About the Art of Rebecca King Hawkinson

About the Art: The Art of Painting

I  grew up in the Black Mountain–Asheville area of North Carolina.  Here the focus on fine craft and fine art in the area is rooted in the Arts and Crafts Movement and is still the legacy of people like Douglas Ellington, and the Vanderbilts in Buncombe County, and artist Elliott Daingerfield in Avery County.  Later in the Twentieth Century, the Swannanoa Valley, near Black Mountain, was home to the innovative artists of Black Mountain College, where artists like Ruth Asawa, Jacob Lawrence, and Josef Albers worked and taught from 1933-1957.  The focus in the area on well made works of art and innovative craftsmanship, in a setting as inspiring as the Blue Ridge Mountains, combined as the perfect incubator for my life & career.

Reservoir Oil on Linen Rebecca King Hawkinson 48×48 © 2024 Inquire

Being born in and living in a temperate rainforest in the Appalachian Mountains, I have always been keenly aware of the complexity of possible effects of light, atmosphere, and biological processes.  The tapestry of trees, wildflowers, insects and animals inhale and exhale on the mountain as the clouds lift and fall with temperature and time of day. All of this happens as a daily rhythm and with a dynamic rapidity that affects the people who live here. For me, it has tuned my spirit to notice, to observe, and to want to respond to my environment with paint. 

As a child visiting the National Gallery in Washington, DC with my Mother, I was enchanted by Monet and paintings on the wall thick with textural illusion and enigmatic smiles.  Yet the halls of  Renaissance portraits and narrative paintings beckoned as well. Each canvas connects ideas, emotions, experiences all in a line; as though ordering a disordered world. 

“I will do that,” my heart breathed in the quiet museum hall. “ As for me, I will have real art around me, I shall fill space with it.  I shall get my hands filthy with it.”

My father used to read aloud to me and my siblings after dinner, especially from George McDonald and C.S. Lewis. The idea in Lewis’ writings of being “surprised by joy” resonated deeply with me.  Beauty and Joy were a sort of herald of “What-Is-Real” or at least more “Real,” more “Solid” than discouragement, strife, depression, oppression, chaos, and the daily passing away of all things.  From my mother, an avid knitting and sewing creator, I learned the power of color to affect mood and environment, and from my Father, an avid gardener and book lover,  I learned that beyond these material things are powerful constants and solid ideas that people have been writing and sharing ideas about over many centuries.  

As a highschooler, I felt the strong urge to begin my studies in earnest. I wanted to find someone who understood the mysteries of oil paint in particular. I had so many questions about how it worked and didn’t have time for acrylic and watercolor, but specifically I wanted training in the old ways of how to paint and draw. I left highschool early and began to study with Benjamin Long IV who had just completed a fresco at Montreat College and was offering classes through Montreat in his studio in Asheville.

Fresco is a gritty dynamic medium that transforms bits of color, lime and water into a fantastic, lasting, and rock solid mural for ceilings or walls. Michelangelo’s frescoes in the Sistine Chapel in the Vatican in Rome are perhaps the most well known frescoes in the world. Great frescoes require a careful conception and execution.

Fresco Color Panel
The colors included in Fresco color panel are first ground and the particles suspended in water, then applied to a test panel. The panel is a test lime putty surface that mimics the finished wall of the mural. As the pigments oxidize and react on a chemical level with the lime, they bond to the lime.

The artist must spend hours conceiving and designing the fresco well in advance. The artist must then complete all preparatory drawings, called “cartoons,” prior to painting day. Since the artist is painting on to wet lime plaster, the drawings, paints and brushes must be mixed and ready at hand.

Preparatory Drawing for Autumn from the Four Seasons by Rebecca King Hawkinson

When the traditional brick surface is not available or feasible for use, an iron lathe frame can be manufactured and installed before the initial coat of plaster is laid. Once a project design has been approved in writing, the iron lathe is fabricated and installed and the initial scratch or “rough” coat of plaster is laid.

The second layer of plaster or “arriccio” is laid upon the artist’s initial arrival to the job site. Each day the artist lays a section of the final “intanaco” plaster layer and then has 8-10 hours to complete that section of the picture. Each section is completed in this way like a puzzle within a span of two to eight weeks depending on the scope of the project.

The scratch coat takes 4 to 6 months to cure. During this time the artist further develops the design through preparatory drawings and large scale cartoons, and color preparation.

