Evocative paintings by John C. Traynor bespeak a lifetime devoted to fine art
By Norman Kolpas
This story was featured in the November 2015 issue of Southwest Art magazine. Get the Southwest Art November 2015 print issue or digital download now–then subscribe to Southwest Art and never miss another story
Some fine artists discover their professional destinies only after years of pursuing dramatically different careers. Others may spend decades working as illustrators or graphic designers before finally turning their evening and weekend pastimes into the full-time jobs of which they’d dreamed.
But John C. Traynor has always been an artist, never heeding any other calling. Now 54 years old, he has been painting and successfully selling his landscapes, still lifes, and portraits for well over three decades.
His path seemed clear, even inevitable, from the start. He recalls, for example, sitting beside his father in the car one summer day back in the early 1970s. To pass the time, he sketched a drawing of his dad while the family drove to New England from their home in Mendham, NJ, about 40 miles west of Manhattan. “He was impressed that I got the feeling of the tension in his shoulders as he held the steering wheel,” says Traynor. “I’ve just always had that ability to capture who someone is, their personality, and how they feel.”
The same could be said of the way Traynor’s oils seem to distill the very spirit of a place, or the spirit of objects arranged in a still-life painting. With their distinctive combination of impressionistic brush strokes, well-balanced compositions, and well-measured lighting and tone that trace their inspirations back to the old masters, the artist’s works possess a rare power to evoke emotional responses in viewers. “Many people who own my paintings,” he remarks with a note of humble gratitude, “have told me that seeing them every day just puts them in a good mood.”
Even before he made that sketch of his father in the car, Traynor found his imagination seized by a gift he’d been given because of his budding talent: a Jon Gnagy Learn to Draw set. The boxed collection included drawing pencils, sharpener, sketching chalks, shading stump, eraser, artist’s board, paper, and instruction book, and it had been developed by the star of a televised art how-to series that was popular in the 1950s and ’60s. “Shortly after that,” he continues, “I went to the local five-and-dime and bought myself six tubes of oil paint and some brushes, turpentine, and canvas boards. I set up an apple on a table and painted my first still life. I just figured out oil painting on my own.” Like his uncanny knack for capturing personalities, he says, “It’s just an ability I was born with.”
Soon, that natural-born talent received due recognition in school, too. His eighth-grade art teacher, who had a fine-arts degree himself, taught Traynor etching and woodcut printing and took him along on outings to the countryside to paint landscapes. The head of the art department in the private Catholic high school Traynor attended suggested, during his junior year, that he be fast-tracked to graduate a year early so he could get a head start in art school.
After visiting a few campuses in the Northeast with his father, Traynor chose to study at Paier School of Art, based in New Haven and Hamden, CT, enrolling there at the tender age of 16. Though not widely known, Paier seemed an ideal fit for nurturing an already blossoming talent. It was founded, notes Traynor, by former students and teachers at the Yale School of Art who were not in accord with that institution’s post-World War II transition toward a focus on modern art. Instead, Paier’s cofounders, Edward and Adele Paier, provided a traditional atelier-style training led, says Traynor, by “teachers who had practical knowledge from being in the trenches, making their livings as fine artists or illustrators.” Classes emphasized fundamental skills for what he sums up as “a good all-around art education. I’d spend six hours a day drawing and painting. And then, at night, I’d do more.”
Traynor further enriched his studies by taking figure-painting classes taught by Frank Mason at the Art Students League of New York, studying landscape painting with Mason in Vermont, taking drawing workshops in Vermont from Carroll N. Jones Jr., and doing a year of sculpture studies with Brother Jerome Cox in Florence, Italy. His mentoring from such master artists, he says, was essential to launching his own professional career. “Knowing them on a personal level,” he says, “I began to think that if they could do it, I could do it. I had no thought that I would try to be an artist. Instead, I knew I was going to be an artist.” Such a self-assured attitude, he admits, sometimes led to misunderstandings among his fellow students. “Some of them thought I was arrogant. Actually, I was just shy but confident. I knew what I wanted, and I never had any doubt in my mind.”
