July 1, 2010

An Artistic Apprenticeship

Surrounded by the vast Gila wilderness, learning to paint with the reclusive desert artist Carl Faber

"Desert Wash" by Carl Faber.

By Esther Jamison
Desert Exposure

I first met Carl Faber in 2007 when I visited Gila Hot Springs with my husband. Upon meeting Carl and seeing his artwork, several things were apparent to me: First, his painting was jaw-dropping in its detail and refinement, and I wanted to be able to paint like that. Second, it became clear he was looking for a serious student to whom he could pass on his knowledge.

I don't know how I had the nerve to ask such an accomplished artist to sit for me so I could draw his portrait. It seems in hindsight to be a particularly rash, if not a downright arrogant thing to do on my part. I have always liked to draw the portraits of people with whom I have a good rapport, but it is quite an intense thing to draw someone's portrait, and given my inexperience, somewhat risky. I think I hoped somehow this portrait of Carl would be my way of proving myself as worthy to study with him. Fortunately, the sketch turned out well and he was pleased with it. I felt an overwhelming desire to stay, and to commence my studies then and there. But it would take us over two years to return.

After saving money, quitting my teaching job in England, and going through the grueling US immigration process, we finally arrived back here. Because not much had been said two years ago on the matter, and because Carl's responses by email were noncommittal, I was a bit nervous about whether I was right in thinking he might want to teach me. So when I knocked on his door the morning after I arrived, getting him out of bed, I was very relieved to find I had not been mistaken after all.

"I'm not a practical person. I don't think you're very practical either," he told me equably. "Artists follow their dreams and don't really think about the practicalities. Not many people are like that."

Carl Faber studied commercial art at a vocational school in Delaware, and worked in sign painting, metalwork, business displays and silkscreening in Florida and California. He moved out to the East Mojave desert in 1972 to focus on easel painting, and to study the desert landscapes that have become his hallmark.

His unique artwork and simple lifestyle drew attention from local and national press during the 1980s. Looking through these newspaper articles, he complains that the Los Angeles Times described him as a "reclusive hermit," when in fact he was constantly talking to people who visited him. Groups such as the Sierra Club and Friends of the Mojave Road brought many visitors, and gave him a constant stream of buyers.

Originally one of these visitors, his partner Adrienne Knute met Carl when he was living at the Rock House at Rock Springs, a Homestead-era building just off the old Mojave Road. Carl illustrated Adrienne's botanical study, Plants of the East Mojave, which was published in 1991 and reprinted in 2002. They first came to Gila Hot Springs in 2004, originally looking for a winter home. Despite winter temperatures being no warmer than the East Mojave, they fell in love with the place and it quickly became a full-time residence.

Once I was sure Carl was happy to teach me whatever I had the appetite to learn in terms of oil painting, I commenced my apprenticeship. For the first month, I went round to his house every day, waiting for whatever instruction or exercise he thought appropriate to give me. At the age of 30, I suppose I am a little too old to be thought of as an apprentice, but it certainly felt like I was undertaking something of that nature, and there was an old-fashioned feel to the arrangement — which, in Carl's words"would have nothing to do with money."

At first, Carl did quite a lot of talking. Once he saw I was paying attention to the degree necessary, information would stream from him in an unbroken torrent. He introduced me to the technical side of oil painting, but also to the spirit with which he undertook it. In one particularly memorable transmission, he described the process of painting a tree, seeing the posture of the branches in relation to each other, and using triangulation to capture the exact proportion and ratio. This was important, he explained, because in its very posture a tree expresses its struggle for survival, its struggle towards the light, towards divinity.

Carl described how his experiences of using LSD back in the 1960s shaped his perception of the natural world. "Not everyone sees what I see" he told me without arrogance. It is not that he sees things that are not there, but that he sees more clearly and vividly the detail of what is there, and what most people don't notice. By painting the delicate beauty of nature and by directing the eye towards its inherently poetic arrangements, Carl's artwork guides the viewer towards a broader perception of and appreciation for nature. "Nature is your greatest teacher as an artist, and it will teach you more about art than I ever will."

Carl lived for 33 years in the East Mojave desert, several of those years in solitude. "If you live for seven years in solitude, you learn patience. I used to want to finish my paintings in one day. There, I found I could go back the next day, the day after that, and if it took me three months to finish a painting, it wouldn't matter."

