Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Catherine Prescott: Paint & Passion

By Luana Luconi Winner
The Art of the Portrait Journal
Issue No. 45, 3rd Quarter 2009

“I really do think painting is about desire. There is something that I want to make happen. It is about longing…about making an image that I long for… something more beautiful, something more meaningful."

Marriage Portrait: Gregory and Suzanne Wolfe
Oil on wood panels
Catherine Prescott grew up enriched by a constant exposure to the arts through her “culturally interesting” parents in a small Wisconsin community. Her father was a jazz musician and her mother an avid amateur watercolorist and they frequently took her on trips to nearby Chicago to visit the Art Institute and other galleries.   At 13, Catherine studied with a local artist doing plein aire paintings with a adults, and at 15 she studied at an artist’s studio during a summer retreat to Mexico, staying with extended family and creating large charcoal nudes from life.  Prescott pursued art academically, but not without difficulty.

Attending Colorado College in the 60’s during influences of abstract art, pop art, and expressionism, Catherine was not able to find a portrait or figure painting class.  She decided she had no interest in  the contemporary art world's aesthetic opinion.  Because of this she spent the summer she was 20 in Madrid, studying Spanish painters at the Prado and took a side trip to Italy to study Caravaggio.  Back in college, she rushed to finish home work, hired her own models, and stayed up all night doing large scale charcoal figures studies.  And although her instructors found this interesting, they never really took it seriously, and she found no one who could guide her into deeper development of the portrait and figure. Even in graduate school, only photorealism was taught, a style Catherine thought to be too cold and rigid. Again she was left without true guidance.  “I believed in myself but not in the contemporary art world. The skills were never automatic."

After college, she and her husband moved to Switzerland for a year of personal enrichment and there she started painting from observation exclusively: “My first paintings were little tiny panels of wildflowers. I would go out into the hills. They were very detailed like little Dutch paintings.  I had to teach myself to paint with small brushes. This was long before I saw anybody contemporary doing that.  These were more like what I saw from the 17th century.  I taught myself and learned to paint from observation.”

Prescott became a Christian and began painting the figure seriously. She felt that God was guiding her, and that she didn’t have to paint what other people thought defined art at the time.  "Becoming a Christian....that’s [where] I started taking myself seriously, and how I gained a sense of purpose and focus.” 

With new resolve she pursued only what she wanted to paint: portraits. Catherine said, “I just won’t call myself an artist. I don’t care if it is art or not. I will just do what I want.”  While teaching high school she continued to paint from hired models and began accepting commissions even though she still had never had anyone show her how to do a portrait.  It all came from studying Sargent, Vermeer, Velasquez, Rembrandt, Raphael.

Catherine's belief in herself was affected by a visit to NYC at age thirty.  She was living and teaching part time at a local college in Rochester, NY, and was surprised to see a group of figure painters doing similar work to what she was attempting. She began thinking, “Maybe I am an artist after all.” Ten years later, she was again inspired, this time by Richard Mawry ‘s work. He had lived in Italy after college as this was the only place where one could still study classical figure work. His images were similar to what she wanted paint, but to do this she knew she had to slow down her painting process.  She explains, “The biggest change in my paintings happened when I went from ‘fast painting’ in a more painterly way to a ‘slow painting’ with more detail.  I am not getting at what I want unless I put more time into it… and putting in more detail to it."  This approach varied from her prior technique when painting from life, where she had to work fast to be considerate of her model. 

This reduced speed requires that she work primarily from photographs, although she states, "I will work from life if I do a self portrait or a still life."  Her commissions are done from photographs, "because I don’t want anyone to be there while I am painting.  I want just to be alone.  That’s when I can feel the emotion. That’s when I can make the painting do something.”  Prescott very rarely uses to photograph to provide the emotion or atmosphere of a painting.  "I paint it the way I want it to feel. The idea is the painting, but I also impose upon the figures what I call my own ‘interior landscape’.  Instead of giving me the feel of the painting, the photographs give me the detail.”  She heavily emphasizes the importance of drawing skill.

Feeling her intense longing to create, the desire to express herself uniquely, has driven Prescott to pursue her own style, subject and method away from the restrictive academic curricula and aesthetic movements she encountered in her education.  She advises students and other artists to give themselves the same permission.

“If someone had said to me in the 60’s, ‘Give it your best shot. Go for what you would really like to paint” and I could have, I would have painted just like I am painting now. I feel like I am painting the paintings I have always wanted to but didn’t know how.  It just takes a long, long time.  Give yourself 35 years, and you’ll be able to do it and they won’t look like mine. They will look like yours.”

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