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Using Color To Kindle Emotion

I wrongly assumed that Chet and Penny Reneson were enticed into renovating a 200-year-old New England homestead in 1975 because it was a five-minute drive from Connecticut’s early 20 th century Lyme Art Colony. But when I left their house loaded with home-butchered venison steaks and coils of sausage, I’m convinced what drew them there were the surrounding forested hills, pristine ponds, and farm fences crackling in autumn’s afternoon light that are so often found in his work.

In fact, Reneson (born 1934) grew up a farm boy just 30 miles up the Connecticut River, where his hardworking Polish parents raised pheasants for shooting preserves. Although during his chore-filled childhood he honed manual skills that have served him well (he’s made some 1,400 cedar decoys, both for his own use and for sale to sportsmen and collectors), his juvenile hands were instinctively drawn to paints and brushes. A good painting he did at age nine of a resident horned owl still hangs in his home. Reneson’s early exposure to art didn’t extend beyond the covers of Field & Stream and Outdoor Life magazines, so it was only natural that his earliest subjects were the Atlantic flyway’s waterfowl and the farm’s wildlife. There was also his family’s friendship with their colorful, cigar-chomping neighbor, R. H. Collins, a gifted New York illustrator and animal artist, who was adequate proof to Chet’s parents that one could make a living as an artist.

In 1954, a plucky and determined Reneson gathered up his early efforts and talked his way into the University of Hartford Art School, where he learned the history and methods of fine art, and where he met, and in 1960 married, fellow artist Penny Patten, whose high-spirited works are found throughout their home. Penny, a tiny, curly-haired fireball, began their lithograph business in 1971, generating a new limited-edition print each year and taking the family business onto the Internet, despite a Charles Bronson look-alikehusband who doesn’t touch computers.

Although Reneson’s career began as a commercial illustrator, producing technical drawings of aircraft engines for Pratt & Whitney and insects and animals for the National Audubon Society and The Book of Knowledge series, his most enduring academic influence came from his teacher, Henrik Mayer, who taught him “the values light, dark and strong, and simplification to the point of brutality.”

Although Reneson easily discusses “isms,” his preferred classroom remained the out-of-doors, which he roamed with a shotgun or homemade fishing rod, rather than the museums of Paris or Rome. Yet it was a 1958 art school excursion to the largest Winslow Homer retrospective ever, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, that affected him for life. Homer’s soul-stirring use of color in scenes of Man surrounded by nature—more visionary than real—struck him “like a match to a roman candle” and freed both his palette and brushwork, compared with the tamer, more true-to-life works of such sporting-art contemporaries as David Hagerbaumer or David Maass.

Like Homer, Reneson became a student of the 19 th century French color optic theorist, Michel Eugène Chevreul, whose Principles of Harmony and Contrast of Colors and Their Applications to the Arts was largely abandoned or ignored by 20 th century artists, from Piet Mondrian to Roy Lichtenstein, who restricted their paintboxes to black, white, and unmixed primary colors.

Chevreul (1786-1889) was a fatty-acid chemist involved in soap manufacturing, who became director of the famous French tapestry factory, Manufacture Royale des Gobelins. In 1855 he developed a series of chromatic diagrams to demonstrate how the viewer’s perception of and emotional response to a color is influenced by its neighboring color: for example, when black is next to blue. One diagram shows the visual harmony achieved when so-called complementary colors (those from opposite sides of the wheel) are juxtaposed: (warm) red and (cool) green; (warm) yellow and (cool) violet; (cool) blue and (warm) orange. His theories influenced artists from French pointillist painter Georges Seurat to “color-field” painter Mark Rothko—and Chet Reneson.

With diagrams in hand, Reneson went beyond the boundaries of reality to express the experience and enrapturing settings that define the sporting life. By the late 1960s, his loose, light-drenched watercolors earned the attention of prestigious New York galleries such as Crossroads of Sport and Fred King’s Sportsman’s Edge.

