By Norman Kolpas
When it comes to teaching, some ungenerous souls love to repeat that old saying, “Those who can, do. Those who can’t, teach.” But nothing could be further from the truth. The evidence all around us: incredibly creative individuals who not only succeed in their endeavors but also instruct and inspire others to do the same. The only accurate version of the adage is really, “Those who can, do; those who can do more, teach.”
And in the world of fine art, one of the best examples of this is a man who possesses a stellar reputation as both painter and teacher: Charles Warren (C.W.) Mundy. The many now-professional artists who consider him a mentor rousingly endorse the impact that Mundy has had on their artworks, careers, and lives.
“He’s a mountain of knowledge, and his ability to communicate is amazing,” says San Francisco Bay Area plein-air painter Brent Jensen. “He’s generous, kind, and encouraging,” adds Barbara Flowers, who paints still lifes in her Florida Panhandle studio. And from Todd Williams, a landscape painter based in Siloam Springs, AR: “C.W. is not only a mentor, but he’s also become a great friend and in some ways a spiritual father to me. I’ll be forever grateful to him.”
Before Mundy could achieve artistic renown and the wealth of knowledge and inspiration he shares with others, however, he had to follow the student’s path himself. Now 65 years old, the Indianapolis native and fine-arts graduate of Ball State University spent the better part of his first three professional decades as a successful sports illustrator, creating realistic paintings from reference photos for organizations including the National Basketball Association and the United States Golf Association.
When he decided to pursue a fine-art career, said Mundy in an April 1999 Southwest Art profile, “I realized I had to start painting everything from life, to react to what I saw, and to allow my personality and attitude to come out in each individual work.” To that end, in the early 1990s he plunged into workshops taught by two of today’s top artists: figurative painter Dan Gerhartz and plein-air painter Scott Christensen.
Within just a few years, Mundy had risen among the ranks of realist artists. His vivid canvases, characterized by impeccably composed scenes executed in energetically applied, richly textured oils, began winning top awards both in regional competitions and from national organizations including the Oil Painters of America.
Along the way, Mundy also developed a personal system he describes as “the science of painting,” based on what he calls the “Seven Foundational Truths” that lead to a well-executed canvas: drawing, squinting, design, value, color, edges, and paint manipulation. “You have to assess and direct what you want to do [in your art],” he explains. “If you don’t, you become a copy artist. But once you understand the science, you can take control, and your individual style and spirit as an artist can evolve.”
Soon, he realized he had a wealth of valuable painting knowledge he wanted to share with others. “I enjoy problem solving, which is what painting is. And I really enjoy seeing the light turn on in a painter’s eyes. There are so many artists who want to become professionals, and they just haven’t been exposed to what I call the truth,” says Mundy, who is deeply religious. “And, as the Scripture says, ‘the truth will set you free.’”
That is certainly what Todd Williams experienced in his first workshop with Mundy, a week-long still-life session in Indianapolis back in 1998. “Once you learn those principles [of painting], they become part of you,” says Williams. “And your qualities as an artist can rise to the surface. C.W. has helped me to get back to my original childlike enthusiasm for creating, to bring out a certain sense of bravado that is part of my personality.”
Barbara Flowers discovered a similar sense of freedom through her first experience with Mundy, a 2001 plein-air workshop in the Texas Hill Country at the Fredericksburg Artists’ School. “Prior to that, all of my paintings were very labored,” she says. “But C.W. showed me how to take those truths and fit them into my own work. After that workshop, I went home and painted the painting that I think was my breakthrough.”
The science of painting isn’t the only set of skills Mundy shares with his students, as Brent Jensen learned at his first workshop in 2005, painting en plein air amidst romantic 11th-century castle ruins in France’s scenic Loire Valley. “A lot of artists struggle because they don’t know how to market themselves,” says Jensen. “C.W. tried to help us understand that we had to learn to do that in order to be successful.”
“If you don’t know how to take the piggy to market, you’re in trouble,” Mundy chuckles in explaining the business-oriented part of his tutelage. “If you’re dead-serious about wanting to be a professional, you’ve got to get down to the nitty-gritty.” So at every workshop, he and his wife, Rebecca—the devoted backbone of his enterprise—dedicate a session to taking care of business, using Mundy’s own career as a blueprint. Topics they cover in detail include the strategic importance of developing suites of paintings devoted to a particular subject, creating and mailing brochures that promote those works to galleries and collectors alike, and how to go about finding gallery representation.
