Adam Clague | The Human Aspect

Adam Clague shows viewers the beauty in all kinds of people and everyday life

By Gussie Fauntleroy

Adam Clague, Book Club, oil, 23 x 32.

Adam Clague, Book Club, oil, 23 x 32.

This story was featured in the October 2018 issue of Southwest Art magazine. Get the Southwest Art October 2018 print issue or digital download now–then subscribe to Southwest Art and never miss another story.

It was an ordinary morning, and Adam Clague was peeling a grapefruit for breakfast. For some time, the idea of doing a still-life painting of grapefruit had been lurking at the edges of his mind. On this morning, light from the kitchen window intensified the fruit’s colors—pink, yellow, white in the rind. Suddenly Clague knew that breakfast would have to be something else; this grapefruit had a job to do as a prop. The artist spent a long time moving the pieces of fruit around, looking for the composition that felt just right. Then, he says, “As soon as I rotated one slice and saw the light shining through it and causing it to glow, I thought, ‘Okay, now I know what this painting’s about and what I want to say. That’s it right there!’”

GLOWING GRAPEFRUIT ended up providing Clague with many of the qualities that keep him charged up: pleasing color harmonies, a dynamic composition that draws the eye in a circular flow, and the always-exciting experience of painting directly from life. As with his figurative work, which often features such quiet scenes as a woman washing dishes or a young girl reading in bed, the painting also reflects a central theme in the 34-year-old painter’s life and art: appreciation for the simple things.

For Clague, that appreciation extends to something as simple as stepping outside and relaxing under the shade trees planted years ago by his grandfather on four acres near Kansas City, MO. The property and the house his grandfather built were gifted to the artist a few years ago, and today he lives and works there with his wife, fellow artist Andrea Orr Clague, and their 9-month-old son, Gideon. For now, the living room serves as a shared workspace for the couple, who eventually plan to build a studio. On one wall, a portrait by acclaimed artist Nancy Guzik serves as inspiration and recalls special memories—Clague met Guzik and her husband, painter Richard Schmid, through a mutual friend and once joined them in a painting session with the Putney Painters group in Vermont.

But inspiration from fellow artists can come in many forms. One of Clague’s closest friends, painter Jonathan Stasko, once provided an unexpected yet welcome creative nudge. On a visit with Stasko and his family, Clague found himself impressed with three large paintings his friend had done, each portraying Stasko’s wife and one of their young sons. The experience reminded Clague that his own work can be a gift to his family in meaningful ways aside from providing financial support. He began carving out time in his schedule to pursue more personal paintings that are not necessarily for sale.

One such piece is BELOVED, a portrait of Andrea in her wedding dress. The couple met as undergraduate students at Pensacola Christian College in Florida, where they became good friends. After both graduated with Masters of Fine Art degrees, they began dating, she living near Akron, OH, and he three hours away near Detroit. They were married in 2012. Clague has painted his wife many times, but for this image he had her pose seated on the floor with her face turned slightly away. “I was interested in the long, graceful line from her hand up her arm to her shoulder and neck,” he says. “I wanted to capture her in her beauty and her dignity, to commemorate her and how special she is for me and our family.”

Clague’s own family provided encouragement and support for his interest in art, beginning when he was quite young. He grew up in a suburb north of Detroit, the only child of a family doctor and a retired nurse with a creative bent. Adam occasionally accompanied his parents to the opera and to exhibits at the Detroit Institute of Arts. But his most important exposure to art was through children’s books; he especially loved illustrations by Greg Hildebrandt. Next came a fascination with comic books and cartoons. Color was essential, and as a child he spent endless hours drawing with colored pencils.

Although he was unfamiliar with the concept of still life, one day when Clague was 12, he got the notion to set up a few objects and draw them. He arranged a group of soda cans and rendered them as meticulously as he could. “I don’t know where the idea came from, but I wanted to challenge myself to see how realistically I could draw it,” he remembers. He called the finished piece POP ART and entered it in the Michigan State Fair. It won Best of Show, and that was the first of many honors and awards to come; recent examples include a certificate of excellence in the Portrait Society of America’s International Portrait Competition, an award of excellence in the Oil Painters of America Salon Show, and a silver medal in the OPA Eastern Regional Show.

