Then Clyfford Still Stepped In / by Tyler Voorhees

When I first picked up a paintbrush in earnest a little over ten years ago, I had some preconceived notions about what an artist's life is like and the "rules" that govern what I create in the studio. Since then, these assumptions have silently crumbled as I learn more about life as an artist and study how the masters that came before me challenged the "rules" of art.

One such notion was that I would or should never paint the same composition twice. Back in 2011, I created The Lamplighter, the very first painting in The Jobs of Yesteryear series (I've painted 50+ since) and the most popular image I've ever made by a long shot. Since that first Lamplighter, I've painted two other versions, both of which were very different portrayals. But I had yet to revisit the original composition. It has been my golden calf and I've always thought that creating a new version would just lead to disappointment because it wouldn't live up to the original creation.

Then Clyfford Still stepped in.

Clyfford Still was an American painter most widely known for his large abstract works. His paintings feature wonderful stalactites of color layered on thickly, giving the impression that the layers of paint were torn away, revealing the colors underneath. He was a prolific artist and, upon his death in 1980, his will stated that the bulk of his life's work, over 2,400 paintings and drawings, would be watched over by his wife until an American city built a fitting venue to display them.

Clyfford Still  |  PH-971  |  Oil on Canvas  |  113 1/4 x 148 x 2 1/4 in.  |  ©City & County of Denver 

For over two decades the paintings were sealed off from public view until 2004, when Denver stepped up to the plate. The Clyfford Still Museum opened in 2011 and is a sight to behold. Still's massive canvases are on display in this beautiful building situated in the heart of Denver.

The Clyfford Still Museum  |  Denver, CO

When I visited last year, the museum had curated a show titled "Replicas", which featured compositions that Still had repeated and recreated. It was stunning. Clyfford Still had taken an initial painting and recreated it, with only minor adjustments notable upon close examination. But why?

According to Mr. Still, a good idea is worth revisiting: "Making additional versions is an act I consider necessary when I believe the importance of the idea or breakthrough merits survival on more than one stretch of canvas."

{L} Clyfford Still  |  PH-225  |  Oil on Canvas  |  115 x 104.75 in.  |  1956
{R} Clyfford Still  |  PH-1074|  Oil on Canvas  |  117 x 108 in.  |  1956-9  |  ©City & County of Denver

As I stared in wonder at his big and beautiful canvases, I thought back to The Lamplighter and how exciting it would be to paint it again. It was an idea worth revisiting; a breakthrough that deserved another look.

And so, in preparation for the Sausalito Art Festival in sunny California, one of the most prestigious shows that I've been a part of, I decided to paint The Lamplighter IV, once again placing Slim, my long-limbed mustachioed worker, atop his tall bike, illuminating the night with the strike of a match. It is my favorite image from The Jobs of Yesteryear and one that I am thrilled to paint again.

Thank you, Clyfford Still, for opening my eyes and helping me break down yet another assumption about life as an artist. With that, I now present The Lamplighter IV:

The Lamplighter IV  |  Acrylic, Watercolor Paper & Kraft Paper on Stained Birch Panel  |  36 x 48 inches  |  2016  |  $3900

The Lamplighter  |  Acrylic, Watercolor Paper & Kraft Paper on Canvas  |  24 x 48 in.  |  2011

It was exciting to revisit this original composition. I've thought about and looked at it for over five years, so when it came time to recreate it, I had some new components that I wanted to place in the scene. Perhaps most notable is the ladder, which I just love the look of but which also rounds out the story of The Lamplighter, as some would use ladders rather than tall bikes to reach the lamps. The Lamplighter IV is also painted on a birch panel, in contrast to the canvas of the original piece. The wood grain adds a nice depth and dynamic to the overall experience. There are some other small adjustments, but all in all, painting The Lamplighter IV felt like revisiting an old friend. 

Stay tuned for more art moves being made, and don't forget to stop by the Affordable Arts Festival this coming Sunday in Littleton, where I'll be selling off new and older works, all for $100 or less.