Sunday, November 25, 2018

The Poetic Landscape: Maurice Sapiro

Born in 1932, Maurice Sapiro could be considered one of the elder statesmen of contemporary tonalist landscape painting. He adopts the tonalist practice of severely limiting his color range and linear delineation in favor of atmosphere and subtle (and occasionally dramatic) modulations of value and hue. 

Sapiro has a wide range of subject matter. He paints more or less traditional tonalist landscapes tinged with abstraction, semi-abstract sky scapes, still lifes, and portraits, as well as entirely abstract poured paintings. Where he really shines, in my opinion, is in his deeply atmospheric skies and "dreamscapes" as he calls them. 

His practice has evolved from a traditional approach to a far more intuitive one. As he always has, he starts with gessoed hardware-store hardboard which he stains with a semitransparent imprimatura underpainting (he usually uses burnt sienna thinned with liquid). He then "stipples" the underpainting with the rough tip of a brush to create an underlying texture in the densest areas of the composition, such as trees or rocks, bringing life to a surface that would otherwise be flat. Here's a link to a step-by-step text demo of his earlier, more methodical process, in which he explains his technique including color mixing. 

Light in the Forest, 16x20. I like the mystery in this. It's a good example, too, of the underlying texture he creates with stippling.
These days when he paints, Sapiro begins with a general image in mind of what he's trying to accomplish, he told me in an email interview. "But I have to rules or formulas," he said. "I simply push paint around until the image I imagine appears. I've learned to sometimes follow the direction the painting is taking me."

"Painting is a lot like giving CPR," he says, "I keep working until the painting is breathing on its own!"

His palette is a traditional one (see below). One of the keys to how he works is surely that he mixes three different grays (using different proportions of alizarin crimson, viridian, and white) that he uses to modify out-of-the-tube mixes.

As with all images, click for a larger, higher resolution version.

Sapiro began his creative life as a music student, in which, he says, he was "miscast." After some restless years as a soldier and later a teacher, he finally found his role as a painter. He taught himself largely by visiting world class museums, and he advises students who want to paint to "look at paintings. Not on an electronic screen, but in person, up close. Look at the edges," he says, "that's where the secrets of how they were painted are revealed."

His development wound its way through the history of Western art. He "hero-worshipped certain painters and styles," starting with Rembrandt and Sargent, for their bravura brushwork, and discovering the possibilities in landscape painting through Cezanne and "the beauty in cool colors," he said. "The Luminists challenged me to paint light and glare."

But for him the real game changer came in 2002 when he saw "Gerhard Richter: 40 Years of Painting" at the Museum of Modern Art.

Gerhard Richter
"His blurring and blending of pigment showed the possibility of using pigment in a different way," he said.
Gerhard Richter
  "I then embarked on trying to represent the intangibles in a tangible presentation. Light, clouds, mist, fog, glare, haze, were now possible to paint."

Gerhard Richter
Sapiro considers himself a studio painter. "I always have, next to the easel, an old photo, or a color chart, or a print of one of my earlier paintings to use as a template," he says, "a reference for color and contrast."

A Sapiro skycape

Somewhat abstract tonalist landscapes...

Still life.


Abstraction. Discovering that oils with different viscosity move across the surface and each other at different speeds, he pours the paint then turns and manipulates the pigment flows.
I recorded a podcast on Sapiro for the "Painters on Painters" series hosted by "Artists of New England," which you can access here.


  1. Thinking of you Christopher and wishing you a Happy New Year
    Enjoying your blog.
    Kind Regards,
    Susan Friend

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