Clague’s first experience with oils, however, left him less than encouraged. His mother had taken a decorative painting class, and, when Adam was 13, she offered him basic guidance in applying paint. But without real instruction, paints and brushes felt messy and unsatisfying to the young artist, especially compared to the precision and control he could achieve with pencils. He returned to colored pencils for the rest of his teenage years. During that time he also found creative expression in the guitar. Yet somehow he had a quiet confidence that, like the illustrators and comic-book artists he admired, he would pursue a career in visual art. “I feel lucky,” he says today. “I don’t know if it ever really occurred to me that I couldn’t be an artist.” Then he smiles. “I trusted that it was possible and was ignorant of how difficult it would be.”

Remaining focused during difficult times and humble in success were lessons Clague says he gained, along with oil-painting skills, while studying at Pensacola under artist-in-residence Brian Jekel. An exceptional painter, Jekel chose to dedicate himself to his students, rather than making a name for himself, Clague says. “It was a big lesson for me, not to take myself too seriously, to stay humble and give God the glory for the skill he’s given me.” In the years since then, he has continued to refine his skills, watching as his brush strokes, composition, and sense of design have become more thoughtful and confident. “It’s a journey, an adventure,” he says.

Clague’s eye for a compelling image has sharpened as well. Once, while visiting a friend, he walked into the family room to see his friend’s wife, her sister, and the friend’s young son on the couch, the child quietly occupying himself while his mother and aunt took a nap. In a departure from the way his paintings generally begin—as a visual concept in his mind—Clague intuitively recognized the potential for a strong painting. He quickly took a few photos and sketched the scene. “I almost never paint without some sort of study from life, usually an oil study or several small oil studies,” he notes.

Whether depicting a candid scene, as in BABYSITTERS, or painting a model in a pose, Clague is propelled in large part by the visual dynamics of implied motion, expressed through rhythmic lines and the patterns of darks and lights. “I use those lines to direct the viewer’s eye through the scene,” he says. In the case of larger paintings, he usually begins from life. Then, especially when working with models—who can only sit for so long—he often uses photo references to finish. In recent months he has been documenting his process in a series of instructional videos he plans to release as an online course.

As a graduate student, Clague intended to pursue commissioned portraiture. He was drawn to the challenge of what he had heard is the most difficult form—the epitome—of figurative work. From countless hours of life drawing and painting classes and the informal portraits that resulted, he knew that depicting faces is an endlessly fascinating endeavor. “It always starts off with a technical focus, analyzing shapes and values, but as I’m doing that, I’m observing the person,” he says. “Then suddenly it changes, and the person is very compelling. It’s just the human aspect, the natural connection with other  people. There are all kinds of people, but no matter who it is, there’s always some beauty there.”

Eventually he realized he was less interested in working on commission and more in simply painting people. Especially, it turns out, people doing ordinary things—like knitting, or resting after working in the garden, or eating ice cream. “In our world these days, there’s enough darkness going on. I’m trying to capture more positive things,” he says. “It becomes a dialogue with the viewer, showing them something they can enjoy and admire the beauty in. It’s not always what people usually think of as beauty, but I want to show that there is beauty in the mundane.”

Hudson Fine Art & Framing Company, Hudson, OH; Ward & Ward Fine Art, Kansas City, MO; Gallery Augusta, Augusta, MO;

This story was featured in the October 2018 issue of Southwest Art magazine. Get the Southwest Art October 2018 print issue or digital download now–then subscribe to Southwest Art and never miss another story.

• Subscribe to Southwest Art magazine
• Learn how to paint & how to draw with downloads, books, videos & more from North Light Shop
• Sign up for your Southwest Art email newsletter & download a FREE ebook