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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

a photograph."

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

years ago.

"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

resume begin.

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

and enormous."

"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

Robert Beck, David Rago Auction Center, 333 North

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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