Art with a classical sensibility

"Balance" (cropped), by Aaron Westerberg

“Balance” (cropped), by Aaron Westerberg

Elegance, mystery, and a classic touch

The artistic journey of Aaron Westerberg

by Bondo Wyszpolski

He seems to be living in one century yet channeling another; living on the Pacific coast but with a sensibility more attuned to the Atlantic seaboard. I think this is evident in the work and it is clearly apparent in the man himself, the classically-trained painter Aaron Westerberg.

Residing for now in Portuguese Bend, in an environment conducive to long hours of study and creativity, Westerberg, now in his mid-40s, is originally from San Diego, and not a suburb of Boston or even Paris as one might be tempted to believe. There was a certain revelation—by the name of John Singer Sargent—that pointed him into making a career out of art, but his quest for mentors and guides, artist gurus, if you will, was not always smooth and simple. He’s there now, of course, but let’s start where we should, at the beginning.

Aaron Westerberg. Photo by Bondo Wyszpolski

And who will show him the way?

“After high school,” Westerberg says, “I didn’t quite know what I wanted to do with myself in terms of a profession, so I went to a junior college to take care of my educational credits, to get that two years out of the way, and hopefully during that time figure out what I wanted to major in. I was taking art history classes there, but they weren’t talking about Sargent or [Edmund Charles] Tarbell or any of those guys. But I happened to see a flyer for drawing classes, and the drawings on it were really good. So I went—it was in downtown San Diego—and took this drawing class, and it was great.”

The instructor was Jeffery Watts, and Westerberg studied with him for about a year. It was Watts who introduced him to the works of Sargent, as well as other painters like Anders Zorn and Joaquín Sorolla. Another revelation for Westerberg was that he saw it was possible to earn his livelihood as an artist. And when that sank in, “I was like, I want to do that. How do I do this for a living?” Having found a goal or a destination, Westerberg needed a path to get there, and this led to the California Art Institute in Thousand Oaks. “They did movie posters, storyboards, and so it was really figurative- and realism-oriented: You really wanted to get the movie stars to look exactly like they looked, even better.”

“Transition in Rose,” by Aaron Westerberg

Jeffery Watts had studied under Glen Orbik (who had studied under the school’s founder, Fred Fixler), and Westerberg relocated to Thousand Oaks to study with him. However, and what aspiring artist doesn’t have a setback? “Orbik stopped teaching the semester that I moved up there.” Yet Westerberg remained, took classes, met other student artists and instructors, “But nothing like Glen, nobody as good as Glen. I looked for teachers that whole time, someone that I could study under, similar to Jeff with drawing, but for painting. And I never really found anybody.”

Well, he did find Steve Huston. “And I’m like, okay, great, this guy’s great, he’s awesome. He’s a figurative painter, works for the movie industry also, had a big studio in Pasadena. I took one workshop with him… Then he moved to Montana.”

One can’t help but smile. Too little too late? So what did Westerberg do?

“I learned a lot about painting from books. Now you can learn a lot from just the internet, there’s tons of great instructional videos on YouTube, but before then it was books, really scouring through books and finding information.” Sometimes, reading about one artist, a biographical note leads to another of similar stature. “And that’s how I found out about Dewing, because Thomas Dewing’s one of my absolute favorite painters, for sure.”

“Rivi in Blue and Green,” by Aaron Westerberg

Color schemes

The Pinkham Foundation for the Arts, founded by Daniel and his wife Vicki, has an artist residency program, and while the Pinkhams are spending the warmer months in Idaho, it’s in their home where Westerberg and I sit and talk. But of course it’s not by complete accident that we’re here, a stone’s throw from the ocean, on property that once belonged to Frank Vanderlip, and not somewhere else.

“I never had a teacher, I learned from books,” Westerberg continues. “So I approached Dan to learn color. Dan is a very highly regarded painter; he doesn’t paint like most people. His colors are unique.” It was during a mentor paint-out day, under the auspices of the California Art Club, that Westerberg asked Pinkham for his professional advice. The question was simple and direct: How do I learn color?

“He told me to do these color studies,” Westerberg says, “all one color, still lifes, so that whatever the still life setup would be, it would be all one color. All green, all blue, all red. Like a red apple on a red fabric on a red background, so you’re forced to look at all the variations of red. And that’s what I wanted, I wanted to extend my color vocabulary. That was the main thing.”

Over the course of maybe four years Westerberg would drive down a couple of times a year from Santa Clarita, where he was living at the time, and spend several hours with Pinkham, showing him the work he’d completed since their last meeting. Pinkham had several guidelines that he insisted on. One of them, when doing the color studies, was that Westerberg use just one brush, a number 12-size brush, which is a bristle brush, and not at all like one of its softer cousins.

“Anna with a Smirk” (charcoal on rice paper), by Aaron Westerberg

“I couldn’t use two of them, [which] would be nice so I could have a brush for the lights and a brush for the darks. No. Only one number 12-size brush. So I couldn’t blend anything together. There were certain rules that I had to follow that were very difficult, because I had never painted like that before. It was very difficult and frustrating, but I just had faith that he was leading me down the right path. I did hundreds of those color studies, I’ve got boxes of them, but now I feel confident about color. It’s not an issue anymore. I mean, it’s always an issue, but I have the tools now.”

