George Demont Otis,
American Impressionist

george demont otis
This website contains over 600 images of art by George Demont Otis

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American Impressionist

-- 85 Paintings in Color,
10 in Black & White, 114 Pages, Softcover, Glossy, Squarebound --

California Catalogue Paintings

George Demont Otis Was My Teacher - by George Roberts

I still vividly remember my first meeting with George Demont Otis thirty years ago when, as a 12 year-old youngster, I was taken to his Marin County studio-home which Otis had built with his own hands. This charming English-Norman cottage stood on Sir Francis Drake Boulevard, named after the British explorer who is supposed to have landed on the seacoast nearby, and often called “The Golden Highway” because of the beautiful countryside through which the boulevard winds its way out to the Point Reyes Lighthouse.

Today the studio is gone, but the golden road remains, the end of it lying in the Point Reyes National Seashore. Part of the early impetus for the creation of this national park came from George Otis, whose paintings and many public lectures celebrated the cause of conservation long before it became fashionable. He can rightly be called the artistic father of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, a region encompassing the varied landscape that he loved and painted for more than a quarter of a century.

Otis was a friendly man, white-haired, full of laughter and interesting conversation. “Show me some of your drawings,” he said, and I knew then that his opinion of them would determine whether or not he would accept me as his youngest pupil.

While he examined my work, I looked around the room where Otis received thousands of visitors over the years. On the walls hung his landscapes, some of which had won national awards. The furniture was carved by Otis himself; he was especially proud of the hearts-of-redwood stairway with an intricate design depicting 152 varieties of sealife which he had seen or caught. Beside the front door were stained-glass windows created by Otis. A fire burned in the massive fireplace that he had built out of San Francisco paving blocks and railroad ties. In one corner of the room was a loom for the weaving done by his wife, Clara.

This meeting was to set the course of my life. During my four years of study with him and throughout our subsequent friendship of several decades, I received a portion of the rich legacy of inspiration and knowledge which had been transmitted to Otis by some of America’s greatest artists and teachers, who were his mentors. He had studied under Robert Henri, William Merritt Chase, John F. Carlson, Bruce Crane, Waldo Pierce, Birge Harrison, Dan Garber, Wellington Reynolds, John Vanderpoel and other eminent artists. As a young man, Otis had been befriended by Winslow Homer.

He knew the members of the famous “Eight”, including John Sloan, who wrote in his journal, “I like Otis right well, he amuses me, and I think he should find a ready market for his stuff . . . Otis sets an example of industry which helps me stick at my own job . . .” Otis was also a friend of Thomas Moran and many other great painters of his time.

Otis required his students to bring blank notebooks to class. At the end of every session they were collected. After we left he wrote in each one, commenting on the subject, illustrating various points with quick sketches, giving us bits of his philosophy and helpful personal criticism, and then returned them to us the following week. Many of us saved our notebooks and still refer to them. He had deep convictions about art education.

“From the start,” he used to say, “one must teach the student self-respect and belief in himself.” He urged the instructor to regard himself as “another student a little more able to guide and as a friend to the aspiring artist rather than a critic or teacher.” Otis’ former students agree that he was a great and inspiring teacher, who had a lasting influence on the lives he touched.

George Otis taught part-time for 30 years and had more than 500 students who became professional artists. He loved teaching but was never forced to do it as a means of livelihood, for unlike most painters, he was able to derive a steady income from the sales of his own work.

Early in the century Otis lived at Taos and Santa Fe, meeting great early artists. He formed a close friendship with Mary Austin, who was noted for her writings on the West. She dedicated some of her poetry to him. In later years Otis would often return to the desert for spiritual renewal.

During the 1920s Otis lived in Los Angeles, with a studio in suburban Burbank. He made a name for himself as a landscape painter in Southern California. Arthur Millier, art critic for the Los Angeles Times, reviewed Otis’ local exhibition with enthusiastic praise (“. . . here is a man who has the essential thing in a landscape painter’s equipment — a strong lyric impulse . . .”). Fred Hogue, editor of the L.A. Times Art page, wrote: “Otis is a distinctive colorist. His canvases recall those of no other artist. He possesses that originality of conception and composition that is the surest mark of genius . . .”.

