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Landscapes by Frank Larson

Beaver Pond oil painting by Frank Larson
Beaver Pond oil 28x38"
from the collection of Mr. & Mrs. Bernard Meyer, Stowe, VT

Cover of American Artist Magazine

Once a highly successful corporate graphic designer,
Frank Larson now lives and works in Vermont*, where he paints the landscape outdoors. Here, he discusses his
new life and the techniques for his colorful oils.

EDWARD FEIT on Frank Larson

 

 

The article included on these pages appeared in the February 1992 issue of American Artist Magazine and is reproduced here with permission from BPI communications, Inc. Copyright © 1992 BPI communications Inc. All rights reserved.

*Mr. Larson now lives is Provincetown, MA

 

In order to pursue painting, Vermont artist Frank Larson chose to give up a thriving career as a graphic designer, but he has no regrets about having let so much time pass before beginning to paint. Throughout his distinguished career, he had always longed to be a painter, yet his initial experiences with painting had left him feeling inadequate. He had to struggle to achieve what he instinctively sensed he could do; in turn, that struggle has been instrumental in shaping his bold, personal style as a landscape painter.

White Water oil painting by Frank Larson
White Water, 1990, oil, 40 x 44"
Courtesy Galerie d'Art, Seymore, Rosemère, Québec, Canada.*

 

In his paintings, Larson's goal is to relate to what he sees and to capture the almost spiritual feeling that the clouds, the light, the air, and the colors give him. "Sometimes, I'm almost in a trance as I paint," Larson states. "It's an elusive feeling, and it doesn't come to me all the time. I keep looking for it. It's a high."

 

Lake in the Woods oil painting by Frank Larson
Lake in the Woods, 1990, oil, 40 x44"
Collection Mr. and Mrs. Ennis, Tumbull, Connecticut.**

 


Larson vividly recalls that his passion for painting began to stir while he was a boy growing up in Port Chester, New York. "I had a love of color and was constantly coloring pictures like most kids, but in my case I became obsessed with it," he explains. "When I was about nine years old, I went out to a Saturday-night movie with my parents. On the way to the theater, we passed a hardware store that displayed a woman's paintings of poppies and other scenes in its window. I clearly remember the excitement I felt when I saw the paintings; I thought they were beautiful."

 

When Larson found out that the artist was a member of his church, he eagerly pressed his parents to arrange for him to take lessons form her. He still remembers his joy, sitting at a table in the woman's studio after school, learning to use oil paints. He also remembers the thrill of having his first box of oils and of learning their names--alizarin crimson, burnt umber, raw sienna. "Just the smell of those paints grabbed me as nothing else did," Larson recalls. "And they still do."

His passion and talent for painting persisted, and in grade school he soon became known as the class artist. "In class, instead of reading The Courtship of Miles Standish, I was drawing it," recalls Larson. "The classroom was filled with my paintings." Larson's artistic talent was also considered exceptional in high school, although his parents had definite ideas about the value of a traditional education and ordered him to stop putting painting before schoolwork.

When it became time to go to college, he dutifully applied to Yale and Harvard, where his acceptance would have been the type of honor his parents appreciated, but he was rejected from both schools. He decided instead to go to the Pratt Institute of Art in Brooklyn, New York. "I had heard that a degree from Pratt virtually guaranteed a good job, which was very important to my parents," he explains.

At Pratt, students could either take painting, advertising design, or illustration. Larson signed up for design. Ironically, he never took a painting course at Pratt. He admits to starting one, but the instructor did not like what he was doing and said so. "With my self-confidence about painting at a fragile level, I felt deflated and I gave up," Larson recalls. Somehow, to him, the pursuit of graphic design seemed more traditionally acceptable in that it allowed him to use his artistic talents yet incorporated his parents' work values, but it caused him to leave Pratt feeling unfulfilled.

After Pratt, Larson applied to the Yale School of Art in New Haven, Connecticut. "I had only thought of Yale in terms of business or law," he says. "Going there became a new goal because I still felt I had to prove myself by getting into Yale." He was accepted, and he began studying graphic design. At Yale, as at Pratt, he never took a painting course, although he says Josef Albers's color course proved invaluable to him and kept his interest in painting alive. After he received his M.F.A. degree in 1961, he became a designer for the book-publication department at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, where he worked on the catalog for "The Art of Assemblage" show and on other show catalogs for such artists as Odilon Redon and Gustave Moreau.

