Ars Voces: Thomas Wilson–The Atmosphere of Light

I was always interested in art, but it wasn’t until 2000, when I was in my mid-thirties that I began going to galleries and taking a serious interest in painting. When I was living in Monroe, La., a local college was offering a painting class through their community enrichment program, so I signed up for a course, six hour-long sessions, and I became hooked at that point. I completed one painting in that course, and after that put it down for a while. Not long after that I was driving through my neighborhood there and saw an easel set up in a window. I found out a lady was teaching a class there, so I took that. We painted from photographs of old masters and I didn’t like painting from a photograph even back then. I learned how to mix paints, some composition, and basic things.

Shortly after that, I moved back to Jackson, this was 2007, I was painting on my own, improving basically by trial and error, still painting from images and still life, but I wanted to be legit, I didn’t want to be just basically copying somebody else. My uncle, who had taken art from Bob Tompkins, saw my paintings and said I should go see Tompkins. He was very helpful; he just didn’t go as far as I wanted to go. I wanted to paint the landscape. I asked him about that once, and he said that he was a studio painter.

But I wanted to paint outside; the artists I was drawn to painted on location from life. So I took a workshop from Roger Dale Brown in Nashville, who is a very well-known plein air painter, and I learned a ton from him about painting outside. After that, I struck out on my own and simply painted what I saw. My still lifes were very tight, very realistic; but when you’re painting outside, you don’t have a lot of time to fuss around because you only have like an hour or an hour and a half before the light changes. The painting of Fenian’s was different for me. I wanted to try painting at night, which has never really worked out well, but I was riding around, saw the rain, found a good place to stand, and really the subject isn’t so much Fenian’s as it is the atmosphere, the feel of the street, the clouds, the telephone poles.

The one in Vicksburg is different because it’s earlier in the day than I usually paint; I rarely paint in the middle of the day. It was also cloudy, and I couldn’t find a sunny spot to paint, and I like to paint when there’s a lot of sun. I like light and dark and shadow. I wanted to paint with the sky as the subject, the main part of the painting. The sun had come out a bit, but the light wasn’t as intense as what I normally paint. I visited Wyatt Waters recently, and I asked him about painting things that don’t really inspire me. I asked him if he had a hard time finding something to paint when he’s not inspired, and he said, “Inspiration is for amateurs; you’ve got to get out there and start painting and the inspiration will come.” So I’ve been trying to make myself paint even when I’m really uninspired.

When I moved to Belhaven, I wasn’t impressed and thought about leaving, but I kept putting it off. Then I started painting outside, and I fell in love with it. When I first moved here, I was thinking I simply wanted to paint landscapes. I didn’t want any man-made structures in a painting. I wanted it to look like an old master painting with nothing modern in it at all. There’s a dictum in art about not painting anything that’s beautiful, that you really can’t improve on it, and I think there’s something to that. I like stuff that’s funky and gritty. Now I really don’t want to paint anything unless it has a city street or a sidewalk or a telephone pole in it. It all kind of came together moving here. Being immersed in a locale, you see more.

I’m not much for change, and I’ve stuck with the same basic palette Bob Tompkins taught me; I even still set it up the same way he showed me. But Jarrod Partridge was a big help to me developing my palette because he studied under the colorists, like a of Mississippi painters. Sammy Britt, Richard Kelso, John Pat Marbury all studied under Henry Hensche, whose lineage goes back to William Merritt Chase. Jarrod helped me with my color, and I need good color because I want to make beautiful paintings, but still the most important elements to me are the light and dark, the contrast. I think someone would say I’m a tonalist, working with light and dark. I’ve heard it said that if the light and dark are correct, that the colors will work no matter what they are, but I consider myself just someone who paints what he sees.

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