Stephen Paints a Picture: Part Three

September 4, 2013

23 July 2013

stephen scott artistStephen Scott spends a lot more time with me than just at our sittings. We have dinner together almost every night and meet most days at the Black Duck café for coffee. His wife, Sophie, is also in Sackville for the summer and she is with us a lot as well, but not during the sittings. We talk endlessly about art. It’s a flood of talk. I haven’t talked about art, and in particular, about its process in years and neither has he. It turns out that most of our friends are not artists. It is not that our friends are not interested in the arts, they are, but not in the intense way we are and I really haven’t talked to Stephen at length since he graduated from Mount Allison thirty-five years ago. I had seen his works over the years at various galleries and always liked them, but our paths seldom crossed. So here we are like two long lost friends at a high school reunion trying to catch up on each other’s life.

“A lot of things artists did in the past to make a living no longer exist,” Stephen said over a cup of coffee at the Black Duck, “Like graphic design. It’s all done now with Photoshop on a computer.” “Yes,” I said, “The Group of Seven almost all worked at the same Toronto ad agency in the early 1900s.” We talked a bit about illustration. “Look at somebody like N.C. Wyeth. I saw a show of his book illustrations at the Farnsworth (the art museum in Maine) a couple of months ago and they were all full blown oil paintings and quite nice at that,” I said. “I have been to the Farnsworth and seen his work,” Stephen said, “That kind of stuff just isn’t done any more. Too much work, too expensive,” he added. “There just isn’t the market for that kind of work. Besides, I doubt that there are that many fine arts graduates out there who could actually paint like N.C.,” I said, “and, besides they wouldn’t want do. They wouldn’t see it as art, only skill,” I concluded. “Don’t get me started on the subject of skill,” he said.

That afternoon we were back in my kitchen for the third sitting. It was a cloudy, lazy, at times dark day not ideal for painting as Stephen wants to paint with natural light, but we decided to go ahead anyway. He brought an artificial light fixture with him which we were to try later in the afternoon, but not with much success. Colour looks very different under artificial light because of the Kelvin temperature of artificial light which is quite different from that of natural light. Painting with such light often brings unpleasant surprises when the results are viewed under natural light. “It is about light, you know,” he said, “That is one of the things that painting is all about.” He is right. When I think about painting that I like, it’s usually because of the way that the artist has used light. It is certainly what draws me to Impressionism. Monet can take my breath away.

“Didn’t you like Ted Pulford’s teaching while you were at Mount Allison?,” I asked. “Yes, he was really a hard task master, but he knew his stuff. Particularly watercolour.” Stephen answered. “I don’t think about you as a watercolourist.” “I have done a few decent watercolours, but it was Ted’s approach that was important not the medium. He taught me that you have to be serious if you are going to be a real artist.” I was interested in Stephen’s remarks because during the time I was head of the department and Ted was still teaching, from 1975 to 1980, I had more students come to my office and complain about his teaching than any of his colleagues. They thought that he was too old fashioned and he didn’t allow them to do what they wanted and he marked too hard. However, some students, including Stephen, liked his teaching and, interestingly, when I talked much later to students who studied with him, including those who complained, said that he was their best teacher and they wished that they had paid more attention to him while they had the chance.

There was the continuing question of what students were and were not taught in art schools and programmes in last fifty years or so. The whole thing about the making of the artist. As someone who had taught and ran an art department for nearly forty years, I would like to think that I have done more good than harm. Talking to Stephen, who was a student in the department while I was head, gave me pause about my preconceptions. It turns out that most of what he knows about the technique of oil painting he learned on his own after leaving the university. I believe that skill is important in art and Stephen is certainly skillful both as a draughtsman and painter, but why didn’t he get a better formal education? “Too much talk about art and too little doing,” is his answer. The hot-shot art teachers are likely to be short on basic techniques and many art teachers want to be buddies with their students and treat them like artists rather than students. Art students end up thinking that they are making ‘real’ art in second and third year painting classes when clearly they are not. “Most of the stuff I did in school was crap,” he said. This was troubling as Stephen had spend a year in Europe and another at the Ontario College of Art before enrolling at Mount Allison which he thought, at the time, was the best place to learn to be an artist and what is even more troubling is that perhaps it was. It does not say much about the quality of art education in North America.

