George Hallmark brings vibrance to his architectural landscapes through everyday people and events
By Elizabeth L. Delaney
This story was featured in the February 2015 issue of Southwest Art magazine. Get the Southwest Art February 2015 print issue or digital download now–then subscribe to Southwest Art and never miss another story!
George Hallmark has the best of both worlds, he says. He is the quintessential career artist, with paintings hanging in renowned museums and galleries. His work remains in high demand throughout the West and beyond. He frequently travels around the United States, invited to show work in national art exhibitions and competitions. And after all that is finished, he returns to his placid Texas Hill Country home to spend time with family and friends, to live the life of a regular guy who likes to paint, cook, play drums, and listen to music.
But this combination of professional success and personal contentment did not come easily to Hallmark, who forged his own path into the art world, starting out as a high-school student illustrating tests for his teachers and spurring himself on every day since to realize his dreams. “The good Lord gave me the desire. The rest of it has been good ol’ hard work,” says Hallmark in his deep Texas drawl. His career now spans five decades and has taken him from draftsman to commercial artist, and finally, to oil painter. Coming from a small North Texas high school without an art program and armed with only a few college courses in art and design, Hallmark had to rely on his innate ability and sheer force of will to break into the field. His first art-related position was with an architecture firm producing delineations. As he used his skills to bring the architects’ designs to life with measured lines and calculated perspective, he simultaneously worked independently to hone his painting techniques, manifesting his own ideas with color, form, and light.
Hallmark received his first commission when the firm asked him to create paintings for its new headquarters. Soon after, a friend introduced him to Bill Burford at Texas Art Gallery in Dallas, and the legendary gallery owner immediately began to carry his work. Hallmark moved into the art world full time at that point, opening his own commercial studio, where he designed album covers and corporate logos, including the insignia for the iconic Billy Bob’s Texas nightclub in Fort Worth. Even as he found success as a commercial artist, he continued painting on the side. Then in the early 1980s, Hallmark gave up his commercial business and dove headlong into his passion, pursuing painting as a full-time career. He fervently believed that he would, with time and effort, realize his dreams. “You’ve got to push yourself,” Hallmark says. “I’m grateful for my gifts but also for the opportunity to work as hard as I can to achieve my goals.”
He remembers the sage advice from his father: “Do what you love, and you’ll reap the benefits.” A professional musician, the elder Hallmark embraced his passion for music, working hard to make a living but also enjoying every moment—a modus vivendi that young George took to heart and continues to live every day.
Hallmark’s work ethic and creative drive have served him well. Today, his paintings appear in numerous corporate and public collections nationwide, including those of Texas Instruments, MBNA, the Texas State and United States Capitol buildings, the Autry National Center in Los Angeles, Atlanta’s Booth Western Art Museum, and the Eiteljorg Museum of American Indians and Western Art in Indianapolis, which mounted a retrospective of his work in 2012. In 1988 he was named the official Texas State Artist.
Hallmark participates in nationally acclaimed invitational exhibitions, among them the Prix de West at the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum in Oklahoma City and the Masters of the American West at the Autry National Center. He also shows his work in Quest for the West at the Eiteljorg Museum, The West Select at the Phoenix Art Museum, and the American Masters show at the historic Salmagundi Club in New York City, where he was inducted as a member in 2008.
Primarily a self-taught painter, Hallmark counts American realist Clark Hulings [1922-2011] and 19th-century Spanish artist Joaquín Sorolla among his stylistic influences. He studied oil painting at Brigham Young University under William Whitaker at the start of his fine-art career, and while he took plenty of cues from Whitaker, it was during that time he really began to develop his own approach to oils. Hallmark continued his dogged practice regimen, and after much trial and error, arrived at what has become his signature style, which pairs rich, painterly layers with strikingly precise naturalism. “I try to paint something that looks almost photorealistic from a distance,” he says of his technique, referring to his brushwork as “a happy medium—not too loose, not too tight.” His overall creative process remains decidedly old school, save the digital camera he uses to photograph potential subject matter while traveling.
Hallmark spent his early career painting a wide array of subject matter, including cowboys and landscapes, before circling back around to architecture-based compositions. Visits to western Europe and the California coast have informed many of his paintings, which frequently feature churches, missions, and other buildings indigenous to each region. These days, his primary source for subject matter is Mexico. He and his wife of 14 years, Lisa, travel there regularly, and they quickly developed a deep appreciation for the country’s geography, light quality, architecture, and people—a devotion made apparent in Hallmark’s thoughtful depictions of village life. And when he paints, life is exactly what appears.
Hallmark possesses a marked talent for discovering the profound within the mundane and fills his canvases with vignettes of people and animals coming, going, working, and living. Contemplative figures evoke quiet narratives as told by interactions with their surroundings. When asked why he is drawn to such workaday scenes in particular, the artist replies, “I believe you can paint the most magnificent church there is, but without people going about their everyday pursuits, the piece will have no life.” He continues, “One reason I paint weathered, worn architecture is because of the life and stories the buildings reflect.”
Not content to merely stack foreground figures atop a decorative background, Hallmark fuses compositional elements and planes to create a compelling visual conversation between animate and inanimate. He renders each building with the precision of a draftsman, all the while breathing life into its structure with layers of loose, luscious paint and light. Towering churches, modest cantinas, and simple stucco walls serve as departure points and destinations, shelters and gathering places. Elevated far above basic stage sets, the buildings emanate a near-tangible energy, as if they had souls of their own.
Light plays a principal role in Hallmark’s artwork as well, as he layers and manipulates pigments to create atmospheres bathed in a broad spectrum of lights and darks. “I have always been interested in bright sunlight, shadows, and how they relate to each other,” he says, recounting how the architecture firm he worked for built churches: “Of course, they wanted the renderings to look like heaven was opening up right over the church.” Indeed, Hallmark displays a remarkable command over light, whether portraying the heady brilliance of the noonday sun, the delicate glow of a moonlit evening, or the potent warmth of a candle shining through the window.
As much success as Hallmark has found, he refuses to rest on his artistic laurels. He continually strives to perfect his techniques, even to experiment, stretching beyond what he has already accomplished. “I feel my work continues to grow because I try to push myself,” he explains. In this vein, Hallmark remains invested and his vision relevant to the genre.
“I’ll keep on painting until I can’t,” the artist says with resolve, clearly intent on living the painter’s life for the rest of his. Meanwhile, Hallmark continues to savor both of his worlds—traveling, painting, showing, resting, and starting the process all over again. “We have a good life,” he says. And honestly, he has earned it.
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