How effective are those strategies? After that first workshop, Jensen produced a beautifully printed brochure of the paintings he’d begun in the Loire and daringly mounted his own exhibition. “I sold all of my paintings,” he says, his voice still hushed with amazement at that success. At Mundy’s urging, he also mailed the brochure to three galleries he thought would be fitting venues for him; two of them, Greenhouse Gallery of Fine Art in San Antonio, TX, and Tirage Fine Art Gallery in Pasadena, CA, quickly took him on. “I felt so blessed,” Jensen says, “and it was all a result of my trip to France with C.W.”
Similarly, at Mundy’s encouragement, Todd Williams dropped off packets containing high-quality photos of his works at three top galleries in Scottsdale, AZ, while spending a week there in 2000; before he left town, he’d been signed up by two of those galleries. And the “breakthrough” still life Barbara Flowers created following her first Mundy workshop gave her “the confidence to approach another gallery beyond the one I was already working with,” she says. They took her on, and that led to still more representation.
Of course, not every student achieves the successes that Flowers, Williams, and Jensen have enjoyed as a result of Mundy’s mentorship. During the past 10-plus years, Mundy estimates that he has taught about four workshops a year, with approximately 15 students each, plus occasional shorter sessions—such as the one he’ll be doing as part of the Weekend With the Masters event this September in Monterey, CA. Even allowing for repeat students, that’s still several hundred artists—not counting the many more who have learned from his book, Memoirs, or his self-produced instructional DVDs.
While he’s proud of his students’ successes, churning out gallery-worthy artists isn’t Mundy’s primary aim. “I take everyone from beginners who have never painted before to professionals who want to upgrade their work,” he explains. “Often, in fact, I would rather work with beginners because I don’t have to reprogram them.” Using his Seven Foundational Truths, and providing high-energy, keenly focused, constructive feedback to students as they paint, his goal is to enable them to enjoy the act of painting and achieve better results “at whatever level they’re working.”
Neither does he worry that he’s producing C.W. Mundy copycats. “That would be doing them a disservice,” he says. Instead, “I take them back to square one and give them a realistic toolkit that they can use to figure out why something they paint is working or not working. The more you play the game, the more skill you gain.”
Indeed, Mundy himself holds to that maxim, continuing to work at the science and spirit of painting as assiduously as he did when he first made the commitment to life as a fine artist. Within the past few months, for example, he has made a subtle but significant switch in media, transitioning from alkyd oil paints (which contain synthetic resins that make them dry quickly) to classic, handmade, old master-style oil paints by Vasari. “The colors go on like butter, and it’s so much easier to blend them and massage the image,” he enthuses. “It’s going to revolutionize my work.”
No doubt this latest personal discovery will also revolutionize Mundy’s teaching, and it’s clear he relishes the thought of sharing it with a new group of students. “You get this opportunity to be a powerful influence on people’s lives, in a way they find life-changing,” he observes. “When the workshop’s over, people are crying. I’ve broken down and shed tears a few times. When you see their lives transformed right in front of you, it’s a very emotional experience.”
Anne Irwin Fine Art, Atlanta, GA; Eckert-Wright Art & Design, Indianapolis, IN; Gallery 1261, Denver, CO; InSight Gallery, Fredericksburg, TX; www.cwmundy.com.
Anne Irwin Fine Art, Atlanta, GA; Corse Gallery & Atelier, Jacksonville, FL; Brazier Fine Art, Richmond, VA; Jules Place, Boston, MA; Tyler White Gallery, Greensboro, NC; Watts Fine Art, Zionsville, IN; Signature Studios, Destin, FL; www.barbaraflowersart.com.
Greenhouse Gallery of Fine Art, San Antonio, TX; Tirage Fine Art Gallery, Pasadena, CA; Waterhouse Gallery, Santa Barbara, CA; www.jensenstudio.com.
Meyer Gallery, Santa Fe, NM; Whistle Pik Galleries, Fredericksburg, TX; Legacy Gallery, Scottsdale, AZ; Howard/Mandville Gallery, Kirkland, WA; Sherwoods Gallery, Houston, TX; Weatherburn Gallery, Naples, FL; Bayview Gallery, Camden and Brunswick, ME; www.toddwilliamsfineart.com.
Featured in July 2011.