A Year With Wilbur Niewald


I took drawing and painting with Niewald for two semesters in a row. The fall of 1991 and the spring of 1992. I was lucky because it was his last year of full time teaching before he retired.

I remember an olive green cloth that we used - and a chocolate milk brown one too that we would staple to the wall behind the model in the drawing class.

In the drawing studio, we worked at drawing horses on masonite boards. Arches cold press- heavy weight- folded and torn down to around 9”x12” and clipped to the top. 2b pencils. Niewald would come around and switch places with us, take the board and pencil, and set to work correcting the drawing - going over the rhythms. Looking back on some of these, I can detect which marks were his - often as not, he would respond to some interior forms I was not seeing.

One time as he was addressing the entire class, he was commenting on how we don’t really see movement. He moved his hand out in front of his body passing it from side to side in a single, fluid, relaxed gesture. “You didn’t see that” he said.

Another time, he recalled his experience as a young teacher in a drawing class. He would come in to where everyone was working from the model and there would often be students would make these sweeping compositions that filled the entire page - like a Matisse - and then there would be someone who was making this kind of frustrated mass of little marks in the middle of the page. He felt more moved by the later because he sensed that they were really attempting to understand something.

At the time, I was obsessed with what seemed to me to be a continually shifting perception of scale. From day to day (sometimes it was even minute to minute) I kept seeing things at different sizes and I restlessly shifted the size accordingly. He never told me to just pick a size or anything like that. He let me work it out on my own as if that was how it must be.

As Niewald made the rounds in painting I recall one time when he stepped up and sunk a deep dark creavase into a fold of drapery. “See?” he said to me. Suddenly, I did. But I realized that I actually had not seen that dark slice at all before. I had been glossing over it. “Yeah, I see” I replied.

Another time, I remember he remarked to the entire class how we should all work much more - that we should work for many hours at a stretch. I remember how he said “every once in a while you might want to bend your knees” and then demonstrated this, “or get a drink of water“.

Then he said “ working a couple of hours a day is just not enough.”

In the painting studio, everyone worked standing up. We had little tables for our palettes that we would place to the left of our easel if we were right handed and vice versa. Unless we were situated where we had to look over our painting arm then it would go on the other side. Generally speaking, the palette stand (box) went between one’s self and the subject.

On the first day of class, I remember how he recalled spirited debates he’d had with students in the past over what color the paper towel box was. The debate was over what it appeared to be and what it actually was. The box itself was white but it appeared to be sort of a cool greenish grey from where they stood - under that particular light condition. I believe others refer to this difference as local color vs. optical color but I’m not 100% sure- anyway he didn‘t use those terms.

He once recalled a debate with some peers of his (I believe it was Leland Bell and Lennart Anderson) about space and light. Someone (Anderson?) was saying we paint light- but Wilbur said no- we don’t see light- all we see is color relationships.

He said: “all space is positive”.

He also said we don’t see light, we don’t even see space, only relationships of color.

He handed out a copy of Matisse’s letter to Mr. Clifford.

He would often mention Cezanne and Giacometti and their humility before the motif.

We worked from a model set up usually for four weeks. But on the last one of the year we spent eight.

I spent six on a landscape once and eight on a still life. All the apples rotted, were replaced, and had begun to rot again.

On my first landscape, I remember I started by looking west across campus at mostly trees and there was a ton of lawn on the bottom half of the painting. The first time he came out to see it, Niewald turned my easel around and moved back a few feet so that now I was facing north and I had a path leading into a scene with trees and buildings and there was now a bush in the foreground as well.

One time, I decided to see how far he would go with "painting what you see." I thought I was clever to go out and repaint every thing keyed to how it appeared when it was pouring down rain. The next time in class, he said (very tactfully, very patiently) : “ well, maybe sometimes when it’s raining you might do something else until the weather clears up“. That made sense to me. I kept working on it and got it keyed back to the usual weather's appearance and then continued - taking his advice.

The palette: Windsor and Newton or Rembrandt brand paint. Titanium white, or lead white, cadmium lemon yellow, cadmium yellow medium, cadmium red light, and medium, alizarin crimson, French ulramarine, and sometimes when outdoors, viridian. I know for a fact these were the colors he used, just as I know for a fact that when he came into class he had just walked over from his own studio on campus and immediately upon putting his own brush down he would pick up one of his students' brushes, inpsect the palette, and set to work correcting. The medium : sun thickened linseed oil.

