David Hettinger | Light on Life

American impressionist David Hettinger illuminates everyday scenes

By Rosemary Carstens

In the Corner of the Garden, oil, 30 x 38.

For David Hettinger, art is about light—the strength of its presence or its absence. Whether the subject is peonies and geraniums in a halo of backlighting, softly rolling farm fields, or a young girl dozing in a wingback chair with a book open in her lap, how light flickers and flows across the surface of a scene is what most intrigues Hettinger. “A subject alone is not enough,” he says from his studio overlooking the Fox River in Aurora, IL.

“As an artist, I love to see the ever-changing effects of light—without that, a painting just doesn’t work. My preference is natural light, if possible; although, for my interiors, I often make do with lamplight or firelight.” One look at Hettinger’s glowing, impressionistic paintings makes clear that his nearly five decades of fascination with light have not been in vain. And his seasoned drawing ability adds a heightened sensitivity to the genre.

“Drawing is my passion,” he says. As a child, Hettinger drew pictures of cowboys he watched in TV westerns, and, when attending a Catholic military high school, the nuns could not keep him from drawing Ward Bond and John Wayne during English class. “I’m not sure when I began drawing from life,” he continues, “but it has gotten me where I am today.”

While in art school in Chicago, he drew pretty girls at the local Pizza Hut—but only those with boyfriends, who usually ended up paying for his pizza and beer. “While living in New York [after art school],” he says, “I drew people in the parks, along the docks, and workers at the Fulton Street Fish Market. Here in Aurora, I spend a lot of time observing people in parks, gardening, fishing, caring for kids—all the things people do in their daily lives. I draw everywhere I go.”

New Day, oil, 26 x 30.

When Hettinger returned to Illinois from New York and was working as a full-time artist, he would attend as many as four life-drawing sessions a week. Even now, he drops in on at least one a week. “Drawing a model opens the door for me to the real person inside. I now have models come to my studio three days a week—for the last four years [there has been] one I find particularly inspiring.”

While Hettinger’s favorite subject matter is figurative, he is also adept at still lifes and landscapes. He says he “feels the land” inside of him, and he associates the local geography with a heartwarming sense of family, taking comfort in its familiar sights and sounds. He believes these qualities are strongly reflected in his art.

Family and community are very important to the artist. Hettinger is one of five children, with two brothers and two sisters plus 50 cousins. His mother worked at his high school, and his dad was a foreman in the wheel shop of the Burlington Northern Railroad. His parents hosted a dance every Friday night at the high school, so the kids would have a place to hang out. His was a tight-knit community where everyone knew everyone else, and 90 percent of the men worked for the railroad. Among his large extended family, he’s the only one involved in the arts. “I was destined to become an artist,” he asserts.

Hettinger spent four years at the American Academy of Art in Chicago, three of them focused on fine art, studying classical realism and the techniques of the Flemish, Dutch, and Spanish masters under the guidance of Joseph Vanden Broucke. He then worked for two years with renowned artist David Leffel in his New York studio while, at the same time, making trips to Richard Schmid’s Gaylordsville studio in Connecticut. And although he says he learned a great deal from Leffel and Schmid—and both were very generous to him—Vanden Broucke had perhaps the greatest influence because he emphasized the importance of being oneself as an artist.

“The seasoned artist knows how to mix colors, use brushes, apply paint, and draw. He can express himself with these tools. But art comes from within,” Hettinger states. “If you have nothing to say, then you are just a picture-maker, not an artist. Art speaks to the viewer on a personal level.”

Summer Breeze, oil, 24 x 30.

For Hettinger, art is more than creating a picture. Memory and history play a role in understanding each scene more deeply. Painting a cornfield, for example, he remembers all the family farms that were there before corporate farming dominated; he sees his subject as part of a global economic landscape and thinks about how corn fits into a bigger picture. But beyond his intellectual thought process, it is the feel of the sun and wind on his face and the smell of cut hay and manure that enhance his sensory experience of a subject and, he feels, add credence to his finished works.

