Friday, December 28, 2007

Valfred Thëlin ~ 1934-1991

Valfred Thëlin, the day I met him. February 1980.

As stated in the December 16 entry, it is my intention on this blog to devote some space to artists who have impressed and influenced me. The most logical person to start this off with is the late, great Valfred Thëlin - my #1 mentor, a cherished friend, and the person who got me truly excited about painting.

A long, long time ago in a place called Sarasota, Florida, I started messing around with watercolor. My roommate Rick brought home a cheap plastic paint set that we used to dabble with to augment episodes of altered consciousness. Eventually I graduated to a student set of tube watercolors and brushes. My work was somewhere between what I had drawn my whole life (drawing was my "thing" growing up), and what could be described as the school of Bad Roger Dean. My employment and most of my spare time was devoted to the guitar, and through that I made the acquaintance of a gentleman who was an old-time Sarasotan - the kind who remembered the days well before it became a tourist mecca. Floyd lived in a large Spanish-style building downtown that was formerly the Mira Mar Hotel. He shared this eccentric, rambling abode with a German artist named Flo Singer. Flo was a watercolorist. By and by, I was invited to visit, and went over with my guitar. The walls were covered with art - lots of watercolors including Flo's unique work (influenced by Egon Schiele), but I remember most vividly the instant I spied a small vertical landscape. Probably no more than 8"x10," it depicted a building on a hillside with a wild foreground and sky. I was stunned, and wasn't even sure it was a watercolor until Flo confirmed it; I had never seen a watercolor like that. It was signed, somewhat enigmatically, "Valfred." I enquired about the artist, and she told me he was fabulous, and that I was in luck: he would be doing a demonstration that Sunday night at the Hilton Leech Studio, at the time a nationally-known venue for visiting artists.

I showed up to a packed house, paid my $3 (!) and had to sit in the back. Valfred Thëlin was introduced by Katherine Rowland to lots of applause, dressed in a black velvet tunic and a pince-nez dangling from his neck. He certainly looked like an artist - longish hair swept back, and the proverbial artist's vandyke. He immediately engaged the audience and titillated us with a combination of art world anecdotes, Down East humor, borderline ribaldry, and personal reflection. He whipped out a 30"x40" watercolor board, quickly taped the edges, and continuing the patter without missing a beat, wielded a 3" brush making enormous slashes across it in cadmium yellow, orange, and red. I had no idea what he was doing. He then tossed that aside, and in about 15 minutes painted a startling sunset scene in his patented technique (and one which I made liberal use of for some time afterward). He sold it on the spot, and then went back to the big piece. The audience gasped as he squeezed an entire large tube of W&N phthalo blue onto the center of the picture. I knew then he was either a genius or a lunatic...maybe both. He covered most of the board, including the cadmium areas, until it looked almost black; it appeared ruined and I couldn't have imagined what was to happen next: while it was wet, he took a razor blade and palette knife and proceeded to carve out a mindbending depiction of Times Square at midnight - a cacophony of buildings, marquees, signs, people, taxis, the works. It was electric! I was totally blown away - I had never seen watercolor painted so boldly and aggressively. He ripped off the masking tape revealing the white border, and remains to this day the most dramatic watercolor demonstration I've ever seen. I was hooked. I wanted to do that. I signed up for the workshop right then and there, and that marked the real beginning of my watercolor journey.

Val was an encyclopedia of watercolor methods, many of which ironically evolved through his years as an oil painter (allergies caused him to switch to watercolor). He was a master of them all: tissue paper paintings, drip/pour paintings, acrylic watercolor, unusual gesso techniques, ink, airbrush, mixing oil with watercolor, razorblade sketching and painting, spattering, etc. - things I never saw anyone else do. He painted all subject matter and was equally adept in realistic and abstract work. He used a huge antique butcher's tray as a palette, which appeared to be a disaster area, but it was actually quite organized and he knew precisely where every color was. The delightful demonstrations were always punctuated with stories about his mother and family (he was a third-generation artist), his travels, personalities in the art world, and colorful experiences such as the time Errol Flynn saved the adolescent Valfred from drowning. There was never a dull moment.

He referred to himself as an "abstract realist."

