FREE SPEECH ZONE | Greg Lipelt—painting the light


A retrospective is a time to reflect. Greg Lipelt’s “Selections from a lifetime in art,” showing at the Frameworks Gallery from July 14 to August 25, will mark the artistic journey of one of Minnesota’s most talented painters and allow him to share his views about art and life.

“That’s the spirit of this entire show,” Lipelt said. “I want to talk not just about art, but how life has left its imprint on me and my view of art.”

Lipelt’s view of art has changed over the years and he has worked hard to achieve the loose, painterly style that distinguishes his oils and watercolors today. His art journey included painting signs and murals for the army in the 1960s, and working as a commercial artist from 1977 to 2002. As an illustrator, Lipelt mastered drawing and developed an eye for detail. But the same  skills that made him a successful illustrator became an impediment to the kind of painting he wanted to do.  

“Illustration and painting are two different things,” he said. “Illustration’s job is to explain something,” and this often requires loading an image with detail. Painting is just the opposite. “The job of a painter is to select, edit and simplify; to put down as little as you possibly can. Nature never gives you a painting. Leaving more out and getting the viewer to participate and finish it for you, that’s what you want to do.”

Contrary to the view of artists he considers too model-dependent — “They feel it’s a moral violation if you don’t paint exactly what you’re seeing…there’s not a single edge that’s lost” — Lipelt strongly believes that painters should have a point of view and express their individuality:

You don’t just go out and put down what you see. Sometimes you have to move a house, or move a tree, or eliminate a tree. It’s about you the seer, more than the seen. Most of us, whether we like it or not, are more derivative than we believe. We’re real good at employing discoveries—we’re not very good at making them. But you’ve got to impart something of your own uniqueness to the scene or you don’t have you—you only have a collection of facts. Art is where you are—it is in the seeing, not in what is seen.

Lipelt credits two artists with helping him make the transition from illustrator to painter. Jerome Ryan, who also started out as a commercial artist, “had that loose, forgiving, non-neurotic look to his work,” said Lipelt. “He was the one who really helped get me out of illustration and into painting.”

Then there was William Reese. Lipelt recalls that, “Around 1989, when I was a beginning artist, I went to see William Reese, a well-respected painter, and I asked him to critique some of my paintings. He took a look at my work and said two things: You’re seeing too much, and you’re way too dark. He made it clear to me that if you’re going to depict the light, your shadows have to be filled with bright color.”

At the time, that was a revelation to Lipelt, but since then he has studied the artistic development of several great artists and noticed a common progression from a tonalist to a high-key palette:

You see it again and again in art history. They lighten up, they leave more out at the end of their careers. Monet’s palette lightened up. He started out as a tonalist—all his darks were gray, umber, going all the way to black. But no black in his later period, all the colors were up there, lighter. Even the darks were fairly high key. That was his journey; he went up in value. That was the lesson Bill Reese taught me, he got me to raise my palette. And ever since, I’ve tried to put more pure colors into my shadows.

This is evident in Lipelt’s plein air paintings, which are full of vibrant and spontaneous color notes even in the darker areas. Like all plein air painters, Lipelt is conscious of light effects, but he handles them in an interesting way. His shadows are not simple, static shapes. They move and ripple, and are central to the energy of the painting.

“Stoney Point,” “Lake Harriet Bandshell” and “Midsummer Day, near Index, Washington” depict buildings, water, trees, mountains and rocks, with plenty of shadows and reflections, but none of these are the real subjects. Lipelt’s real subjects are light and atmosphere, and he paints them with delicate washes of color, close high-key values, fluid shapes, and edges that dissolve and reappear.

The visual effect lies somewhere between representation and abstraction, and challenges our ordinary understanding of how to look at a painting. We can look for the natural objects and appreciate their shapes, colors and values, but that’s not all Lipelt’s work offers. His paintings are also enchanting patterns of color and light that dance around the canvas, and that the eye never tires of following.  

Lipelt’s journey toward this freer, lyrical painting style was not simply a shift in technique; itrequired some psychological changes as well. He explained that, “The process is about shedding your fear of failing. People become too controlled—they don’t have the confidence to let go.”

Part of the problem is what Lipelt calls our “esthetic software”—our own artistic sensibility that is shaped by a lifetime of experiences:

It’s part of our job to get in touch with our esthetic software and decide whether or not we want to stay with that program, or change it. Developing confidence only comes by battling it through, doing a lot of really bad paintings and being honest enough to admit it. Take a look and say: Well I could have done that more simply. Then maybe do a second version. You have to fight through it.

Painters Lipelt greatly admires, and who have helped him loosen up his thinking, are Sergei Bongart, Olexa Bulavitsky and Charles Reid. “Sergei was a great painter, really expressive,” said Lipelt. “When he painted, he’d run up to the canvas and throw two strokes in there, and then he’d run back—it was an athletic performance! What appealed to me about him was the same thing that appealed to me about Jerome Ryan, that is, how they let go. They had confidence in throwing a stroke in there.”

Their freer style helped Lipelt change his “esthetic software”:

What I realized was that, you know what, you’re just going to start putting strokes in there and learn what that feels like, and get comfortable with that. And if it doesn’t land in the right place, you let it go, you don’t judge it. Get the experience, get your ego out of it and quit beating yourself up. All artists face that same internal battle, until they get centered and comfortable with who they are—and they don’t have to be a Rembrandt.

Bongart, in particular, reinforced Lipelt’s move toward simplicity. Thumbing through a book of Bongart’s paintings, Lipelt remarked, “That’s my idea of painting. Leaving out—just leaving in enough so that it’s not a total abstract, there are still images there. Look at the freedom, you can see colors underneath that he didn’t completely cover, and there’s stuff happening. There’s life.”

Lipelt realizes, however, that not all painters can paint what and how they want. The shadow of the art market hovers over artists of all ages and career stages. As a former commercial artist, Lipelt has a special insight into the effects the market can have on artists. 

Illustration is about providing a service for a client, Lipelt said. “The client has the right to say, ‘change this, change that,’ and you’ve got to be able to do that without getting your ego involved. Commercial artists spend so many years pleasing people that they don’t know what they like. And they lose themselves.”

Lipelt cautions fine artists to paint for themselves, rather than for the market:

We all have a ‘phantom audience’ on our shoulder, but our job is to do the kind of painting we would do if we would never have another show, and if nobody would ever see our work. We would do more authentic work, and it would be ours. We wouldn’t be trying to please some phantom audience, some client, some relative, some teacher—we have these ghosts that work through us, and we’re not painting for us. We don’t know it, but part of the process is to become aware that this is happening and to shut it off. 

As for Greg Lipelt and his own future?

My goal is to attain what Jung called ‘individuation’ and to be free of those contaminating influences that have been with me all of my life—that are with all artists all of their lives. The degree of our liberty in attaining that freedom should be the goal, meaning: the marketplace will not dictate what I paint. I’m not going to be pleasing the client.

A while back, I found a dead moth in my car, and I painted it. That’s the difference between the way I used to paint and the way I paint today. I wouldn’t have done that in the days when I was more conscious of selling, making money, pleasing the client. Now I paint for me.

Of course, we’d all like subsidy for what we do, but artists are so concerned about getting acceptance that they overlook self-acceptance. And they end up using somebody else’s esthetic software. You have got to be true to yourself. I’ve know artists who have gone through their entire lives trying to please somebody else and they never even knew it.

I am not going to be Rembrandt, but that’s OK because I get to be me. My story is a moth I found in my car. There it is.

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