Autumn from The Four Seasons, Fresco Test Panel, 16×16 Rebecca King Hawkinson
American Painter Rebecca King Hawkinson, American painter Benjamin Long IV Classical Realism
Fresco Assistant Rebecca King Hawkinson (left) and Master Artist Benjamin Long IV(right) at Sloop Chapel in front of Fresco Mural “Let the Little Children Come to Me” by Benjamin Long IV in Crossnore, NC in 2006.

This is how we create modern frescoes, but the Lascaux caves are some of the oldest examples we have of art, and the artist who created them likely discovered the possibilities in the cave of what happens when you mix pigment, lime and water by the way.  I love the quality of line, the draftsmanship, the grandeur and Jungian signposts of the images themselves.  And France is really where I learned to paint with oil, on a dusty chalk road, in the middle of a vineyard after walking out from Ben’s house in the South of France. I spent five weeks there painting landscapes when I was 18, painting from life, observing the light of the morning and capturing what I saw. 

In Nimes, just 25 minutes or so from Ben’s house was a shop called Les Coulers et Vernis where you could buy everything from rat poison to damar varnish, in the old French way. Ben showed me that there were drawers and drawers of raw pigment colors ready to be hand ground into oil paint or ground and prepared for fresco.  I learned to prepare panels with rabbit skin glue and chalk gesso, I learned the concept of fat over lean, and how to make painting mediums in helter skelter moments while the family was at the market or breakfasting on the patio.  I got told off for going out to paint at the wrong time of day in the sweltering sun, and I was tasked to sweep out a sort of run down old part of the house with an ancient dusty fainting couch for an “apprentice studio.” There we made panels and there I painted my first still life of some black cherries that I had bought at the market in Uzes in a paper bag.  I learned what to ask and when to ask in order to get a lecture about the “Maroger Medium” or “The Difference Between Alla Prima and the Venetian method.”  There were artists’ friends to visit, and Ben’s little boys underfoot, and there was the deep rose sky above the church rooftop and fresh meals shared in the evening.

“Hoof & Wing” is a celebration of life in motion, with horses and birds taking flight amidst many textured backgrounds. The paintings are a contemporary play on the organic textures of the cave walls at Lascaux France, which houses the 20,000-year-old Paleolithic art of the Dordogne region.

“The mystery of our connection with nature is the main idea behind the images and textures in these paintings. Animals like these are like us and not like us, and our connection to them is still very much fundamental question for contemporary people even as it was for ancient man.”

-Rebecca King Hawkinson

The paintings at Lascaux offer a peek into the importance of symbolic movements and relationships between animal and man, movement and rest.  All times of year, I live where hawks regularly circle throughout the day below my Studio hunting small game.  But in particular, they stand out in such relief in the winter months when the mountains go gray.  I resonate especially with the sense of movement in the Lascaux Cave paintings. While quality and specificity of the forms in Lascaux give you a sense of the artist’s specific style, you are struck especially with their massive movement across the space of the wall. 

Animals in movement are one of those things that will always quicken our hearts to be aware that we are also alive. We are alive, but we are living outside of Eden. And there is beauty and pain all buried together in that.  All is not as it should be or could be.  We have a sense of the ideal, yet we know this isn’t it, but sometimes when we see flashes of beauty like the bird on a wing, the deer grazing in the wood, dew in berry patch, the sun break in the afternoon storm, and we know that more will be, and there we meet Joy. The trouble is through these broken shards of experience, art can be derivative of this Joy, missing the mark in a profound way,  so the challenge is to create something that isn’t merely derivative, but somehow builds on and contributes a bit more. 

When I painted these paintings I was interested not simply in the animal itself but its movement across space. So I started with a series of drawings of Horses and Hawks, broken down into their simplest forms with an emphasis on movement and the space around the forms.  In my mind these served as a sort of visual cartoon, similar to the preparatory cartoons for a fresco,  but really more as an exploration of the qualities I wanted to transfer into the paintings.  Then once the oil paintings were underway I intentionally chose a subdued earthy palette, with pigments and textures you might see on a cave wall.  Fresco has a sort of solidity that are different then oil paintings, so I wanted to create a sort of iconic quality to the paintings that would read as an allusion to Lascaux.

