Something about the paintings of Camille Przewodek stops you, then brings a smile to your face. Maybe it is the vitality of the colors, or the feeling of intrigue one gets from the houses; windows and doorways beckon us to enter, while retaining dark secrets about what is inside.
Przewodek doesn’t quibble about the paintings being happy. She won’t even set up her easel unless there is something about the scene that grabs her heart and gnaws at her aesthetic adoration of light on color. “If I don’t care, I don’t paint,” she says bluntly.
Perhaps the paintings are a way of reliving a brighter childhood than she had growing up in a working-class neighborhood of Detroit. “I remember my family home as nil when it came to aesthetics,” she recalls. “My life was flat until I started drawing and painting with my brother, who was very creative.”
Rebellion was the spirit of the 1960s, and Przewodek questioned just about everything, including her own desire to be an artist. But after a year of working as a legal secretary, she enrolled at Wayne State University and began what she describes as “throwing around paint…. It was considered pedestrian to sell your art, so I stored or gave the paintings away.”
After graduating with her BFA in 1972, Przewodek took a trip to Europe that presaged her future. “I did a series of postcard paintings that I sent to people. Then I gathered them together into a series I called Art on the Road. “ She’s been attracted to roadways ever since and often paints paths that lead to destinations left up to the imagination to conjure.
She is also drawn to water, perhaps a subliminal message from her last name which means “by the water” in Polish. In 1973 Przewodek headed for the Pacific Ocean and San Francisco. There she continued to paint, but was momentarily sidetracked by an urge to develop her left brain. “I decided to become a history student and get involved in politics,” she says. It was an eye-opener that made her aware of how rich with meaning everything in life is. “Without history, I couldn’t have gone into illustration.”
Illustration? Why would an abstract artist who loved the left side of her brain suddenly return to representational art with a message? Przewodek took a class in visual communications at City College that changed her perspective on the power of art to persuade an audience. “It was incredibly challenging, and I knew there was a way to combine storytelliing with fine art.”
That decision drove her to the Academy of Art in San Francisco, where Przewodek met her husband, Dale Axelrod, an artist who introduced her to the artist who would change her life forever. “Dale asked me if I wanted to attend Henry Hensche’s painting workshop in Provincetown, MA,” she says. “I had never worked with a master before; it was like becoming a part of art history.”
Hensche was the catalyst that made Przewodek learn to see in a whole new way. “I’ve been experimenting with his methods for 17 years and I’m still amazed at how complex the system is,” she says. “Its foundation is using color to build form, and not bringing formulas into your work.”
Today, Przewodek carries on Hensche’s tradition by teaching his theories to others in workshops. The lineage of her instruction goes back through Hensche to his teacher Charles Webster Hawthorne, who had studied with William Merritt Chase. As with the French impressionists, American impressionism focused on painting outdoors and observing light and atmosphere on color. Unlike French impressionism, however, American impressionists tended to pay greater attention to the solidity of form. This was part of Hensche’s training: rather than drawing objects, then “coloring them in,” Przewodek learned to see the myriad subtleties of tones and values that create form.
Przewodek’s style, which quickly became distinctive for its rich saturated color and luscious oil paint, caught the attention of numerous clients during the decade when she worked as a commercial illustrator. “I was one of the few illustrators who didn’t look like an illustrator. I painted the way I liked to paint,” she says. When she landed accounts such as Alfa Romeo and Chateau St. Jean, Przewodek knew it was her commitment to capturing changing light that made the difference. “Most illustrators would just go to the site, get their reference and go back home to do a slick illustration. I would go to the sites and stay for hours or days and do several paintings on location, then we decided which best served the project.” That same working method influences the series Portraits of Places she continues to do today.
Przewodek believes that just about any scene is beautiful, if you are willing to seek out the beauty in it. “I paint light, that’s what I do. When people say they like a painting that has bright colors in it, they obviously like sunny days. For others the appeal is found in the cooler colors of gray days . The abstract relationships of the big structures and the masses of color are where I begin. How does the sky relate to a hill and to the foreground? I see the relationships and proportions of color in my mind, and then I go for it!”
Three paintings of water lilies done at three different times of the day make the case for how atmosphere changes colors and the mood of the overall scene. The morning painting, which has a tighter composition, is fresh and uncomplicated when compared to the riot of brilliant colors found in the more complex mid-day painting. By late afternoon Przewodek pulls back and takes an expansive look at colors deepened by reflected color and enriched by shadows.
Although she paints the gardens, shores and vineyards that surround her home in Petaluma, California, Przewodek is drawn to Europe and has painted throughout France, Spain and Italy. It is no surprise that she made a pilgrimage to see the work of Spanish colorist Joaquin Sorolla . She senses a special bond to French Impressionist Camille Pissarro and Claude Monet’s wife, Camille. Przewodek’s daughter, who “radiates happiness,” often joins her in her travels, adding a youthful counterpoint to the history that passes before them.
While she paints the moment, history continues to be a major part of Przewodek’s work. The vitality and tragedy she felt in Venice resulted in a series of paintings that document the feeling of transformation the city is making as it slowly sinks into the ocean, burying its incredible record of love and war in the murky memory of legend.
In truth, transformation is at the heart of Przewodek’s paintings. Each time she stops to paint a scene she approaches it without baggage, emulating an almost childlike vision. Intrigued by a split moment of light, she relies on the sensitivity of her eye and the clarity of her memory to keep the scene alive as she intuitively reaches for opaque pigments that transform into translucent atmosphere when juxtaposed on canvas. When we look at one of her paintings, we partake of the pleasure she felt in achieving her goal, and thus we too are transformed by her vision.
We also sense how Przewodek’s endless pursuit of knowledge continues to transform the legacy of Hensche, who wrote: “Only the education of the art of seeing, unique as it is, supplies the possibility of continuous growth. As a good music teacher makes the pupil aware of finer sound tones and how to produce them, the good art teacher will make his student aware of finer color tones and how to paint them.”
Plein Aire Landscape & Figure Workshop~ Camille Przewodek ~ July 20-24, 9am-12pm