David Stumpo: Wildlife ‘master watercolorist’

By Denise Coffey - Staff Writer
Sterling - posted Mon., Dec. 3, 2012
David Stumpo works on a watercolor at his Greenleaf Studio in Sterling. Photo by D. Coffey
David Stumpo works on a watercolor at his Greenleaf Studio in Sterling. Photo by D. Coffey

Watercolorist David Stumpo leaned over his drafting table while he worked on his latest painting – two screech owls sitting in a tree. He had already drawn in their faces with tufted ears and curved beaks. He'd drawn the delicate lines of their feathers and the outlines of their feet on the limbs of the tree. But it was only after painting their eyes that he knew the painting was worth continuing.

“I start with the eye and work out,” he said. “If the eye doesn't have life in it, the painting doesn't have life.”

The yellow eyes and large pupils of his screech owls peered out from the painting. Much of the facial disc of one owl was done, but the other's was only outlined in black, as were the large tufts of its ears. Below their faces the work was pencil lines against white. Still, it was enough for Stumpo to know the piece would work.

“If the eyes are flat, there is no soul,” he said. “The shadowing, the feathers, the background are all important. They give the work a sense of being. But they aren't what gives it life. When you look at it, the part that is looking back at you is important.”

The eyes in all of his paintings look out from the walls of his Greenleaf Studio in Sterling. The red-winged blackbirds from the reeds they cling to, a red-tailed hawk from the birch where it's watching, the pileated woodpeckers clinging to the bark of a tree. Stumpo's passion is watercolor and he concentrates on wildlife and nature. Birds are clearly a favorite.

“I enjoy their freedom of movement,” he said.

Stumpo doesn't enjoy the same freedom. He moves with some difficulty around his studio. For six years he has been undergoing treatment for an auto-immune disorder called chronic inflammatory demyelinating polyradiculoneuropathy, or CIDP. Every two weeks, he goes for a blood-cleansing procedure called plasmapheresis. He is also a cancer survivor. “With my mobility dwindling, I am more enamored with birds and observing them,” he said. To compensate, he'll paint with one hand resting on the other, or use the desk for support. “It takes a little longer,” he said. “It takes more concentration.” But he is moving forward, putting together a new portfolio of work.

Because he doesn't go into the field often, he brings the birds to him. “I go through scads of bird food,” he said. Bird books fill the tall bookcase in his studio. Texts and field guides dedicated to all manner of birds provide pictures and descriptions that he uses when he composes a piece of work. He gathers his own field notes, research material, and his wife Judy's photographs. Then by combining everything he's gathered, he puts together a composition.

Once the painting passes the eye test, he paints sections at a time. With a background in commercial and illustrative art, and a draftsman's experience, Stumpo maintains firm control of his paint.  “I find watercolor easy to control,” he said. “Oddly enough, most artists don't like it because they can't control it.” He'll paint a feather, lighten it with water, let it get almost dry and then hit it again with a brush to build up the shading. “I'm a big fan of indigo and sepia,” he said.

But he isn't averse to letting the paint contribute happy accidents to the backgrounds of his paintings. The grain of the paper or the granulation of the paint can affect the mixing of colors in ways he hadn't imagined or anticipated. He pointed to the reeds behind a Canada goose. The dark color applied to them while they were still wet resulted in ridges and indentations in the reeds, something he enjoyed.

He does not allow himself the same leeway with the birds. Each feather is distinct. Colors stay in their places. Sheri Sochor of Sochor Gallery in Putnam said it's the attention to detail that make his paintings unique. It's not just the bird, but the setting each bird is in that contributes to the overall composition.

“I call him a master watercolorist,” she said. “He's able to paint soft feathers against harsh, brittle leaves,” she said.

He claims no avian favorite, but he does feel sorry for birds that have bad reputations such as the blue jay and Canada goose. “If you look at a goose, its colors are striking,” he said, “and when they fly in V-formations they are so elegant. Blue jays are bullies. They make harsh sounds. But their coloring is gorgeous.”

Stumpo's work is currently on display at the Audubon Center in Pomfret through December, and at the La Grua Center Art Show in Stonington through January.


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