- Historic Sites
The distinguished artist talks intimately about the art, the emotions, and the unique talent of his illustrator father, Newell Convers Wyeth
May/June 1987 | Volume 38, Issue 4
Pa’s landscape paintings were not unique, but he had an ability to do illustrations that no one else had.
Andy,” Pa once said, “you’ve got to get color in your pictures.” Oh, what arguments we had about that.
Pa rarely worked in pen and ink. I always liked his pen drawings for Rip Van Winkle and The Mysterious Island—they had great quality. But he dismissed them saying, “No, Andy, they’re pencil drawings rendered in ink. You have a feeling for pen and ink. I don’t.” That’s why he got me to do all of those pen-and-ink drawings in Men of Concord and the Hornblower series for him. The publisher never knew.
His use of charcoal is fascinating. It comes through the oil. When he did his early illustrations, he quickly drew them right on the canvas in charcoal, marvelous drawings with rich blacks. Then he would start right in with his oil, with glazes, and you could see his thumb marks and other things building these up.
He used glazing a good deal and, of course, in the little self-portrait of 1913 it’s very beautifully done. He probably learned glazing from Pyle. He used it in many illustrations, and some of those have a wonderful transparency.
Because Pa understood technique, he could teach others too. He had only a few students, John McCoy, Peter Hurd, my sisters Henriette and Carolyn, and me—but not many others. I think he taught because they happened to be around. He wasn’t seeking students. He taught Peter Hurd because he came here and Pa liked him, and, of course, Peter fell in love with my sister Henriette. I would never say that teaching was an important facet of Pa’s life, although I think he was a great teacher. When it came to cast drawings, his other students never did any. But we kids were something different. We did them. My sister Carolyn is the best charcoal artist that ever lived, no doubt about that. And he made me study in charcoal. I was never very good, but I did study a lot of it. He sent Henriette to the Museum School in Boston because he thought she was beyond him.
Pa was my only teacher. He taught me watercolors and oils. I remember one day when I was working in oil, doing a head of a man in strong light, and I started to get a lot of half-lights in the shadow side, reflected light. And he said, “You know, Andy, you’ve started out well, but you’ve lost your simplicity.” He took his finger and he put it in some raw sienna, and using his thumb just simplified that whole shadow. He made it sing. That’s the painterliness that you find in pictures for Treasure Island and Kidnapped and in Mowing. Another time, I was drawing an illustration. I guess I was about eighteen, and the image was of this man leaping out of a tree onto a man below. It was to be the perspective of looking down on the figure who was looking up and being leapt on. My father said, “You’ll have to get a model for this, but you want to get this feeling,” and he quickly made a drawing of the figure looking up with his hands out, startled by this figure falling. It was a marvelous little drawing. Then I got a model and had him stand below me in that position as I got up in a tree. My father’s drawing was absolutely accurate! But far better than that because it had an expression and expressiveness.
I always showed him my work, but not until it was finished. Once I started to work, I came as far as I could and then I’d have him come down and look at it. I showed him Soaring in 1942, three years before his death. He thought it was terrible. “Andy, that doesn’t work. That’s not a painting.” So I put it in the cellar. It was there for six years. My sons set up a train on the back of it. If you look at the picture now, turn it over; it has track marks on it. Lincoln Kirstein saved it: I was having a show in New York in 1950, and he asked, “Andy, have you showed me everything for this show? Have you forgotten anything?” I replied, “There’s one in the cellar.” So, we hauled it out, covered with dust. Lincoln said it was terrific. “Fix it up.” I fixed it up. Maybe Pa was right. Maybe it doesn’t work, but it’s interesting. It doesn’t have much color. It’s vacant. Pa didn’t like that. He once said, “Andy, you’ve got to get color in your pictures.” There’s a lot of color, even in his winter paintings. Oh, did we have arguments over that, we really did. I tried to explain, “I don’t see this country in the winter that way.”
The nineteen twenties and thirties were a very social period. My father enjoyed it. We kids never knew who was coming—I mean they were always driving in with these enormous cars. I remember Scott Fitzgerald in a touring car with all these big straw hats, and, oh, we kids had a great time with that. The Great Gatsby, right here!