While he watched other artists go down the photorealism route, he developed his painting style through sustained observation in the immediacy of nature. This loyalty to how things appear to the human eye — rather than to the camera lens — gives his paintings an intimate realism. Carl can talk all afternoon on what he considers to be the superiority of field painting: "Far more information is gathered by the eyes than by the camera, for example in the subtle interplay between light and shadow, and in determining spatial relationships."

Carl showed me how to stretch canvas, using wooden frames, a canvas clamp and a staple gun. He started out with cotton duck, then he changed his mind and decided I should paint on his linen canvas. My first study of a skull on oil board turned out fairly well, and I think it did something to raise his expectations. "You're not a waste of time at all," he assured me. As we set up the still life he told me with a twinkle in his eye, "This time I'm going to accept nothing less than excellence."

As I sat down in front of a daunting still life, which included a pestle and mortar made of glass, I quickly buried the pencil drawing I transferred to the canvas under a layer of amateurishly clumsy paint. I sat there, listening to the bluegrass station on the satellite radio in his studio, wondering what to do now. "Nothing less than excellence." The silent reiterations of this expectation weren't helpful. I decided to quit for the morning and went inside to confess that my efforts were far short of excellence. I added plaintively that it was too hard. He nodded quietly but uncritically.

When I returned after lunch, he said, "Let's go and have a look at that nightmare out there." I watched, grateful and spellbound, as in a few deft strokes, he resurrected the painting, offering guidance, encouragement and a choice: Quit now, and we can scrub and save the canvas for something else. "This is a very difficult set-up. I just put these out there, and I was kinda surprised you wanted to paint them." He was offering me a way out. "Or, you could continue — but it's going to take a lot of fussing with before you're happy with it."

I thought for a while. His artistic intervention and encouraging words made up my mind. I could tell that, even though he expected excellence, I wouldn't be punished if I didn't produce it. The main thing he cared about, it seemed, was that I tried my best.

In December, when the uninsulated studio kept the lard oil solid until midday, I leaped at the chance to draw Carl's portrait again, as I knew it would happen next to the wood stove in the house. When I finished the portrait, I suggested perhaps it was not one to show the friend he had been trying to persuade to sit for me. With some trepidation I showed it to Carl.

"It's an honest portrait," he said generously, and he seemed happy with it as a study. Adrienne didn't like it. She looked at it and said, "Ugh."

"That's what she says when she sees me first thing in the morning," Carl joked.

The second portrait I did was slightly more user-friendly, but still didn't capture his gleeful spirit. Adrienne was not convinced by this attempt, either. I complained that it is difficult to see where his mouth and jawline are because of his beard.

Carl again defended my artwork by saying that Adrienne doesn't see him as he is now, but as he was when they first met 25 years ago. "She sees me as all young and handsome still." Carl stood up and cuddled her.

"Isn't he pretty?" she said affectionately.

When people ask him whether they can chat while he works, Carl replies, "You can talk to me about anything, as long as you don't talk to me about what I'm doing."

When I painted, Carl didn't talk to me about what I was doing, but he did talk about art, artists, galleries and stories from his past. I found myself putting down my brush and listening, particularly as he reached every now and then to get art books down from his shelves, to show me examples of artwork. After a while he would notice I've stopped painting, and he'd leave me in the studio alone. He'd just come in every so often to check how I'm doing, and offer guidance. He seemed to appreciate the fact that I was happy for him to take over with the brush to demonstrate or to correct something. Some students are very touchy, he said, wanting the painting to be all their own.

One morning I found Carl had done a self-portrait to demonstrate the use of white charcoal on tinted paper. I saw that Carl's sharp technique is the result of deft, single strokes with either pencil or brush, which creates a freshness and clarity in his work. I tend to go back and forth with lines until I get them right, producing a more muddy effect. He agreed with my self-assessment and thought up the next exercise for me to do.

As a sign painter, he learned calligraphy and the importance of accurate and deft brushstrokes. He set out an exercise with a lettering brush using tempura on newsprint. He showed me how to roll the brush to paint a thinner line, and left me for an hour to practice capital letters.

Feeling like a change from being inside the studio, I picked out a sycamore tree in their yard to do a study of. Carl stretched a good quality cotton duck canvas and I transferred my drawing of the tree to it. It is quite a logistical operation to get set up to paint outside, and Carl does not scorn the finer details of equipment; he treats finding the right palette and maulstick as just as important as what paint and brushes to use. He is certainly an expert at painting in the field. In his studio I came across a photo of him sitting on a stool in the middle of a river, painting the roots of an alder tree on the riverbank, with his equipment laid out in an archipelago around him. Carl still owns that painting, which I think is one of his most appealing.

