An Interview with Larry Francis

Café oil on canvas 32" x 50" 2014

Many painters seek to find visual beauty in the ordinary, but Philadelphia artist Larry Francis takes this pursuit a step further. His paintings of Philadelphia city scenes have a transcendent clarity, as in those rare times when we have the grace to forget our usual agenda and appreciate the everyday life right in front of us. He shows a keen appreciation of the beautiful effects of sunlight and shadow on the city buildings and greenery, but also an awareness of narrative; these paintings are of specific and fleeting moments in human lives.

In this interview Larry talks about some of his favorite locations for painting, his interest in using both oil paints and gouache, and about the artists he especially admires.

Larry Francis has a current exhibition at Philadelphia's Gross McCleaf Gallery, and the show will be up through the month of May 2014. You can see more of his work at the Gross McCleaf Gallery website as well as in two films made by videographer John Thornton, "Larry Francis: Painting Philadelphia" and "Larry Francis on the Art of Painting". 

TD: You seem to find all the inspiration you need in the city life around you. What are the things you like best about the city of Philadelphia? Anything you dislike?

LF: I believe that I would paint any place that I lived in; that said, I love the city subjects surrounded by people and architecture. It's the place I know. We live near man-made canyons that present a particular situation with sunlight traversing the space. The center of town is set up on an East-West axis, and the sun sends shafts of light down these canyons. At the moment, I am drawn to painting little shops and storefront facades that are hit by this raking light.

Toy Store gouache on paper 11" x 13.25" 2013

The city at night is a great subject. As for things I don't like, the city has it's difficulties. I don't like to pay to park.

TD: As a lifelong resident of Philadelphia, what
 are some of your favorite neighborhoods and scenes? 

In general, wherever I have lived in the city, most of my paintings have been near home. For practical reasons, I have painted a lot around my home on Yocum Street in Southwest Philadelphia. I've painted in the yards and gardens of my relatives, who have lived on the street. I also like painting the hills and vistas in Roxborough and Manayunk.

A large number of paintings have been done in Center City, including Rittenhouse Square.

Dexter gouache on paper 13.25" x 11" 2011

Morning Light, Yellow Tree (Curtis) gouache on paper 11.25" x 14" 2013

TD: Were you exposed to the arts, and specifically painting, as a child or teen? What did your parents do?

LF: I lived in an apartment overtop of my father's bicycle and hobby shop. My father sold and repaired bikes, tinkered and built all manner of hobbies, model airplanes, model trains, and so on. He was a craftsman. He built a copy of a 1911 Oldsmobile in his shop, for fun. My mother was creative in her way. She loved to make all kinds of crafty things, loved decorating, and arranging flowers. When I was quite young, and showed interest in drawing, my parents bought me art supplies from the MAB paint store, and books on how to draw trees, and such. Later, my dad bought Time-Life art books for me, when I was in high school. I had a great high school art teacher named Julian Levy. He took our art class to New York each year. I was an art major in Bartram High School. When I was in eleventh grade, I sold my motorcycle to go to summer art camp. My teacher there directed me to the Pennsylvania of the Fine Arts.

TD: When did you first begin painting outside, on location? Did you have a mentor, or teacher who painted primarily outside, and who inspired you?

LF: The year before I entered the Pennsylvania Academy as a student, there was an Andrew Wyeth show at the Academy Museum. That was an inspiration for working outside. In high school, I wrote a paper for English class about Winslow Homer and Edward Hopper. I just started painting outside, as they had.

Spring Time gouache on paper 11"x13" 2014

TD: You attended the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, graduating in 1970. Most of the teachers you had must be gone now. Which were the most influential to you, and which were the most memorable?

LF: Many of the teachers helped me in various ways, some, with their life experience, and some, with more practical suggestions. Morris Blackburn gave me a way to think about composing pictures. Walter Stuempfig and Arthur de Costa gave me ideas about pictorial representation and spatial painting. Liz Osborne, Joe Amarotico, Dan Miller, and Ben Kamahira were encouraging to me.

