Peter Willard's expressive landscapes, cartoonish dogs and portraits are all parts of his vivid world
By Richard Gaw
Artist Peter Willard has two distinct artistic styles that intersect in interesting ways.
By John Chambless
Bouncing around a table where his art supplies were overflowing their wooden box, Peter Willard paused for a second. “I've always been into art,” he said with a grin, “but I'm mostly a chronic doodler. And I'm the ADD poster child.”
Then Willard was off again, explaining how his lifetime of drawing has somehow become a career as an artist. The history is just about as random as his painting technique, which involves “doodling and putting watercolors down, playing around and seeing what comes up.”
In his storefront studio on Broad Street in Kennett Square, Willard is often working on several pieces at once. “An easel would drive me crazy,” he said, so he uses a table in the middle of the room. Or sometimes the floor. Applying paint, then scratching and scuffing the surface and seeing what happy accidents take place is how Willard arrives at some of the astonishing landscapes that have secured his reputation in the county's art world.
They are made up of dynamic swirls of paint, dribbled and overlapping and scraped and turned this way and that, until the magic moment when they coalesce into a vast field or a muddy meadow. The best of them have sense of vast space and light.
“My dad was a lawyer and a landscape painter on the side,” Willard said. “When I was about 10, he hired an artist to teach my brothers and me watercolors when we vacationed in Maine. My two brothers didn't get into it, but with me, I guess it took.”
Willard doodled, took an art class in his senior year of high school and had art history at the University of Delaware, but is essentially self-taught. “We spent a month each summer in Maine, but I grew up in Wilmington my whole life, going to Tower Hill, away to boarding school, then the University of Delaware.”
After majoring in economics-political science, Willard worked for Delaware banks and painted in his spare time. It was in 1998, while working as the comptroller for Wild Thyme in Centreville, Del., that he took a bunch of watercolors to the Station Gallery in Greenville.
“I'd given lots of paintings away as presents and always gotten good reactions,” he said. “I'd gotten some framed and took them to the gallery and they showed them for a Christmas show. In 2000, for a group show of three artists, I was one of them. I had 10 paintings, and nine out of 10 sold. I thought, 'Wow. Really? Who knew?'”
Over the next years, buyers grew to love his spontaneous landscapes. He showed paintings at regional galleries and art shows, but art didn't become his full-time passion until three years ago, when he was rocked by three deaths of people close to him. “I thought I'd just go ahead and do the art thing,” he said. “It was time to jump off and do it.”
Willard rented a studio space in Chadds Ford, but a flood last May inundated the building. “Everything on the floor was floating. It was like having somebody clean out your garage,” Willard said philosophically. He lost quite a few paintings and sketches, but he had plenty in reserve.
When Carol Lesher moved out of the building at 105 South Broad Street in Kennett Square a year ago, an artist who had signed to move in backed out of the deal, and Willard “had a key to the place within the day,” he said.
The workspace puts him in the heart of a vibrant community “where I know lots of people in town,” he said. “It's a fun town. I can walk to get coffee, tacos and ice cream. That's really all you need, right?”
The window out front is where Willard displays an ever-changing lineup of paintings, and the small room is “where I jump up and down and work in the middle of the room,” he said.
“I like putting paint right on the paper and then using things to scratch them. No rules. I crop things. I can start with a paper that's 20 by 20 inches and it ends up being 8 by 5 inches. I'll see one little part and say, 'Now that's a painting.'
“That one over there,” he said, pointing to “Meadow Run,” a majestic hillside view, “that has three other paintings behind it. It had a stream at one point. I kind of want to darken the sky, but I think it's done now.”
Through the internet and social media, Willard's technique was used as an example of “sgraffito” in an art book that shows his work. Willard laughs at the idea of an art term being used for his scratching technique.
The places he paints are sometimes inspired by actual landscapes , but they aren't literal interpretations. “They're sort of real places,” he said, “but everything's in my head. Definitely the light and the feel of the place will be in there. I rarely do a blue sky. I like stormy skies. November-December is when you can really see stuff clearly.”
And then there are the dogs.
Willard does a great impression of a studio visitor surveying his framed work on the walls. “He'll be going, 'Hmmm,'” Willard said, peering intently at the landscapes until he comes to a graffiti-like painting of a cartoon dog on a sidewalk. “'No. Don't like the dog,'” he said, moving along quickly to more landscapes.
The doodle-like portraits and grimacing dogs that have come to populate Willard's work in the past year sprang from him playing around with an iPad drawing program that allows the user to draw over other pictures. Willard embellished famous faces of Picasso, Abraham Lincoln, George Washington and others and then eliminated the underlying original image, leaving only his marks. The results made him happy. “It was like, 'Whoa, where did that come from?'” he said.
So he went on to try drawing things with his left hand (he's right-handed), which gave the drawings a wobbling, earnest look that he has translated into large-scale portraits of people that distill personality down to the tilt of a head or the placement of the figure in the frame. “The eyes are the same, the button on the clothing is the same, but the geometry and background changes,” he said.
He did about 10 of the portraits and was surprised to find that they were selling.
The dogs started out as doodled animals of some kind, inspired by the works of outsider artist Basquiat that were exhibited at the Brandywine River Museum of Art. The dogs have similar angry-anxious expressions as they stride along city streets. They are the sort of ultra-hip urban images that would look at home in a SoHo gallery. But they don't look like they come from the same mind as Willard's moody landscapes.
He delights in tweaking people's expectations. In two framed works in his studio, the dogs strut incongruously in front of placid green hillsides, slamming two distinct styles together with a wink and a smile. “It's like this wild red dog wandered into somebody's landscape,” he said. “I really don't worry about sales. I think this all fits together, even though it's different.”
Just as three deaths and a flood have turned Willard's career at crucial times, a serious bike accident this summer also altered his path. An avid cyclist, he was riding near Longwood Gardens on July 1 when a car struck him from behind, breaking his back and putting him in a back brace. After months of physical therapy and exercise, in late October, he got back on a bike for the first time. The potentially fatal collision has only deepened his resolve to pursue art.
“It made me rethink some things,” he said. “I tell people I'm in the third year of a two-year art sabbatical. This past year, I've had more sales and shows than I've ever had. It's like, 'Wow, I guess this art thing is for real.'”
Willard and his wife Sherry have a home near the Mendenhall Inn in Chadds Ford, but he now considers himself a Kennett Square artist.
Given the way his adult life began with banking and now revolves around “playing with paint,” as he called it, Willard admitted that, “I'm basically a numbers person, but I paint, too. I'm right in the middle. And I'm thinking about the two blank canvases I have right here in the studio,” he said, glancing over at the shelves. “I'm thinking, 'OK, can I do those now?' Who knows what's coming after this?”
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To contact Staff Writer John
Chambless, email firstname.lastname@example.org.