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 Herbert Laurence Davidson  (1930 - )

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Lived/Active: Illinois/Wisconsin      Known for: realist painting

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Ad Code: 3
Herbert Laurence Davidson
from Auction House Records.
Portrait of Hugh Hefner
Artwork images are copyright of the artist or assignee
This biography from the Archives of AskART:
The following text by John Williams appeared in American Artist magazine, July 1980
"Portrait of Solitude"

The creative life Herbert Davidson pursues is simple, ordered, and solitary, like the pictures he paints. In a sense his pictures are his life, records of the things he sees, of the people he knows and meets, of the experiences he has. Like seeds, he plants these experiences daily in the back of his mind and some take root, grow, and eventually bear fruit.

Davidson has been painting in the detailed, highly polished style that characterizes his work since shortly after he graduated in 1956 from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Upon graduation, he was awarded a traveling fellowship and, for the next year-and-a-half, he roamed around Europe, spending most of his time painting and studying in Florence.

In Europe he was inspired by the stained-glass windows of the Chapel Saint Louis in Paris and the work of the 15th and 16th century Italian Masters. He was overwhelmed by the beauty and grace of Botticelli’s drawings and still finds inspiration in them to this day. It was during this trip that he made up his mind to be a painter.

Davidson describes his work during his school days as bordering on fantasy, a strict departure from the genre style that characterized his work today.

His work at the time, especially his figure studies, were stylized, probably as a direct result of the inspiration from the stained-glass windows he so admired. But after his return to the United States, that soon fell by the wayside. He then began painting still lifes and worked with the figure more seriously.

He held his first solo show in Chicago shortly after his return from Europe. Its success gave Davidson the financial security and incentive to continue. He painted for three more years in Chicago and then went to Israel, where he lived and worked for a year-and-a-half. During this period, Davidson felt his work was beginning to mature, to be free from the influence of school.

“I thought I knew exactly what I wanted to paint while I was in school, but it wasn’t true,” he says. “I found that I was like unformed clay. I had things running in my head from my school days that had to take time to gestate. You just have to get away from school for a while to let your ideas mold and mature.”

As he looks back at the progression of his work, Davidson finds that it has not changed all that much, it has just evolved. “You don’t look at something I did many years ago and say, ‘I wonder who did that.’ You know it was me. I mostly wonder why I did that and why I did it that way.”

Mood and setting in a painting are quite important to Davidson and have even become more important over the years. In his early work, he wasn’t concerned with those elements or with what he calls “focusing in on a figure.” He says his early work may have contained those elements, but it was probably unintentional: “Now I search it out, strive for it.”

Davidson says of his work: “I want it to have a certain presence: I hope, although I don’t think it is absolute, that when someone looks at it that they are going beyond the surface—the drawing, the color—and they are getting some idea of what it is I am dealing with in the painting. But I don’t think it is necessary in anyone’s painting to know exactly what the artist had in mind when he was painting. You can react to a piece of art within yourself without knowing what the artist intended.”

Davidson can’t remember a time when he didn’t want to be an artist. While he always drew, he attended children’s classes at the School of the Art Institute and remembers being “turned on” by Edward Hopper’s painting Nighthawks: “The fact that someone could paint a painting that could evoke a strong emotional response was exciting.”

The artist sees himself following the traditions of the genre painters of the past. He feels that all the work he has done so far has led him to this point.

Although Davidson’s own work may be restricted to representational painting, he admires many of the moderns and especially finds power in the works of Willem de Kooning and Francis Bacon. Abstract Expressionism and Action Painting were in vogue while Davidson was a student, and, while the concepts interested him, he never felt the need to work in those modes.

As in the traditions of the genre painters of the past, Davidson relies on the things and people he sees around him for subject material. “The pictures are always there,” Davidson says. “Unlike some other painters, however, I never recall seeing something and saying to myself: ‘Gee, I’d love to paint that.’ Never. I see something and it triggers an image in my mind. I may say to myself: ‘That incorporated with this other image may just make an interesting painting.’”

Davidson says he always has the next three paintings worked out in his head, but he works only on one canvas at a time—through completion—because he feels that, if he stopped for a while to work on another piece, he would lose the excitement that brought him to the idea in the first place.

