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This article by Pat Summers was published in the Preview section of U.S. 1 Newspaper on April 15, 1998. All rights
Lambertville Art: All
It’s a good thing Bob Beck is such a pleasant guy
— because it’s hard to avoid the Lumberville, Pennsylvania, artist
across the river in Lambertville these days. One day he is sighted
at Riverrun Gallery. Then a Beck landscape appears at the Coryell
Gallery, and postcard reproductions of his work are on sale at the
Sojourner. Next you spot his picture in Rivergate Books’ newsletter,
or he turns up for a meal at Church Street Bistro. And one evening
a week or so, he can be found painting from life at the Boathouse
bar in the Porkyard.
If Lambertville denizens are frequently reminded of the ubiquitous
Beck, he has returned the compliment, producing since last June some
50 oil paintings of sites and scenes. He’ll show his "Lambertville
Portfolio" in a self-produced, one-man show, from Sunday, April
19, to Saturday, April 25 — in Lambertville.
On the evening of our interview, at the Boathouse, Beck has set up
a painting station facing the bar, ready to start what will become
his 17th painting from life in this setting. A familiar mid-week presence
here, Beck chats easily with the bartender (tonight, it’s Christine)
and various patrons. As he works, the artist shows and tells a couple
visitors what he’s up to.
"I paint from life because that’s how you can tell what something
looks like," he says. "If you paint from a photograph, the
best you can hope for is something that looks like the photo. There’s
an astonishing amount of information essential for what I do, and
you’ll find most people who paint this way will agree. There’s a lot
more visual information about dimension if you’re on site. You know,
you’re working with three dimensions to begin with. You can move a
little bit and see how far back something is. You can’t do that with
Beck’s gear for painting on site is portable and easily readied for
work. His choice of solvent is odorless mineral spirits, and he adapts
the furniture at hand to his lighting needs. His supply box automatically
includes boards of different sizes, and it protects the paints already
on his palette.
Tonight he will paint a view of the cozy bar, showing Christine and
a few patrons. Rows of glasses and lighting fixtures spotted here
and there will provide contrasting illumination. He talks of "three
ways to approach this work:" monochromatically; or starting dark,
then pulling out color and lightening it; or painting the scene as
is. With his brush, he sketches a few lines to position the elements
of the composition.
Then he starts filling in what is thus far a monochromatic sketch,
first selecting the values, or tones, he wants to use. After that,
though, he doesn’t detail or "finish" each section of the
piece. "It’s not about details," he insists. "It’s about
tonal contrasts, relative balance of lights and darks. If I had just
details," he explains, "it’d be a stinker. That dog wouldn’t
hunt." He shows how he squints at the subject area to see reflections
and lights. "You can do without the color part," he says.
"It’s hard, but you can tell from black and white values what
you’re looking at."
One at a time, Beck identifies the "worst thing" — the
part of the painting that reads poorest. He brings that up to the
level of everything else, then moves on to the next worst thing, until
"finally there’s nothing left to do anymore; the painting’s done."
Sure enough, the tones, the darks, and the lights frame
out the scene, making it recognizable. He darkens a line — which,
amazingly, adds depth — and puts color here and there. But the
evolution of those bar glasses — effected through subtle touches
of white for highlights — is one of the most dramatic changes
that occurs on the little piece of board.
Beck fits right in with the banter at the bar. "Could you make
me thin?" asks one of his sitters. "Give me big hair this
time, Bob," says Christine.
Beck, a lanky six-footer, is painting with his left hand all this
time. But he’s a switch-hitter: the right is really his power arm,
he says, with his left hand coming into play "for more delicate,
controlled things," as well as for handwriting. Nearly two hours
into this Boathouse session, Beck finishes the painting and uses the
tip of his brush-handle to etch "R. A. Beck" in the lower
A teacher at Artworks in Trenton and at the Flemington Art School,
Beck tells how hard he finds it to move his students away from painting
details. "When you’re painting something, say, a vase of flowers,
your subject is not a vase of flowers, but an object in front of an
object, and so on. If you don’t pay as much attention to the background,
the foreground, and the table top, as you pay to the vase, it’s floating
in space. It doesn’t relate, there’s no sense of light. This is an
environment, and the background has to say the same things the foreground
does." He says it’s even worse with a live model: "It’s all
noses and eyes."
Details like exact color matches don’t matter either, he says. "If
I know a thing’s green, the exact shade of green isn’t important.
It’s the darkness or lightness of that green I’m interested in. I
work in values, not color."
And Beck’s emphasis is on how he paints more than what he paints.
