Painting a Portrait of Florida

by Keith Martin Johns

As seen in Antiques & Art Around Florida, Summer/Fall 1996

Residual Expectations, acrylic on canvas, 18" x 24",
Keith Martin Johns

Those of us who paint the natural beauty and diversity of Florida have felt much like the ten blind men who each held onto only one part of an elephant, each at the same time feeling that only he alone could truly see the clear beauty of the beast. Florida is so diverse in subject matter that no painter has ever captured in totality the essence of Florida. Even though many have tried, her true beauty is best seen by the combined efforts of many artists.

There are several factors that equally contribute to the intrinsic quality of the nature of art, particularly realistic paintings of Florida. This intrinsic quality involves the subjective response from the artist along with the objective reflective nature of the subject. Because this is challenging to balance, each artist has an individual approach and presentation to his work.

The first of these factors has to do with the geographic influence of where an artist lives, since inspiration is often found in one's own backyard. The second factor has to do with the medium an artist chooses to work with to capture the subject matter. Most serious artists are equally skilled in several different mediums. The third factor that plagues artists is the public's subjective perception. These three factors, combined with the intrinsic nature of art, compound the challenge of artistically capturing Florida.

Florida is a geographically diverse state. From the central Florida hardwoods, painted by Thomas Brooks, to the bogs and cypress swamps, captured by Ben Essenburg, to the coast, painted by Phil Capen, Florida has a wide range of trees, shrubs, flowers and wildlife that, like a necklace, naturally adorn her.

Even though Florida doesn't have the drastic season changes that many other states do, those of us who paint her know her moods well. Every time she sits for a portrait session she changes clothes. She rolls up her sleeves from winter to spring with hues of brilliant green dominating the color on the artist's palette. Fall brings her out on the town in her gorgeous evening gown of sweeping cumulus clouds blushed by the sky's pink and pale purple hues.

Evening Coast-Mergansers, Charles Rowe

Her season's changing moods might seem slight to the casual observer, but not to the careful eye of the Florida artist. Just ask a barber how easy it is to cut a small boy's hair who is wriggling in the chair, or the sign painter who is attempting to letter a boat while it is rocking in the water. Florida's moods affect her beauty.

Recently, while working on a piece of art from my Coastal Wetland Series entitled "Florida's Forgotten Coast", my wife, Linda, and I made four trips to an area of the coast in northwest Florida. Each time we frequented the area, which is near Apalachicola, the mood of the area had changed from the previous time we were there, and yet the familiarity of the place remained the same. It was the familiarity that I ultimately used, combining several different moods to create the whole image.

I met a young lady who had just visited the Vickers Collection, (the largest collection of Florida paintings from the turn of the century). She was searching for a look of Florida that even that collection of paintings did not seem to convey to her. I asked her what was this specific look of Florida she was so earnestly seeking, and, to her dismay, she could not express in words what her image of Florida should look like.

How can we as artists capture in paint what is difficult for the public to express in words? Often plagued by the subjective level of the public's perception, along with our own individualistic artistic ideas, painters of Florida have tried for many years to capture the portraiture of a model that seems to change each time you look at her.

Just as diverse as the geography of Florida and the different interests of the painters who attempt to capture those geographic areas, are the techniques which artists employ.

Thomas Brooks works with acrylic on canvas to capture the soft values of light that distance his backgrounds from his subjects in the foreground. Charles Rowe, known for his extensive work with egg tempera, is now working in oil using techniques he has researched from the 15th Century. Terry Smith is a watercolorist who has painted on paper for years, but today he is experimenting with watercolor on clay board, creating a technique that is both smooth and dimensional. Gregg Murray uses the detail of scratch board with the color of paint to unfold the natural drama of dimension. Ernest Simmons and C. Ford Riley's works are predominately oriented around birds. Ernie works with watercolor and gouache, a technique that I enjoy employing when working with the fine delineation of a bird's feathers.

Uprising, Ben W. Essenburg

Fred Rothenbush paints the simplistic rural areas of the state. He is best known for his hunting scenes in oil on canvas. John Yeackle uses watercolor exclusively and has gained a wide reputation for his work on the turkeys of Florida. Guy LaBree has developed a personal relationship with the Seminole Indians and has many paintings of the Everglades and the Seminole Indian culture. George Buckman has painted the landscapes of Florida and has traveled extensively in the state for thirty years; much of his paintings are of the Everglades. Steve Koury works with acrylic gouache to capture his wildlife and has refined that technique to a fine science.

Florida has been the inspiration of generations of painters such as George Innis and A.B. "Bean" Backus. The torch of those that have gone before us still burns brightly, lighting the road for us to see. But still, I must admit, at times I feel like one of those ten blind men who is only holding to his own part of the beast.

About the author:
Keith Martin Johns, a native Floridian, has been painting this state for 20 years. He can be found at his gallery, the Florida Heritage Art Gallery, in Tarpon Springs, Florida.

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