Well, it’s winter again in upstate New York. A difficult season at best.
The managing editor of the Ithaca Times asked me to talk to some Ithaca area painters about painting in winter—their techniques, their take on the aesthetics of winter painting, and so on.
I contacted two outstanding upstate New York painters: Susan Booth Titus, and Carlton Manzano. I have written about both of them before. I think they are both major 21st century artists who happen to live here in the Greater Ithaca Area.
Susan Booth Titus is a watercolorist and creates etchings. I find her watercolors astounding. She somehow has managed to infuse the aesthetic of Japanese woodblock prints and Japanese watercolors into her paintings of upstate New York.
Carlton Manzano paints in oil. He is primarily a plein-air painter, working outdoors in the open air. I think of him as the Monet of upstate New York … because he can somehow capture the soul of this place on his impressionist canvases.
OK. Let’s see what they have to say on the subject of winter …
Susan Booth Titus:
I talked with Titus after-hours at her gallery, the Titus Gallery on the Ithaca Commons. She told me a bit about her childhood winters …
“When we were kids in Pittsburgh, you had to get outside in the snow right away or it wasn’t white anymore … because Pittsburgh had a lot of pollution from the mills.
“And I’ll never forget one big snow when I was a kid … all the schools closed … and we made a fort. But it would melt really fast … in Pittsburgh the snow was always melting quickly.
“And when I moved to Cortland in ’69, I was delighted. It was snowing every day that winter, and I could see the trees so beautifully with the bare branches against the snow … and the countryside was so close to Cortland there. I’ve just been much happier in the winter since I moved to upstate, New York … and moved to Ithaca in ’82.”
And Titus told me …
“I have theories about why winter paintings are so popular. I think we see the beauty of winter … but it takes courage to get through certain winters for certain people … and you look back on that and there’s this mixed feeling …”
I said, “When I wrote about you before, one of the things that stuck in my mind was you said you get passionate about painting in winter.”
“It’s very true,” Titus said. “It takes my breath away … the new snow. One of my favorite times is when the snow comes down in big clumps and there’s no wind … and it’s like slow motion. That’s what I tried to capture in my painting Winter Woods.
I said, “It is really beautiful when you get that snow-globe effect.”
And Titus said, “I feel you could meditate with this painting.”
And, regarding winter painting technique … Titus’s elegant painting Ithaca Rooftops was painted when: “A friend who had a glassed-in porch up on Cascadilla Park Street invited me up to do a painting from her house …”
I recalled Titus telling me about turning the front seat of her (heated) car into a little mini painting studio.
And she said, “Yeah, I have done that. For the Hudson Street painting, I sat on the roof of the Green Street garage. And another one I did in my car was Cayuga Lake Winter. I was in my car up at Ithaca College looking down at Ithaca … and I did most of the painting there, except for a few details that I finished up at my home studio.”
I asked Titus what was the most important thing she wanted to convey. And she told me the most important influence on her art was her mother …
She said, “She taught me how to see things … She appreciated the natural beauty of the world … and she was always showing me the beautiful world. No matter what time of year it was, she loved it.
“And she loved Japanese and Chinese art … we had that hanging in our home … which was inspiring.
“My mother was an artist herself. She did watercolors … and she was this wonderful woman … and was totally thrilled I was able to make a living as an artist.”
We both laughed at that, and Titus said, “Yes, I owe it all to her …”
I met with Manzano for lunch at the elegant Mahogany Grill on Aurora Street in downtown Ithaca.
We opened by talking about Manzano’s winter painting technique. I said, “I know you’ve set up your van as a rolling studio, and I assume you can paint in winter using your van …”
And Manzano said, “Typically, in the past, in the last van, I painted from the steering wheel … and then I could set all my paints right between the two seats up front. That’s for really nasty weather…
“But now what I do is set up my paints in the back of the studio-van, and I open the van door and bring out my easel. And I paint near the back door. The back door has an overhead cover, and I paint out of the van … The lighting and the information you get from nature is so much better than from sitting in the van …”
“So it’s kind of a trade-off. I don’t have the comfort of the van. I don’t have the luxury of being able to sit comfortably. But what I do is set-up outdoors and dress appropriately with heavy layers of clothing…
“Also I have to thin my paints a bit with turpentine or linseed oil to allow the paint to flow more freely in colder weather …
“I set up a full-sized French easel that has my paint pallet and paint brushes there and thinning mineral spirits.”
I pointed out, “If you’re working outdoors in the cold, that gives you a time limit … there’s only a certain amount of time you’re going to be able to work out there …”
“…Before you freeze-up,”Manzano chuckled.