He calls the subject "secondary." The four-by-six-inch "New
Tires," painted on-site while his truck was on a lift, he remembers
as "a sweet little painting" he would have loved to keep.
He didn’t think such mundane subject would sell. Then adds, without
regret, "Some people just collect me."
He appreciates teaching because it "forces me to take these intuitive
things and see how they work." Generous with his time and advice,
he will often spend an hour or so with another artist, reviewing works,
and if it seems like a congenial match, he’ll invite them along to
paint with him.
"I had a chance to reinvent myself," Beck says, dismissing
his first 40 years of life as "boot camp." Before he committed
to an art career, Beck says only "I was corporate." His experience
was in graphics and he worked at the managerial level. He did his
first real painting when he was 28 years old. He decided to attend
the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts (PAFA) at 40 — almost eight
"I knew there was more to it than what I was doing," he says.
"You’ve got to go back to the trunk of the tree." Drawing
a distinction between those who do and those who know, Beck recalls
that it took him a year to find the PAFA people who knew the answers
to his questions. Only at that point, when Beck "had an opportunity
to come closer to who and what he wanted to be," does his professional
A kind of meteoric, middle-aged prodigy, Beck burst
upon the area art scene in the early 1990s. In short order, he won
Bianco Gallery’s 1995 Best-of-Show award. Recognition since then has
included the McNeely Award for representational oil painting in the
1996 Phillips Mill Annual Juried Exhibition, the 1997 Emerson Prize
from the Woodmere Museum of Art Annual Juried Exhibition, and last
year’s acceptance to the PAFA 100th Anniversary Fellowship Juried
Exhibition. He served for two years as President of Artsbridge, the
Lambertville-based group with hundreds of artist and arts-supporter
Beck is an anomaly in a few ways, starting with his concentration
on the art part of his life. Even more interesting, and welcome, are
his organizational skills — so unusual among artists — and
his sheer business savvy.
The man does what he commits to do. If he says he’ll be some place
— he’s there. If he has to send something — it’s in the mail.
For those who count on him, Beck is the antithesis of the "right-brain"
artist who forgets, misplaces, or can’t make time. "You gotta
put out to get back," Beck says simply.
As for his visibility, his frequent plein air and from-life painting,
Beck is also smart enough to know "if you’re going to put yourself
out there in front of somebody, you gotta put yourself out there and
deliver, cause if you put yourself out there in front and you’re a
jerk, that’s what they’ll remember. You’re advertising the wrong thing;
you might as well stay home."
Beck is well aware of the networking value in painting on site. His
stints at the Boathouse generate some extra attention and customers;
a recognition value. For Beck, it’s visibility, an opportunity to
meet people, schmooze, and exchange business cards — and he often
sells a painting even before he finishes it. Asked to estimate the
chances of Lambertville residents and business owners buying his painting
of their place, now part of his "Lambertville Portfolio,"
Beck replies, without hesitation: "Somewhere between very good
"I don’t ask people to buy my paintings," he says. "I
feel much better if I paint something good and they ask if they can
buy it." Which leads back to the "Lambertville Portfolio."
Beck has assembled a notable collection of Lambertville sites and
scenes, 52 of them to be exact, all small, all under $500, all on
view April 19 to 26 at the David Rago Auction Center, 333 North Main
Street, in Lambertville.
Since last June, Beck has painted on site around the river town. He
selected subjects for an eclectic mix that includes the laundromat,
a pizzeria, the Five and Dime store, and a yard with wash hanging
out; the church of Church Street, river scenes and the bridge between
Lambertville and New Hope are also part of the series. And, of course,
the Boathouse. The smallest painting is as big as an index card and
shows kids fishing from a dock.
Describing Lambertville, the focus of his "Portfolio," as
"supportive and tolerant," Beck says he’s glad so many people
"are making films, writing books, doing paintings here." That
he is recognized as someone who is doing something is pleasing, too
— in happy contrast to a place not far away where he once lived.
He was painting by the side of the road there one day when a passing
driver yelled, "Get a job!"
The evening at the Boathouse is just about over. It’s cold and dark
outside, Christine is ready to close up and almost everyone else is
gone. Beck has switched from work-time soda to something stronger,
and he wonders aloud about two women who sat near his corner the whole
time he worked. "They never came over to look or talk about what
I was doing," he says. "What kind of person . . . ?"
What kind of person indeed?
— Pat Summers
Main, Lambertville, 609-397-9374. Opening reception for "Lambertville
Portfolio," Show continues to April 25. Free. Sunday, April
19, 2 to 7 p.m.
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