During dinner conversation, Richard was telling a friend about the story behind one of his paintings. The friend found the story very interesting and wondered aloud whether Richard had ever written any of them down. On his suggestion Richard began printing the stories on sheets with the writing tucked around a small picture of each painting. The sheets were enormously popular at the opening of his exhibition. Everyone who bought a painting wanted a copy of the accompanying story. When Kiry joined the Tiberius Studio she followed the tradition of writing a story for each painting.
People have told us that the stories helped them see features of the painting that they had overlooked. We experienced the value of context when we were in Madrid visiting El Prado. We engaged a tour guide for a second tour because we saw so much more in the art when the guide explained the context of the works. He not only explained the social and political context behind the subject of the painting, he also enlightened us about the perspectives and evolving techniques of the artists. We try to do the same with our stories. Each story contains comments on our perspective of the subject, our emotional response to it, a little biology, and often some notes about technique.
The empathy we feel for a species is enhanced by knowledge of its natural history and ecology, that is, the story of each species and its relationships with the rest of the natural world. The story shapes the composition of our paintings. Richard once made a large painting of Black-eyed-Susans with some Ox-eye Daisies in the foreground. The daisies were clearly past their prime, their petals were faded and drooping below swollen seed clusters. He could easily have taken a few weeks off the lives of the daisies to show both ray flowers in their prime, but then he would have failed to tell the story. The story is that these plants stagger their peak flowering times to share the bees and other pollinators. As the daisies begin to fade, the Black-eyed Susans take over. Telling the story is an important part of our art.
There is some truth to the old cliché “to know you is to love you” when it comes to the appreciation of nature. This cliché may seem like a stretch when applied to trees, but that is only because they are less familiar to us than animals. We expect to see tigers in tropical surroundings and zebras in grasslands. We know so much about these animals that an image of the animal out of its natural context would be jarring. Perhaps as we know more about the flora, we will find satisfaction seeing plants in their natural habitat and among their usual companions˜like sun flowers in an open field or violets in the forest.
We paint exclusively with knives, not brushes. With knives we can sculpt the texture of the paint, which provides a three-dimensional quality to the painting. Another advantage is that knives can be cleaned with a single stroke of a paper towel or rag helping us to keep our colors from becoming muddy from unwanted mixing.
We work in a studio from our own photographs, which we have taken on many hiking trips over the years. We find that photography is the best way to capture nature in its wild, messy state. Often pristine Nature is found in places where setting up an easel for any length of time would be impossible.
Second, when taking photographs, we try to imitate what our eyes would do if we were actually at the scene. While a camera freezes the image at one focus and exposure, being present in nature is an interactive experience. We do not experience Nature as a snapshot. The pupils of our eyes dilate to reveal the details within the dark shadows of tree trunks; they constrict to reveal the colors and cloud shapes of a bright sky. Our eyes change their focus too, from distance to foreground. After viewing a scene from various vantage points, and under different lighting conditions, we form a rich mental image, composed of many visual experiences—a mental collage—that no camera can capture in a single image. In parallel to the process of vision, we take many pictures at different exposures, focuses, and perspectives. When we return to the studio there is not a single photo that captures the magic of the scene. Each photo gives us a piece of visual information that can be used in the construction of a composition. The overexposed photo may completely wash out the sky but preserves the details in the dark trunks of the trees. The underexposed photo captures the colors of the sky and contours of the clouds while leaving the trunks of the trees are totally black. Our photos are merely visual “notes” from which we attempt to construct a painting that evokes the experience of being there.
Finally, we embrace complexity. Just because nature is ordered does not mean it is simple. It has a very complex organization that cannot be discerned by the inexperienced eye. To most of us, unspoiled nature looks messy. The tendency to organize perception is a strong feature of the human mind. The result is often orderly but boring. In our paintings we actively resist the temptation to clean up Nature. We will eliminate telephone poles from a scene we are painting, but we resist the temptation to remove seaweed from the beach in a painting of a white ibis on the beach. Complexity is an important component of what is exciting about the natural world. Also, complex scenes can hold our attention longer. One of the comments we love to hear from viewers of our paintings is that the more they look at a painting the more they see in it.
Finding the place of our paintings within the world of art is perhaps a task better left to art historians. Our guess is that our paintings lie somewhere at the crossroads between Naturalism, Impressionism, and Realism. Surely, what we do is far from traditional Naturalism epitomized by pastel or water color drawings of flowers, fruit, and leaves, neatly arranged over a cursive script of the botanical name. Yet, we were pleased when a friend, who was a professor of forestry, was able to identify every tree in our paintings by genus and species.
Neither are we focused exclusively on capturing a moment of light, as true impressionists are. Claude Monet, whom we think of as the ultimate impressionist, showed the world that, under the right lighting conditions, even a train station is beautiful. If he were alive today he would surely be able to reveal the hidden beauty of a strip mall. Our appreciation of beauty is more confined to wild Nature. We were driving with Kiry’s grandfather, who is an engineer, past a vast landscape of rolling hills covered with flowers. The fields were also studded with giant wind turbines. Later, when we showed the pictures to Grandpa Frank he asked what happened to the beautiful windmills. He had assumed that Richard had taken pictures of the turbines although he had carefully directed the camera so as to avoid them.
From a distance our paintings may appear similar to Realism, but we strive to paint only with the level of detail necessary to capture the individual character of each subject rather than striving for photographic realism. It is at least clear that our work does not fit into Photorealism, since we paint with knives, creating a heavy texture, which is not very realistic at close range, but provides a three dimensional quality to the painting.
Frankly, we have less interest in discovering the particular genre of our art than we have in understanding its relationship to Nature. Years ago, at the opening of one of Richard’s art shows, someone asked him, while looking at his painting of an oak tree, “What is the relationship of your art to Nature?” Without hesitation, Richard replied “I was commissioned by the oak to paint its portrait.” Although they both laughed at this absurd image, there was something satisfying about it. It stayed in Richard’s mind long afterward. Even today, the idea of being commissioned by a tree, strikes both Kiry and Richard as an appropriately humble position for humans to assume toward Nature. The fantasy of being commissioned by a tree restores to the natural world a significance that is larger than art and even larger than humanity. In our view a successful painting is like a lens through which the viewers can learn to appreciate the beauty of a plant or animal for the first time or are reminded of the beauty they had known before.