“I was born in the wrong century to be an artist,” Stephen said, “I would have been happier three or four centuries ago.” Other artists have told me the same thing particularly those who are realists. When he, and other artists of his ilk, look around the high end commercial galleries and major public art museums they don’t always like what they see. He feels that there is little critical and, hence, commercial interest in the kind of work he does. “There is a lot of stuff out there that is just bad, but gets attention and brings in the big bucks,” he said. “Look at Tracy Emin.” He stops painting and brings up some images of her drawing on his smart phone to show me. I have to agree that the drawings, at least on the phone, look pitiful. “She’s hot stuff in Britain and internationally,” he said. I can offer him no reason why. Stephen is a long way from a full blown reactionary. He does like some contemporary art as do I, but it is easy to understand his frustration. “I can’t see it getting any better,” I add, which doesn’t help much.

“You know the urge to paint realistically does go back a long way,” I said, “Look at the caves of Altamira and Lascaux. Lord knows what purpose they served, but they are damn fine images.” I pressed Stephen to tell me what he thought about progress in art. “Is it linear or does it go in circles?,” I asked. “It sort of jumps around,” he said. “It is hard to think in terms of progress when you see what people painted five hundred years ago. Caravaggio, Rembrandt and Rubens are pretty damn impressive. Hard to improve on quality like that,” he added. “I have a big thing on surface,” I said, “The way those three guys throw paint around; the three dimensional surface of their work. You just don’t see that in illustrations in books.” “You know,” Stephen said, “an artist should be allowed to touch work like that in galleries just to get the feeling of the paint.” While not a really practical idea, I know where he is coming from and I certainly would like to rub my hand over a juicy late Rembrandt painting. I used to blend colours in my paintings with my fingers and the palm of my hand and that felt good. So far, I have not seen Stephen get that tactile while painting. Time will tell. So far he has stuck to brushes and the odd poke of a pencil point to make a line in wet paint.

“I do talk quite a bit to Will (William) Forrestall about art in Fredericton. We do have some stuff in common,” he said. That is interesting as I know Will rather well myself and have talked to him a number of times, but have never put the the two of them together. They both graduated from Mount Allison’s fine arts programme many years ago and they have both been able to eke out a living as artists. I should have guessed, as both of them are realists and removed from the mainstream of contemporary art and Fredericton is a small place. Will, like his father Tom, paints in egg tempera rather than oil, but, unlike his father, generally paints still-lifes. “I like Will’s stick-to-it-ness. He is an odd man out, like myself,” Stephen said. “Your surface qualities are really different,” I said, “tempera is dry and flat and far removed of the richness of your oil surface,” I added. “True,” he said, “but art is not all about surface, it is about intent and there is certainly intent in Will’s paintings.” And what is intent?, I thought. If it exists, then Stephen paintings must, and do, exhibit the quality as well. We had talked around the subject since starting this project. Intent is a certain seriousness about the act of painting and keeping to the qualities of your own beliefs about art. In short, it is stubbornness in the face of opposition to the mainstream which both Stephen and Will continue to do.

VH portrait in progressIt was nearly four o’clock and because of the overcast sky, too dark to paint with natural light. The artificial light, which Stephen had bounced off the ceiling of the kitchen, wasn’t, as I said before, was really working well, so we decided to stop. “Why don’t we continue this conversation over dinner,” I said, “Let’s pick up Sophie and go to the Schnitzel Haus; perhaps German food will get us in the mood to talk about your time in Berlin and German art.” Stephen said, “What do you think?,” giving me a look at the painting which he had been working on for the past two hours. “Well, it does look like me.” “I think it going to take a lot more work. I think I want to do another oil sketch after this one before I move on to a finished painting,” he said. What is meant by finished appeared to be another topic for another time.

© Virgil Hammock, Sackville NB Canada, Friday, 30 August, 2013.


  1. […] don’t provide the time for enough reflective practice. As long-time painter Stephen Scott has noted, most of what he knows about the technique of oil painting he learned on his own after leaving the […]

  2. […] don’t provide the time for enough reflective practice. As long-time painter Stephen Scott has noted, most of what he knows about the technique of oil painting he learned on his own after leaving the […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: