Aaron Westerberg | Capturing the Soul

By Gussie Fauntleroy

Aaron Westerberg tells his drawing and painting students that there are essentially three phases to an art career: “When you’re a kid, you draw what you want. When you’re in school, you draw what you see. And then, later, you draw what you want to see.”

Admiration, oil, 48 x 24.

The artist relates this observation as he sits in his neatly organized studio, which is the converted garage of his home in an older part of Santa Clarita, CA, near Los Angeles. A skylight above a model stand illuminates the spot where many of Westerberg’s portrait subjects have posed over the years. On the walls are prints by earlier painters who have fueled his passion for rendering the human figure, including Nicolai Fechin and Anders Zorn.

Westerberg continues, “You want to make a painting lively and interesting, so how do you do that?” Then he answers his own question: Maintain a solid connection with the fundamentals of art—but do whatever you want.

At 36 years old, Westerberg is well into the third phase of his self-described artistic path. He has garnered awards, collectors across the country, and galleries for his accomplished portraits. He has self-published a book of his work, and a selection of his paintings are available in high-resolution digital form to install and view on the iPhone. Now, on a long artistic tether anchored to centuries of art history and his own established skills, he is able to play with perception, color, and subtle visual qualities to create character portraits that speak of the nuances of human life.

Westerberg’s portraits weren’t always so subtle, though. As a boy in small-town Southern California, Westerberg was largely inspired by cartoons and comic books. He drew caricatures of family members, which found their way onto birthday and holiday cards. He recalls one that he made for his father, a humorous simple drawing of a man sweating and laboring at yard work, calling to his son to come outside and help. From inside the house comes a talk-bubble with the son’s laconic response: “Nah, I don’t think so.”

Drawing was fun, Westerberg remembers, but it didn’t lead to visions of a career in art. In fact, his only experience of an art museum as a boy left him decidedly uninspired. His mother was from New York City, and the family visited the Museum of Modern Art on a trip there when Aaron was eleven. “I remember seeing a huge ball of yarn in one corner, which left me confused,” he relates. “And there were paintings by Francis Bacon, one of the pope and one of meat on meat hooks. That’s my first memory of art.”

Clearly, Westerberg’s aesthetic even then inclined away from the modern and in the direction of traditional representational painting. But it would be several more years before he was exposed to the work of the 19th-century masters that truly inspired him.

After high school Westerberg signed up for general education courses at a nearby junior college, thinking loosely about illustration and other forms of commercial art but ultimately uncertain of his career path. Among the courses he took was a life-drawing class. While he enjoyed and was good at life drawing, the instructor’s methods left him dissatisfied. “The teacher never drew in class; he just brought his books,” he recounts with amazement. Westerberg knew he couldn’t afford art school. But happily, serendipity stepped in: He happened to notice a flyer for drawing classes taught by a San Diego artist named Jeffrey Watts.

“The drawings were way better than anything I had seen in school, or anywhere, really,” Westerberg remembers. “Jeff introduced me to [John Singer] Sargent and other master painters who blew me away.” Some years later Westerberg would travel to Paris, where he took in exhibitions of work by Sargent, Spanish painter Joaquin Sorolla, and others. It was an indelible experience that cemented his belief that in realism, and especially portraiture, he had found his artistic path.

Jeffrey Watts’ classes often attracted students from the San Diego-based comic book convention called Comic-Con International. As a result, Watts focused on illustration techniques that could be used in the commercial art field. But Westerberg and several other students were intent on learning oil painting as well. “We were serious, so we would get together and paint a lot. We hunted for art books; I’d cut photos out from Southwest Art and other magazines and try to emulate the artists I liked,” he recalls.

Soon he was teaching workshops and classes himself, continuously adding to his own skills through teaching, as he developed his distinctive style. It’s a style he likens to the blues, one of the musical genres he enjoyed playing on the guitar as a teen. “I love the minor keys,” he reveals. “I like paintings that are subtle, big, and brooding, like a blues riff: really simple but powerful.”

