Oil Painting: Travis Schlaht: Following Inspiration

Oil Painting: Travis Schlaht: Following Inspiration

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New York painter Travis Schlaht looks for—and finds—compelling beauty in many corners of life. Then, using a restrained but powerful palette, he mirrors it on canvas.

by James A. Metcalfe

Bar II
2005, oil on linen, 26 x 36.
All artwork this article private
collection unless otherwise indicated.

Travis Schlaht has a simple but definite philosophy about painting: “An artist should inspire,” the native Californian declares. Artists can always inspire—if by nothing else then by illustrating how visually beautiful life can be.” To accomplish this, Schlaht, who admits to being strongly influenced by 19th-century painters, simply paints the scenes and objects that he finds both beautiful and compelling.

When considering still-life subject matter, the artist selects objects to which he is either attracted aesthetically or feels in some way connected. “It could be because of an object’s texture, color, shape, or the way light reflects on or travels through it that beckons me to paint it,” the artist says. In Bar II, for example, Schlaht wanted to capture different but harmonious aspects of the setup. “Each bottle had its own aesthetic appeal,” he explains. “The shape and color of the liquid in each one were directly affected by what was behind it, and I found that visually fascinating. I must see something interesting if I hope to make an interesting painting.”

Red Truck
2004, oil on linen, 8 x 10.

Schlaht believes that what set artists apart are their personal responses to objects, places, and individuals. “It’s not important how a painting is completed or who painted it but rather whether or not a particular image can resonate with the viewer,” he stresses. “Ten people can study and paint the same subject, but the paintings will vary enormously depending on the artists’ emotional responses to their subject matter.” And although Schlaht feels it’s important to evoke a response from the viewer, he never wants to mandate what that response should be. “If a viewer is unable to determine what object I’ve painted, then I’ve probably failed. But how viewers feel about it is up to them. My only hope is that they’ll have an honest response to the subject matter as well as to the way it’s painted.”

Schlaht ensures an honest response to his paintings by starting with an honest approach. Speaking of his plein air landscape work, the artist says, “It’s about trying to capture the fullness of where I am. I spend hours just looking at and exploring what’s in front of me—not to mention absorbing the myriad sounds and smells unique to that specific location.” Since Schlaht paints only from life, he is also familiar with the obstacles that plein air painting presents. Like many artists, he finds that “the most formidable challenge is trying to capture atmosphere, depth, scale, and grandeur while maintaining both color and linear perspective, while simultaneously fighting the elements,” he says, adding, “and to do all this in fewer than four hours, before the light changes completely.

Deer Isle Inlet
2005, oil on linen, 17 x 24.

“Since air decreases value and color ranges,” he explains, “the more air and atmosphere between you and the subject means the less chromatic the color becomes and the smaller the value range becomes (lights become less light and darks become less dark.) In Deer Isle Inlet, for example, I tried to achieve atmosphere with color by making the trees in the far background less chromatic and the trees on the hillside less green, which resulted in those trees having such a small value range that the individual trees are indistinguishable. Also note the edges, or the lack thereof, where the hillside meets the sky. They’re much softer and less defined than the rocks on the side of the cliff in the foreground.”

Schlaht also tried to depict a strong sense of atmosphere in Red Truck. “The truck in the foreground has both high chroma and a wide value range,” he explains, “while the tree in the background is painted in muted shades of green and has a narrow value range.” By painting this contrast, Schlaht drew attention to his subject and evoked the sense of a particular place in a particular time. “I don’t set out specifically to paint mood,” the artist contends. “But painting the effect of atmosphere will in itself set a mood.” He believes how a viewer reacts to a subject or light effect will also determine the mood of a painting. “Mood is a funny thing,” he says. “I can’t—nor do I want to—control the mood of the viewer. In Bread and Butter, for instance, some viewers may look at the mouse and have a negative response. To them, the mouse might represent filth and decay or nature’s intrusion on man’s way of life. Others may see it as an optimistic image in which the needs of the little guy [the mouse] are finally met in abundance. I create an image; the viewer’s interpretation sets the mood.”

Schlaht’s Materials
Schlaht believes that being familiar with his materials is essential. “It allows me to concentrate more effectively on the appearance of the painting,” he says. His canvas of choice is Claessens portrait linen. “It’s not too smooth nor is the thickness of the weave too distracting,” he says. In terms of paint, the most important factors he considers are consistency and whether the paint is malleable enough for him to forgo using a medium. His preferred paints, depending on the particular color, are those by Old Holland, Schmincke-Mussini, Rembrandt, and Gamblin. He uses mainly Winsor Newton soft synthetic brushes. He prefers English distilled turpentine to the nontoxic, odorless thinners due to its strength and quickness of evaporation.

White Barn
2005, oil on linen, 8 x 10.
Courtesy John Pence Gallery,
San Francisco, California.

Regardless of the subject matter, Schlaht’s real passion is the act of painting. The artist easily spends up to 14 hours a day painting in his studio and often works out all the drawing issues on paper first. “I spend a considerable amount of time establishing the design of a painting,” he says. “When I am finally satisfied with the composition, I’ll start the drawing, usually with burnt umber on a toned canvas. When working on a figure, however, I will first do a drawing in graphite and then transfer that drawing to canvas.

“As I work on the drawing, I’m putting things in the right place and getting the right proportions of the person or object,” the artist continues. “For example, in Valentine I’m not concerned with drawing every part of the subject’s eye; I am more concerned with capturing the distances and relationships among the eyes, nose, and mouth. The drawing is crucial because after I begin, a painting rarely strays from its original look.”

Bread and Butter
2005, oil on linen, 11 x 15.
Courtesy John Pence Gallery,
San Francisco, California.

Most often Schlaht will paint one object to completion—usually the most interesting one or the one with the greatest value range—and then relate everything else in the painting to that original object. He does gives himself room to be flexible, however, and is not necessarily opposed to moving or adding an element if it will result in a better composition. And although he considers himself to be true to his subject, he admits to being not “slavishly true.” “I’m not apt to paint every detail, and I’m often more interested in the evocativeness of a brushstroke than I am in representing an object’s every last nuance,” he admits.

In terms of his color choice, Schlaht uses restrained tones to ensure that when he does use intense color it has significant impact. “I use pure color for accents only; for the rest of the painting I generally use muted tones,” he explains. Two of the bottles in Bar II, for instance, have vivid-red wax tops. “To keep the wax a rich red I used pure red only at the brightest part of the top. The middle value was red mixed with a little burnt umber to lower its value. If I had just used white to give the top form, the wax would look pink and washed out,” he says.

2004, oil on linen, 14 x 22.

His palette consists of approximately 24 colors. “It’s not that I think it’s important to have this many colors; it’s just what I’ve accumulated,” says Schlaht. He finds it useful to use the same colors in the same order whenever he paints. “This way,” he says, “you always know where the colors that you need are, and you don’t waste time looking for the right one. Some artists have a palette for landscape and another set of colors for the figure, and they’re constantly adding or subtracting depending on the subject they’re painting. That’s too confusing for me. I try to keep things as simple as possible; the act of painting is hard enough!”

Water Street
2002, oil on linen, 14 x 22.

About the Artist
Travis Schlaht holds a B.A. in studio arts from The University of the Pacific, in Stockton, California, and studied at the Water Street Atelier, in Brooklyn, for three years before it closed in 2002. He currently teaches at The Grand Central Academy of Art, in New York City. He resides in New York City with his wife, Kate Lehman, who is also a painter. He is represented by John Pence Gallery, in San Francisco.

James A. Metcalfe is a freelance writer residing in West Warwick, Rhode Island.

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