Artistic inspiration sometimes comes from a simple thing, such as someone asking for something. That’s the story behind “Washington Crossing the Delaware,” the limited edition print currently on sale to benefit the Arts Council of Princeton.
As artist Charles Viera explains, Princeton-based physician Karen Latzko simply asked him to create a painting of George Washington.
“She’s collected my work for a long time, and I’m not closed about where I get my ideas. I liked it and ran with it,” said Viera, the Flemington-based instructor who leads Arts Council of Princeton painting classes.
It wasn’t the first time that Latzko suggested something that Viera was able to deliver. “She trusts me and threw out a seed. She’s from Chicago but now lives in Princeton. She asked me to do abstractions of both Chicago and Princeton that I did and she liked. She always seems to be happy with whatever I turn out.”
In addition to that, it was not the first time that Viera had looked to events for inspiration. “I’ve done some historic paintings before. I did what I thought was interesting. But nothing this large.” The painting that became a print is 4 feet by 3 feet and is hanging in the council’s holiday store on the first floor. The 24 prints of this limited-edition are 24 inches by 18 inches.
Being raised in New England and now living in Flemington made the artist comfortable with the subject matter.
“I grew up in Dartmouth, Massachusetts, and grew up knowing about Concord and the Minute Men, so I had more than a casual awareness in the Revolutionary War. I also knew about Washington’s crossing and how we are about half an hour from where they recreate the crossing.” He was also comfortable with creating a work that showed action. “I like multi figures like the ones used by Poussin and Tintoretto, as well as those used by the great American illustrators Frederic Remington, Winslow Homer, and Thomas Eakins,” he says.
Another form of action illustration also helped, comic books. “I love comic books. I love the action poses. I got a lot from Jack Kirby. He drew the early Marvel Comic characters. It’s the same with a lot of artists I know. If you scratch a lot of artists deep enough, you’ll find they love comics,” says Viera.
While the idea for the painting used for the print was fast, the creation took longer. “It all started over the course of this summer, probably June. Then I worked on it off and on that month and July. I taught landscape painting in Princeton and Hunterdon, so I was busy. But I got back to it in August and finished it up in September,” Viera says.
During those months, he adapted the subject matter to his own personal sensibilities, making design and thematic choices.
“In the foreground of the painting there is a woman who is holding a lantern. I initially had her facing the viewer. I’m a child of the ’60s. So there’s that thread of counter-culture. I’ve always been in interested in that idea of freedom fighters working to overthrow oppression. I had learned how civilians caught in battles are in this intense limbo between opposing forces. To convey that I had this woman who was facing the viewer, but she was too dominant. Her face just stopped you. So I had to change it. So now the back of her head travels to George Washington and into the painting.”
Viera says that to provide authenticity he did a lot of research about uniform and details. “Some uniforms were different colors. The uniforms from Massachusetts were different from the uniforms of Pennsylvania” Other soldiers were reduced to wearing tatters, and the painting shows a man with rags on his feet pushing the boat.
To paint the 18th century Viera says he needed to rely on research, some tradition, some 21st century. “I visited the sites and went to the library. But I also used the Internet, which is like how the encyclopedia was when I was a kid. Type in ‘Revolutionary War women’ and you get the image. For doing research it’s great. The lantern that the woman in the picture is holding came from the Internet. I needed to find lanterns that people carried in 1776 and found it.”
While the Internet gave images, visits to Washington Crossing State Park provided more. “You really get a flavor of the place,” he says. At the park there is the additional benefit of seeing the types of boats that were used at the time and found their way into the painting. “There are some boats in the background (of the print). In the real event there were barges to carry the horses. I would love to have the horses in and more details to the barges. But that would make the picture cluttered. Sometimes you have to simplify. If you give too many details, you miss the point.”
When the painting was completed, the idea was born to make the popular image available and potentially help an organization.
“I wanted to show the painting, as an artist I wanted to get it out,” says Viera. “I thought it was good and wanted people seeing it.” Since he has been an instructor at the Arts Council of Princeton for five years, it seemed natural to involve them as a partner. The organization agreed and the painting became a print, but not in the old sense.
“Digital printing has turned conventional printmaking on its head. Now they are computer-generated and just remarkable. They reproduce the color just right. You proof it and can compare it to the original piece. If it’s not right, they can instantly change it and get the color perfect. All their inks are archival , which means that it’s going to last forever. Their paper is acid free.”
Having seen the changes in printmaking during his 62 years, Viera says, “You can still get a lithograph or etching, but they’re like historical relics. Nowadays its Giclee prints.” That is inkjet technology using a corrupted French name for the nozzle for the jet spray.
The new technology sets a new standard. “The quality is better. The computer is turning everything around. They take a photograph of the art work and they print it on nice paper.” He used Taylor Photo on Alexander Road and was impressed by the ease of the process. “The turnaround is very quick. Bring the artwork down, and they take a really top notch photo to use.”
Viera says that he’s glad that the print can potentially help the Arts Council of Princeton. “It’s a terrific organization, and I help out when I can. I thought let’s see if it works and we’ll give the proceeds to the Arts Council. It’s a good way to help them.”
The help comes from years of experience. Born in 1950 to a farmer and then gas station owner father and housewife mother, Viera had an interest in art that was encouraged by a mother who signed him up with a local arts school. That in turn opened the world to him.
“My mother knew that there was an art school in the next town and that I was artistic. It was her way to inspire and encourage me. My parents had fifth-grade educations, and she didn’t want to see me working in the gas station forever with my father and brother. Then I caught fire and went to Swain School of Design in New Bedford where art was painting whale scenes. I then went to Skowhegan (School of Painting in Sculpture) in Maine, and it was a revelation to me. Then I had to go to New York.”
In New York he attended Brooklyn College and became an assistant to the prominent American figure painter Philip Pearlstein. Since those days, he has taught at Parson School of Design, Pratt Institute, and Long Island University. Married to Laurie Viera, doctor of anesthesiology at Hunterdon Medical Center, he has two sons in their early 20s. One studies filmmaking at the School of Visual Arts in New York.
Of the print available through the Arts Council of Princeton, Viera says, “The painting of history shows a long process that started with guys walking through the woods in the winter to get foreign occupiers out of their country. When you go down to the park and stand on the river and think about it, it’s awesome. It’s a good story.”
Washington Crossing the Delaware, Arts Council of Princeton, 102 Witherspoon Street. On view through December 31. 609-924-8777 or www.artscouncilofprinceton.org.