Capturing the Mind of Nature: Gabriel Tempesta’s Charcoal Drawings
"Gabriel Tempesta: Our World, Charcoals & Casein" is on view October 9, 2015 – December 31, 2015 in the Upstairs Gallery. Using the camera as his sketching tool, Gabriel Tempesta creates highly detailed impressions of his natural surroundings with charcoal, casein, and watercolor. This solo exhibition highlights his most recent works.
A work of art can challenge our sense of reality; heightening, perhaps even changing the way we think about something familiar. Such was my experience when I first saw Gabriel Tempesta’s bumblebee series a few years ago. The plight of our bees, with their diminishing numbers and their importance to the balance of our ecosystem, is critical. I was blown away by these paintings. They showed the bees up close, in black and white, larger than life, all powerful, delicate, and so real. Their significance, in my mind, was bumped up a hundred fold.
Gabriel Tempesta has a way with charcoal. His ability to focus in on his subjects − bees in flight, the gnarly bark of an old tree, the gait of a cat or dog, the surface of a pond − is larger than life and so true to life. His paintings often look like black and white photographs, and yet are imbued with feeling. There is empathy in the way he paints, bringing the viewer closer to the natural world, lifting our awareness to another level.
Before Tempesta starts painting, he takes many photographs. He may study a photograph for a long time, sometimes years, before deciding to finally paint the image. Once the image is chosen, he figures out his approach and plan of action; the size and surface. Whether to use rough or smooth clayboard or to paint on paper. “I usually start with charcoal powder, lightly roughing in the overall composition, either dry or with water. Then I incorporate black watercolor, often mixing it with charcoal to form a paste,” Tempesta said. During this process, there’s a lot of adding and subtracting until he achieves the desired tone. Sometimes he even uses dentist tools to scratch and lift away paint, and then uses charcoal to create the fine highlights. “I sometimes use an airbrush in the middle of the process to lay down broad washes. Sometimes I use an etching tool that is essentially a mini sand blaster to lift away paint where more of a gradient or softer touch is needed. I leave the finer details for the end,” he said.
Morning Near the Wild Branch is a charcoal and watercolor on board, 40 x 30 inches. The painting depicts a rising sun filtered through trees on the edge of a field. The sun lights up spider webs in the foreground, coated with dew. “The background light in this painting was a challenge and pushed my dry brush charcoal-powder technique to the edge,” Tempesta said.
Wolcott Pond in Bloom, charcoal, watercolor and pastel on board, 30 x 30 inches, was another challenge for Tempesta. “I really had to work through issues as I painted the water and the ellipses of the lily pads,” Tempesta said. “But I always learn the most from paintings that are difficult. The paintings that followed this one seemed to flow in a more effortless way. Like when a baseball batter on deck swings two bats. When he gets up to the plate with one bat, it somehow seems lighter and easier to swing.”
Even though Tempesta follows closely his photographs, there are always small deviations that occur during the process. Clayboard, because of its hard surface, allows his washes to flow around in a loose, somewhat uncontrolled manner that makes for unpredictability. He rarely projects the image onto the surface he has chosen, preferring to use freehand techniques, which can create unexpected textures and magic. Tempesta is all about capturing the spirit of the image.
Pollinator #2, charcoal on board, is certainly magical. The tiny bee, now large, energetically hovers above a flower. Its head is burrowing in to extract the pollen and you can feel its earnest endeavor. Old Birch on Elmore Mountain shows an ancient white birch reaching upwards, sky bound and noble. It is painted with casein, a milk based paint; a versatile medium. The paint is water-soluble but becomes insoluble with time and exposure, a challenge to work with.
Tempesta has been influenced and inspired by Robert Longo’s black and white paintings. He also said that Andrew Wyeth has been a great influence with “his obsessive use of detail and the inspiring quest for truth in his realist paintings.” This is the crux of Gabriel Tempesta’s work − his quest for truth. How could he know the mind of a bumblebee? Yet when you look at his bee paintings, you can feel the bee’s intent, its single-minded focus, its tenacity and power. Even the painting of Tempesta’s cat, Hunter in the Field, shows the intensity of a cat’s focus on the hunt. “I took a picture of her in a field three years ago. It was such a great composition, with a subtle blurry photographic effect I really wanted to capture. It took me a few years of looking at the photo before I finally decided to paint it,” Tempesta said.
Every work in this new show at West Branch, has a distinct personality. Trees, animals, bees, a valley, a pond; his paintings capture the wildness of nature. Each piece takes a long time to produce, just as evolution in nature takes a long time. Extinction can be rapid. Tempesta gives us the opportunity to hold close the natural world. He holds his images deeply, hopefully for a long time.