Painter Robert Lemler has charted his own artistic course
By Mark Mussari
Robert Lemler’s professional art life has been its own reward. Throughout his career, the award-winning painter has proven himself equally adroit in figurative work, landscapes, and still life. “It is exceptional to become accomplished in many subjects,” he says. “Still, my primary interest is in figurative work.” In addition, he has been an accomplished and respected art teacher for more than 20 years, teaching at such esteemed venues as the Scottsdale Artists’ School and the Lyme Art Association in Old Lyme, CT. At the Scottsdale school he has served both on the board of trustees and as interim director in addition to teaching.
Not bad for an artist who grew up in a home without art. “My parents had no interest in art nor did they encourage it,” he remembers, “but at an early age I showed a talent for it.” By the time Lemler was in the fourth grade, his teachers began to recognize and foster his nascent talents. Throughout grade school and junior high school, he became proficient at caricature drawing. He was especially drawn to the comic art of Rick Griffin in Surfer Magazine. “I used to copy his elaborate cartooning,” he recalls.
After he entered high school, his teachers encouraged Lemler to enter a scholastic art contest sponsored by the Art Directors Club. “They wanted me to try more realistic drawing,” he observes. Although he was the only high school applicant—all the others were college students—he managed to win a scholarship to the Famous Artists School. “I discovered I could draw tonally [in shades and hues] really well,” he says. “I had honed my toning skills by cartooning, but I never did any cartooning again.” Instead, Lemler turned his attention to fine art; at the time, he was drawn especially to the Impressionists. “I thought Degas was great,” he says.
Lemler pursued painting, drawing, and art history at Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff, AZ, in the 1970s, but he left before completing his degree. “There was no substantive instruction,” he comments in retrospect, “and I found the program uninspiring.” Instead, the young Arizonan ensconced himself in the school’s library, where he pored over myriad art books. He was enthralled by what he refers to today as the usual suspects—Joaquin Sorolla, Anders Zorn, and Antonio Mancini.
Lemler had a true epiphany when he stumbled upon the elegant paintings of John Singer Sargent. But when he brought a book on the revered American portrait painter into an art seminar, he encountered resistance. The professor derided Lemler for not investigating more abstract and nonrepresentational artists. After that experience, he knew he had to pursue art on his own terms.
Lemler left the university and moved back to the Phoenix area. “I struggled along after leaving school,” he says. “Eventually I got some of my work into a gallery in Scottsdale.” At first, he was selling mostly portrait drawings. “The Scottsdale Artists’ School was in its infancy then,” he notes, “and I had the opportunity to study with some really talented contemporary people.” He counts Bettina Steinke, Clarence McGrath, Mark Daily, William Sharer, and Ned Jacob among his strongest influences. “I studied with all these amazing people,” he says. “Jacob really encouraged me—he’s the best friend I have in the art world.”
Lemler started his career working in pastels because, initially, he found them easier to work with. “At first, it was difficult to keep the colors clean when using oils,” he confesses. “But with pastels, you have to have a large set of sticks. In time it became easier to mix up colors in oil. It’s the most forgiving medium to work in.” Lemler says he transitioned at this point in his career from drawing to painting. Today, he defines himself as predominantly an oil painter.
For Lemler, each canvas offers a unique lesson in tone and composition. A still life portrays some limes against a jazzy mix of yellow, white, and turquoise; a foggy seascape depicts spectral boats in a Monterey harbor, all rendered in soft, aqueous tones; a simple pueblo scene reveals a crisp, elementary approach to shape; a lush landscape captures the feel of rain over the Rio Grande River.
Yet it is the artist’s figurative pieces—especially his nudes, with their Sargent-inspired skin tones—that may best illustrate his deft approach to gesture and composition. His reclining nudes, for example, express a languishing quality not only in the model’s pose but also in compositional approach. Though Lemler tends to render figures with more exactitude, the backgrounds are often loosely painted surfaces, such as sofas and sheets, delineated in a few rapid strokes and dashes of light. A thinner application of paint also enhances the tonal elements in these canvases.
In RESTING, a painting depicting his wife, Audrey, asleep in the early morning hours, Lemler has painted a predominantly blue scene. “There are different techniques at play,” he explains. “It’s a delicate modeling of the figure placed against the more textural reading of the bed sheets.” Cool tones emphasize the room’s northern lighting, illuminating the figure in a pale glow. This piece won Southwest Art’s Award of Excellence at Evergreen Fine Art’s Weekend in the West show in September of this year.
Referring to himself as a representational painter, Lemler is resistant to labels such as impressionist or expressionist. He describes his painting process as direct. “I don’t do a lot of preliminary drawing or mapping,” he explains. “There are no stages in my process.” Instead, he says he prefers to bring up all areas of a picture together. “I paint in broad, linear passages,” he observes. “I do not start with a nailed-down drawing. I start with a gestural drawing, which allows me to begin by laying down large blocks of values.” Lemler says he likes to keep those values simple. “I don’t add a lot of modeling in half tones,” he says. “My approach is a little more graphic.”
As his work reveals upon close inspection, the painter works, for the most part, in shapes, moving from the general to the specific. “I move from big shapes to small shapes, like Zorn and Sargent,” he confirms. “I begin by establishing a whole picture. The last step is those little things—those accents—the small lights and darkest darks.” He adds that he works out from the middle values, going up and down in range, and he cites the strong influence of the late portrait artist Bettina Steinke on his spatial sensibilities: “She also painted from shape to shape.” In total, the artist views his process as “an orchestration of shape, value, edge, and color.”
That informed process is clearly illustrated in ASCENSION II, a powerful piece featuring a hot palette of oranges and yellows. “I pushed the chroma in this one,” the artist says. “It’s a very graphic, stylized design, and one aspect of good design is a predominance of color and tone.” With its emphasis on rectilinear shapes, the canvas depicts the San José de Gracia Mission in Las Trampas, NM. “I visited the church, took some photographs, and abstracted the design,” says Lemler. “I bent the perspective to add height.” In his subjective depiction of the mission, and in his use of a deep, saturated color, Lemler veers toward expressionism in this strong canvas.
Lemler maintains a studio in his home in Phoenix, AZ. “I don’t have the perfect artist’s studio,” he says. “I work out of a medium-size bedroom with artificial lighting.” His wife, Audrey, the subject of many of his figure studies, is also the Education Director for the Scottsdale Artists’ School. “I’m her personal curriculum committee,” he jokes.
Over the years, Lemler’s work has garnered a number of awards. In 1996, he won the prestigious Grumbacher Hall of Fame Award, and he has frequently received gold medals in competitions held by both the Oil Painters of America and the Pastel Society of America. Lemler has also exhibited with distinction at such venues as the Allied Artists of America, Coors Western Art Exhibit & Sale, Maui Plein Air Painting Invitational, Laguna Beach Plein Air Painting Invitational, and Maynard Dixon Country Invitational. Lemler has been an undeniably prolific painter in the past 30 years, and the sheer breadth of his subject matter continues to impress viewers.
Many years after striking out on his own artistic course, Lemler has crafted a successful art career. “I’d like to think people appreciate the breadth of what I do,” he concludes, “not only in subject matter but also in handling.” And they surely do. His masterful paintings tell the story of a determined life spent loving—and teaching—art.
Simpson Gallagher Gallery, Cody, WY; Legacy Gallery, Scottsdale, AZ; www.robertlemler.com.
Featured in December 2011.