by Lesley Aine McKeown
Have you ever visited a place that touched something deep within you, that moved you and marked your soul?
Our National Parks and Monuments evoke that kind of reaction, but often it’s the beauty closer to home that makes us run inside and grab a camera to capture that moment of the sublime. We try to hold that image in hopes of cementing the emotion it inspired, but often it’s not the same. This is why art moves us. The artist captures a moment of light or color that takes us back to that memory of place. This is a gift and the world would be a much duller place without it.
Few optimize this gift of expression better than Bill Cramer, whose paintings I’ve admired for many years. I recently added one to my collection.
I had the immense pleasure of chatting with Bill on a stunningly beautiful fall day to get a better idea of what makes him tick. Bill paints both in studio and en plein air in the impressionistic manner often seen in the style, using minimal, deftly placed brush strokes and precise placement to bounce the color throughout the painting. Artists use the French expression for “in the open air” to describe the art of outdoor painting, capturing landscapes and views in natural light.
“I truly enjoy the essential act of painting, especially on location. I look for a balance between the actual scene and my reaction to it.” Born and raised in southern California, Bill’s family were avid outdoor enthusiasts, and he spent his childhood summers exploring the Sierras and the vast landscapes of the western US and Canada. He credits his mother, a teacher, for nurturing his artistic talents. She brought newsprint home from school for him and his brother to draw on, and Bill says he was always drawing. He drew the things boys draw, dinosaurs and Johnny Quest. He was always the kid who could draw in school, and enjoyed making things. Bill's father is a bit of an artist, creating sculptures from found objects. His grandfather was a painter in the classic style known as Southern California Regionalism during the Great Depression, and his plein air easel was Bill’s first easel.
Bill took a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree from California State University Long Beach, but he reflects that life taught him the most. Bill is primarily self-taught, what he calls the “painting-your-first-acre-of-canvas” school. Like many artists he enjoys exploring other media, creating assemblages with found objects, and admits he would love more time to play with other ideas, but painting keeps him pretty busy.
Painting on location satisfies Bill's love of the outdoors and his need to paint. He often paints barefoot, absorbing the feel of the earth and wind, and this is what really inspires a painting, spending time immersing himself in the landscape. He laughs and says he calls it “taking a long exposure,” a joke on the snapshots taken by tourists at locations where he paints. He will often climb below the rim of the Grand Canyon in search of that unique perspective and interaction with the raw aspect of nature.
“I’m going for an expressive view — a general impression — that will direct the viewer to the mood more than all the details of a place can,” he says. “I look for a balance between the actual scene and my reaction to it — not to paint precisely what I see, but to paint what I want the viewer to see.”
Bill’s passion for the outdoors led to climbing, and he is an avid explorer and climber in both the rope and free styles. He has authored two books, A Climber's Topo Guide to Granite Mountain and Prescott Bouldering Guide. He loves exploring the hard-to-reach places and finding new places to climb. He calls it his touchstone. “Get out, clear my head and get a little scared!”
Bill recently participated in Prescott’s first annual Plein Air Festival, where he won Best of Show. He painted the winning piece (featured on the cover of this magazine), titled Sunrise, Moonset, on location from the Phippen Museum parking lot.
Knowing the full moon would be setting soon, he arrived early, but at first his planned setup site was taken. After a while an opportunity to move to where he wanted to paint presented itself. “I moved my easel over to the edge of the parking lot and went to get my car to move it over. As I turned my back, I heard my easel crash to the ground. One of the legs had slipped on the dirt at the edge of the lot. The result was that my cup of turpentine had splashed all over the canvas and was running down the painting, taking the paint with it! I actually laughed out loud at the sight. This wasn't the first time this has happened. I knew there were two options — wipe the painting off and do another, or try to save the first one. I decided to try and save the painting, since it was nearly finished. I carefully daubed the turpentine off, trying to leave as much of the original painting intact. I then began reestablishing the shapes, colors and edges of the painting. After a while, I noticed that the solvent wash had given the painting a softer look that was a nice match to the morning light of the scene. In the end I was happy how it turned out, but throwing turpentine on a painting isn't a technique I'd recommend, though it worked out this time!"
This state optimizes Bill’s easy nature and the delight he takes in creating! Don’t miss an opportunity to view his work, but be prepared: “Art enables us to find ourselves and lose ourselves at the same time,” said Thomas Merton.
If you are interested in learning to paint en plein air, Bill teaches several workshops each year. Visit his website, BillCramerStudio.com, for more information. You can visit Bill’s studio by contacting him at
billcramerpaintings@gmail. com or 928-533-8528. Bill Cramer’s paintings are represented in Prescott by the Joe Robertson Gallery, as well as Mountain Trails Gallery in Sedona.
Pro jeweler Lesley Aine McKeown is Online Editor of 5enses.