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Authenticity in Watercolor From
America’s Greatest Generation

It didn’t seem possible that the sharp, nimble couple who opened their door were nearly 90 years old. Vitality, curiosity, and good humor bounced off the walls and the 225-square-foot paned glasspicture window of what was once a rural Connecticut barn.

Enjoying good health, a gracious home, and wide recognition, Arthur Shilstone represents the best of what author-newscaster Tom Brokaw defined as the Greatest Generation: those who grew up during the Depression and served in World War II.

Shilstone’s story began in 1922 in the affluent suburbs of Essex County, New Jersey, until the 1929 stock market crash obliged the family to move to their summerhouse on Lake Mahopac, New York. There, Shilstone spent an idyllic youth filled with boats, bass fishing, bird shooting, and copying Flash Gordon and Prince Valiant comics. After his high school art teacher described the profession of commercial artist and illustrator, Shilstone enrolled in Brooklyn’s Pratt Institute in 1941.

As with so many of his generation, war got in the way of education, and like many New-York-area art students, Shilstone was recruited into the 603 rd Camouflage Engineers,or Ghost Army, whose mission was to confuse the enemy by using their artistic talents to replicate entire regiments with inflatable airplanes,tanks, trucks, and artillery. Whether bouncing in the back of a transport truck or standing on the deck of a troop ship off Normandy two weeks after D-Day, Shilstone drew everything around him—his pals, the ruined towns, and the machinery of war—using an India ink fountain pen and a gob of spit on his thumb to produce the soft washes, which later found expression in his sporting art watercolors.

After the war, he resumed his studies in pictorial illustration and commercial art, and graduated from Pratt on the G.I. Bill, just as his generation was taking the reins of publishing and Madison Avenue. During the long heyday of prestigious mass circulation magazines, Shilstone’s work appeared in 36 publications, from Life and National Geographic to Gourmet and Field & Stream, as well as on numerous book jackets and album covers for performing artists like Billie Holiday. And he received exotic on-location assignments for clients like Brazil’s Varig Airlines, where he painted large, inviting watercolors in the field.

Shilstone enjoyed the intense research each art assignment required, including the annual reports of major companies such as Exxon, U. S. Steel, and AT&T. His 12 years as a freelanceillustrator with Life included courtroom assignments, capturing the lurid drama of the 1954 Sam Sheppard murder trial—the O. J. Simpson case of its time—and the landmark desegregation case, Brown v. Board of Education, before the Supreme Court.

Other reportorial assignments included the Military Air Transport Service evacuation of wounded soldiers during the Korean War. He was also selected by NASA to chronicle the Space Shuttle’s maiden voyage, as well as a half-dozen other blastoffs and landings (the original paintings hang in the NASA museum in Cape Canaveral). In short, Shilstone witnessedmany of his generation’s greatest momentsand he captured them by combining his tightly composed line illustrations with a loose color wash to achieve his characteristic élan.

Like other postwar New York working artists, Shilstone continued his studies at the Brooklyn Museum Art School and the New School, where he even investigated Abstract Expressionism to see whether there was something worth applying to his own evolving work, which included oil, gouache, and especially collage. Coloring the paper himself and using its naturally white torn or cut edges to delineate space, collage let Shilstone “deal with color and design in a direct manner, without any involvement of technique or material things such as brushes, paints, or pens.”

Soon enough, Arthur and his wife, Beatrice, a former fashion editor at Women’s Wear Daily, moved to Connecticut, eventuallylanding on five bucolic acres in Redding during those golden years when grouse still strummed in the woods and good trout fishing in the Saugatuck and Norwalk rivers was just down the road.

Shilstone was a weekend fine-art painter and entered in various competitions his “wet-on-wet” watercolors. In this technique, paints are applied to paper brushed wet with water in order to create diffuse, irregular areas of color. By 1957, he was an exhibiting member of the prestigious American Watercolor Society as well as the Society of Illustrators.

Around the time media tastes switched to photography and work for illustrators grew scarce, a fishing friend asked Shilstone to paint a sporting scene at his place along Montana’s Yellowstone River. A subsequent goose shoot on Maryland’s Eastern Shore convinced him how right it felt to be outdoors again, reliving his boyhood while being paid to paint gorgeous landscapes animated by sportsmen.