Afterglow , which appears on the cover of Robert Abbett’s, The Watercolors of Chet Reneson, evokes the peace and simple pleasure of the solitary fisherman cleaning his MEAGER catch, the campfire ready to collapse into embers to receive the blackened teapot. The work’s poignancy is heightened by the sky reflected in the rippling water, where degrees of Auburn mingle with bricky Alizarin, and Air Force blue deepens into Arsenic. Not that Reneson selected these specific colors—they’re part of the artist’s mysterious process of letting pigmented fluid washes do what they do. “You can’t fight with watercolors because they fight back,” Reneson reminds us. But the strong contrast of dark and light between the work’s left and right sides and straightforward composition—the canoe cutting across the paper, the verticals of evergreens receding in the distance and repeated in the fire’s stacked sticks and rising smoke—are deliberate.

We find these mood-stimulating elements again in works like Sunrise and Sundown. The compositional elements here are waterfowlers with diagonally held paddles standing perpendicular to the horizon; watchful black Labradors create dramatic expectancy within the overall calm.


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Scotland’s upland hunting works, such as High Birds at Raeshaw and Highlander, provide Reneson with the Blue-Violet and Indigo of flowering heather, with a myriad of agreeing greens winding through meadows complemented by billowing or heavy skies. He structures these works by using the country’s naturally sloping hills and granite outcroppings as building blocks.

Years of fishing in the Bahamas have yielded more muscular works, such as Double Haul and Island Cloud. The lines launched from fly rods loop across light-soaked paper; casting anglers either stretch forward or lean back to harness the tensile strength of their arms. Their activity and pale skin contrast starkly with the passive, Mahogany forms of the boatmen. Reneson appears to be testing how blindingly light he can go, with infinite shades of white tinted with bleached but unified hues of Periwinkle, Lavender, and Persian blue.

Reneson doesn’t take a camera into the field and transform pictures into paintings. Instead, he consciously designs his sporting “fictions” to make the viewer immediately recognize where he is and what’s happening. As simply as possible, he conjures up the crisp air of the winter marsh or the salty spray blowing in your face as you vigorously cast into the breaking waves of Atlantic shores.

Although sporting stances and gestures are carefully observed, shotguns and rods are simple, straight dark lines with a dash of reflecting light. His “brutal simplification” means eliminating all but the most essential details. The (harmoniously colored) gear—bright orange ball caps for New England and tam-o’shanters for the Highlands—are location giveaways, but even in Reneson’s commissioned works; the faces are merely indicated or More important to him is deciding where to establish the work’s horizon or vanishing point in order to draw in the eye as far as it can see. For this, he’ll take his full-sized rough sketch and raise or lower it within its actual frame. Amazingly, the smallest adjustment can change everything.

Even today, with the mortgage paid,Reneson finds his inspiration for establishing the sense of place and mood of the day in wingshooting with his setters, and fishing for trout, salmon, and bonefish with Penny, far more than in big-city exhibitions. “I don’t travel well, and really don’t want to go where I can’t have my hunting guns or rods or dogs,” he explains, showing me their Old Town canoe for annual trips to Maine and New Brunswick, and his rail boat for poling through the marshes down the road with his 44-year-old son, Aaron.

If Reneson, who has enjoyed his patrons’ hospitality in such sporting hotspots as the Adirondacks’ North Woods Club, has any regrets, it’s that he never embraced oil paints as a medium. Watercolors are doggedly undervalued and their effort underappreciated by buyers, and oils inevitably fetch much higher prices. But Reneson’s ability to reveal nature’s luminescence by choreographing a rainbow of dancing colors makes each of his works unique, for no two watercolors are ever the same.

“Colour helps to express light,” wrote Matisse. “Not the physical phenomenon, but the only light that really exists—that in the artist’s brain.” Using color to kindle emotion, Reneson’s brain is obviously aglow.

Although the crusty Mr. Reneson had decided not to utter a single word if he didn’t like Brooke when she interviewed him at his home, she’s happy to report her notebook is full, and she was invited to stay for lunch.



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