“Evening, Lake Superior” 1974, oil on canvas, 20 x 30 in., Private collection

Richard F. Lack (1928-2009) taught students not to see a colors in isolation, but rather to see them in relation to those that surround them. What were his teaching methods?


See the Relationship Between Colors
By Stephen Gjertson

Richard F. Lack established an atelier in Minneapolis in 1969 and taught serious students for the next 23 years. Those who were interested in landscape painting could accompany him when he was painting outside. Like his teacher R.H. Ives Gammell (1883-1981), Lack would look at their sketches after he had finished working for the day. Several of his students had good eyes for out-of-door color and became fine landscape painters. Among them are Allan Banks, Michael Coyle, Gary Hoffmann, Jeffrey Larson, Kirk Richards, and Carl Samson.

During the years Lack studied with Gammell in Provincetown, Massachusetts, he learned to paint landscape sketches on shellacked paper. The point of the exercise was to gain experience seeing and painting out-of-door color. The sketches were painted rapidly, few taking more than two hours. Gammell would come by and look at the students’ work, offering advice and painting color corrections on their sketches. When the students returned to the studio, they put their sketches on the wall to assess them. “Gammell spoke authoritatively about landscape. His theory was sound,” stated Lack. “He understood the aims of the impressionist landscape painter and talked about looking for the note and the warm and cool.”

“Johnson’s Barn” 1989, oil on canvas, 24 x 36 in., Private collection

After returning to his hometown in Minnesota, Lack continued to paint landscapes, some in watercolor when his time was limited, but most in oil. He occasionally did small sketches, but preferred to paint finished works that he could easily carry and that fit comfortably on his outdoor sketching easel. His training with Gammell, his love for color in general, and his enjoyment of nature impelled him to train his eye to see outdoor color values. Lack loved to be outdoors. He could compose and paint well, but seeing the color was a matter of hard work to be gained by practice and experience.

Richard Lack painting in his Minnesota studio

Lack’s extensive landscape oeuvre (more than 225 works) attests to both his interest and industry. His penchant for experimentation and his youthful interest in chemistry aided him in the quest to achieve good outdoor color. His basic outdoor palette included the three primary colors, one warm and one cool, at their most intense and true. The selected colors were cadmium yellow medium, cadmium lemon, cadmium orange, cadmium red deep, phthalo blue, ultramarine blue, thio violet, and white.

During the 1980s, Lack made a breakthrough in his observation of outdoor impressionist color, a sensitivity toward which he had been working for more than 20 years. “I had so much fun,” he relates. “Everywhere I went I’d throw my eye out of focus and look away, comparing the colors. I could see the nuance, the vibration set up by the relationships.”

“Hills of Home” 1978, oil on canvas, 36 x 45 in., TheLack Estate

Part of the challenge of painting landscapes outdoors was seeing the variation of color within what appeared to the untrained eye as simply a uniform green with darks that were too inky and cold. “I was beginning to see color, not looking into it, but seeing the color relationships. When artists first go outside, they tend to paint local color. They have no understanding of color relationship, how one color influences another. The first person to see that was Monet. I knew the theory and had seen many good landscapes, but I had to learn to see the notes in relationship, to make comparisons. To see color truly, one must look slightly away from it and compare it with the surrounding colors. To do so was a challenge, like putting together a puzzle.”

“May Moonrise” 1978, oil on canvas, 18 x 24 in., Private collection

Lack painted most of his landscapes completely on location in a direct painting method. He would lay them in with thin color during the first session. In the early years he used a lot of medium in the subsequent sessions. Later, he often used paint right out of the tube. The paint dried overnight and allowed him to work over it the following day. He painted quite rapidly in order to capture the effect of light and color. The niceties of paint handling were sometimes sacrificed for accuracy of notation, so he occasionally finished his landscapes in the studio, using the information gotten on location. The studio work primarily consisted of “cleaning it up” by refining the drawing, modeling, and paint handling. He went through periods painting with various mediums. He found that he liked Liquin; it dried rapidly and did not seem to yellow or darken. It was hard work, but Lack ultimately felt that he was able to see the visible world as an impression, not necessarily in the French sense of broken color, but in the larger sense of color relationships.

“Going to the Sun Mountain, Glacier National Park” 1972, oil on canvas, 20 x 24 in., Private collection

Author bio: Stephen Gjertson studied with Richard Lack from 1971-1975.
He taught at Atelier Lack for 16 years. He is the author of the book Richard F. Lack: An American Master and wrote the biography in Richard F. Lack, Catalogue Raisonné: 1943 – 1998.


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