Prolific Riverhead artist Keith Mantell offers a subtle holiday-themed painting, with a view of a North Fork Christmas tree farm, on this week’s cover. Mantell’s Christmas card for friends, family and collectors, the piece is not your typical picture of holiday cheer, but it’s this keen eye and deep respect for composition, color and the art of mark-making, above sentimental schmaltz, that makes him so good.
Tell me about this painting. Where is it, and what about the scene grabbed your attention?
“It’s actually a Christmas tree farm. It’s somewhere along the main road in Jamesport. What caught my attention was the angles in the structure—from the angle I was looking, it sort of replicated the trees on the left. Also, I liked all the angularity behind the big twisty tree branches that frame the barn and give some overall movement around the painting. I liked that gnarled tree…it adds depth and a haunting or foreboding sense.
How do you find your subjects? Where do you go? I would imagine your eye is now tuned to see paintings and mentally carve out compositions wherever you go.
I do always keep my eyes tuned to things or places that could be interesting. That’s exactly right. Someone may see a field of flowers and say to me, “Hey, you should go paint that!” but I may not find an interesting composition there and I’ll move on. I can drive around for hours and not find the right spot, or I may find a few places to choose from in a short span. I may take some photos for reference, or sometimes I’ll see a spot that looks like it could be good, but not today, so I’ll remember it for another time under different conditions.
We’ve discussed at length the differences between studio painting and working en plein air. Do both ways of painting have benefits, or is painting on scene always better?
Both have benefits besides the obvious weather-related issues. Working en plein air forces me to make decisions faster than working in the studio. It’s like training. I eventually will make more correct choices for the painting, and that will help me when I do work on longer extended studio pieces. It makes me think about keeping the paintwork fresh, spontaneous and clean. Conversely, studio work enables me the time to screw around with a painting and maybe discover something that I can carry over to plein air work.
Tell me a little about your process.
I figured out talking with you today that unlike certain expressionist painters, who can start with no idea and wind up somewhere, I need to have a starting point, a subject, and then take it from there and see where the painting takes me. I like the process of discovery, so each time I put a mark down, the next one must relate in some way to the last one. It builds from there. Every color choice, composition line, brush mark relates to the last one and forces a decision for the next one, so you have to think fast to make the right choices. Think [John Singer] Sargent.
How would you describe your voice? Was there a moment or a particular piece that made you realize you’d come into your own?
Not sure that I have. I continually evolve and learn and look for the truth in each thing I paint. I look at everything and everyone—from cave paintings at Lascaux to Carmen Herrera and everything in between. I take it all in and mix it with my experiences, filter it though my pea-sized brain and out comes what you see. That’s my voice.