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Daring brushwork and juicy color give form to the people in Malcolm T. Liepke's portraitsbut it's the artistb emotional response to his subjects that brings them to life.

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By Lorairue DeBonis

ffi- find the human figure the most universally

fascinaring subject," says Malcolm "Skip" T. A Liepke, a Minnesota-based artist whose portraits have sold out in every show he's had since 1987. "There's a timeless quality with people. Take away the funny hats and clothes and they're the same from Rembrandt to Veldzquez to today. People havent changed. The emotion, the expression in a face or a gesture-they're end-


lessiy fascinating to me." With so much success, the illustrator turned fine artist has obviously fascinated collectors, as well. He credits the positive response he's

received to the emotional content he strives for

in each painting. "I'm not the greatest painter in the worid. I'm OK, but itt the emotional quality that people respond to," says Liepke. "That's really what art is about. It doesn't matter

if it's dance, music or movies. People respond to things that move them. Why is Mozart still valid 300 years later? Because he still moves us. There's a universal

The Direct Approach t human element that "The model's arresting makes us all feel the

look inspired Brunette

same things, and when

on we see or herr those board. 20x'1 6)." savs . .,. emotlons 1n - Iamlllar on Chair (watercolor

Liepke. "Posing her


chair and looked straight at the viewer made for even greater impact." she straddled the

arrwork' tt makes us all feel a little less alone' is what I gravitate toward first.


Everything else-composition, color, technique-is secondary to that." The son of designers, Liepke knew that he wanted to be an artist from an early age, but was unsure if he could make a living at it. "I had no real mentors or role models who were fine artists. It's a tough choice for a kid when all you hear about is van Gogh cutting off his ear and dying in the gutter." And although Liepke began college at the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, California, he didn't find the artistic path he longed for. "I went for a year and a half and quit. I was more interested in looking at fine art, going to museums and studying a lot of the artists who weren't being taught at that time. I wanted to take more drawing classes, and the professors said, 'tVe've gone beyond drawing.' I couldn't fathom that. Gone beyond drawing? \7hat are you talking about?"

flâ‚Ź*w k"*rk: &* &*"Ei*t's ffid**mtE*lt Indeed, it was drawing that paved the way for a career in illustration for Liepke. After leaving art school, he stayed in Los Angeles for a few years, working for television and movies, including the '70s hit show Rich Man, Poor Man, starring Nick Nolte and Peter Strauss. After a few years on the \7est Coast, Liepke decided to move to New York. "It just seemed to be the Mecca for anyone in the arts," he explains. The move proved to be life-changing, catapulting Liepkes AUGUST 2006

Subtle Details r "l wanted to create a very emotional piece with Head Reclining (watercolor on board, 8x6). lt's the kind



hands illustration

career and eventually launching his successful career in fine art. "I was a sponge in New York-the museums, restaurants and shows, as well as the opportunities to be around other artists; the stimulation was incredible." Although he enjoyed a lucrative career as an illustrator, Liepke longed to paint for himself "My heart was always in fine art. Every time I finished an illustration job, I d go back to my own painting." Eventually the illustration work wore him down, and he couldnt do it anymore. "I

convey a great


hated the compromise," he says. "l hated solving someone elset problems. No matter what they

paid me, I couldnt do it. I said my final'no'sometime in the early'90s and never looked back."

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Liepke admits that his illustrations were often characterized as having a fine-art look, it was the subject matter that left him cold. "My technique was the same; the problem was the content. If I was doing a Time cover of Ronald Reagan, for example, it would have a fine-art look to it, but I would never paint Ronald Reagan for myself." Now that he's painting for himself, Liepke's never at a loss for ideas that excite him. "I find sub.iects all around me-from life and my imagination. I'm never short on ideas; I'm more short for time to do them."'With an "idea wall" covered in sketches and photos, Liepke always has something waiting to be painted.

Although his subjects often come from the world around him. it may come as a surprise that the artist doesn't usually paint from life. "It's gotten too cumbersome to find models,

Meet the Artist Malcolm "Skip" T. Liepke began his career By

as an


the mid-'1 980s, he'd garnered a national reputation, and

his work had appeared on the covers

ol Time and Forbes.

