Artist Spotlight: Eric Tobin

Warm Winter Day
Warm Winter Day – 24 x 36 oil

Eric Tobin is a painter from Vermont who aims to capture the beauty of the moment, the light, and the setting of landscapes. His love for Vermont can be seen in each of his works; evoking the feelings of the natural setting in which he chooses to paint. Most of Eric’s work is done outdoors, regardless of time of year, difficult setting, or rapidly changing conditions. He strives to paint the feeling of a place and particularly likes painting in the winter, spring and fall. Eric’s work has been shown in many New England galleries and is in private collections around the world.

For those unfamiliar with your work, how would you describe your art?

 I would describe it as landscapes that are loose, semi-impressionistic. Years ago my paintings were a lot more poster-like. They had real hard edges. They still have a lot of contrast. I like sunny days with a lot of contrast, a lot of punch, but I think as I’ve painted, my edges have gotten a lot better, with hard edges, soft edges and disappearing edges. And then of course your color sense becomes a lot better. You become a lot more attuned to color variations and how they act upon each other subtly.

What are your goals in painting what you paint?

 When I’m headed out to paint my goal is to have fun. I try to capture what I see. I try to get the light, and I look for something that excites me.

In the studio I just don’t get that excited about painting. Sometimes if I’m painting from a smaller painting doing a large one it’s OK, but still, outdoors it’s fresh and quick. You only have so much time so you just get the essentials and you don’t worry about the details. You get the big light and dark shapes, the contrast, and how one thing affects the other.

Usually I look for something that interests me – when I get to a scene I say “Why does this interest me?” That’s what I’m going to paint. If you start painting then you look over and you see something on the left that’s interesting and so you put that in, and you see something on the right and you put that in and before you know it the original plan is gone. You have to try and get to a site and ask what drew you to the site, what interests you and paint that. Let everything else be subordinate to that.

When you talk about getting to a site and what interests you, is it usually a subject, a pattern of light, a color…?

Oh it’s all of the above. One day you might go out and it’s the contrast and the color of the light, another time is the subject, another time it’s the lines. Sometimes a painting is about lines, sometimes it’s about color, sometimes it’s about shapes and then sometimes it’s a little bit of everything.

Valley Light - 20 x 24
Valley Light – 20 x 24 oil

Tell me about your influences, from Thomas Curtin and Fred Hines, and others.

Tom Curtin was the one who got me interested in painting. When I was a little kid my grandfather’s farm was just up the road in Underhill and he used to come up on the farm to paint. He lived in Cambridge Village. I think I was in third grade when I first saw him. I used to watch him paint. Every time he came up he would say “Oh I’m out painting” so I would go watch him paint. I was too young to be out there by myself, I didn’t have any equipment or anything. He actually gave me a watercolor set and I started fooling around with that. I was twelve when I got my first oil set. My parents got it for me for Christmas.

I think in 7th grade we moved to Middlebury but every 4-6 weeks we’d come back to see my grandfather and I would go down to visit Tommy in his studio-gallery-house. And he would show me his paintings. Then the year we moved back to Cambridge, that was the year he died. It was my senior year in high school.

I never actually painted with him, I watched him paint, but he was the one that really got me excited about painting. I always admired his work.

Shortly after that I found a book on Emile Gruppe down in Essex. I had never heard of him before. I never really studied any other artists up until that point and then I started looking at his work along with Aldro Hibbard and a lot of artists that came up to Vermont to paint. Of course all the European painters interested me, the impressionists.

Anyway, I wanted to go to art school and everyone told me I would never make a living painting or I would have to live in a city. I didn’t want to live in a city so I went to work and got married and had kids. I tried painting on weekends and vacations as much as I could. I probably painted, if I was lucky, 15 or 20 paintings a year.

I drew quite a bit too. And then finally, in January 2000 I quite my day job, started painting full-time, and I was really lucky that people bought them so I could continue to paint. The first year I was pretty much painting alone. The second year I met Fred (Hines). I knew Fred a little bit but Fred said “Oh we should paint together” so we painted together 2-3 days a week. I learned more from Fred then anybody. He was a great teacher and made me aware of a lot of things I didn’t know. He put me 20 years ahead of where I would be if I hadn’t met him. So it was like art school. It wasn’t formal training but it was very worthwhile. Then I just painted from there. There is nothing that replaces time at the easel. No matter how much schooling or reading or thinking about art you do, you can’t expand your work unless your painting on a regular basis.

