A sense of place, rendered in light and shadow
By J. Chambless
Artist Bob Voynow in his home studio. (Photo by John Chambless)
There’s an air of quiet mystery in Bob Voynow’s paintings, as if you’re glimpsing a place that holds secrets.
Working within a fairly small format concentrates his works to their essentials – a line of trees, a shadow, a highlight that beckons you but doesn’t quite reveal itself. The surfaces of his oils are scraped, overlapped and scuffed, as if time has worn through several layers, leaving suggestions of what lies beneath.
“I look at my paintings and I think of an old door from a house that’s been painted three times,” Voynow said during an interview at his studio, where he was surrounded by framed and unframed new works that would become part of his solo exhibit at the Chester County Art Association in November. “It’s kind of peeled away, and then there’s a new layer of paint, but you can still see places where the old paint was. If you look at a lot of my paintings, there’s another painting peeking through from underneath.”
Art has been a lifelong pursuit for Voynow. “I drew all the time as a kid, and when I was in fifth grade, I used to draw pen-and-ink pictures on other people’s notebooks, and they’d pay me a quarter apiece,” he said, laughing.
Growing up in Sea Isle City, N.J., “My parents encouraged me. They were happy to let me run with whatever I was up to,” he said.
There was also an encounter with the works of Andrew Wyeth that left a permanent impression. “When I was in third grade, our teacher took our class to see the Wyeth show at Swarthmore College. There I was, in like 1963, seeing Wyeth, and it just blew me away. I kept talking about it. My parents took me back to see it again. It was mainly the Andrew Wyeth stuff that was fascinating to me.”
Art took a bit of a back seat in high school, but Voynow got back into it a few years after graduation. He started out working in his father’s auto parts business, “and I hated it,” he said, smiling. “I made a real effort to get out of it.”
With his interest in art, he eventually got into the wholesale framing business in 1980, and worked with a firm that did the framing for entire hotels, for instance. “We did large-volume framing, and then I ended up in the wholesale framing business,” he said. Voynow is still with a leading framing company, which lends itself very well to his own paintings.
“I do all my own framing of the oils that don’t require glass,” he said, pointing out a frame. “This wood molding is from Northern Italy. They all have a beeswax finish that’s all hand done. I invest a lot in my frames. I’m particular about the way I like to see my art.”
Voynow is essentially a self-taught artist, “although I did attend several classes for a year at the Hussian School of Art in Philadelphia,” he said. He also took classes with artists including renowned regional painter Jon Redmond, an experience which is reflected, perhaps, in Voynow’s quiet compositions and muted palette.
“When I got into framing, I started painting and had a couple of galleries representing me. It kind of took off. I painted full-time for a year or two in the mid-1980s,” he said, “but the bills not getting paid had an effect on me. I started to hate it.”
His day job with the framing company “keeps me in galleries and museums every week, supplying materials for archival preservation to museums, things like that,” he said.
The relatively small size of Voynow’s works – most are about 12 inches wide – packs details tightly into the frame, making his sleight of hand with light and shadow even more remarkable. “I find it difficult to work larger,” he said. In his car, he keeps a stack of paper at the ready, measured off into 4-by-4 squares. “I keep a watercolor painting kit in the car when traveling, so I can pull over and do these studies,” he said, leafing through a stack of tiny watercolors. “I have hundreds of these. I do these as I’m moving along. Some of them are finished works, some end up as studies. I do them to preserve things I see before they’re gone.”
Voynow tries to paint every day, but the demands of his day job sometimes compete for his time. “I’m on the road quite a bit, but when I’m home, I wake up around 5 a.m., start painting by 6, and I have to set an alarm to remind me to go to work, because if I don’t, I can just paint straight until noon,” he said.
His wife is the one who can tell him, “That one is done” so that he stops re-working the painting, he said. Otherwise, he keeps tinkering. “When I’m painting and I start to get close to what I want it to be, it becomes painful because I’m not sure when to stop.”
Voynow’s home on a wooded hillside a few miles north of Unionville is a perfect place to inspire his views of fields and woodlands. “I like the Cheslen Preserve,” he said. A little garden shed is also a recurring motif in his works. “It’s on Strasburg Road, west of Mortonville,” he said. “There are trees around it, so it’s never completely exposed. But I just love the shape and simplicity of it.”
The shed turns up in various settings, in several colors, but there’s just something about the shape that intrigues Voynow. The owners of the shed “have no idea, I’m sure” that he has painted it so often, he said.
He often works from photographs, altering the horizon line or selecting just a portion of a scene to render in his paintings. He adds and subtracts elements as he sees fit. Some of the final paintings look like the actual places, others reflect only a hint of what he felt at the location.
Drawing upon his own love of the American Impressionists of the mid-1800s, Voynow has developed a style that’s immediately identifiable at this point in his career. “I just love being able to do this,” he said, smiling. “I seem to have found my sweet spot over the past couple of years. My work is very consistent.”
Works by Bob Voynow will be on display at the Chester County Art Association (100 N. Bradford Ave., West Chester) through the end of November. His work can be seen at Strode’s Mill Gallery in West Chester, as well as online at www.bobvoynowart.com.To contact Staff Writer John Chambless, email [email protected]