“But you’ve always been interested in painting quickly,” I said. “Making the statement quickly …”
“I like the brevity of the scene,” Manzano said. “Where you capture—I use the expression ‘the meat and potatoes’—the essence of it …”
We talked a bit about the specific beauty of winter. Manzano said, “I particularly like those long shadows in the winter … the cerulean blue shadows … and the sparkles on the snow …”
He continued, “Y’know my wife and I cross-country ski … and we enjoy the outdoors. And trying to capture some of the beautiful, crisp freshness of the snow is one of the things that I think is exciting …”
And, speaking of plein-air painting, Manzano likened it to the difference between a live jazz performance and a studio recording. He said, “Live performance—that’s what plein-air painting is to me …”
And he added, “It’s the closest I can get the audience next to me…”
Neil Berger grew up in Ithaca and went off to school, first to Stanford for a degrees in cognitive science and art, and then to the School of the Arts in Boston for his MFA, graduating in 1995.
After a sojourn in New York, he returned to the Finger Lakes in the early 2000s and did a series of landscape paintings that captured the geometric regularity of the roads and the shagginess of the rural agricultural and post-agricultural landscapes.
He painted in all seasons, including winter. While he used to paint outside, he now spends a great deal of time essentially creating an eidetic image in his mind and returning to the studio to paint.
“Nowadays I’m too overwhelmed painting outside in general,” he said, “and the cold only adds to that, but back when I did paint en plein air in all seasons, I was pretty tough. I was more concerned with how the paint would misbehave in the cold than how cold I was—although [my] hands would get profoundly cold.”
He found that as the temperature dropped into the 20s, oil paint got “gummy” and that made it brittle as it dried, causing it to crack and flake easily. He resorted to using a palette knife instead of a brush.
“One of my Mom’s favorite myths about me,” Berger said, “[has me] tromping off in a 20-something-degree snowstorm to go paint Cascadilla Gorge.” Berger said that, before he could drive, his mother would drop him somewhere for a couple of hours and the collect him later.
These high school experiences apparently gave him a permanent affection for the regional landscape. After finishing his masters degree, he returned to the area.
“I remember a brilliant winter afternoon on Black Oak Road (up Cayutaville way), all brilliant snow, cerulean shadows, orange weeds, black curtain of the forest, and yellow sun,” the artist recalled. “And there’s me in ‘98, painting some of my favorite fields covered in snow near Perry City, a brilliant sunny day. Only a slight hiss of wind, and faintly I hear a radio, yes, it’s rap music, and off to the right on the slushy road four or five male figures are approaching. They march past me—staring straight ahead, strutting, one carrying a boom box, with one ‘adult’ figure. The music gradually fades away, silence returns. Their absolute ignoring of me heightens the sense of dream apparition.” He later discovered the CARS treatment center nearby on Route 227.
He returned to Brooklyn a few years ago and began painting urban winter landscapes and addressed the challenge of how to convey the season without the usual cues of snow and bare trees.
“I perceive winter light to be so different,” Berger said, “so crisp and cutting and briskly kissing everything—especially down here in New York City— it couldn’t be more different than the soupy haze atmosphere of summer.
What it comes down to, according to Berger, is how you paint light.
“I just do ‘light kissing,’ kissing everything—the thousand rays of Akhenaten’s Sun, each terminating in a slightly curled hand, caressing everything,” he said. “The extravagantly abundant blessing of the sun are more obvious in the season of its lowest ebb, and its slanting approach leads to surprising witty combinations of shade and light that illuminate form more than the more unsubtle vertical domination of the summer sun.
Berger is a true upstater: during the winter he makes do with the amount of sun that he’s given.
“I’ve heard more than one Ithaca grimly joke about the entire day being blanketed in clouds,” he said, “but for the last moments of the day when it peeks under the blanket and dives behind West Hill. But those last moments are a grim joke or a religio-aesthetic passion play.”
When asked who in the painters’ canon best captured winter, Berger picked Claude Monet.
“Its funny,” he said, “the relative binariness, the stark contrast of lit snow versus shadowed snow. You think, ‘This is easy, I got this,’—it’s such a powerful, overwhelming effect. But after you do it, you find its actually really hard to get it.
“This is true for lots of things in art,” said the painter. “Any time you think, ‘I got this’ ...Well, Monet nails it. Just nails it. I’m thinking of his roads leading in to the village smattered with a ‘Euro-snow’ that will melt by noon.” •
Susan Booth Titus’s work can be seen at the Titus Gallery, 222 the Commons in Ithaca. www.titusgallery.com. Carlton Manzano’s work can be seen at Mastercraft Custom Framing and Fine Arts, 502 W. State/MLK St. in Ithaca. Neil Berger’s work can be seen at neilberger.com.