The first year I was painting full-time, perhaps the first 5 years, I painted probably 350+ paintings a year. Not counting the ones I threw away and scraped off. Now I don’t paint quite as much. I paint on a regular basis, but I don’t go out on rainy days quite as much or if it’s way below zero I probably stay in until it warms up to at least 5-below (laughs).

Are there adjustments you need to make for the change in seasons, especially in winter?

You have to dress warmer. One thing about winter, light is good usually all day long because the sun in lower so you have shadows and stuff all day long. In the summertime, mid-summer, or mid-day summertime the sun is so high everything is flattened out unless you get a cloudy day or a day with puffy clouds. The paint gets thicker when it gets cold. I usually just add a little more medium to the paint. Other than that? I made little snowshoes for the bottom of my easel so it doesn’t sink out of sight. Other than that there is not much difference.

In summertime the bugs stick all over the paint, which is a pain. I’d rather paint in the winter.

You paint almost exclusively ‘en plein air’. You also have a reputation of being very fast and prolific. How did that come about and why?

I just love being outdoors. When I was working full-time and I had just a tiny little room in the house, I didn’t like the turpentine smell in the house. So I didn’t paint in there. I just painted outdoors.

I tended to be fast because I knew I only had 2 hours today to paint, and I wasn’t going to paint again for another week, so I painted as quickly as I could to try and get something down. It just works for me that way. You only have a couple hours for consistent light anyway, three hours if you’re lucky. Usually if you go back a second day the light is different. So you end up getting the big light and dark patterns down. There’s usually 3-4 big light and dark patterns. You try and cover the canvas in the first half-hour, get your idea locked in, and then after that it doesn’t really take that much detail. As long as you’ve got your values right and the colors are working, the design is the most important thing.

Design is probably 80% of the painting, at least. If you don’t have a good design it doesn’t matter how well it’s painted. If the design isn’t there it will never work.

Vermont Color - 24 x 30 oil
Vermont Color – 24 x 30 oil

What colors make up your palette, and does that change with the seasons, or with the subject?

I keep it pretty consistent. Actually in the summer I use manganese violet, which is much warmer and a little stronger. In the winter I use a cobalt violet, which is more subtle and works really well for the snow. It’s not too warm. That’s about the only change I make as far as colors. I’ve always used basically the Gruppe palette, 2 reds, 2 yellows, 2 blues. A cool and warm of each. Probably 10 years ago I started to introduce complimentaries, one orange, a violet, and a green. I think Gruppe used an orange on occasion too.

I set up my palette the same every time, that way I almost don’t even have to look at the palette when I’m painting. I know where every color is. I think it’s a really good habit to do it that way. So I use cobalt violet or manganese depending on the season, cobalt blue, ultramarine blue, I switched from Alizarim Crimson to quinacridone violet. Alizarin is not a permanent color and will turn black with age. So I got rid of that. They do make an alizarin permanent which is basically ultramarine blue and quinacridone red so I just use the quinacridone violet. Then I use a cadmium red medium, and then a cadmium red light. And then a cadmium orange, cadmium yellow medium, cadmium yellow light or cadmium lemon, and then viridian.

I usually use zinc white. Sometimes I use a titanium zinc white but I like the zinc white. They say it cracks and it’s brittle but that’s what Gruppe used and I’ve never seen a cracked painting of his. I think if you over-paint, that is if you paint in layers over a period of several weeks I think that is when you get into problems with zinc white. I think if you paint directly you don’t have a problem.

You mention that because you set your palette up the same all the time you don’t really have to look at it. Are you mixing your colors on the palette or are you going direct and mixing sometimes right on the surface?

A little of both. Mostly I mix them a little on the palette, then put them up, then sometimes push them around a little on the painting but not too much. I try not to over mix. One time I was painting with Fred and he comes over and he’s watching me and he says “What are you doing? Baking cookies?”. I said “what do you mean?” He says “Don’t stir your paint! Make a few swipes with it and then put it on the canvas.”