Otis won many awards, among them, first prize at the California State Fair, and exhibited widely in the ensuing years at the Metropolitan Museum, New York, Los Angeles Museum of Art, Corcoran Gallery in Washington, D.C., Legion of Honor and DeYoung Museum in San Francisco. He achieved great success in Southern California and knew many of the early movie stars, including Buster Keaton, who was a personal friend. But toward the end of the 1920s he tired of the tinsel of Hollywood. His restlessness took him back to the Southwest and to other states for more painting on the road.

George Otis was an early environmentalist and conservationist. His pioneer efforts as a resident artist in Marin County to save a rural area close to a large city helped to promote plans for the Golden Gate National Recreation Area and the Point Reyes National Seashore long before they became the realities of today. As always, Otis continued painting, lecturing and teaching, and his gregarious disposition and gift for friendship made him an active and beloved member of his community.

By the time of his death in 1962 at the age of 82, George Otis could look back on a life rich in accomplishment, self-fulfillment and kindness to the many persons who sought his help, advice and instruction. He left a legacy of paintings, sketches and writing which is still inspiring people. His book, “The ABC-XYZ of Landscape Painting,” which Otis specified was to be published posthumously, remains as a testament to his philosophy of art and life and to his teaching.

Those of us who were fortunate enough to study with him will never forget the warm, forceful personality and the deep spiritual qualities of this supremely American artist. The notebooks in which he wrote personal messages to each of his students, his “ABC-XYZ of Landscape Painting” book and other writings serve to refresh our memories of Otis’ exact words. Most of what he wrote concerns technical matters, methods, color mixtures, etc.

He went into great detail about these things. However, he imparted so much more than mere techniques; he gave to us a whole philosophy of art, aesthetics and living and enough inspiration to last a lifetime. One time he said to me, “If you know the beliefs of Robert Henri and John F. Carlson, you know mine.”

First, there was the electric presence of the man himself and the marvelous sense of excitement he created about art and its limitless possibilities, about the value of a life dedicated to creativity and the search for beauty. He was a charismatic person with a gusto and zest for living, and these qualities are reflected in his painting and teaching. To us students he conveyed, in many ways, the message that the profession of art was a profound one.

I remember the rides with him in his Model-T Ford along bumpy country roads to various locations for private lessons in sketching and pastels (a medium in which he did many fine works). Otis told stories of his colorful past, humorous and serious, and pointing out this or that poetic feature in the landscape he loved. Once at the location, I would be put to work and allowed only so much time to complete a drawing. “Keep it loose and sketchy,” he would remind me. “Don’t belabor the subject.” There were many lessons in black and white sketching before he introduced me to color, for Otis was a firm believer in the mastery of drawing as a foundation for painting. He himself made countless pencil sketches, still as fresh and charming as when they were done.

In my notebook he wrote, “The most poetic landscape is the one, which to a layman carries a certain freedom, a pleasure in doing . . . work that seems unlabored will always be more pleasing . . .” Repeatedly Otis emphasized the value of spontaneity in art, of capturing one’s first, favorable impression of a subject and then adhering to this impression until the completion of a work. He recognized that many of the world’s masterpieces contained meticulous, studied craftsmanship and precise detail. He did not repudiate this method, but for the most part it was not his way. Otis’ own canvases were done with thick pigment and visible brushstrokes, often applied, as he used to say, in a basket-weave like manner.

He believed in the charm of broadly painted pictures which required the viewer to use his imagination and to feel the abstract impression intended by the artist. To him a pictorial representation was always a translation, an interpretation. He told us that the final result should manifest a sense of character and individuality. This was the essence of good painting: not a slavish copy of nature or the styles of other artists but rather an original version, exhibiting freedom of execution with a carefree, joyous quality combined with control and staying within the boundaries of tradition. These traits are appreciated and easily understood by the average person.

In reviewing a retrospective Otis show in 1974, an art critic wrote for a newspaper: “Otis painted the California landscape with the love and vigor of the naturalist and conservationist he was. He brings a timeless grandeur to his scenes. His ability to convey seasonal temperature and time and weather variations through hue and tonal contrasts is evident throughout his work.

