of a church in Velarde, NM. The copper-toned church has windows and a wooden door. In reality, says Haskell, “The church doesn’t have windows. But I like to put windows in because they symbolize a sense of life. And the door is actually made of metal, but why would I want to paint a metal security door on an old building like that? There are a bunch of trailers attached to the church—why would I want to paint them? Then all around the building for half a mile there’s a big dirt parking lot with telephone poles. So I edit. I give them back their church the way it should be.”
Haskell confesses that he sometimes makes the landscape more lush than it actually is, a nod to the grassy prairies of the Midwest where he grew up. And though he strives to avoid clichés in his western landscapes, there’s a feeling of Americana in Haskell’s work, along with the modernism. Haskell’s technique of using altered perspectives results in a contemporary feel.
“I really like working with perspective,” he says. “I usually put something right up in the foreground and give it almost a surrealistic quality, make it very detailed and in your face, and then gradually bring everything back to where there’s not much detail at all in the background. But there’s still a crispness to it because that’s how it is in reality.”
Haskell’s biggest influence was another realist—Andrew Wyeth, of whom he comments, “I like the mood of his work. It’s thoughtful. I personally think art should be thoughtful.” He admires Grant Wood and Thomas Hart Benton for their narrative qualities, and his earliest inspiration was John James Audubon, whose detailed renderings of wildlife spurred him to do likewise. Salvador Dali impressed Haskell for his creativity in surrealism. But it was Georgia O’Keeffe’s modernist paintings of the Southwest that ultimately caused Haskell to move to the high desert of New Mexico…

Featured in November 2007

Find the rest of this exciting article and more
by subscribing to Southwest Art magazine.