You don’t want to homogenize it and dumb it down.

The color vibrancy in your work probably owes a lot to not over-mixing the paint.

When I first started painting, years ago, I would look at the painting and it would be kind of dull and lifeless. And I would look at my palette and my palette was exciting. All the color vibrations and stuff of the palette. Finally after a while I realized that if you over-mix the stuff on the painting it kills it. That is why if you lay a color down and it’s right– don’t touch it. You let all the little strands of color vibrate. The impressionists just painted little spots of color side-by-side. I think a lot more broadly, if you put the stroke down and look closely you can see all the colors in each brushstroke, all the strands of color. That’s what makes it full of life.

What’s the best piece of advice you were given when you first started out?

Probably… don’t get too attached to a painting, it’s just a painting. There’s always a blank canvas the next day. If you don’t like the painting don’t worry about it, just go on and do another one. There is nothing better than starting on a fresh canvas. You get a new start every day.

Sometimes when you go a long spell without selling anything you think, “what am I doing?” Just keep doing them. You’ll get one that turns out and somebody will like it. Just keep painting don’t give up.

How long have you been showing your work through the Bryan Gallery?

Ever since it opened, in 1984.

You were a winner of the Alden Bryan Gold Medal for Best In Show and continue to show at the annual Land & Light & Water & Air show. How did you choose what to submit to this year’s Land & Light exhibit at the Bryan Gallery?

I never know what to pick. A lot of times for the local galleries I let them come pick the paintings they want because they know what their audience likes. Sometimes I get paintings I may not really like and that’s the ones they pick and will buy. Other times I pick the paintings I really like and they sit for a long time without selling. So I don’t know. I’ve put in paintings that I like before and sometimes they’ve sold and sometimes they don’t.

If you could paint for a day with any artist, past or present, anywhere in the world, who would that be and why?

I would love to paint with Gruppe or Hibbard. I could name a whole bunch of them, but probably Gruppe number one and Hibbard number two. I’ve always liked Gruppe’s style. He painted outdoors on location and they’re fresh. Not a lot of fussing with them. He was right on. When he put a brush stroke down it was right and it worked. I would just love to watch him paint and see how he worked.

Hibbard was a little more technical I think. Maybe a little bit tighter. Which is why I would probably choose Gruppe as my first choice.

Cold Hollow Farm - 20 x 24 oil
Cold Hollow Farm – 20 x 24 oil

You also teach. What drives you to teach workshops?

Teaching (and learning) is a really great thing to do. Take workshops from people that you admire. But also, I learn so much by teaching. I don’t teach enough. It’s good to give back what you learn. I had one artist tell me once, “Don’t teach them too much, you don’t want the competition.” But my theory is that I want to raise the level of everybody’s potential. I want to see good art. I don’t like seeing mediocre art. So I try to give back as much as I can by teaching. Show people. Everybody has their own style. But if they don’t know the fundamentals, which is what Fred (Hines) drove into me, the fundamentals, the foundation behind the painting – but if you don’t have the fundamentals and the foundation of good art, then it shows (or it doesn’t show!).

What are your workshops like?

In the past I have done workshops through the Bryan Gallery. I do quite a bit of small groups, with just one or two or three people. I can actually paint myself with small groups. I teach by demonstration. In a large group I will do a 24” x 30” demonstration painting and spend like 45 minutes or an hour on it. And it’s laid in. Then I spend the rest of the time going around to each individual student. Where-as in a small group I can still do the demonstration painting. Get them painting. Then I can work on mine some more, bring it to more of a finished level and they can see how it’s done. And I still get to spend quite a bit of time with each individual student so I like the smaller groups.

Leave us with one tip or piece of advice you would share with any artist out there, one thing that you feel every artist could benefit from.

When I wanted to paint full-time when I first got out of high school I was told “Oh you’ll never make a living painting”. Believe in yourself. Don’t listen to what other people have to say. If it’s in your heart and you want to do it and can do it, then do it! Work as hard as you can, and paint as much as you can. Don’t get sidetracked. Don’t get discouraged.