When painting in his studio, Hettinger employs models; many of them are young women working their way through school. He allows them to study while they pose and talks with them about what they are learning. Right now he’s getting a “free education” about economics and international trade, he says. One of his favorite models, Jordan, is a student from rural Arkansas. Listening to her talk about her childhood, and telling her about his own, conjures scenes he’d like to capture in paint. “My paintings are a mix of present and past as much as they are landscapes or still lifes or figures.”

Paintings such as the award-winning 
SUMMER BREEZE showcase Hettinger’s signature characteristics. Posing Jordan with a book was natural and familiar for him. Reading has always been important in his family. “My dad always had a book in his hands,” he says, “and my older brother reads a novel a day, now that he is retired.” Hettinger himself often enjoys mysteries, such as the Inspector Montalbano series written by Andrea Camilleri. He began the painting, as is his habit, by making a simple gesture drawing directly on the canvas with a wash of burnt sienna thinned with turpentine. Observe the light variations captured in this painting—backlighting the model’s feet, washing over her knees, dancing across her face, silhouetting her hands, and playing across the colors of her dress. Sunlight filters through sheer curtains and flows in a whirl of color and design to accentuate the window plants’ cast shadows. Each brush stroke enhances the emotional content and the sense of aliveness in the scene.

The Blue and Gold, oil, 12 x 16.

Hettinger’s ability to capture the human condition is one reason Maggie Kruger, owner of M Gallery of Fine Art in Charleston, SC, is so pleased to represent him. “He paints beautifully,” she says. “Whether it’s the angle of two figures in quiet conversation or the crossed ankles of a figure in repose, his exquisite ability to indicate intention is astonishing!”

IN THE CORNER OF THE GARDEN illustrates the artist’s sensitivity to a scene’s emotional qualities and his skill with translating natural, outdoor lighting. “People [like to] lie under shade trees, [where] you get dappled light,” he says. “At the end of the day, you get longer shadows and warmer light. The setting sun attracts viewers, and I love to see the effects of that lighting on both people and the landscape.” The painting evolved out of the memory of a family event, at which he found two of his cousin’s daughters, off by themselves talking and resting after an afternoon of badminton and hiking. How Hettinger poses his models, how their bodies are angled in relationship to one another, creates intimacy, and it evokes memories of hot summer days spent picnicking, reading, napping, and having lazy, relaxed conversations with family and friends. Who cannot relate to that? The artist’s palette, the glancing afternoon light, and the dark, patterned silhouettes of the shrubs framing the focal images—all of these reinforce our understanding that here is an artist immersed in life.

Girl Talk, oil, 32 x 40.

In addition to long hours in the studio, drop-in drawing groups, and outdoor excursions to sketch, Hettinger also conducts open critique sessions with fellow artist George Shipperley at Jake’s Bagels in Aurora. Artists often drive more than 50 miles to attend, and the animated sessions draw comments from artists and customers alike. On Sundays, Hettinger teaches an ongoing class. His total devotion to his craft has earned him numerous Oil Painters of America awards, including the Art of the West Award of Excellence in 2009, gold medals in both the 2010 and 2011 Western Regionals, and the Shirl Smithson Founder’s Award for Master Signature Members in the 2011 National Juried Exhibition.

Hettinger’s paintings reveal the intimacy and beauty of everyday activities as well as treasured moments of personal significance. His art is informed by his close attention to, and engagement with, the people around him—and he translates his observations into juicy, engaging compositions that resonate with viewers. Hettinger is a compassionate human being who cares about those he encounters as he travels his destined career path. If he were to write a book about his life, he says, “It would be about the people who pose for me, the people I have painted. Listening to their dreams inspires me to paint. I can’t get into the studio early enough each day, and I hate leaving it each night.”

Total Arts Gallery, Taos, NM; The Weatherburn Gallery, Naples, FL; M Gallery of Fine Art, Charleston, SC; Hyde Gallery, Springfield, MO; Corse Gallery, Jacksonville, FL; Proud Fox Gallery, Geneva, IL; Wichita Gallery of Fine Art, Wichita, KS; www.davidhettinger.com.

Featured in May 2012.