After switching to fine art, Liepke has achieved outstanding success, selling out every solo show since 1987. The artist lives in Minnesota with his wife and two sons, and he


represented by several galleries, including Arcadia Fine Arts (New York), who supplied all the images for this article. This summer the gallery will be featuring an exhibition of approximately 40 new watercolors by the artist. For more infor-

mation, visit www.arcadiafi








Elevating the Ordinany

,& f it" artists who have gone before him, including ffi his favorite-Edgar Degas ('1 834-1917)-Malcolm Liepke finds beauty in the everyday moments of

life. ln Degas'painting L'Absinthe, we see a striking example of how Degas could transform the mundane, the dismal even, into a beautifulwork

of art. Known for his paintings of ballet dancers, female bathers, laundresses, horse races and caf6 scenes like this one, Degas was able to capture

something extraordinary in seemingly ordinary incidents. Of the painting, Liepke says: "The look on her face is priceless-longing and resolute; it's very touching. This is


wel{-composed scene, with

the scroll connecting the tables in the lower, left corner. Technically, emotionally and colorwise, it's a great painting. "

As with other lmpressionists, Degas depicted

the world around him in a fresh and informal way. He liked to give the suggestion of spontaneous

and unp anned scenes, often using unfamiliar viewpoints or figures cut off as if in


snapshot. But




EAbsinthe (oil on canvas,36t/u263/t) by Edgar Degas

the appearance of spontaneity was an appearance

only; his pictures were carefully composed. "Even when working from nature, one


to compose," Degas

said. f"g

"No art was ever

less spontaneous than

mine" (2003, Oxford Concise Dtctionary of Art & Artists, Oxford University


Press).Andyetit'sthatappearanceof spontaneitythatmakeshiswork-andthatof Liepke's-soappealing.We feel privy to a moment we're not a part of and yet which fee

s so

light around the studio." Using

a combination offluorescent and incandescent bulbs, Liepke balances warm and cool light that closely simu-

lates the light the paintings will be seen under once they leave the studio. "Paintings end up in a gallery or a museum or a house. They're never going to be seen in north light again, so why

paint in north light?" In addition to his lighting preference, Liepke's studio differs from those of his peers in another way-it's not open to visitors. "My studio is like Superman's fortress of solitude. I don't allow visitors in because it's too personal." Filled with art






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books about his favorite painters, particularly Whistler, Degas and Yelizquez, the studio is a haven rvhere Liepke can retreat and work, hopefully, uninterrupted-sometimes an impossibiliry when working at home. "It's tough having a

studio at home because people think they can just drop in on you when you're painting, even though they wouldnt dream of dropping in on someone at his office. Eventually I d like to have more space and have a studio that's connected to the house, but not part ofthe house." Adding on to their home won't be too much trouble for the Liepkes since they bought the house next door


especially if I'm doing a painting over a long period of time and would have to bring the model back to the studio. My people-oriented paintings tend to be more made-up anyway, and that's the way I like it. If I paint outdoors or from models, I tend to stay with the infor-When I paint from mation in front of me. memory, I'm freer to make things up as I go and to say what I want. "

Another surprise may be his studio setup.

\7hile many artists who have reached his level ofsuccess paint in grand spaces fooded Trouble in Paradise with north light, Liepke prefers his r The two people in light-controlled basement studio. "I Something Lost(waterlike being able to have a controlled light color on board, 20x1 4) source morning, noon and night. I don't are obviously togethlike the shifting conditions of natural a 1ot of reflected

light, and I don't like


er, but they're worlds apart.


and rore it don.n to have a bigger lot. Brrt .rlicr 1 elrs oi- r arious con:rruct;on projects, the :rltist isn't quite read,v to pursue building ir nerv studio. Besidcs. rvith a rvate rcolor shorv coming up in Julr', he needs time to rvork. "tWi-ren I paint for a shou', I l-rar.e

to shut mr.rvhole life dou'n irnd

keep ever,vbody at arm's lcngth. I'm n,orkir.rg 18 to 20 hours a dar'. I eat dinner, go to sleep arrd get r-rp and paint all da1'and niqht. I don't go out to dinne r or to movies. ] har.e t.,vo littlc bovs (ages 6 and 9), so there are constant distractions. But ] can't 1et too rnanv things keep me

from painting."

Liepke's u,atercolors may appear to be traditior-ral in terms of technique, but the artist's process difTers rn an ir-npordoern t p.Iirrr on paper. ranr $ er -lre 'A11 my watercolors are paintcd on coated boards or hot-pressed illustratior.r board, so the paint sits on top


dn'. It just e\.i1poratcs, le:lving ,r color or \\'.ttcrmark behind. Bcclusc rhc painr stlls on the surf,rce , tl-re proce,.s is r-L little more fbrgiving," he erplains. "\btr the surlacc




can make mistakcs and u'ash ther-n out r-rsing an ,rbsorbet-rt paper tou'el. sponge or c1ean, rvet brush."