 

 

 

He remembers going into the homes of the "rich and famous," the elegant New York City apartments and town houses where paintings that were in the catalog hung. "There, over an ornate mantel, would be a Redon flowers study," Larson recalls. "I'd have the dye transfers of the painting in front of me and would color correct them for the printer with my small box of oils. It was an incredible experience."

 

Rock Garden Oil Painting by Frank Larson
Rock Garden, 1989, oil, 34 x 36. Courtesy Gallery Two, Woodstock Vermont.*

 

Next he took a job with the IBM Corporation, which had one of the best design reputations for comprehensive corporate identity; Paul Rant, one of his Yale instructors, had designed its logo and printed materials. Larson accepted a position in IBM's Processing Division Design Department in Poughkeepsie, New York. However, he longed to return to New York City, He called his art director's agent, who told him that Raymond Loewy, the founder of modern industrial design, was looking for a designer in his Manhattan studio. "Any designer worth his salt wanted to be at Loewy's studio at that time," says Larson. "I moved back to New York City and began a career as a designer of packaging and marketing materials."

After some years with Lowey, he moved on to design packaging at the Lord Baltimore Press, a division of New York City's International Paper Company. He then married, relocated to Connecticut, and worked at General Foods for ten years as a graphic and packaging designer. "Many of my packages are still out there," Larson says, smiling, "such as ones for Maxwell House Coffee, Sanka, and Kool-aid. I also designed several things for Post cereals and Birds Eye frozen foods, and even a cookbook called The Joys of Jell-O."

At General Foods, Larson worked directly with the marketing department. In the beginning, he spent all his time at the drawing board, but soon he became an art administrator overseeing artists, photographers, models, and coordinating other tasks, and he had little time to even consider pursuing his dream of being a painter. By the time he left General Foods, he had become head of the Company's pet-food division's corporate-identity program, having worked on packages for Gravy Train, Gaines Burgers, Top Choice, and other pet foods. "I no longer have a dog so I don't buy any of those dog foods," he admits, "but it's still a thrill to see my designs when I go to the supermarket."

During his ten years at General Foods, Larson increasingly felt that he was burning out. Nearly forty, he ultimately experienced a mid-life crisis, resulting from the pressures of his job, a desire to spend more time with his wife and sons, and his unsatisfied yearnings to paint

He moved with his family to New Orleans, where he worked for the Walle Corporation, one of the oldest printing companies in the South. "I was designing labels for all the shrimp packers and hot-sauce manufacturers in Louisiana," he says. "I also rented a space to use as a painting studio in an old building on Magazine Street that used to be slave quarters." He took a course in still-life painting at Tulane University, yet, haunted by self-doubt, he quit, afraid that he was just wasting time. "I felt I was too old to start painting again," Larson says. "But I kept at it anyway."

After about five years, when he and his family returned to the East Coast, he was hired as a design director by the Gillette company's personal-care division in Boston, Massachusetts. He signed up for a night-school course in figure painting at the Massachusetts College of Art with John Thornton. He struggled at first, but he became more proficient and more confident under the direction of Thornton, who dressed his models in brightly colored, variously textured fabric. He took the course for a second time, and then went on to the Boston Museum School at night, where he studied with Jerry Bergstein.

These experiences taught Larson that he could not paint "from the inside," he says; he had to refer to something outside himself. "But I never really paint what I see; I just use it as a reference," he points out. "This reference allows me to feel the subject to truly embrace it, and my training in design and color supports this way of working. Once I realized that, my work improved."

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Westford Winter oil painting by Frank Larson
Westford Winter, 1991, oil, 36 x 42"
Collection the artist.*

Then, Larson received a chance mailing form the Vermont Studio Center in Johnson, Vermont. "It changed my life." he says. Larson spent three weeks at the Studio Center and later moved to Vermont, where he now lives and paints full-time. "The Center offered a way for me to paint in a beautiful setting and to meet other artists from all over the country," he adds. "I was especially intrigued by the thought of doing landscape painting and decided to give it a try. I studied with landscape painter Gretna Campbell, who pushed me to work outdoors. That changed everything."