"Painting may be abstract or realistic, depending on personal interpretation. I have no inhibitions about moving from what is called realistic to what is considered abstract, for I find relevance in both pertaining to the interpretation the individual may give a particular expression. What is real in my paintings is the image itself, which fuses with my ideas as I begin to paint. The painting seems to create itself during this process. Forms tinged with personal feelings remembered or hidden in my unconscious spring into being, and the painting unfolds into a world of light and depth with its own consciousness."

"The Creator and the Crater"
Award-winning photograph by Shirley Hummel of Val
in Costa Rica.

Val doing one of this famous razorblade sketches at Hilton Head.
Photograph by Shirley Hummel.

I took the workshop the next few years, everytime he came to town, and we became good friends. Val encouraged me quite a bit, and got me interested in artists I knew nothing about - Sargent, for one. I was able to stimulate him with my music. I signed up for a trip to Maine and Nova Scotia that he was leading with photographer Pete Carmichael - one of the "Two Arts" tours. He met the group at the Portland airport in a lobster costume, and that pretty much set the tone. We had a blast...the whole group (about 20) painted and shot pictures of that dramatic coastline, hitting most all of the famous places like Peggy's Cove, Monhegan Island, the lighthouses, etc along the way. I was already a decent draftsman, but it was on that trip that Val taught me how to really sketch on location. He did this everywhere we went, and at night entertained us in the local pubs, or the two of us went out exploring. He printed up a book of the trip containing his sketches, a number of which featured me. The late photographer Margarette Mead was also on that trip, and he did a sketch of Margaret and himself carrying me down the street after twisting my ankle during a night of carousing. He did another of me playing my guitar somewhere in Nova Scotia, and yet another of me sitting in with a band at one of the hotels.
Nick, Val's girlfriend (and later wife, Deidre), Val, Shirley Hummel.
On a very rough boat ride to Monhegan Island.

The trip ended in Ogunquit at Val's house on Shore Road, which sat atop a gigantic rock overlooking Perkin's Cove. We had a party with everybody donning crazy hats from his collection. I stayed on there for a couple of days with Val, his girlfriend Deidre, his daughters, and his wonderful mother, Vi. I recall dressing up in a costume and going to a New Year's Eve party (in September!) at a local watering hole. I don't remember much of the night except for a number of artists "in residence," each of us taking turns at the sketchbook, and the drinking games. Val held court, of course, and he was definitely the life of the party. The Thëlins were practically royalty and enjoyed no small notoriety in those parts... I had a helluva ride!

Val and I remained great friends, and anytime he came to Sarasota we looked for trouble and usually found it. Once, when I wasn't home, he climbed through the bedroom window of a guesthouse I lived in on Siesta Key, and hung one of my paintings upside down....never noticed until he made a joke about it! He had some serious health problems the last few years, attributed by him to a diet that consisted primarily of wine and cheese. He also had a habit of twirling the tip of his brush between his lips to make it point, and no doubt consumed enough cadmium and other chemicals over the decades to kill ten artists. He underwent a serious stomach surgery that was hard on him, and I think the last time I saw him was on Siesta Beach, working on his tan. He lived life in a big way.

Val died of a cerebral hemorrhage, collapsing at his front door, in the fall of 1991. He was "pre-Internet" so there isn't a whole lot out there on him, but I see more and more references all the time by former students, colleagues, art lovers, and collectors. He was and is a legend in the watercolor world, and I miss him dearly.

Valfred Thëlin was an internationally recognized artist. He was born in Waterbury, Connecticut and was trained in the European apprentice tradition by his grandfather, a muralist who came to the United States from Sweden in the late 1800s. His father Carl Valfred Thelin, a commercial artist, strongly influenced his work as well. He went on to study at the School of the Art Institue of Chicago, and the Art Students League of New York, participating as well in seminars throughout Europe and working one-on-one with Hans Hofmann and Georgia O'Keefe. Valfred has been featured in major art publications and is in many museums including the Museum of Modern Art and Smithsonian, private collections, and galleries here and abroad. He conducted over 200 workshops and demonstrations in the USA and ten other countries, and was invited artist at three major universities. He juried dozens of competitions, held seminars in Mexico, and was the recipient of over 95 major awards. He was a member of the American Watercolor Society, among others, and listed in Who's Who in American Art. And last but not least, Valfred was a charter member of the exclusive WPA - Whiskey Painters of America!