To beeii-r a painting, Liepke first puts dou.n a pencii sketch for placement. "l don't do a finished dlau'irrq bccause I don't u.ant to be too tied dou'n. I'r'e found tl-rat u'hen you do that you starr rroodlir.rg and tlying to save your dr,ru'inq, or \-ou get out the one-hair brush and tn-to drau' u'itl-r tlie brush, u'i-ricl-r is alu'avs a huqc

Making a Statement r "As long as you do something that has an element of truth to it, it doesn't matter if you're reflecting your world or the outside world," says Liepke. "You're part of the thread of humanity, mak-

ing art and commenting on your

time." Portraying a woman whose body language speaks volumes, Arms Crossed (watercolor on board, 20x'15) depicts a mood to which we


knowingly respond. AUGUST 2006

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mistake. I use big brushes for as long as possible." Once the basic layout is established, he

towel or a brush and clean water. I also add casein or gouache to my watercolors if I want an

puts down a wash-usually a neutral grav-over the entire surface. Then he adds darks and lights accordingly. "To get my lights, I'll actual11.lift the color off the board with a sponse, paper

opaque highlight."


r . -

Despite the fact that he has "a fire inside" that pushes him to create, Liepke admits that it's not until a painting is finished that he enjoys himself the most. "Creating is fun, but having created is even ;.i ,:::::1 .:,. 'r ,? '"' better. I think artists paint to have something to look at. \Mhen a painting is done, especially when it's a nice one, I get an enormous sense of pleasure looking at it. In the middle of a painting that's going great, it's fun, but I'm so caught up " in the moment that it's hard to stand aside and take pleasure in it. Nine times out of 10, i end up rvith paintings

that thumb their noses at me and I have to scrub them out and start again. tVhen you're pushing the envelope and striving to do something great, as I am, you're going to have more failures than successes. But when success happens, it n-rakes the failures all rvorth."vhile." ah.vays



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\ffhether he's painting a weary couple in a caFe or a solitary woman in hel bedroom, Liepke hopes that viewels are moved by the same things that move him. "I'm just trying to make the rvorld, in my own small way, a little bit more

beautiful," he says. "Plenty of artists are rnaking harsh statements, which are certainly part of the violent world we live in.

Black Beauty r "l use a lot of ivory

black in my work; it's a great backbone to a painting," says Liepke. "The value is so strong and you can bounce colors off it. I Iike to warm up ivory black with sepia or umber as in Young Man in Black (watercolor on board, 1 51 / zx'l 01 / q) or cool it down with indigo or Prussian blue." 36




On Different Wavelengths

but there's still beautv as u'elI. And as long as there is, I d like to shorv rt. If people respond to

it, that's great. "lt's amazing that there are these traditions in the arts that :rre pretty enduring. Thev said that ligulative r,,,ork r.vas done. Why paint in a realistic manner? \7e're all going abstract. But irr Europe there's a grand traditior-r fol things like cl:rssical music and ballet and painting-art lonns that are hundreds of years old yet still r.alid. It's only in the United States that you have this tear-everythir-rg-down mentalitrr In Europe therir.e alreadv been through the kind of teer-rage angst that the United States is sti1l goine through. I find validitv in traditional forms of paintine; it sti11 speaks to me. If I'm the last gul.standing, that's OK. "There are a million forms of music and bil-

lions of movies out there. Vhy shouldr-r't there be every type ofart from traditional and realistic to abstract and performance? Unfortunateh', in the last 20 vears critics have tended to

look dorvn their noses at traditional forms of painting. I think that's unfair, exclusire ind elitist.


,VIuseums nave

r \\,lnteo -- rL..^ nuqe onl)


abstract painti,gs. traditional forms of art rvere old


" Distant Thoughts (water-

color on board, 10x1 6) shows one of those quiet moments that happens between cou-





hat 4;r..1;onr.,,

or, worse, dead. But I'm encouraged

by u'hat I see coming front tren art;st): succeeding generations are picking up the baton. I knorv a 1ot of young artists in their 20s u'ho love Sargent and Desas and all of the artists I like, and they're responding to my rvork. It's been very er-rcouragir-rg. Ultimatel1, the people u,ill decide, not the clitics or museums. If the work is valid and rvell done, then it'll sing down thror-rgh the ases. It'll find an audience and rvill far outlast the crirics. I'11 place my bet on the people; I trust tl'rat as lor-rg as there's beauty left in the rvorld, the,v'll still respond rc fi." ril Loraine DeBonis is a freelance u,riter based


Cincir.rnati. AUGUST 2006

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Malcolm Liepke - Watercolor Magic - August 2006  
Malcolm Liepke - Watercolor Magic - August 2006