 

"I decided to leave the corporate world and devote my efforts full-time to painting," he adds. "Now, my happiest moments are when I'm in the Vermont countryside or on the dunes of Cape Cod painting landscapes. The world could end and I wouldn't know it"

Larson's landscapes are often compared with those of Canada's famed Group of Seven, particularly Tom Thomson, one of its founding members; Larson combines the representational and the abstract in the same manner as the Canadians he admires. However, his work embodies his own unique style of color and design, breaking the forms of nature into bold, almost abstract shapes and patters.

To maintain the emotional impact of his landscapes, Larson always works directly from nature. Painting outdoors in all types of weather and different seasons, he usually completes each painting on site and seldom reworks it. " Many elements must come together for a painting to work. It must be spontaneous and have the feel of the moment," he explains. "I don't like to take a painting back to the studio; once I begin working there, it looks labored and loses its immediacy and naturalness."

When starting a painting, he develops the whole canvas, working from light to dark values. "I like to be as direct as I can," he says. "At this state, I'm working form my subconscious and I almost let the painting paint itself. Sometimes, after I've gotten a good start on the painting, I set up a whole new palette. Doing that keeps my colors fresh and prevents them from becoming muddy." He adds, "I work the painting in bold strokes, trying to get as much information down as I can before putting in lots of details. I'm concentrating on my impressions of the setting and the light that is always changing. My moto is, 'less is more.' If I can say something in one stoke, I feel I've accomplished my goal"

"Eventually," he continues, "the time comes in a painting when I shift gears. I become more analytical and start putting in details. Still, I keep things simple; a brush stroke can be a tree. These details are very important because they give scale to what would basically be very abstract." Larson's advice to emerging artists is for them to maintain belief in themselves and in what they are doing. He cites what, as a student, he took to be a somewhat trite Pratt Institute slogan: "Be true to your work and your work will be true to you." He says he now realizes that's what being an artist is about. "I gave up graphic design because I felt I was a painter," he declares. "That's what I was--a painter--and I hadn't given myself the opportunity to do it."

The success of Larson's numerous individual and group shows has encouraged him to keep forging ahead as a painter. The enthusiastic reviews ganered by his shows help make his struggle to paint easier and give him inspiration to continue. One such write-up he recently received--in Vermont's Burlington Free Press--read: "Larson's landscapes rush across the canvas in great, paint-laden brush strokes--as ravishing to the eye as Puccini is to the ear. The artist separates color into its component parts, much the way a prism turns ordinary light into a rainbow and boldly heightens reality."

Presently, the artist is represented by the Cavalier GAllery in Stamford, Connecticut; Gallery II in Woodstock, Vermont; Gallery Northstar in Straton Mountain and Grafton, Vermont; Gallery Seymour in Quebec, Canada; and Gallery 468 in Provincetown, Massachusetts.

 

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The artist's setup in a winter landscape. Says Larson, "The location is one I've painted many times--looking west on my farmland in Westford, Vermont. It's a gray February day and the colors are soft and full of subtle relationships. On gray days such as the one in this painting, they just beg to be painted."

 

Mr. Larson's truck as he prepares to paint Westford Winter
Tail gate of Mr. Larson's truck showing the his pallet

 

Larson's palette outside his truck. He says, "Most of my paintings are done out of my pickup truck, my studio on wheels. My canvas sits on a shelf I built at the top of the cab; it's protected even when it's full of wet oil paint. I set up my easel next to the truck, weighting it down with cinder blocks if its windy."

 

 

"After I block in the painting," he says, "I use a special highlighting color, which in this work, Westford Winter, (pictured at top of page)is rose madder, a color that has the glowing effect I want. The distant purple and blue hills need this kind of contrasting color to work."

 

Mr. Larson's hand painting Westford Winter

Mr. Larson putting the finishing touches on Westford Winter

 

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Larson says, "I paint in bold strokes, trying to get down as much information as I can before putting in a lot of detail. I concentrate on my impressions of the changing light, working all over the canvas to keep the painting unified. My motto is, 'Less is more." If I can say something with one stroke, I've accomplished my goal."

 

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