TD: In one of the films made about you and your work, you describe your practice of painting the figures in your landscapes from photos, but painting the rest of the work on location. Painting inside the studio is so much easier. You don't have the work of packing up supplies and commuting with it all, and you don't have to worry about the changing light, which can keep the working time on a painting down to 2 or 3 hours. What keeps you painting on location? 

Perfect day oil on canvas 24"x36" 2014

LF: I feel ultimately that working from life is probably the best way to work, but for practical reasons, I use photos many times for the figures. I prefer working onsite, and when working on a large work, I will work five hours or so at a stretch, even though there is the problem of changing light. If you go back day after day, you get a feel for the light pattern, and as it changes, there is still much to draw in. On cloudy days, for instance, you can work on a scene which you are painting in sunlight. This allows you to see other shapes hidden by the bright light.

Joyful Spring oil on canvas 48" x 60" 2014

TD: What do you do in freezing or rainy weather?

LF: In freezing or rainy weather, I work inside, or occasionally, work from my car on small work.

TD: How do you choose a new subject? How much time do you spend just walking and looking, or just sketching?

LF: Most of my subjects are, at this point, known to me from previous encounters. As I go around the city, about my daily business, sometimes I stop, if something catches my eye. I might make a quick sketch, or just note the time and place. Then, the next day, or the next year, I might come back ready to paint. In my current show, there is a painting of a shop on Pine Street, with wedding dresses in the window. Years ago, I did sketches of shops at night, on Pine Street. (Most did not become paintings--I don't generally show drawings). Three or four years ago, I looked at this shop, thought of painting it. I could not find parking, and I just went on to something else. Two years ago, in the spring, I was looking for a subject, thought of Pine Street, and started a group of small gouaches, including the wedding dress store. Last year, I did a larger oil of the shop. The light of midsummer morning hits these north facing facades, with their dark interiors. This is part of the subject.

Wedding Dresses gouache on paper 11" x 13.25" 2013

Wedding Dresses oil on canvas 24"x30" 2014

TD: What is a typical painting day like for you?

LF: In the summer, I try to get up at dawn, get out to a painting site, take a break at mid-day, and go back and hopefully paint in the afternoon. In the winter, I wake up a little later, and work in the studio as many days as I can. I try to paint every day.

TD: In the same film, John Thornton describes you as approaching your work with "infinite patience". It seems that way to me as well, in your careful depictions of tree branches and leaves, grass, bricks on a building, or the lettering on shop signs. Do you consider yourself a patient person?

LF: No, I am not a patient person. Each little task in a painting can be a thing in itself. Like building a house, design and general composition come first, then big shapes, working down to smaller details.Sometimes things get painted out, and are redone. I put the painting aside if I can, waiting to make a change, or to have a better attentiveness to detail.

Lunch Break oil on canvas 14"x 18"

TD: Your work sometimes makes me think of the English painter Stanley Spencer saying "When I see anything, I see everything". What kind of inner dialogue do you have as you paint, regarding the level of detail? Do you sometimes have to talk yourself out of including some detail, or conversely, push yourself into rendering more detail than you might feel like doing? Because your work isn't slick or photorealistic; there seems to be a lot of decision making going on.

LF: Thank you for bringing up Stanley Spencer. I admire his attempt to capture both scenes of his small village and his large imaginative narratives.

Mostly, I make compositions by looking for just the right thing, that has balance, color echoes, shapes that fit together to my sense of wholeness. Then, I am reluctant to take out anything- however, taking away or adding a small element can be the completing of a work. I love those chance thoughts that happen as you work your way into a vision.

I feel a push toward creating simple, large, major forms in the painting. There is a common belief that this creates unity of vision. Detail or nuance does not have to take away from this, it can add richness.

Late Summer Afternoon gouache on paper 13"x14" 2014

TD: Also in the film, you say that there is something sad about a figure in a landscape in the midst of an everyday action, never to have that moment come again. You say that often you paint people in attitudes as though they are unconscious of the beauty of the world around them. Have you been inspired by 17th century Dutch genre painting (scenes of everyday life)? Can you name some artists whose work seems to have similar intentions of showing the fleeting quality of daily life?

