In Francis Livingston’s new show, Expressions in Paint, the Idaho painter sets wonderfully realized and detailed figures against flat backgrounds rendered in an almost abstract style. Coupled with clear and bright sunlight on his figures, this flat rendering of the background gives the paintings a stagelike feel, as if the figures are part of a miniature diorama and we are the audience peering through the open side of an elaborately decorated box.
“I’ve been influenced over the years by a number of different poster artists, going all the way back to the old travel posters of the 1930s. That flatness to the background or the foreground, that’s the way they saw that work. Go back to the early illustrators, especially Maynard Dixon…he was very graphic and shape oriented, and it transferred to his fine art painting. He took light and shadows, and he flattened the shapes out to make them almost decorative in the paintings,” Livingston says from his studio. “It all comes down to where you want the focal point to be, and if you want the figures to be more hidden.”
Expressions in Paint, which opens January 11 at Mark Sublette Medicine Man Gallery in Tucson, Arizona, will feature as many as 20 new works that explore this unique world that Livingston has created. In Sage Rider, he sets a rider and two horses in a field of sage and gives them dramatic overhead sunlight, and yet the background and foreground are dark, creating a mood that allows a hint of mystery to permeate in the shadows.
“I often lay the background in using big and bold strokes, and with that one I kept telling myself I needed to add branches to the trees, but then I came to realize I don’t. People will know there’s a tree there. Their visual vocabulary fills in all of that. They know what you’re implying,” he says.
“I’m not superfan of Georgia O’keeffe—i’ve observed her work and am intrigued by it—but I was thinking of her work as I created these strokes of color.”
In Snow Crossing, he paints three blanket-wrapped Native American figures on horseback as they ride through a snowy scene with a thick background that hangs behind them almost like a curtain on a stage. This work and Sage Rider might evoke the Taos Society of Artists for some viewers, and that’s OK with Livingston. “Some have made the comparison before. I especially like the comparisons to [William Herbert “Buck”] Dunton, who would often put a figure on horseback and then put this big light on him. It takes you away from the ‘normal,’” he says. “I like to think that’s every artist’s goal. You have to adapt and go in different directions. Some of it is just letting go and following what you’re feeling, whether that is through color or forms or whatever. It’s a bit of fantasy.”
Top: Snow Crossing, oil, 10 x 16"
Right: Dappling, oil, 24 x 24"
Sage Rider, oil, 24 x 24"