Valfred's book, Watercolor: Let the Medium Do It, was published by Watson-Guptill and can still be obtained from many sources on the Internet. If you're lucky, you might be able to track down tapes from the Thëlin Video Workshop series.

For further reading, there are personal recollections of Val posted HERE.

I dedicated a painting to Val, and during the demonstration related some Val stories HERE.

A thread on the WetCanvas! site I started about Val HERE.

In addition to the credited shots, photographs of the Thëlin gallery sign, Val on the Oregon coast, and the last portrait are by Shirley Hummel. Used with permission and many thanks for her fantastic work!
I hope anybody who knew Val, or has something to relate about him or his work, will post here or contact me. Thanks!

Sunday, December 23, 2007

"Fresh Sushi" - 2007 National Watercolor Society

2007 was a good year for me in watercolor: among other things, I had a great six-page feature in Watercolor Magic magazine, shot my first DVD for Creative Catalyst Productions (more on that soon), ran some very successful workshops, became sponsored by Da Vinci Paints, made new friends and business relationships, and most notably, won the top award at the National Watercolor Society 87th Annual Exhibition. I would be remiss if I didn't recap that experience in this blog.

"Fresh Sushi" hanging in the gallery of the
Brea Civic and Cultural Center.

"Fresh Sushi" was one of 100 paintings selected for the exhibition from an international field of approximately 1200 artists. The jury of selection was Jean Grastorf (won this award in 1997), Betsy Dillard Stroud, and George James (won in 2001). The juror of awards was Maureen Bloomfield, former editor of The Pastel Journal, and for many years the senior editor of Watercolor Magic. Her art criticism has appeared in Artfourm, ARTnews Dialogue, New Art Examiner, and Sculpture. She is currently editor of The Artists' Magazine. Her remarks:

"I loved the unparalleled exuberance of Fresh Sushi: the headlong,confident use of watercolor; the interplay between neon colors and rich darks and between overt and supressed images; and the chaotic but utterly convincing composition. Fresh Sushi was breathtakingly beautiful and it filled me with joy. I kept coming back to it, and each time I looked, I saw more."

Other award winners included many of the biggest names in contemporary watercolor such as John Salminen, Guan Weixing, Cheng Khee Chee, etc. Photographs from the awards event can be seen HERE.

"Fresh Sushi" was purchased for the National Watercolor Society Permanent Collection, and is the cover image of the 2007 NWS catalog. It will be part of the 2008 Traveling Show, visiting museums around the U.S. (see schedule in November update HERE). The painting was also featured in magazines, newsletters, newspaper, and websites.

Winning this award is an incredible honor, and I thank the countless people who have extended their congratulations and best wishes.

Watercolor Artist magazine February 2008 issue - Best in 2007.

Friday, December 21, 2007

A Marriage Made In.....Irvine!

90-color line of Da Vinci Artist Watercolor

About a year ago, sick of paying waaaaaaaay too much for quality artist watercolors and after hearing very good things about Da Vinci Paint, I switched. I was impressed with the quality and Da Vinci's commitment to achieving highest lightfastness ratings. (for example, they were the first to come up with a permanent Alizarin Crimson) The pigment load, consistency, and packaging are first class. And the price is unbeatable. Now I'd rather fight, than switch.

But it got better.
While attending an art expo in the D.C. area last summer, I visited the Da Vinci booth and met Marcello Dworzak, third-generation leader of the company, and a very cool guy. We hit it off immediately, and it was clear we're on the same page regarding the state of contemporary watermedia, its trends, and what could lie ahead if people with a vision are willing to blaze some trails. The traditional Institution of Watercolor, as a rule, is resistant to change and innovation - in practice and materials. So-called Purists, while thinking they are preserving something, have actually hurt the medium, stunted its growth, and largely alienated it and themselves from the art world at-large. But that's another subject we'll explore in more depth another time. Anyway, it was a pleasure to encounter someone in this business who has built a reputation on the positive aspects of tradition, yet has an open mind and is keeping an eye to the future.

Yes, it got better.

I learned that day that Da Vinci had just developed a line of fluid acrylic artist colors! I had been painting with fluid acrylic for a couple of years, using it in the transparent watercolor technique, alone and in combination with regular watercolor. I love the stuff (more on this subject soon) and was thrilled to see Da Vinci not only manufacturing it to their exacting standards, but they also smartly built the line around the watercolorist's palette. Hallelujah!