LF: Yes, I have been inspired by 17th century Dutch genre painting. Vermeer, of course, and painters of everyday life from the Netherlands like Gerard Ter Borch and Rembrandt. I relate Watteau to this idea of small, fleeting moments of life, captured in a painting.

U.S. Hotel, Gouache on paper, 11 x 13.25 inches

TD: Many artists, if not most, have tremendous ups and downs in the creation of their work. They can have blocks, leaving them uninspired to work for days, weeks or longer, but sometimes feel a confidence, high energy and enthusiasm. From the outside, you seem to have an admirably stable approach to your work. Do you think so?

LF: I think any day I can be outside painting is generally a good day, even if I am painting badly. I do try to work as steadily as I can, just let the work speak for itself, and hope that some of it is good.

TD: Your paintings in oil are often quite large, while your gouaches are smaller. What percentage of your time is currently dedicated to gouache vs. oils? 

LF: Currently, especially this past winter, I have been spending more time on oil painting. In the warmer weather, I will probably be doing more quick gouache studies, along with oil painting.

TD: In the film you say that you've felt freer in working with gouache, as you began by simply wanting to try out the medium, not planning on exhibiting your efforts. Now that you are exhibiting many gouaches, do you still feel that they provide a freedom you don't quite get from working in oil?

LF: The fact that the gouaches take less time affords some freedom to try subjects I might not try right off in oil. The gouaches can be hit or miss, destined for the circular file. Because they go fast, I try new, challenging subjects which I am less afraid to fail at.

Eleventh and Spruce gouache on paper 11"x 13" 2001

Standard Tap with Flower Pot gouache on paper  11"x 14" 2013 

TD: You have a solo show opening May 1 at the Gross McCleaf Gallery in Philadelphia, which will be up for the month of May. How many solo shows have you had there? 

LF: I have had about a dozen solo shows at this gallery.

TD: How many pieces will you have in the show? Will you be showing other mediums than oils and gouaches? 

LF: I will be showing nine or ten oil paintings, and six or seven gouaches.

TD: I love your range of greens in trees and grass, and generally your feeling for the way sunlight and shadow effect color. Do you use a pretty extensive palette?

LF: I tend to have almost everything under the sun in my paint box. I think of color as having infinite divisions. Generally, I want to have a strong sense of light. Each color has its individual shadow color. A beam of light passing over two different colors, if it can be represented correctly, has more of the feel of the light than if it were passing over a single color.

Joy to You gouache on paper 11" x 13.25" 2013

TD: What are your favorite brushes for oils? For gouache? Why do you like them?

LF: I generally use soft brushes for both oil and gouache. I will use tiny brushes occasionally, for gouache especially. I occasionally use bristle brushes for certain areas, and very rarely, a palette knife.

TD: You've said that you've been influenced by Edward Hopper, John Sloan and the Ashcan School, and also by Nicolas Poussin's figures in landscapes. Could you name some others, and possibly some contemporary painters you admire or have been influenced by?

LF: I feel a kinship with urban life that the Ashcan painters portrayed, also with Edward
Hopper and George Bellows, the second generation of that movement, who were
stronger painters. As an artist, I am inspired by many other artists. Some of the
shows by major artists that have stayed in my memory are a Bonnard show that was
in Washington, also Bonnard in New York, a major Vermeer show that was at the
National Gallery, a Diebenkorn show in New York City, as well as Rembrandt’s small paintings,
etchings and drawings in Boston, Titian, Tintoretto, and Veronese, also in Boston,
Joseph Cornell at the Whitney, and Chardin in New York.

Sometimes, a single work by another artist can spark an idea or give inspiration. I
saw a show by a painter from the Midwest, whose name I can’t remember. One
work that he painted was of a couple, a man and a woman, sleepwalking through
the woods at night, with an unexplained beam of light on them. I wanted to remake
this image for myself. It was a little like some other things that I have done myself. I
think all artists borrow ideas and formats, some from life, and some from other
artists. The local art scene has provided me with alot of inspiration. The energy of
the work being done in our city has helped me very much.

