By Rosemary Carstens
Teachers who believe in us, who push us to accomplish our dreams, are never forgotten. When asked about their earliest influences, many artists speak with admiration and gratitude about their art teachers. Such is certainly the case for Colorado painter and teacher Kevin Weckbach. “Kevin is an extraordinary teacher, sharing his experience and talent, always willing to lend a helping hand,” says Barbara Hadley, co-owner of Evergreen Fine Art in Evergreen, CO, which represents Weckbach’s work.
Born and raised in Denver, CO, the 40-year-old artist is unswayed by trends or fads, preferring to challenge rules and go his own way. He describes himself as “tall and wonderfully odd.” At 6 feet, 5 inches and dressing always in black, he cuts a striking figure. An avid player of Shogi—a Japanese variant of chess—Weckbach finds a number of mental similarities between the game and his art; each requires planning and strategy to succeed. He takes his painting and teaching responsibilities quite seriously, and they are important focal points in his life.
Weckbach earned a degree in illustration from the Rocky Mountain College of Art in 1992 and then spent several years studying with Denver master painter Quang Ho, who, he says, was a “huge influence.” Many of the precepts Weckbach uses in his classes today were developed during that period. Although he maintains ongoing classes in Denver year round, he also conducts workshops in other locales. His core classes require six months’ to a year’s commitment and follow a rigorous curriculum.
Rather than focusing on specific techniques, Weckbach teaches how to access what he calls the “visual dialogue” of a painting project. He begins by discussing the three levels of an artist’s progression. In the first or “literal” level, the artist sees subject matter as distinct and discrete objects, without interpretation, which can limit perception. In the second level, a visual dialogue emerges in which the artist sees subject matter not as individual components but as shapes and is able to pick and choose knowledgeably among visual approaches to representing them. In the third level, an intuitive overlay comes into play. Now the artist instinctively chooses an approach and is, Weckbach says, in “harmony with the visual aspects of the project and painting with individual authority.”
In the first three months of classes, Weckbach’s students paint only with black and white latex house paint. They focus on shape and line, developing an ability to see beyond what the subject is. Following that initial period, the class moves on to incorporate values (variations in lightness and darkness) and color.
Weckbach teaches 10 visual approaches to painting, spending roughly a month on each: shape, line, dark/light pattern, equalization, local tone, form, light and shadow, silhouette, front lit, and color. He also delves more deeply into texture and patterns, values, and edges. During class, when he sees a student is frustrated or stuck, he’ll often stop and show examples of famous artists who also failed, at times, to execute an idea successfully, or to talk about his personal struggles with some of the concepts. When asked about the highs and lows of teaching,
Weckbach responds, “I love watching my students light up when they get it, but the agony that comes with getting it pains me to witness.”
Weckbach’s painting BIG ROCK demonstrates one of the approaches he teaches, showing how a focus on light and shadow can create a signature look in an artwork. This painting also exemplifies his love of rule-breaking challenges as he purposely places the main subject right in the middle of the composition, using the branch in the foreground to soften the scene and pull the viewer into it. In contrast to smaller paintings, where he works wet into wet very rapidly, this larger work required painting wet over dry at times, allowing him to play with the resulting effects. Note the artist’s use of red to visually pull certain elements of the scene forward.
Being an exceptional and empathetic art teacher requires a rare synthesis of attributes: a high level of artistic accomplishment and the ability to lead. As both a talented artist and a capable guide, Weckbach blazes a trail for emerging and already-established artists to follow. Importantly, he does not teach students how to paint as he paints; instead, he provides the tools for students to access their own creativity.
“I especially admire Kevin’s work ethic and his honesty. What he believes, he’ll tell you,” says student Dan Oakleaf. “He teaches us to be diligent about quality yet is always careful not to influence our personal style.” Oakleaf studied with Weckbach for several years and now gets together with him a couple of times a month for painting sessions while their young daughters enjoy a play date. Oakleaf creates intimate compositions featuring landscapes, still lifes, and wildlife that draw you back again and again with their detail and color harmony. Formerly in the printing industry, the painter credits his teacher with his growth and achievements. “Kevin taught me so much,” he reiterates. “My work has exploded under his tutelage!”