48-color line of Da Vinci Artist Fluid Acrylic

A company that was obviously thinking what I had been envisioning all along: the inevitable convergence of the watercolor and acrylic worlds. Sacrilege, heheh....the unthinkable.... the watercolor purist's worst nightmare! That is, until they actually give it a try. I've observed this innumerable times in my workshops; the stunning quality of the colors, the unparalleled mixablility, the worry-free permanence, and the sensible, convenient packaging are a wonder to behold for watercolorists tired of the same old thing. And.....did I mention price??? No contest. No other paint medium provides the bang-for-buck of Da Vinci Fluid Acrylic.

Better again.

While in Los Angeles for the National Watercolor Society show in October, Marcello invited me to Irvine to tour the Da Vinci factory. So I went down with my wife, our daughter, and L.A. brushslinger Bill Moore to check it out.

I had never been in a paint factory (contrary to the claims of a certain watercolor "artist" - I use the term loosely - who opined that my paintings look like "explosions in a paint factory," heheh) It was fascinating to follow the process of mixing raw gum arabic, polymers, oil, etc. with various pigments, through the necessary sequence of steps, testing, and final packaging. It was there that it dawned on me why Da Vinci beats everybody on price: no importation duty - it's all made right there in sunny California.

Still better.

Da Vinci Paint has started to sponsor me , and I am thrilled to be associated with them! They really care about artists and listen to their needs; I had ideas about a couple of colors to add to the fluid acrylic line, and they're actually going to make them. They're also expanding the watercolor line, and asking me for input. It's great having one brand of paint that satisfies all of my needs.

We have some exciting plans that I think will brighten the future of watermedia artists who want to expand their horizons. Look for me to appear in upcoming Da Vinci advertisements in magazines and catalogs, and give Da Vinci a try if you haven't'll be blown away by the product and you'll save a lot of money... which might encourage you to do more experimentation, buy more paper, and work larger. You learn how to handle paint when there's a lot of paint to be handled!

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Hollywood Be Thy Name

Love the place, and always have a sinfully good time there. A highlight for me - if you can call visiting a cemetery a highlight - is visiting Westwood Village Memorial Park, one of the better-kept secrets in L.A. Most people don't know where it is, and even those that think they know can't find it. It took me about a day the first time I hit paydirt (sorry) over 15 yrs ago. It's located on the southeast quadrant of Wilshire and Glendon, and I always go in by heading east on Wilshire and taking that first small, unmarked driveway past the Glendon light that goes between some tall buildings. Follow that to an alley where a quite unpretentious and anonymous-looking entrance signals your arrival at the final resting place of an extraordinary number of Hollywood's elite. You know, when stars were stars. It just happens to be where most of my favorites are, which saves a lot of time that might be wasted at a place like Forest Lawn. I won't post all the pics I have, but you can read more about the guest list HERE. Some of my major favorites:

The biggest star of them all - Marilyn. Rumor has it the crypt
behind my head is Hugh Hefner's reserved parking place. (hear that, Bill?)

My favorite entertainer of all time, the King of Cool, Dean Martin

James Coburn, my other favorite Hollywood cool guy, who died shortly after receiving an Oscar. His beautiful young wife died not long after that.

Don Knotts, my favorite funny guy.

Jack Lemmon, my other favorite funny guy.

And let's not forget Rodney.....still not getting any respect, even here. The tombstone reads "There goes the neighborhood"

Truman Capote

If you do find the place, look for other notables such as George C. Scott's unmarked grave, Natalie Wood, Peggy Lee, Buddy Rich, Burt Lancaster, Walter Matthau, and many more.

X Files

My original idea for this post was thwarted by formatting problems, the likes of which I have never seen before. If I were an HTML pro, I could probably figure it out, but I'm that post will have to wait.

Instead, another one that has never been posted on my website, and never got trashed a few years ago, shortly after this picture was taken. Usually I'm right in taking such drastic measures, but now I kind of wish I had hung on to it and seen it through - never did finish the branch coming out of the water. It's a creek scene from a photograph I took in Florida, probably about 30" x 40" or larger.....I liked the reflections and was happy with that part, but evidently unhappy with others. Just exactly what, I'm not sure. Probably felt it had gotten too dark, which is often my downfall in unsuccessful pieces. Anyway, some paintings take weeks, months, or years before you figure out what needs to be done, and I didn't give this one a chance. Destroying work can be a very cleansing, liberating sensation....I highly recommend it, but the practice can be taken too far.