Trees—conifers, madrone, eucalyptus and oak—figure prominently in many of the paintings. A fine example is the stand of massive, gnarled oaks casting abstract shadows of gray-blue on warm earth-orange, with their bark reflecting the sun’s rays in fugitive darts and rectangles of muted pink, olive-green and tans . . . The fresh, clear colors and perceptively decisive brushwork are certainly in keeping with the contemporary art scene . . .”

Otis used to advise us, “Always paint the day. If it’s cloudy, sunny, raining, morning, evening—tell the world. A cloudy day affords many advantages no other day can offer: subtle colors, lost edges, no changing shadows . . .” It was the fresh, open response to a wide variety of subjects that Otis stressed again and again. This technique accounts partly for the ease and success with which he painted so many different types of landscape: farmlands, seascapes, mountain scenery, the desert and the California redwood groves. He was not a limited artist, his versatility showed in his ability to do handsome still life paintings, portraits, murals, and to work well in so many diversified art media.

Otis loved trees and was noted for the way in which he painted them. Our notebooks were filled with his own quick sketches and with information about different varieties and how to paint them. On one page he wrote the following, which is rather typical of his general attitude, “Trees express the wind. They keep the earth from being a desolate place. They graciously furnish a cooling spot with their shade. They feed the hungry with their fruits and act untiringly as sentinels and landmarks. They are living things. Paint them that way.” Trees were also verticals in the design scheme, acting as “piers” or anchors to which the rest of a picture could be tied.

A large foreground tree could “mother” an entire landscape, uniting the composition into a harmonious whole. A slight tilt to a tree gave animation. Otis has taught us to see landscape forms in terms of expressive art qualities, as the rhythm of undulating hills, the variety of light and dark contrasts, the serenity of skies and bodies of water. He would urge us to “colonize” tree branches and to group trees when we were painting them.

Otis placed great stress on composition, emphasizing that without a sound basic structure there could be no successful painting. The first consideration in selection, he told us, was to ask ourselves whether the subject possessed a quality that could lift and exhilarate our minds beyond the mere making of a picture. “Nature suggests and the artist composes,” he would say. His homespun analogies and expressions made his teaching memorable. For instance, he explained the law of principality by referring to “the hen and chicks,” as mother hen being the dominant element and her brood the subordinate features, all of them joining together to make “one happy family.” “Use the Big Axe,” he often told us. “Cut away the unessential things which do not benefit your subject. An excess of superfluous detail results in bewilderment.”

George Otis had close ties to the men now recognized as early leaders of California’s literary and artistic life. He knew Jack London, John Steinbeck and Brother Cornelius, who wrote a monumental biography of William Keith, the famous California painter. These cultural leaders realized that Otis was recording a vanishing Western landscape threatened by the increasing number of people settling in California. These leaders appreciated the universality of Otis’ art and its life-affirming, optimistic spirit. They saw an artist who was setting the tone for living with creative crafts, for the renewal to be found in a life lived close to nature and removed from the stresses of urban existence.

One of Otis’ former students, now a retired college art professor, recalls: “He was the most independent man I ever knew. He painted what he pleased and got paid for it.” Otis’ independence from art dealers during most of his years in Marin County may have cost him the widespread recognition in art circles which he deserves today, but he was happy to sell his works to people who came to his door from all over the United States, rather than working through commercial galleries. For most of his career Otis owned his own studios and sales rooms, and he believed that every professional artist should do the same. To him, his studio was more than a workshop, “It was a place of creativity whose threshold I cross with humility.”

Otis believed in the value of companionship and belonged to many art societies, some of which he founded. The Society of Western Artists, which began as a western branch of the movement of “Sanity in Art” is now the largest art group in the West. In 1948 he was appointed Chairman West of the Mississippi of the American Artists Professional League of New York. For a long period of time Otis gave lectures for the Mary MacDowell Foundation Clubs in various states.

He is listed in Who’s Who in American Art, the National Cyclopedia of American Biography, Mallet’s Index of Artists and the Kuenstler Lexikon. Some of his records are in the Archives of American Art at the Smithsonian Institution.




©Copyright 2003-2011, Aurel Keck. All rights reserved.