TD: Your work seems to indicate your fondness for people, as well as for the specifics of the world you live in. What do you think of painters who don’t want to be so descriptive, who use the appearance of the world work in a more romanticized or abstracted way? I’m thinking of J.W. Turner, or Richard Diebenkorn as examples. Have you ever wanted to move away from realism?

LF:  Richard Diebenkorn and Pierre Bonnard are two painters I did wish to emulate, and
I tried to go a little way in that direction. They are very different from each other, but
both have a freedom of touch, beautiful color, and great compositions that really
floor me. Turner is another artist I have admired, especially in recent years. All of his
work is enlightening. I especially relate to the early work, that has something of the
Dutch sea painters in it. Many painters that paint in what might be termed a tight or
careful painting style, wish to paint in a looser manner. Freedom is something that
many would like to acquire, and if I could make solid paintings with great structural
harmony, done with ease and grace, I would do so.

TD: You teach a course at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts called "Narrative Drawing". How do you teach something like that, if you don't mind sharing a little?

LF: Yes, I was teaching that for a short time. It is a hard subject to teach. Art schools like the Academy have a tradition of working from life: cast drawing, working from the human figure, still life, and so on. In the main, student are learning to see, and to put down shapes, values, colors, and forms. This has always been the central thing artists have to learn: shapes, colors, forms, arranged in a certain order, whether pure abstraction, realism, expressionism, or any other style. Narrative drawing is something I am interested in, not so much as a book illustrator or for other people’s stories and ideas, but to find a way to think about what I wish to say about the world around me. I wanted students to think about the meaning or possible meanings of the models and props set up in front of them.

By the Goat oil on canvas 24"x28" 2014

The whole history of art is full of artists telling stories in their art. Francis Bacon, when he was asked why he painted the screaming figure, which was taken from a film still from the film the Battleship Potemkin, said that he liked the color of the inside of the mouth. Artists do this- we look at the color of things that we are painting. His comment made it seem that he thought that the subject did not have the emotional content we might expect it to carry.

In the time we are living in, there are narratives in all media: film, photography, books, music, the web. All are easily reproducible. As painters and sculptors, we must try to do things that painters and sculptors do best. Today, film is the medium in which we try to represent our history. History painting was common in the nineteenth century, but society's need for it may not be as great as it once was. However, artists may still wish to pursue this in some fashion.

When photography came into existence, I think that portrait painters thought that it could be the end of portrait painting, but we still wish to picture ourselves, and tell our stories. We can do this in painting, sculpture, and drawing. We only need to look at the objects and people we are painting in art school as being connected to the world outside.

TD: What do you do to relax when you aren't working?

LF: I love watching films when I am not working. I sometimes listen to books on tape. This past year  I was moved by Robert Penn Warren’s book, “All the King’s Men”.

TD: If you could spend a year in another city anywhere in the world, with money being no object, where would that be?

LF: I may not have enough experience to know where to spend a year. Can I take the money, stay home, and paint? Perhaps London, or Paris, might be nice.

Thank you Larry Francis!

Larry Francis  is currently exhibiting his work at Philadelphia's Gross McCleaf Gallery, and the show will be up through the month of May 2014. You can see more of his work at the Gross McCleaf Gallery website as well as in two films made by videographer John Thornton, "Larry Francis: Painting Philadelphia" and "Larry Francis on the Art of Painting". 

(photo credit Arcadia Boutique)


  1. Laird Scott MarkowMay 13, 2014 at 11:43 AM

    Thank you for a glimpse into the ideas and methods of this brilliant, passionate artist. I am particularly impressed by the way Larry Francis has integrated drawing and painting into the fabric of his daily life.

  2. This was a wonderful article. My father was mentioned here as 1 of the people that inspired him. Mr Julian Levy... then his art teacher in Bartram High School. Well written & beautiful art work. Thank you.


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