 As my career has progressed and I have become more impressed with the massive challenges of painting in the Appalachian Mountains, forms more ancient than those at Lascaux, I am humbled by the fact that these too are moving, Nature doesn’t stand still as the earth literally hurdles forward through space time.  I’m not just painting mountains and trees, but an expanse of space where the sky kisses the ground, and where souls dwell, and have been dwelling far longer than I will be here.  So no matter what I am painting, when I’m painting on the Seine in Paris, in the quiet of my studio, or on a Mountain in the Wood, my subject is the same, this is a sacred place where people and animals dwell.  There is a sense of dynamic movement to this action of “dwelling”, creatures being born, living, dying; this place is a gift. 

Painting Paris
Rebecca King Hawkinson painting on the Seine River April, 2024

Art is a sign post. It is an expression of your individual moment in time, and serves as a nexus point to other souls, other creatures beyond your time.  When you look at art, you can see echoes of yourself that exist beyond Time.  Through the artist’s eyes, through their experience you recognize your own experience, your memories, your kinship of experience wrapped up in color, and light. Art says, “I was here, you can know what I saw, felt, experienced when I walked the earth.  You can know what I valued, who I loved, the gifts of beauty I saw when I lived here, just as you live here now.”  This enriches your own appreciation for life and enriches your experiences and trains you to savor and value what is most important.  Not all art objects will resonate with you, but you have to look, savor, and search for the qualities that are best tuned to the music of your soul. I find that quality art does have an aspect of spiritual accessibility that stands the test of time. Or to put it another way this is both an art object, but also a signal of something more, beyond itself.

For example, art isn’t only valuable because of a “realized price” in the market or because it has found its way into a museum collection, though that is often how people think about it in contemporary conversations around the art market.  I remember one day I was in a Wine Cave in Montepulciano, Italy where I had gone after painting to buy a bottle of wine.  In the back of the Storefront shop, there was a step down and another step down and there without any warning, without a museum ticket, without any particular relationship the the bottles of wine lining the walls, was a collection of Etruscan burial objects from the Iron age carefully built around by the stonemasons who had built this part of the city. These were not in the Etruscan Museum, they had evidently not been disturbed.  There was only a sign in Italian designating them and requesting respect.  In the front of the building, people were buying and selling wine, in the back, there were ancient graves, marks that others had been here, living, loving, dying and burying those they loved.  Art isn’t made in a vacuum, just as we aren’t living in one.  An awareness of the immediacy of other makers in other times gives you a different understanding of your kinship to other people.

The Expanse

Paint is made up of bits of earth and plant oil.  Art is earthy; it stains your hands, and seeps through and stains your soul, crossing the membrane between what is material and what is not. The art of painting is raw.  Burning your eye and your spirit like the searing contrast of the lavender ribbon that runs along the branch in the dead of winter only to turn into resonant golden ochre at the tip of the limb.   The artist is the transistor in the radio, the canary in the coal mine, the maligned prophet.  The artist takes this role all in order to say true things, in order to create resonance, harmony, and joy.

Art makes a way.

-Artist Rebecca King Hawkinson

In the fresh dew of a spring morning, on a hill above Florence I hiked out from my flat at Il Palmerino.  This was the home of writer Vernon Lee, and artists Federigo Angeli & Lola Costa.  With my gear I hiked up past the rocky walls out into a field that beckoned with rows of blooming fuchsia floribunda roses.  As I walked every blade of gold shimmered and each drop glistened on the Victorian Roses. As I set up to paint the view of the city in this newly discovered field heady with the scent of rows and rows of blooming Floribunda Roses, someone else sat down at the piano in the house just me and began to play. Unaware of my presence, they played for the next two and half hours while I painted, transported by the scent, the sound and the sight of Florence below me. 

My best days as an artist are when I simply managed to get to the right place with the right frame of mind and with a brush in my hand, and the art just seemed to happen without my conscious effort.  My frame of mind is simply lost in color, nuance, and mystery.  More recently I have discovered that I can recall specific beauty, sights that I have seen that I want to paint.  I can close my eyes and see and feel how it should be. It’s as if it’s burned there into my cortex as something that should be, could be a finished work, and I have to decide if it should exist or if I should hold onto the memory for the next vision of Joy. 

Artist Rebecca King Hawkinson painting at Il Palmerino in Fiesole, Italy in 2010-2011

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