Editor’s note: Airstream will host a fine art invitational exhibit of landscape art, May 31-June 5, at its headquarters in Jackson Center. This is one in a series of stories that will profile the artists whose work will be shown.
SIDNEY — When James Toogood was little, he thought everyone in the world had to learn to paint in order to grow up.
“I thought you had to learn how to count, learn how to spell and learn how to paint,” he said, Monday, by phone from Bermuda, where he is teaching art workshops.
The Cherry Hill, New Jersey, resident has been painting, exhibiting and teaching on the island for the last 3o years. He is also an adjunct instructor at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, where he, himself, studied.
“I tell my students that in any kind of art, you don’t have a manual. You have your tools, you have your talent and you have at it,” he said.
When Toogood has at it, portraits and extremely complex landscapes and cityscapes result.
“I’ve always been interested in creating a sense of place,” he said. He does. His pictures of New York City, Philadelphia, Bermuda and Venice pull in viewers from across the room and hold them to study the precision of painstakingly rendered bricks, myriad signs, and rippling water.
“As (viewers) come closer, I want to make sure they are not disappointed,” he said.
Dr. Michael W. Schantz, executive director and CEO of the Heckscher Museum of Art in Huntington, New York, told the Sidney Daily News, that Toogood’s “ability to handle reflection on water is incomparable. It’s absolutely luscious.” He calls Toogood’s art “jaw-dropping.”
“The fact that he’s doing it in watercolor is extraordinary,” he added.
Toogood has time now to work slowly and to experiment, thanks to the great recession of 2008. The art world has not yet rebounded from the economic crash.
“Art is the very last of the lagging indicators,” he said.
While, the artist noted, painters whose work sells at $100,000 per piece and above were unaffected by the downturn, all others were hit hard. Buyers disappeared. So he has initiated what he calls the “recession sale,” offering paintings at prices astute investors should take advantage of.
In the meantime, Toogood has an inventory of work to fulfill gallery requests. Because he doesn’t have to use all his painting hours to meet those demands, he can take time he doesn’t usually have to complete new work.
Currently on his easel is a piece that comes partly from observation and partly from Toogood’s imagination.
“It’s looking through a skywalk, seven stories high. There’s refracted light and strong light and shadow. I’m interested in exploring the qualities of light,” he said.
Sometimes, that means constructing little clay models of the buildings he’s picturing and shining a strong light on the models to determine how the shadows lie.
The painted light helps to promote the understanding of place.
“He’s always been skilled at capturing the light of any destination,” said Schantz. “He’s captured the environment in an exquisite fashion. With him, you get atmosphere as well as topography.”
Philadelphia and New York have a similar sense of light, Toogood noted. Venice comes with a “soft, shimmery light, but it’s not garish. The light in Bermuda is warm, softened and diffused by the moist air,” he added. The painting he has submitted to the Airstream Fine Art Invitational exhibit is of a Bermuda location.
“It’s an atmosphere saturated with color,” he said. “I try to approximate what a human would see if looking at that place.”
He likens the actual creation of a painting to playing a game of three-dimensional chess.
“You really have to think about your next move and the context,” he said. He also has to make sure he doesn’t work for too long a period of time. Putting in 80- to 90-hour work weeks as a younger man gave him a repetitive-motion injury that he must now consider.
A watercolorist who also often uses graphite, Toogood acknowledged that despite having a concept when he begins a piece, his paintings don’t always turn out the way he thought they would. He admits to lots of false starts and do-overs.
“Sometimes there are sections that just have to come out. Sometimes it just works out that way,” he said. “My primary goal is to do the best I possibly can, whatever that means.”
What it means is devoting as much as 450 hours to each painting, and Toogood works on only one at a time. Occasionally, he’ll complete something to keep just for his wife and himself.
With friends, he has played a game in which they name two artists whose work they’d like to own. The Sidney Daily News asked him to narrow it down to one.
“A Jackson Pollack,” Toodgood said, “because of the energy. That’s the thing I like. My paintings tend to be quiet. His are noisy and energetic.”
When he’s not painting, Toogood enjoys music — classical jazz by Miles Davis, John Coltrane and Wayne Shorter, and “Who doesn’t like rock and roll?” he joked — being with friends and gardening. The yard has been a multi-year endeavor that started with strategically placed trees. Now, he augments them with hostas and annuals.
But when it comes to work, his delights are painting, then teaching, then writing about painting and teaching. Dan Knepper, a Jackson Center artist who assisted in curating the upcoming Airstream exhibit, said Toogood may be the most published artist in the show. A Toogood painting graces the cover of the June edition of Watercolor Artist magazine.
His work is in the permanent collections of as many as a dozen museums, among them the Woodmere Art Museum in Philadelphia, of which Schantz was the executive director and curator when Toogood was given a major restrospective there, the Baker Museum (formerly the Naples Museum of Art) in Florida, and the Masterworks Museum of Bermuda Art in Hamilton, Bermuda.
“I think what he does is rock solid. It has substance and staying power,” Schantz said. “He’s been plying his trade for many years and there aren’t very many better.”
Reach the writer at 937-538-4824.