He recommended working fat over lean.

The consistency of the paint was always to be opaque. Never glazes.

We also would mix some damar varnish with the linseed oil. A second palette cup contained gum turpentine.

The brushes : Langnickel sable flats for the color patches and one round for the drawing.

We all tended to begin by drawing in ultramarine and then correcting in alizarin- and then further correcting with color patches.

He always said that we should strive to always see things a new - a fresh.

He advocated always beginning in the center and working out from there one adjacent patch of color to the next.

Often, he suggested rubbing oil on the surface to “bring all the colors up" before working. Some of us would go outside and spray damar varnish on it before the session.

As a rule, he would arrive twenty minutes into class. I believe this was to ensure that students had already begun working before he intervened.

Usually, there were about eight students or so set up around the model on the east side and then the remanider of the class would be set up around still lives on the west side. Occasionally, there might be a student or two working outside during a session.

Usually, he began his rounds by entering the studio from the door in the south east side and start working his way north around the semi-circle. Once he had made it around to all those working from the model, he would proceed to the still lifes and finally head outside if anyone was out there.

At first, he would say “hi” with a big smile and a kind of laugh and then say “how are you?” and then depending on what you said he may have talked with you for a while in a pleasant sort of preliminary way. I soon realized that the best thing to do was to hand over the brushes right away so I could see him get to work.

As he began to get to work on your painting, he never seemed to fail to say: “basically it looks pretty good…” often he would go on to say :  "you just need to put some paint on there.“

He taught by example. Often he would step up and intensify a color. By doing this one would then have to key up other colors to harmonize.

He would speak of a conversation between the teacher and the student where the common point of reference was nature or the motif.

I remember when he had us all out to his house and his wife, Gerry made us a spaghetti dinner served with red wine. We got to see his studio, and I remember seeing a painting of Notre Dame in Paris he had done . He also had a small framed drawing by Cezanne. After dinner he was addressing us all at once discussing Mondrian. He said with Mondrian he realized that “this…(hands placed palms out perpendicularly to form a T with a narrow gap between them) means something altogether different from this… ( closes the gap) and if it goes like this …( places top hand at a diagonal) it’s all lost!”

I also recall him showing us a painting done by a student. This painting had been done turned away from the light (in shadow). He pointed out how this caused the painter to have to key up all his values just to be able to see them under those conditions. He said the most favorable conditions are those where the light is shining directly on your canvas- your color will then be able to be richer because you won’t end up keying every thing up with white just to compensate for the poor viewing conditions. (I am recalling the gist of his point- it’s not that he used those exact words)

Another time, I remember being in his office looking at some other student’s drawings - someone who I thought wasn’t that good - and Niewald said “look at that (there was a sort of crisscrossed hatching near the ankle of a foot) it looks like he (the one who made the drawing) is really feeling something there.”

The size of the paintings: no smaller than around 18”x24” but also not that mush larger bmore than 4 or 6 inches in either dimension.

All work was done sight size- the size things appeared to be.

Theories of composition were not discussed. Nor abstraction, nor color theories.

Mostly, Niewald spoke of color relationships.

Sometimes, he held out his hands and interlaced his fingers and would refer to a woven tapestry.

I recall him once saying: “If I find something beautiful - like that green bottle there for example - it’s only natural that I should want to understand it - that’s why I paint it - just to understand it.”

He also showed us how to stretch a canvas using cotton duck - how to prime it with rabbit skin glue- and finally how to apply layers of lead white with a palette knife (carefully making sure each layer was dry before building up the next) to build up a ground.

I also recall him showing us slides of Giotto, Masaccio, and Rembrandt and remarking on the humanity of these artists' work.

That’s about all the relevant information I can recall.



Wilbur Niewald

Roanoke Park, The Castle


Oil on Canvas

26" x 32"



 Chris Fletcher 1992



 Chris Fletcher 1991


 Chris Fletcher 1992





















 Chris Fletcher 1991 































Chris Fletcher 1991




































Chris Fletcher 1992