Monday, December 17, 2007


I mentioned posting work never seen on my website, and here we go: this one is so old it's not even funny....according to the records we started keeping way back when, it's the 135th watercolor I did. Ancient history. When Peggy Patrick, former Director of the Des Moines Art Center (home to one of the two or three greatest Sargent portraits) saw it, she told my mom to get serious about keeping track of my work. So she did, because I was too busy being a long-haired guitar-playing beach bum in Florida. Yep, she was my agent, manager, and CFO for a long time. Thanks Mom!

This picture came to mind because this is pretty much how it looks around here right now. The only brightening factor - the Christmas lights people have put up. We have them too, but I dare say a more tastefully restrained display. I have a friend who has struck on a theory which proves the inverse relationship between education/taste/wealth and the number of lights and plastic Santas festooning the neighborhood.
Hmmm, I should be smarter.
Taste better.
Filthy rich.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Course Description

As so many have asked....well, actually only one so far.....yes, of course I will be posting some paintings here, maybe even a few that aren't on the website. I'll also be spotlighting various artists who turn my crank, get the heart pounding, and otherwise inspire and screw up the lives of other artists who have the fortune/misfortune to encounter them. Some of them have messed up my life, and I want them to mess up your life, too. This will be fun.

And it won't just be visual artists, but also a good helping of musicians, writers, self-styled renegade philosophers, borderline geniuses, and assorted miscreants. Many that I actually know can be seen on the "People" pages of my website, alongside respectable types who would never otherwise find themselves in such company.

Other topics will arise as the mood dictates: trials and tribulations of the music and art biz, good art vs. bad art, myth-busting, classic films, travel, cool products, the world of online art and music forums, charlatans and weirdos,the state of contemporary watercolor, guitardom, erotica, migraine, childhood, parenthood, etc.

If all else fails, I'll just post some photography.

Saturday, December 15, 2007

Tommy Bolin Tribute Guitar

I'm really excited to announce that the Tommy Bolin tribute guitar - the "Teaser" - will be unveiled at the NAMM show in Los Angeles next month, Jan. 17 - 20. I got this project off the ground over a year ago with Johnnie Bolin's blessing, designed the guitar, and Dean Guitars is running with it. The guitar is American-made, and is meticulously based on measurements and specs taken from one of Tommy's surviving axes for added authenticity. I won't post a photo of it yet, but suffice to say the design concept and cosmetics are Tommy-inspired, and the workmanship, materials, and hardware are first rate.

There will be a Tommy Bolin memorabilia display at the Dean Guitars NAMM booth, featuring some of Tommy's personal effects including clothing, rare photographs, and handwritten lyrics to some of his songs. Johnnie Bolin will be there signing autographs and giving away posters of the incredible (!) ad that will be seen in the guitar magazines as soon as it's ready to ship to dealers.

Many other notable musicians will be on hand, please stop by if you are fortunate enough to be attending NAMM.

Nick, Johnnie Bolin, Elliott Rubinson - CEO Dean Guitars

In addition, there is an avalanche of Tommy music being re-released right now, including a 3-disc redux of The Ultimate, complete with new liner notes by Steve Vai. Thanks to Joe Reagoso of Friday Music for putting this together, and also for re-releasing Come Taste The Band, the mindbending record Tommy recorded with Deep Purple (with new liner notes by Johnnie Bolin). In addition, SPV and Greg Hampton will be putting out Whips & Roses III, a tribute album to Tommy with a star-studded cast of contributing musicians.

31 years after his tragic death, Tommy continues to inspire old and new listeners alike, and further reinforces his reputation as the most innovative rock musician of his era.....and perhaps any era.

Long live Tommy!

I Blog;Therefore I Am

Who: I, Nicholas Simmons, aka Nick Simmons (no, not Gene's kid, ignore the pic), aka Nick, aka ________ (fill in blank).

What: Miscellaneous musings, irreverent insights, obtuse observations, acerbic assignations, pointed profundities, and the occasional post re art and music.

Why: Giving in to increasing pressure from the general public and federal government, now officially joining the legions of bloggers who sincerely believe you care what they think, say, and do.

When: Won't be daily....can't be...shouldn't be....will never be. Or will it?