Christopher Smoking, oil, 10 x 8.

CHRISTOPHER SMOKING is one such image. The composition is built on large, simple forms, yet the portrait conveys a strong sense of character that is timeless and classically male. The painting garnered a top award in the RayMar art supply company’s yearlong fine art competition, where one of the judges, painter William Scott Jennings, noted: “In a genre that seems to be dominated by portraits of women and children, this was an exceptional case of a masculine subject full of mystery and individualism.”

Indeed, most of Westerberg’s models are female—his wife, Jennifer, is the subject of many of his works—and the experience of painting his friend Christopher was a departure from his usual approach, he says. As it turned out, the portrait took on qualities, including a beard added to his friend’s clean-shaven face, that resemble the artist himself.

ADMIRATION features a draped woman seen from the back as she stands gazing at a Nicolai Fechin painting on the wall. The pose was one of those a-ha moments that frequently occur when a model takes a break from the formal pose, Westerberg recounts. As she stood admiring the painting, the woman’s drape hung gracefully around her, and her stance was natural and unaffected. “Those fleeting moments are so good,” he says, adding that he quickly reached for his sketchpad, creating visual references to return to at a later time.

In fact, although ideas and inspiration arise from a variety of sources, Westerberg makes sure to allow the model to take on a gesture or a stance that may be even better than the one had in mind. “If I have an idea for a pose, I’ll sketch it out and show it to the model, but I let them get into the pose themselves,” he explains. “Always the most natural, fluid kind of pose is the best.” In the case of PINK COAT, the model had just put on her coat as she was about to leave the artist’s studio. Her momentary expression, more than any other that day, conveyed a sense of personality, he notes. “The last five minutes of the day—that was the painting right there.”

FURISODE KIMONO was created for a one-artist show on the theme of vanity. Westerberg decided to paint a woman in a kimono, gazing at her reflection in a hand mirror as she ponders her future. In researching kimonos, he learned that a Furisode kimono is the type worn by unmarried women in Japan. Often colorful and with very long sleeves, it serves as an announcement to the world that the woman is of age and eligible for marriage. “I thought of this image as vanity, but a more subtle, quiet, shy vanity,” he remarks. “I liked the dichotomy of that shyness and the kimono’s big flashy sleeves.”

Anna With a Smirk, charcoal, 14 x 9.

Even after moving into painting, Westerberg did not abandon drawing as a finished form of fine art. ANNA WITH A SMIRK is an elegant charcoal drawing of a young woman captured in a sly yet thoughtful sideways glance. It was rendered on handmade Chinese rice paper, a medium also used by Fechin, the artist notes. He adds that Fechin’s rice paper works are “some of the best drawings I’ve ever seen.” Because of the paper’s fragile nature, the process is extraordinarily time-consuming, with no option of changing marks once they have been put down. “It’s a very slow buildup of charcoal,” Westerberg explains. “It takes a lot of patience.”

Despite—or perhaps because of—the level of technical and perceptual challenges involved in depicting character nuances in charcoal or paint, Westerberg delights in the process of “bringing soul” to an image, as he puts it. “Starting from a basic concept and simple tools, you can do wonderful things. They used to say Sargent was such a dangerously good painter because he was able to capture the mood of the sitter, whatever it was,” he continues, smiling. “So if you were arrogant or shy, he would get it. A good painting is like a good poem: not many words but a great deal of meaning and impact.”

Legacy Galleries, Scottsdale, AZ; Whistle Pik Galleries, Fredericksburg, TX; Gardner Colby Gallery, Naples, FL; Settlers West Galleries, Tucson, AZ; www.westerberg-fineart.com.

Upcoming shows

American Miniatures, Settlers West Galleries, February 12.
Traditional Impressions group show, Legacy Galleries, February 17-27.

Featured in February 2011.