Artist Helps His Students Paint What They See


 Evie Brennan concentrates on the colors of the flowers as she combines several pictures into one scene.

Evie Brennan concentrates on the colors of the flowers as she combines several pictures into one scene. Photo by Andy Towle. |

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After a lifetime of practicing art, Jim Strong paints what he sees. Even then, the subject doesn’t always agree with his vision.

Strong related one example of the viewer’s subjectivity of art:

Andy Towle, Roundup staff photographer snapped a memorable photo of a cowboy in the Payson Rodeo parade one year. Strong, intrigued by Towle’s photo, asked if he could use it as a model for a painting.

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Jim Strong has taught oil painting at Gila Community College for the past seven years.

“He was a great face,” said Strong.

Towle gave him the photo. The finished piece pleased Strong.

“That is one of my better paintings,” said Strong.

Strong showed the painting in various shows, always giving Towle credit for the photo, but neither he nor Towle knew the identity of the cowboy.

A few years later, a woman attending the GCC art show recognized the cowboy as her husband. When she brought him in to see the painting, he said,

“Doesn’t look like me at all.”

That illustrates the mystery of painting. The artist infuses each piece with his own personality and perspective to create a vision wholly his own. Sometimes, as in the case of the cowboy, even the subject of the painting does not recognize himself. Although his wife knew who it was, the cowboy could not or did not want to see him represented the way Strong saw him.

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Janet Longbotham applies a few finishing touches to a rose she was working on during Jim Strong’s early morning painting class.

The challenge for the painter is to capture the essence of the subject, infuse the piece with light, texture and contrast to create depth that captures the viewer’s interest.

On top of the artistic interpretation, each painter must ensure any image they use for inspiration is their own — or they have permission from the photographer to use the photo. Strong teaches his students that paintings must have original content or acknowledgement from the creator.

“Don’t take from another artist,” he said.

When reading the history of painting from the time of the cave painters to modern times, it is clear artists have tried to capture the essence of their subject.

Yet, how can the aspiring painter learn to go from concept to finished piece? A blank white canvass seems overwhelmingly empty.

Enter Strong. He has taught oil painting at the community college for the past seven years. Previous to joining the staff at the college, he and his wife ran the Jim Strong Art School at 68th and McDowell in Phoenix for 35 years. He sold the business to move to the Rim Country and retire, but soon came back to the classroom because he loves teaching painting.

His students love him too.

Laurel Corley, Strong’s neighbor has taken his painting class since he started teaching.

“When I learned he was an artist, I said, if you give classes — I’ll take them,” she said.

The intensity of her painting assaults the eye when opening the door to Strong’s painting class. Her canvass glows with a yellow moon in a blue and purple evening sky. The moon reflects off a lake. A boat lies moored near the moon shadow on the water. The colors provoke an emotional response. The difference between the moon and the sky, the shadows of the rocks and trees adds drama telling the story of an evening in nature next to water.

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Members of Jim Strong’s art class are relaxed, studious and talented as they create, modify and enhance their varied paintings.

Strong explained that Corley has painted for many years. He started out by instructing her in color and perspective. With the painting she works on, he told her to start with the largest area of dark then add the light colors in the end.

“It’s like many layers and takes practice and the right tools. A good sketchbook, fine brushes and pallet knives, and mixing the paint to get the color right,” said Strong.

In the original photo, clouds surrounded the moon, but Corley just couldn’t get the clouds to work in the picture, so she painted them out.

“A mistake is a happy accident,” said Corley.

As students gain skill with the basics, their style emerges.

Strong loves Western art with bold landscapes, horses, cowboys and Native Americans.

“Style comes as you paint. You settle in on a style of painting,” said Strong.

In his class, Pat Sessions has a style of painting popular enough that she has a regular clientele.

Ann Christianson paints haunting faces.

One table of students has gravitated toward painting animals including cranes, sea turtles and wolves.

Before any paint touches the canvass, Strong’s students have hours of prep work.

Judy Fox has taken Strong’s class every semester for the past three years. She pulled out her sketchbook and flipped through pages with penciled sketches and swatches of paint.

After deciding how to compose the painting, she draws her artwork onto tracing paper. Using carbon paper, she then transfers the image to the canvass. Her next step includes mixing paints.

Strong has new students spend a day with the color wheel to understand color. Every shade a student uses on a canvass comes from blue, red or yellow.

Fox used to mix paint for a print shop that gave her a leg up understanding color. Still, she admits, “Once you get your colors, you have a lot to do.”

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Pat Sessions focuses on details in her painting.

As Fox explained the preparation process, Strong had moved across the room to answer questions for another student stuck on how to proceed with her painting. She wanted to combine two pictures, one of a baby in a basket and the other of a door sitting on a tile floor. The perspective didn’t work for her.

Strong listened to her concerns, asked a few questions and analyzed the original photos to understand what she wanted to accomplish.

“The first thing I would do to get her in there — draw the figure bigger. Then I would put in the floor this way,” he said as he penciled in tiles behind the basket.

“Did I get you going?” he asked the student.

She nodded in agreement, sitting down refocused on her work.

“You can learn a lot following him around the room,” said Fox.

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