Staats Fasoldt’s watercolor paintings of streets and houses, the Gunks, waterfalls, barnyards and other aspects of the local scene are miracles of simplicity. With a few deft strokes, he captures the essence of shadowy buildings silhouetted against a sunlit street; steeples rising into a twilight sky; a chicken backlit in a sliver of brilliant, golden sunshine against the large dark rectangle of a barn; the distant Gunks barely suggested under a cloud-canopied sky; a hillside in autumn, reduced to a half-circle of orange. Familiar surroundings are translated into austere-but-lyrical compositions of bold, clean shapes, delicate tonalities and color that smolders within the large areas of gray or complements it with slashes of pale greens, adobe reds, yellows and blues. With the gestural spontaneity of a Zen brush painter, Fasoldt eliminates all the superfluous detail that clogs up our vision to reveal the bare-bones patterns of light against shadow, translated into the spare-but-sensuous language of transparent washes.
“My work is as much about watercolor painting technique as it is about the subject matter,” he said. “The material, the way the watercolor works and the simple, big shape of the design is the most important thing. I’m just giving you the essentials. I’ll do it multiple times, to create possibilities beyond what my poor brain can come up with, which is a relation of shapes and design that’s organic and surprising.”
Fasoldt, who moved to Rosendale with his wife in the mid-1970s while earning an MFA in Painting from SUNY-New Paltz, has developed a following over the years. He has shown at numerous regional venues and is currently exhibiting at the Ashokan Center, along with other landscape painters and fellow teachers at the Woodstock School of Art (WSA). Starting May 18, he’ll also be showing at the Mark Gruber Gallery in New Paltz, in conjunction with Eric Angeloch.
For years he has been teaching his “three-value approach” technique on Wednesdays and Saturdays at the WSA, with a few of his students subsequently exhibiting themselves and even winning prizes. It’s a useful method, because “Value recognition is the most important thing in painting,” he said. “Conceptually, it’s easy to understand: Light, midrange and dark areas are a basic sentence.”
Though the language is simple, its mastery is not. “We teach what we struggle with ourselves,” which for him “is trying to get the proper relationship between values.” Fasoldt has never been satisfied with simply making “nice little watercolors. What I want is more than that… It takes work. I have several compositions I’ve been struggling with for six, seven months. Sometimes I get part of it working…it’s difficult. You have to be hard as to what you want. Pleasure is when you get something that’s not easy to get.”
Chance effects play an important role in his work. Part of his strategy is setting up the stage for the unexpected. “I plan the painting to a certain degree. I have standard pathways for color, color against gray; but when a work really connects, it’s somewhat arbitrary. The neat thing about the watercolor process is that it’s unplanned to a certain extent. It’s got to relax.”
Color is one aspect where he allows for free play. “Placing neutrals against pure color looks great. There’s not a real answer to what makes a good color. You find new ones,” he said, noting that he keeps his palette fairly limited. “It’s a mysterious mixture. One of the pleasurable things about painting is, there’s an uncertainly about it. The best things have been surprises.”
Though the emotion of his work is conveyed in the handling of the paint, representation is also key, often achieved in a plein air approach. “I like to have something to bounce off,” he said. “I like the painting to be flat and not flat. I’m using simple shapes, which tend to flatten space, but also giving clues about depth.” That tension between the two “is a delightful twist to the brain.”
Fasoldt has been drawing and painting since he was a small child growing up in Rensselaer, where his father was a salesman and his mother worked for the state. His grandfather was an artist and his first teacher. As a teenager, he studied under a watercolorist named Gene McCarthy, who taught him his initial technique. While getting a BS in Art from Empire State College, he worked at Albany Medical Center as a respiratory therapist and cooked in a restaurant. “When I first started college, I didn’t have an idea of what I wanted to do. I didn’t think I had the stamina to be an artist. But over time, it became a reality.”
He painted in both oils and watercolors, but began to focus on watercolor while earning his MFA at SUNY-New Paltz. “Alex Martin was a watercolorist and my advisor. I worked with him the entire time I was there. A lot of things I have played with over the years were his ideas, such as finding new angles and having the way the paint is used be the emotional content.”
Fasoldt said that he was the only one of six MFA students who finished the program. “It was 60 hours a week of painting, and then a lot of hot criticism from the professors. They didn’t pull punches. It was teaching you how to be a painter and seeing if you had what it takes. I learned quite a bit, and it took years to forgive the most negative ones and integrate what they were saying into my work.”
Check out a video of his latest work, accompanied by a jazz soundtrack, on YouTube, posted on his website, https://staatsfasoldt.com. Better yet, head down to the Ashokan Center – where Fasoldt’s work is part of “Catskill Landscapes,” along with work by Mariella Bisson, Nancy Campbell, Kate McGloughlin, Karen O’Neill and Tor Gunmundson – or the Mark Gruber Gallery in New Paltz come May 18 to soak up these modestly scaled masterpieces of the watercolor medium in the flesh.
Paintings by Staats Fasoldt, May 18-July 6, Mark Gruber Gallery, New Paltz Plaza, New Paltz; (845) 255-1241, www.markgrubergallery.com. “Catskill Landscapes,” Ashokan Center, 477 Beaverkill Road, Olivebridge; www.woodstockschoolofart.org