"Painting these squares is going to become like water torture for you" he'd told me gleefully when he set me the task of completing a large color chart. As I sat in front of the wintry sycamore tree, its branches naked and mottled with complex pastel hues, I was grateful for the time-saving knowledge that allowed me to mix the right color faster, especially when every minute outside is metered out by how long I can stand the cold.

After about an hour of painting, I began to feel a dualistic tension building between me as the painter and the tree as the object of my painting. I sat still and tried to drop the unconscious barriers. My hands were almost numb and had lost much of their fine motor skill. I allowed my brain to slow down to accept the cold, and put up my hood. After a few minutes, I saw a new color in the bark of the tree, and by painting it in where I saw it, the tree on the canvas looked a little bit closer to being life-like.

After a couple of weeks of working on the tree, I was becoming slightly less enthusiastic and somewhat stuck, so Carl offered to help me put in some of the background, in order to illuminate the next priorities for the foreground. He is quite unusual as a painter for painting the foreground first, then doing the background, and then returning to the foreground; his main enthusiasm lies in the detail of the foreground.

He showed me a technique where he paints a branch across another branch (the paint from the first branch already having dried), then uses thinner to take away the paint that crosses the original branch. This leaves a clear and well-executed crossover of two branches, when normally an artist would be struggling to take the edge of the second branch accurately and convincingly up to the edge of the original branch.

My main desire in learning to paint in oils is to do portraits. I had in mind to paint our neighbor, a beautiful Native American woman with piercing gray eyes and straight gray and black hair. I told Carl that she was willing to sit for me, and his eyes twinkled in approval. He said, "You'll want to do a good likeness, a real portrait of Susan. But when you first start, you're going to get frustrated and you don't want to get frustrated in front of your model, because she will get discouraged. You'll also feel under quite a lot of pressure — so perhaps you should practice on someone else first."

I saw the sense in his words, so I enlisted my husband as model. He has fair skin, lively auburn hair, kind green eyes and, most important, much patience.

Carl fussed around getting us set up in his studio, making us coffee and bringing out cookies. I was a bit nervous about starting, but Carl encouraged me to jump right in with oils, since I have done several sketches of my husband in the past. The painting went through many stages of development, and since I went straight into oils without doing a preliminary sketch, my husband's features morphed alarmingly from day to day.

I became stuck at the impasse of not wanting to put too much paint down when I wasn't entirely satisfied with the structure, but equally not being able to get the structural lines right. Carl showed me how to use color to help find and define the correct form of the subject. He used the maulstick to point out specific parts of my husband's face, indicating areas of cool and warm shades, highlights and value changes. As I put the paint down more thickly and used richer colors with greater boldness, the structure of his face began to fall into place.

After finishing my husband's portrait and starting Susan's, I decided to return to the unfinished sycamore tree before its leaves came out. After painting for a couple of hours, I asked Carl, "What would you do next?" — a question I almost regretted, as he launched into a morale-dissipating list of things that he would change, and ways in which I hadn't done justice to the detail and mood of the tree. I thought to myself: That's the last question you should ask a perfectionist.

"The tree doesn't look like a map. What you've done is kind of like this — " He pointed to his camouflage jacket. "Look at how crisp the delineation is between this patch of bark and this one." He pointed to two closely colored patches of green with the maulstick. "And how this patch gradually shades from this to this color. And make sure you don't make these branches look like the limbs of some sea creature."

He spoke for several minutes in a similar vein. After a moment's silence I said, "I'm just not sure I could paint that kind of detail with a brush."

Carl must have detected some disheartenment in my voice. His eyes lit up as he chided me humorously, "Shame on you!" He proceeded to remind me of all the ways in which I could paint finer lines and manipulate them to get the desired effect.

Despite Carl dismissing the idea that my tools were inadequate for the task, I bought three of the smallest oil brushes I could find the next day in town. When I returned to paint the sycamore, my size 0 round gave me a renewed enthusiasm for the process, allowing me to put in the fine lines that Carl expected of me. The frustration I had experienced previously was forgotten.

After a couple of hours it started to rain, and I took the painting in to show Carl. I could tell that he was happy with my progress by the light in his eyes as he put it carefully on his workbench to dry.

Originally from England, Esther Jamison is an artist living in Gila Hot Springs.