For Valerie Amon, a student of Weckbach’s at the recommendation of Quang Ho, signing up for his yearlong class was “the best thing I’d done for myself in a long time.” This year she works as his assistant to help find models and set up for his classes. Amon admires Weckbach’s soft-spoken, unassuming manner and respects his ability. “He knows his studies inside and out. He doesn’t push his own style but pushes his students to achieve their personal best. One thing he really stresses is that we think about our goals for a painting in advance and don’t just blindly dive in.”
Montana-born Amon specializes in figurative, wildlife, and landscape artwork in an impressionistic style. Her brushwork and handling of light and shadow are especially notable, bringing a liveliness and tactile quality to each composition. Her award-winning paintings have appeared in prestigious national exhibitions hosted by Oil Painters of America, Salon International, and the American Impressionist Society, among others.
Susiehyer (her professional name) first began studying with Weckbach about five years ago when she signed up for his 12-month program. “Kevin is an artist’s artist,” Hyer says. “He’s always pushing himself toward excellence—but for himself, not for commercial reasons. He has a natural genius, a natural ability, and he’s always pressing beyond boundaries to interpret a scene, to make it more interesting or different.”
Although Hyer has been working as a professional artist since 1976 and is the recipient of many awards, she is constantly on the hunt for ways to improve. She is a fearless explorer of techniques, materials, and effects. “I’ll paint pretty much anywhere, anytime, and I don’t mind trying anything—street scenes, animals, beach scenes, still lifes, flowers—any subject suitable for exploring ideas of light and shadow, tonal possibilities, dark/light pattern, color, texture, and so on,” she says.
For Hyer, Weckbach’s methods were revelatory. “Something just clicked,” she confirms. “I found the classes really exciting—I often couldn’t even sleep for thinking about painting. I owe a debt of gratitude to Kevin for his teaching.”
These three students’ appreciation and enthusiasm are echoed by many others who have studied with Weckbach. Among them are Dena Kirk, whose plein-air oils express her love of intimate, quiet, and peaceful spaces. “For me, painting is not about duplicating reality,” Kirk says. “My goal is to re-design reality to evoke emotion using a purposeful visual approach.” She studied at the Loveland Academy of Fine Arts, the Art Students League of Denver, and the Scottsdale Artists’ School, as well as with artists Kevin Macpherson, Matt Smith, and Jay Moore in addition to Weckbach.
Another student is Jeannie Paty, who paints plein-air landscapes and cityscapes but is especially known for bright still lifes that feature shoes, purses, and cosmetics. Still, Paty says, “I am less interested in a particular subject and more attracted to the overall abstract qualities, rhythm, and composition of a painting.”
Matt Klein has painted the western landscape for more than 15 years; he also enjoys figurative and still-life subjects. He uses loose, textural brush strokes, infusing his canvases with vibrancy and energy. “Finding beautiful abstractions in nature and everyday objects is what I live for as an artist,” says Klein. He has studied with Quang Ho, Scott Christensen, Kim English, and a number of other well-known artists in addition to Weckbach.
Finally, Tandy Stratton balances her passion for painting with her skills as a designer, creating and selling custom area rugs in a showroom at the Denver Design District. Stratton has been painting for eight years and studying with Weckbach for three years. “I describe myself as a colorist,” Stratton says. “I’ve done still lifes, landscapes, and figures—anything that interests me, and I never know what that might be.”
Ultimately, artists come to classes with a dream packed away among their tubes and brushes—a dream to move from mere imaginings of beautiful artwork to achieving the reality. It is a gifted teacher who is able to light the path to reaching those goals. Kevin Weckbach is such a teacher.
Gallery 1261, Denver, CO; Evergreen Fine Art, Evergreen, CO.
Evergreen Fine Art, Evergreen, CO; www.oakleafstudios.org.
Mary Williams Fine Arts, Boulder, CO; Oh-Be-Joyful Gallery, Crested Butte, CO; Framed Image, Denver, CO; www.susiehyerstudio.com.
The Meadowlark Gallery, Billings, MT; www.valerieamon.com.
Featured in July 2011.