Westerberg had previously been guided by what he felt looked good, but there’s that vocabulary that, once learned, where it becomes second nature, will take an artist to new heights. Westerberg points to one of his studies, of an orange skull: “I would never have thought to paint a skull like that. So that was a big deal, to be able to make harmony where I didn’t think there was one.”

In the starring role

Now, what about those colors when we see them holding court on one of Westerberg’s canvases? His palette tends to be darker—forest greens instead of summer lawn greens, with subdued and saturated colors. New England maybe, or Northern Europe, but no one’s throwing around a beach ball, so nothing to indicate sunny California.

“My galleries are on the East Coast,” Westerberg says, by way of an answer. “I get a lot of Boston and New York collectors, more so than California. I am kind of a moody, brooding kind of guy… And my heroes are all mostly on the East Coast.” He’s again referring to Sargent and Tarbell, as well as William Merritt Chase and others. There certainly is an elegance in much of their work that could never be achieved by the camera.

There’s plenty of detail and clarity in Westerberg’s painting, but even so the pictures are never laser precise. In most cases there’s an element of the concealed, something private and yet alluring.

“I don’t want my painting to be a textbook,” he replies; “I want it to be a poem. I want interaction (with the viewer) so it’s not just my experience, but a relatable experience to someone else. I want there to be a little bit of mystery and a little bit of an open-endedness to the painting so that the viewer can connect with it in a better way.” Westerberg pauses and continues. “When I compose a painting I think of it like a play or maybe a movie where there’s the main star, and then everyone else are supporting actors. There are extras, and there are co-stars, but you can’t take away from the focal point, the main actor or the main idea of the play. That’s the way I approach and then compose the painting itself.”

Aaron Westerberg in Portuguese Bend. Photo by Bondo Wyszpolski

Models and their apparel

He has painted his dogs and the one model who is always available, himself, but the majority of Westerberg’s models seem to be young and fairly attractive women. Do they come knocking at his door at midnight, commanding him to paint them? No, but…

“A lot of times I’d used the same model for a lot of my work,” he says, and it’s usually someone with whom he’s formed a good rapport and working relationship. He refers me to one of the many portraits of Rivi, and mentions that most of the paintings in his 2018 solo show were of her. “It’s so much easier when she knows what I want, so I don’t have to explain things or teach her anything. She’s a great model, so it really worked out well.”

Others who have posed for him include friends and his former wife. Knowing someone in advance doesn’t always mean they’ll be a good model. “But the ones that worked out I stuck with them,” Westerberg says. “It also helps so much if the model is artistically inclined. They add a lot; it’s not just all me.”

He notes that many of the young women in his paintings are wearing kimonos—and I’m thinking that’s largely because many of his influences, Sargent, Merritt Chase, Whistler, etc, were influenced by the Japonism that was in vogue during the late 19th century. “But I don’t want them to be traditional,” he says of the portraits, “I want them to be modern.”

“Immersion” (cropped), by Aaron Westerberg

The picture near where I’m sitting is of just such a young woman, dressed in a pink kimono. Not surprisingly, the pink doesn’t shout like grandma’s sweater or drown out the surrounding darker colors. Westerberg then says exactly what I’m thinking: “It’s still vibrant but it’s not offensive; it’s an addition to the whole. You can see that a lot of those colors are reflected in her face, too. That took a long time to figure out how to do it, because normally what I do is just gray things down, a lot, to fit them to what I want.” The color is still there, it’s not hiding under anything, “But it’s just not as intense and vibrant. I wanted it to look vibrant, but I want it to look like it belongs in that setting.”

Someone who has mastered the harmonies of color can do that, and it’s one of the skills that distinguishes an accomplished artist from an amateur.

But what about all those stunning costumes, if costumes is the right word? Are these clothes that he’s found or that his models have brought with them to the studio?

“It’s a little of both,” Westerberg replies. “I’ll have an idea, sometimes I’ll do a drawing, little notes of things I want to do.” The model may already have a similar item in her wardrobe and if so he’ll ask her to bring it over, “because it fits her already.” Perhaps he’ll have several different costumes on hand, and he’ll photograph her in each of them. From there, he selects the ones he likes, the ones that approximate what he’s had in mind. “Then generally what I’ll do is hire her again, and I would do a small color study of that same or very similar scene.” This allows him to find the true colors, because as Westerberg explains that can get lost in a photograph, with perhaps no definition at all in the shadows. “From there I’ll blow it up into a larger painting.”

“Self-Portrait” (oil on panel), by Aaron Westerberg

However, he doesn’t labor over the preliminary work. “I get bored pretty fast,” he admits. “I have rules I’ve established. When I do the color study, I want to do it fast. I don’t want to think about drawing too much. So my general rules are, No details. I want the proportions to be accurate, but no fingers, no facial features, no toes, just the big shapes.” Or, as he expressed it elsewhere: “Once the light and dark pattern is in place and the values grouped you can add as much or as little detail as you want… It’s all about the big picture.”

Now the painting begins to emerge. It’s here, at this stage if not quite before, that the artist’s sensibility, his maturity, his years of study and drawing, turn the image on the canvas into a thing of balance and nuanced beauty. At his best, Aaron Westerberg is a bit of a magician, up there with the masters he’s admired ever since Jeffery Watts introduced him to the work of Sargent. All the elements come together and we can only ask, How did he make that happen?

More of Aaron Westerberg’s work can be found by visiting his website at aaronwesterberg.com. PEN/ER

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