And what a lucky middle-aged boyhood! By the mid 1980s, Shilstone’s appealing watercolors of wingshooters and hunting dogs, of anglers surf-fishing for bluefish in Block Island’s big breakers, autumn salmon fishing on the Miramachi, pulling bass from an Adirondack lake or brook trout from a Connecticut stream, were selling at prestigious New York galleries such as Fred King’s Sportsmen’s Edge and J. N. Bartfield. Shilstone’s light-endowed landscapes and serene sportsmen began paying the bills.

One sees a clear connection between Shilstone’s work and the artists who inspired him: Dégas’s softness and uncommon compositions (Lake Fishermen, Late Summer on the Stream); Winslow Homer’s powerful use of contrast (The Long Cast); British watercolorist J. M. W. Turner’s vibrating luminescence (Winter Sun, Morning Mist). Shilstone’s summer-shouting colors in horizontal bands of blues and greens in Holding Fast and Morning on the Miramichi create a still and meditative mood yet are a rhythmic dance of color reminiscent of Mark Rothko.



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Shilstone is a “transparent watercolorist,” using the technique developed in late 18 th and early 19 th century England in which the white the viewer sees is the paper itself and not pigment. His bold but Haiku-like use of the negative space of these unpainted areas, sometimes quite prominent in the foreground, expresses swaths of snow and frozen water. Their controlled spontaneity contrasts dramatically with backgrounds and shadows as dark as black mixed from Van Dyk brown with Prussian blue. Shilstone’s white paper also artfully expresses the sparkle of a fish breaking the surface and a gray winter’s glow behind a veiled sun in Some Open Water and Fishing an Icy Glen.

Like Ogden Pleissner, to whom he has been compared, Shilstone creates mood by blurring details in mists and skies; fish scales and feathers are just not his priority. He tells his tales of men, rods, and boats by capturing a bend in the river at a particular time of day, bathing them in the light of seasonally color-splashed vegetation. His object is to create a sense of place—not one with GPS coordinates but one whose “sight, sound, look, the changing light and shadows” are nonetheless recognizable. “Shilstone eternalizes his subjects in such a way that any sportsman can place his or herself in the image. This rare connection between subject and viewer results in a unique and unmatched approach to his work,” says Fred Polhemus of Russell Jinishian Gallery.

In his strong, clean compositions, Shilstone balances varying proportions of foreground to background, and of water, shoreline, and sky. This equilibrium allows his foregrounds to support a field of riotous pink loosestrife or a muted hush of color. Reflecting waters tie his fishing works together, whether zigzagging, crossing the painting almost diagonally, or receding from the viewer. They form spatial zones further established by a sharply focused foreground of river boulders or vegetation that gives way to hazy horizons in the distance. Somewhere in the middle, enveloped in the landscape, is the sportsman, highlighted with a clever dab of a red shirt or cap, his size and clarity establishing the viewer’s point of view and distance from the action, near (The Guide) or far (A Quiet Place).

Water also serves to gather all the light and throw it back up into the sky, making mist sunny, as in Silvery Morning. Mirroring lakes reflect the shore, producing a kaleidoscopic Rorschach in works like Lake Fishermen and Dusk, which allow him to explore nature’s shapes and patterns.

Shilstone sketches directly from nature’s ­never-ending source of new ideas. He takes some photos and thinks about how to approach his subject. The final painting begins as a landscape to which he adds the more detailed figures, carefully etching the lines with a razor blade. “Shilstone paints what he has experienced, which makes his work authentic and not contrived like many sporting artists today,” says gallery owner Michael Paderewski.

Authenticity. That might be the most important gift we receive from the Greatest Generation.

Brooke thanks J. Russell Jinishian Gallery in Fairfield, Connecticut for the wonderful evening attending the March, 2011 first and only major retrospective exhibition of Shilstone’s lifework, where more than 100 paintings, spanning his career from reportorial assignments to current sporting art, was on view.




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