I was born in 1955, and raised in Bronxville, New York. I never had intentions of becoming a painter, but it seemed like a fate I couldn’t escape. I majored in literature at Middlebury College, in Vermont. After two years, I decided to take some time off and moved to Montana for a year. There I bought an 89 cent set of Crayola watercolors and began to paint matchbook-size watercolors of that wide landscape.
Upon my return to college, I continued to paint until my graduation in 1978. I taught English at the secondary level for a few years in Chicago and New York City. It became clear to me that something wasn’t quite right when, instead of laboring over lesson plans, I found myself drawn to a crudely constructed drafting table to work at all hours on my watercolors. Upon discovery of painting I felt, for the first time, a sense of profound engagement in my work. I have been painting steadily ever since.
My understanding of landscape has been nourished by the environments I’ve lived in. I spent childhood summers on the Cape in Wellfleet. Over the years, the mountains, fields, lakes, and streams of the Adirondacks and northern New Hampshire and Vermont have greatly deepened my sense of place. My first studio was on Lopez Island in the Pacific Northwest, where my wife Annie and I moved just after we married in 1981. We lived on Lopez for four years and started our family there. Since then, we have lived on the Rhode Island coast where we raised our two children, Willa and Grey.
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I first started painting in watercolor, then proceeded to work in acrylic, egg tempera, and oil. There is an amazing crossover between mediums, and developing a facility with one has enabled me to move with a greater understanding into my work with the others. My painting seems to move in roughly five-year cycles. Inevitably, a restlessness inspires me to turn everything I know upside down and begin again.
For years I was fascinated by mastering the skills particular to egg tempera. I love the technique of glazing in thin, transparent overlays of color, and being able to overpaint quickly between successive layers. This requires deep concentration because you have to paint thinly—otherwise the paint forms cracks and resists adhering to the panel. When all the mixing of egg yolks and pigments began to get in the way and obstruct a certain creative freedom, I started to work from scratch with oils.
In making this leap, I decided that the best place to start was from the very bottom. I vowed for the most part to stop working from photographs, to see what would come if I tried to resurrect images of landscape from both memory and imagination. I began each new work with a panel or surface that had nothing on it. Without the guidelines of a carefully rendered sketch to adhere to, the process of painting becomes more intuitive. Like a preschooler, I rolled up my sleeves and started pushing the paint around with my fingers and anything else I could get my hands on. Without quite realizing it, I was thoroughly dismantling twenty years of habit and preconceptions.
Never before had I felt the freedom to be spontaneous and playful with paint. The first paintings were almost unrecognizable. Over time, however, I began to see evidence of light and movement that was absent in my more tightly controlled work in acrylic and egg tempera. To my surprise, I recognized a directness and honesty that came through in my earliest, looser watercolors. Incrementally I was beginning to understand things about the craft of painting that I had never known before.
This new way of working has a more feverish pitch about it. Every painting now seems to have a life of its own. There are days in the studio when I am really on, and days that no matter how hard I try, I seem to lack a certain feeling for the paint. I don’t get up and walk away, but try to work through the impasse and trust that I will get to the other side. When I do, I often discover that I have pushed through to some new understanding of the craft of painting.
In recent years I have begun experimenting with a range of work surfaces: panel, canvas, plaster, paper, bird’s-eye maple, curved steel, and even old books. Every surface takes the paint so differently and influences the direction of the painting. Scraping and burnishing the paint on a plaster panel often gives way to radiant light, while the application of a thin glaze on wood panel reveals the wood’s contours and grain, evoking furrows in the ground. I have also painted on things found in salvage yards—objects with intriguing shapes or textures. The longer I paint the more curious I become about the crossover between painting and sculpture. My hope is to keep the boundaries of painting more fluid and the possibilities wide open.
- Gregory Kammerer