“I have a triad, like a pie. In that pie, there’s what you see. There’s what you know. And there’s what you feel. The feel part is huge — it’s why you do what you do.”
Plein air painter Peter Campbell will be celebrating winter works at Korologos Gallery in Basalt this Saturday, Jan. 8.
“So, sometimes,” he continues, “if I’m plein air painting, I might accentuate what I see more than what I know or what I feel, because I’m trying to learn about what I see.”
It’s a Sunday morning in September; I’m taking him on what I imagine to be a jaunt “into” one of his own landscape paintings. The same muted hues that traverse his foregrounds run alongside us.
“Sometimes, it’s more about what I feel. I emphasize less what I know and what I see.” Indian summer pulls us to the shadier side of the road, and a magpie berates us. “So, it can be a combination of all three.”
We crest, pausing to breathe. Reshouldering his portable easel and tripod, Campbell takes in a 360 degree view: the Flat Tops, Missouri Heights, Sunlight and Sopris, layers on layers. Sheaves of light and shadowy folds hold a bowl of sky so alive and full; it beckons.
“So, if you’ve got the Wheaties,” I say, shading my eyes, pointing east across alfalfa, “that’s where we’re going — to the cemetery.”
“I got the Wheaties!” he grins. Charlottesville roots pull at his vowels and syllables.
With a great teacher in a nationally accomplished high school photography program, Campbell excelled in black and white photography. His agility with tone and value are strong elements in his paintings today.
“I went [to the Savannah College of Art and Design] to study photography but fell in love with painting.”
He engaged historical techniques with palladium, platinum and gum Arabic prints.
“And the more I did that, the more I liked having my hands in the process. So eventually, I started learning to draw, and I’d think, man, I’d rather draw and paint! Then I’m not limited!” he says.
“The college hired me to photograph the Johnny Mercer house from “Midnight in the Garden of Evil,” and I did some photographs of visiting dignitaries. They paid me like $500! For me, this was like a windfall. I could finally buy enough painting supplies to start. And that’s when I first started painting. I knew nothing about it,” he chuckles.
Russel Chatham’s book, “100 Paintings,” was pivotal for Campbell. “It shows his early work examples, which aren’t necessarily great paintings, you know? Which means he did the same thing everyone else did. Which is, you struggle through the fact that you want to do this thing so badly that you just keep doing it. And the people who are successful are the ones that continue to paint, regardless of knowing they’re bad, and still going, ‘I can do better.’ They’re learning from their mistakes,” says Campbell, “and that’s critical. Great painters are able to really analyze what they’ve done.”
We head towards a decomposing bench by an aged boxelder tree. Flapping in its limbs draw our eyes to a pair of hawks, which we savor as auspicious. Here Campbell sits, absorbing.
At last, he unpacks his mystery gear, demonstrating a portable easel he designed, engineered and just brought to market. As he delights in its ease, I roam a bit. From afar, I watch a content, humble and breathtakingly talented artist whose landscapes evoke the sublime, ephemeral moments lodged in our own bones and memories.
“For a painter to look at their painting from the eye of a viewer, and not be in love with their work? The best way to be a good artist,” Campbell has found, “is to not think you’re doing anything special.”