Since the late 1960s, the camera has become an important tool in Davidson’s work. He began using it to study the effect of light and dark, the chiaroscuro, which he felt was lacking in his work, and discovered it could be used as an excellent sketching device. He takes pictures continuously, never actually seeking any particular subject matter. “I’d never find anything that way,” he says. Parts of these pictures combined with others may eventually find their way into one of his compositions.

Davidson’s studio has two windows with northern exposure. Natural light is a must for this artist because of the effect it has upon color. Under artificial illumination, Davidson has found that his paintings have a much darker appearance and his colors are not as vibrant.

His painting routine rarely varies. He usually works five, sometimes six, days a week in the studio. He begins by 8 a.m. and works until sundown.

Davidson has used the same palette for years. It consists of burnt umber, raw and burnt sienna, phthalocyanine blue and green, ultramarine blue, alizarin crimson, titanium white, and the cadmiums—red light, orange, and yellow medium. He uses ivory black only to lay in his initial sketch. He prefers linseed oil as a medium because it is a slow drier. The slower the paint dries, the longer he is able to work back into his paintings, which is important for the tonal effect he tries to create.

There was a time, Davidson says, when he spent as much time on the preliminary work for a painting—getting the composition correct—as he did on the painting itself. That has changed. Now he spends a day or two on the design, sometimes longer. But there are times that the idea is so etched in his mind that he goes right into painting without any preliminary sketching at all.

Generally, however, Davidson blocks out his composition in an almost abstract form to get the basic shapes, the pattern of the design, which he feels is what will really carry his painting. He begins to sketch in the drawing very freely with a thin sable brush and black paint. He then tones his canvas with umber, a technique he discovered after studying some of the unfinished works of the Italian Masters.

Next, Davidson refines this free sketch, wiping out lines and perfecting others until he gets a finely detailed drawing: “I find the better my drawing is, the easier it is to paint.”

His next step is to mix the colors he is going to use on the palette. For example, if the colors he is going to be primarily concerned with on a particular day are reds and yellows, he will mix those colors and their complements.

In the first stage of the actual painting, Davidson begins to lay in color all over the canvas, defining the major areas of light and dark. He emphasizes that he doesn’t lay in color in flat washes; he is constantly aware and is always working for value changes. The first stage may take two or three days or as much as a week, depending on the size of the picture.

In his mind, Davidson says, he is thinking of laying in the darks and building up the lights. His prime consideration is the overall light and dark pattern with slight refinements to both. The values are of utmost importance at this stage and will continue so throughout the picture.

Davidson now begins what he calls “redefining” or “the introduction of real color.” He lays in one color on top of another, similar to an Impressionist technique of broken color, but in a much more subtle manner, again always working for value changes. He will often introduce a complement in a major area of color to give it vibrancy. In the past he used to glaze areas of the picture with a complementary color but eventually gave that up, because he finds that by using broken color his paintings are more alive. In the next and final stage Davidson will go back into the painting to refine both color and value, working and reworking to get the desired effect. Then he puts in the subtle changes of color and value that he feels pulls the picture together. When the painting is completely dry, he will varnish it with three thin coats of damar varnish.

Davidson’s biggest expense in painting is brushes. He uses a variety of them, mostly sables, but he relies heavily on a No. 2 or 3 round. The brushes come to a very fine point, perfectly suitable for the detailed work that Davidson does. He wears out as many as two or three brushes a painting. Besides the sables, which he also uses in flats and brights, all of varying sizes, but no larger than a quarter of an inch, he also has on hand a few large bristle brushes for big areas and a number of synthetic sponges cut up into small pieces, which he uses to create texture.

It takes Davidson anywhere from three to ten weeks to complete a painting, depending on the size. He seldom paints on larger than two-by-three-foot canvases, because he feels everything he has to say can be said within that size or, for the most part, with a smaller format. He used to complete 20 paintings a year but has found, as time goes on, that it is more difficult to please himself, so he winds up taking more time to finish a painting.

Of the work he completes in a year, Davidson finds that there are usually one or two paintings that really stand out and which he feels have really hit his mark. That, of course, is his goal with every painting, but he, like most artists, finds it doesn’t happen with every picture. “I consider a painting successful when I have an idea, a good idea that I am excited about,” he says. “And at the conclusion of the painting, if the idea I had in my head is pretty close to what happens in the picture, then I know the idea and my attempt to express it were good.”

Online Source:
McClarry Fine Art,

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