Oh, the places you’ll go. Artist James Toogood takes viewers through cityscapes in Philadelphia and New York, the waterways of Venice, and the tropical beauty of Bermuda. In “James Toogood: Watercolors” at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts (PAFA), the teacher and alumnus investigates the variations of light, texture, and atmosphere found in those places.
Toogood, whose work has been featured in more than 40 solo exhibitions with the Rosenfeld Gallery in Philadelphia and other galleries and museums, uses watercolor paintings to communicate things he finds intriguing about the people, places, and things that make up everyday life.
“My work is about my feelings about the things that amuse, bemuse, and stun me,” he said in a telephone interview. “I’m trying to find beauty sometimes in the banal. A pizza place in New York City might not be the first thing you think of.”
But he did and he painted one into a work called “Mixed Emotions.” It shows a street corner in NYC as it is, but also as he wants to see it. He adds things, moves buildings, or changes things to fit his vision. People think the scenes are strictly representative and actually appear the way he paints them.
“You get a sense of believability,” he said. “Because certain things are believable, it must all be believable.”
He usually paints scenes with great detail and “they take as long as they take,” he said.
A larger painting, with “a lot that has to be expressed,” could mean thousands of brushstrokes and about a month of work (or more). He tries to work on one piece at a time. Sometimes, while working on a new piece, he’ll go back and add touches to a recently finished one.
“I’ll muse about it and look at it in the corner while I work on something else,” he said. “It’s like working on a puzzle in your head.”
He’s been working on artwork puzzles in his head since he started painting as a child.
“I thought everyone did it,” he said. “You learn math and spelling and how to paint. I was already hooked when I realized that wasn’t the case.”
It’s a tough, but rewarding life.
“Being an artist is a noble calling,” he said. “It’s not easy. It requires enormous work. You have to know you may or may not make it. Sometimes, you’ll make it for a while and you’ll have lean times and you need to be prepared for it. You really have to be willing to know there’s going to be sacrifices.”
Tish Ingersoll, Manager of the PAFA Alumni Gallery, appreciates his take on the artistic life and is happy to be able to showcase not only an alumnus, but a PAFA teacher. She curated the Toogood exhibit and loves his work. She thinks what he does with watercolor is amazing.
“Some people put watercolor down and don’t take it seriously,” she said in a telephone interview. “His layering technique is labor-intensive although he makes it look like it isn’t. He has mastered the medium.”
Ingersoll said the exhibit has a broad range.
“The Bermuda paintings have such translucency,” she said. “The blues are gorgeous — cerulean, ultramarine. It’s a gorgeous play of that against the cityscapes we’ll have and his Venetian paintings.”
She thinks his talent makes it easy for him to go “in any direction, no matter the subject,” she said. When she began putting the show together, she thought of just displaying cityscapes.
“Then I went to his studio and said ‘I can’t just do that.’ His mastery of landscape is beyond belief,” she said.
And though many scenes are representational, they’re really about light and texture and atmosphere, she said.
“Viewers can take whatever they want from his work,” she said. “It’s not about the recognizable place, but where it can take you.”
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