Kim English | Poetry in Paint

By Rosemary Carstens

Kim English is dazzled by light. Everywhere his travels take him, the play of light on people, settings, and architecture catches his eye, especially the way shadows embrace what the sun spotlights. Whether strolling along city streets or country roads, he constantly frames scenes and categorizes colors. “I love the effects of light,” he says. “It’s the first thing I notice. The way light falls is what grabs me to paint a scene.”

English, now 53, was born in Omaha, NE, and grew up in Security, CO, then a tiny rural town that is now part of metro Colorado Springs. His parents were both jazz musicians (his father played guitar, his mother the piano), and they understood the attraction of living an artist’s life. They encouraged their son in his own creative interests and made sure he had art instruction from an early age. But Kim learned how to work hard physically, too. As a young man, he often spent summers with relatives in Nebraska, bucking hay and helping with other tasks around the farm. He finds it interesting that while he grew up in a rural area and now lives in an equally quiet place near Pine, CO, he loves to paint urban scenes. He has been known to spend hours sitting in a crowd, watching the interactions and envisioning compositions.

In 1978 he moved to Denver to attend the Rocky Mountain College of Art & Design, where he later taught until the mid-1980s. Since that time his paintings have become increasingly sought after by private collectors and his work has won national acclaim, including awards such as the Allied Artists of America’s Gold Medal of Honor, the William Meyerowitz Memorial Award for an American Scene, and both the Certificate of Merit and the Joseph Hartley Memorial Award at Salmagundi Club exhibitions.

When not painting, English is a devoted teacher, regularly holding classes at the Art Students League of Denver and the Scottsdale Artists’ School; every year he also offers workshops in the United States and overseas. This June, his workshop in Burgundy will allow students to immerse themselves in French culture while honing their painting skills in one of the most beautiful regions of the country. Many of his students have become friends and colleagues over the years. “I like teaching,” says English. “It’s fun, and it brings new people into my life.”

Artist Michelle Torrez confirms English’s skill as a teacher: “Kim has been more than a teacher to me; he’s been an important mentor. I love the way he teaches—he treads very softly, helps you get unstuck, and doesn’t try to force his own agenda on you. He revolutionized how I paint and helped me to develop my own style and voice.”

An inveterate traveler, English loves to people-watch as he roams city streets and rural byways in search of commonplace scenes that reveal the natural beauty of everyday life. He and his wife, Andi (also an artist), are adventurous, and at least once a year they travel to Europe and Mexico, two of their favorite destinations. They’ve explored China, Argentina, Peru, Nepal, and much of Central America, and they long to visit India and Africa.

When traveling, English sometimes finds it necessary to resort to quick pencil sketches and small color studies that can be done in just a few minutes. At times, he also photographs scenes. All of this becomes reference material for future paintings once he’s back in the studio. In selecting subject matter, English looks for narrative—people and settings that make him want to know more about them. He feels that a successful painting gives the viewer a sense of the life behind the scene, making one wonder what happened just before or immediately after the moment captured on canvas. The artist says it’s a pure joy when he can just sit still in the middle of a busy scene and watch the human story unfold. Says English, “I try to capture how people interact and react.”

Constantly inspired by the world around him, English says form and light are the main elements that attract him to a specific composition. He is well known for his mastery of chiaroscuro, the dramatic use of light and shadow to convey the illusion of depth on a two-dimensional plane. Pioneered by Renaissance artists, chiaroscuro can bring a heightened sense of drama to a subject. In English’s painting CRIMSON GOWN, for example, deep shadows help define the rich elegance of the model’s silky red gown, while skillfully placed highlights accentuate the fabric’s soft folds and the figure’s femininity. The artist expresses it eloquently: “Light is ethereal—you can’t hold it in your hands. It’s such a challenge to try to reproduce it. It’s not just about stark contrasts, either. I am also moved by the more subtle revelations of light.”

Working alla prima, English usually completes a painting in one intense session. “It’s the best way to capture the unique energy of any scene,” he says. Laying out his basic palette, with an emphasis on dark greens, deep reds, and bright cadmiums, he quickly blocks in the strongest elements of the composition, capturing the lights and darks as they immediately strike him. He lays in all of the big shapes first, sometimes using a rag instead of a paintbrush. He then proceeds to the emphatic details.

English strives to create a mood in each painting, a life presence that arises from the canvas. In UNEXPECTED LETTER, a piece created to illustrate life’s unanticipated turns, the brightest light coming in the window fairly sizzles alongside deepening interior shadows. The room’s warmth is readily apparent, as is the artist’s mastery of lost and found edges, both the sharply defined line and those that blend one into another to increase the painting’s three dimensionality. To do this well, it takes a finely tuned sense of what is crucial in a composition, knowing what to accentuate and what can be allowed to fade into the background.

Leigh Limehouse, director of Smith-Killian Fine Art in Charleston, SC, spoke recently about what makes works by English so recognizable: “It’s his use of light and his spontaneity. Watching him paint is like magic—the picture just appears! He really connects with the people he’s painting. He captures their essence, the light, and the atmosphere. Because Kim travels so much, he has lots of refreshing variety in his subject matter. His ability to draw viewers in is one of the hallmarks of a seasoned painter. People can feel the warmth of the sun or the penetrating cold of the snow in his paintings. They can smell the aromas from the bakery. They are transported.”

About a mile from their home, English and his wife maintain another house where they work. Each has a studio at either end, and they use the rooms in between to set up lighting, props, drapes, and miscellaneous items to create a mood when they have models in for interior scenes. A bank of windows illuminates his studio with a strong northern light. An old jeweler’s desk, with its high work space and more than a dozen drawers filled with tubes of paints, serves as the base for his table-top easel and the 2-by-3-foot sheet of smoked glass he uses as a palette. He’s surrounded by brushes, rags, sketches, photographs, unfinished paintings, and works by local artists he admires, such as Mikael Olson’s impressionistic impastos and the dynamic, emotionally expressive work of Michelle Torrez.

Jazz, folk, blues, or classical music often plays in the background when he’s working in his studio—music he’s been rooted in since childhood. Outdoors he prefers to hear the sounds occurring naturally around him. English is also an accomplished pianist, guitarist, and composer, and he says he feels a synchronicity between music and painting: “Music is a lot like doing art—you develop a theme, sharpen and soften edges, and build to a crescendo.”

English’s paintings seem to echo variations on a jazz theme, along with the plaintive emotional impact of the blues and the pure heartfelt sense of beauty found in classical music. They are not simply impressionistic depictions of light and dark; they convey a range of human emotions—joy, contemplation, loneliness, camaraderie. His expressive brushwork, bold handling of color and value, and skillful manipulation of sunlight and shadow make his work feel lively, immediate, even poetic. The result is a rare freshness that keeps you looking, wondering about the people or places depicted, seeking their deeper meanings.

Saks Galleries, Denver, CO; Total Arts Gallery, Taos, NM; Smith-Killian Fine Art, Charleston, SC; Gardner Colby Galleries, Naples, FL.

Solo show, Saks Galleries, May 14-June 5.

Featured in May 2010