What he wanted most was to start making his own living as an artist. Returning from Italy newly married, Traynor took a temporary job in New Jersey teaching art at his old prep school. That enabled him to save up enough money, he says, “to start selling my paintings at different weekend outdoor shows on the East Coast,” winning multiple awards in them along the way. Those shows, he says, provided invaluable training. “When you sell to the public directly, you get a lot of feedback,” he explains. And he paid attention. From the beginning, his pieces sold solidly, and a gallery signed him up during his second year of professional work. “So, since the age of 21, I’ve pretty much always made a living from painting,” he says. “I joke that I’m stuck, because it’s the only thing I can do.”
“Stuck” though he may be, Traynor enjoys his life as a painter immensely. He loves to travel, always bringing along his paints and a portable easel when he leaves his home and studio in West Swanzey, NH, to visit places as far-flung as California’s Monterey Peninsula, The Netherlands, Italy, and Ireland. “I’ve been to Ireland 35 times since my first trip there when I was 18 years old,” he says. He made his initial two-month visit to the Emerald Isle because many of his ancestors came from that country. Subsequent sojourns, however, have been inspired largely by the landscape itself. “I love Ireland’s coastal scenery, with its wide-open cliffs and farmlands and great skies. When I’m there, I go out twice a day in early morning and late afternoon—rain or shine—find a spot that appeals to me, and then just set up and paint.”
The result of that regimen is works such as STROLL THROUGH THE VILLAGE, a scene he painted of the coastal town of Ballyferriter on the western edge of the Dingle Peninsula in County Kerry. “I just stood there for about two hours and translated what I saw,” he says, “taking some buildings out so I could improve on the composition. And then a woman with a baby in a stroller walked through, and I painted her in quickly.” His primary goal, he says, was “not to worry about getting a good painting so much as capturing my feelings on the canvas”—impressions that he’ll further refine for another hour or so back in his studio. “Hopefully, the viewer’s brain will get that same feeling from my visual stimulus.”
That same intention applies to his other genres of work as well. Take LADY IN WHITE, for example. The portrait depicts a lovely Thai woman who works at J.M. Stringer Gallery in Vero Beach, FL, one of several galleries that represent Traynor’s work. “She’s a very peaceful and pleasant person, and I think that comes through in the painting,” he says. In the process of painting the portrait, however, he also aimed to make the work a complex yet subtle study of light and color, capturing the effects of sunshine and dappled shadow and of all the hues that combine to make up a jacket that the viewer reads as white.
Traynor approached SUNFLOWERS IN RED PORCELAIN with a similar sensibility, thinking of it almost as a portrait rather than a still life. “There’s something about a sunflower that is almost like a face to me,” he says. “It almost has a personality that comes through.” Yet, he stresses, “for me the subject is secondary to the light and atmosphere and how I’m moving the viewer’s eye around the painting”—all to his goal of recreating for others the impressions and feelings he himself experiences.
These days he shares the lessons he has learned from his mentors and from the old masters through painting workshops he leads. “There was a time period during the past 30 years when a lot of information about traditional painting was thrown away because the contemporary art world didn’t think it was important anymore, that it was more important to do what hadn’t been done before. But I was fortunate to learn that traditional information,” says Traynor. “You have to give it back to new students, so information like that will never be lost.”
Carmel Fine Art, Carmel-by-the-Sea, CA; The Christina Gallery, Edgartown, MA; Haley & Steele Gallery, Boston, MA; J.M. Stringer Gallery of Fine Art, Vero Beach, FL; The Harrison Gallery, Williamstown, MA; The Lily Pad Gallery, Watch Hill, RI; Mockingbird Gallery, Bend, OR; Sorelle Gallery, New Canaan, CT; Whistle Pik Galleries, Fredericksburg, TX; Landmark Gallery, Kennebunkport, ME.
Featured in the November 2015 issue of Southwest Art magazine–click below to purchase:
Southwest Art November2015 print issue or digital download Or subscribe to Southwest Art and never miss a story!
MORE RESOURCES FOR ART COLLECTORS & ENTHUSIASTS
• 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