From the art and archaeology of the ancient world to the immediacy of plein air painting, Stuart Fullerton's artistic interests are remarkably varied. What unites these interests, though, is a passion for both painting and working in charcoal. Fullerton was kind enough to be our latest participant in our ongoing "Contemporary Charcoals" series, so this week we are sharing his insights into the artistic process as well as some of his favorite artists of both the past and present. For more on Fullerton and his work, please visit his website.
Nitram Charcoal (NC): What is the last art show that you saw? What did you take from it?
Stuart Fullerton (SF): Last summer I saw the Sargent show at the Metropolitan Museum. It was inspiring and so humbling at the same time. There were a few of his charcoal portraits in the show. His portrait drawing of William Butler Yeats was especially powerful for me—direct, rich, dark, and evocative.
NC: What is your favorite collection to visit? What collection/museum in on your visit wish list?
SF: There are so many favorite museums! In 2009, though, I visited the Sorolla Museum in Madrid. It made such an impression on me to visit his studio and to see his easel, his brushes, and even some of his unfinished work. What I realized from seeing his unfinished work is that the greatest painters in the world still work from the basics, just as we lesser mortals do. They happen to be vastly better at it, and can take things so much farther, but it’s still the same basic ideas: drawing, value, color, edge, composition. There is solace in knowing that we are on the right track. Sorolla lived there, too—he painted murals in his dining room—so you get a glimpse of what he was like, what kind of husband and father he was.
NC: In your opinion, what sets charcoal apart from other artistic media?
SF: Charcoal is so versatile. It’s capable of painterly application on the one hand—loose edges, broad treatment of the subject, masses of light and shadow—and on the other hand it can be as delicate and precise as you please. It’s that combination of the painterly and the precise that makes charcoal so satisfying.
NC: What is the greatest challenge to working with charcoal?
SF: One has to keep in mind that charcoal is malleable: you can erase it, push it around, and wipe it out. So, don’t be afraid of it! That’s something I remind myself of quite frequently. Also, keep a sharp point on your charcoal; it can quickly get dull. I love the Nitram sharpening block for that purpose.
NC: Do you collect art? Whose works hang on your walls?
SF: I collect work by friends and by artists who were members of the Palette and Chisel in Chicago. I have paintings, drawings, and etchings by a number of them. One of the pieces I love most is an astonishing etching by Gerald Geerlings, who was the grandfather of an old college friend. One of my best purchases was a demo drawing by George Bridgman. It’s five feet by ten feet—too big for my apartment—so it’s now hanging in the room at the Palette and Chisel where I teach my drawing class.
NC: If you could buy any one work of art, what would it be, and why?
SF: One piece? John Singer Sargent's Lady Agnew of Lochlaw (National Galleries Scotland). It’s everything I want in a work of art—liveliness, color, drawing, and mood—and it represents to me a lost world that I so admire. To be able to see it every day would be such a treat.
NC: Who is your favorite living artist?
SF: Mary Qian. She’s an amazing painter, a good friend and always an inspiration.
NC: What inspires you in the studio?
SF: Studio practice is about showing up. I think there is great force in routine. We improve by the square mile, as my instructor used to say. But then there will come a time when your gut won’t let you alone. That is the sort of time when you wake up in the middle of the night and find yourself working because you can’t not work. You’re on fire with an idea, and you have to get it down at that moment. When I’m painting outside, there are times when the painting seems to fall off the end of my brush—it’s all so clear and seems so easy. Where that comes from, I don’t know. Maybe it comes from a slow build up of half-realized ideas, maybe it comes from a flash of pure joy, of pure happiness. Either way, you need to be prepared for it, and the only way to prepare is to put in the miles.
NC: Tell us a bit about your background. What do you consider your greatest artistic accomplishment?
SF: I didn’t go to art school. I went to Harvard College, studying Greek and Latin, then went to Harvard Law School and became a lawyer. I work full time as a federal prosecutor in Chicago. I began learning to draw and paint later in life, and I hope to continue learning as long as I live. My greatest artistic accomplishment is a life lesson: learning to be pleased with small accomplishments. It’s so difficult—we all want instant gratification—but it’s so important. After all, a string of minor victories, over time, will amount to a major victory.
NC: What do you define as "being creative"? How to seek that creativity in your work?
SF: A work of art is a statement, just as a novel or a play is a statement. It’s a statement about the subject, of course, but it’s also a statement about the artist, and his or her vision. What the artist chooses to say is very revealing, about both the artist and the subject. When I approach a subject in art, I desire to make a statement that reflects the best of both myself and the subject. We all have blemishes; this world is full of imperfection and ugliness. But I don’t want to hold the imperfections of a subject against it. I’m looking for something in a portrait or a landscape by which I can make a larger statement, something more important than exactitude. Certain subjects cast me in mind of stories, or settings, or moods. It’s hard to pin down. But I’m at my most creative—I respond best to the subject—when I can capture that elusive something that goes beyond the actual thing or person that is in front of me.