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A portrait of the artist: Light and beauty inspire classic style of Virginia artist Henry Wingate

Artist Henry Wingate paints using a live model and natural light in his rural Virginia studio on July 6. Wingate recently completed the third of five paintings of the Joyful Mysteries of the Rosary that will be displayed above the altar at St. Mary, Mother of God Church in Washington, D.C. (CS photos by Jaclyn Lippelmann)

The artist stands in the shadowed corner of the studio. He is just looking, eyes flitting back and forth from model to canvas. The light shines in the darkness. Palette nestled in his arm, brush in left hand, he strides forward in measured paces, into the light he so loves. He dabs paint onto a linen canvas. Then he strides back into the shadows. 

“Look at the big picture,” the artist says.

The Big Picture

Henry Wingate was young when his interest in art first sparked. Wingate’s parents lived behind the Library of Congress when he was born, and the family’s Sunday activity was going down the hill to the National Gallery of Art, where his parents would push him and his sister around the gallery in strollers. 

“I don’t remember it at all, but that could have been a big influence on me,” Wingate said. 

He started making art when he was six, and he shudders when he sees one acrylic painting he did at an early age now hanging in his parents’ house. Today, from his studio in rural Madison, Virginia, he draws and creates oil paintings as an artist who specializes in figurative portraits, landscapes, still-lifes and religious paintings, trained in the tradition of the Boston School, one of the few links to the pre-modern art era. 

Though it was his favorite class in high school, Wingate was deterred from going to art school because of the popular focus on modern art. 

“I would have pursued art in college had I found a program that taught realistic art that I preferred,” Wingate said. “Most of the art programs were modern leaning, and I didn’t care for that.” 

Instead, Wingate entered the U.S. Naval Academy and registered for a degree in naval architecture, thinking it would be the closest degree to art. 

“But I quickly found out that it wasn’t - it was designing ships,” Wingate said. “So I switched to history.” After serving six years in the Navy as an F-14 Tomcat fighter pilot, Wingate discerned his next steps: should he teach history? Attend medical school? Become an architect?

“Art was the furthest out there idea,” he said. “The others were more practical.”

Nevertheless, he sought a way to pursue studies in the realistic type of painting that he loved.

“As soon as I was getting out of the Navy, I knew I at least wanted to try art,” Wingate said. “I found out about these schools, these ateliers, which just means ‘working studio’ with one master teacher.”

Though there were a few different schools in this tradition around the country, they were all linked back to one artist, R. H. Ives Gammell, an American artist who studied in Europe and then returned to the United States to teach what he had learned.

“He saw what was happening with modern art,” Wingate said. “Art school started changing, doing away with some traditional training. So Gammell decided to make it his life’s work to keep what he had learned going.”

Wingate’s Boston School teacher, Paul Ingbretson, as well as his later Florence teacher Charles Cecil, were both pupils of Gammell. When he visited Ingbretson’s Boston studio, he was amazed at the traditional techniques: a single, natural light source, the integration of shadows, the use of live models, and the high quality work of the students. 

“My father told me early on, ‘If you can find a job that you would pay to do, you should pursue that,’” Wingate recalled. “I thought, ‘Gosh, maybe I can do this.’”

Wingate studied under Ingbretson in Boston for four years. 

“There’s no diploma, no degree,” Wingate said. “You just stay as long as you think you need. I spent four years, and I thought I was ready to do it on my own… Pretty soon that year, I realized I just wasn’t good enough to make it.” 

He studied then in Florence under Cecil, with whom he really began to develop his style, a mix of Ingbretson’s Boston School influence and colorful palette, and Cecil’s somber, subdued schema, a nod to the Italian old masters. 

“I feel like I fall into the tradition,” Wingate said.

Wingate’s influences also include Renaissance masters Michelangelo and Raphael, the shadowy Baroque artist Caravaggio and the Spanish painter Velasquez, as well as American artists John Singer Sargent, Joseph DeCamp, and Dennis Miller Bunker. 

After a year and a half with Cecil, and another fifth year with Ingbretson, Wingate was ready to make it on his own. 

“By then, I felt finally ready to work as a professional artist, mostly with portraits,” he said.

“Such a treasure” to pass on 

Though Wingate initially did not see himself branching into religious art, more and more Catholic churches in Washington, D.C., Maryland, Virginia, and elsewhere are commissioning the Catholic artist to do art. From his studio, he has done a project on the life of St. John the Baptist, a mural depicting the first Catholic baptism of Native Americans in the original 13 colonies, the Assumption of Mary, and even a set on the life of Mary for a church in Australia, among many. In between his religious art commissions, he continues to paint portraits and landscapes. 

Wingate has just completed the third of five paintings of the Joyful Mysteries of the Rosary that he is currently working on for St. Mary, Mother of God Church in Washington, D.C. The painting portion of the project - consisting of the Annunciation, the Visitation, the Nativity, the Presentation, and the Finding of Jesus in the Temple - started about two years ago when the now-retired pastor and a parishioner contacted Wingate to do a set to replace the old Joyful Mystery paintings above the sanctuary. 

Along with this project, Wingate is working on a pair of paintings on scenes from the life of St. Raymond of Peñafort for that church in Virginia.  

Like his teachers, Wingate, too, feels the obligation to pass on the “treasure” of his learning. His student, Mary Katherine Wright, studied with Wingate for a year until moving on to study with Ingbretson in Boston. 

“I got here in September [2017], and he had just started the Annunciation,” Wright said. “It’s so fun, from start to finish, to see the whole process.”  

Another treasure for Wingate, his Catholic faith, teaches and inspires him in his creations. 

“I feel like I’m privileged to do a little part of creating my own painting that captures something of God’s creation, whether a face or a landscape, or whatever it is,” Wingate said.

He stands in the corner again, a live figure posed among the sketched and painted figures that line the walls around him. He strides forward. He brushes on the paint, but he has not yet gotten to his favorite part. 

“My specific favorite is putting a highlight on a nose, maybe. One stroke,” Wingate says. “Or a highlight in an eye, and it comes to life.” 

His favorite is the light.

A Studio of Light and Shadow 

The July day is muggy, stuffy, and gray. But for painting, it is picturesque. 

“This is a really perfect day,” the artist says.

The lofty window of artist Henry Wingate’s studio in rural Virginia gives it a church-like appearance, a characteristic enhanced by the religious art, realistic figures, and celestial scenes of Wingate’s making around the studio. 

Wingate is a fan of the light. 

The north-facing window keeps the light ambient and indirect. Heavy curtains cover most of the window, except a quarter, through which the day’s gentle light suffuses. 

“The light is so soft and beautiful,” Wingate says. “If you have a blue-sky day, the light is cooler, and so the pinks and yellows of the face or object won’t come out as much as on a gray-sky day. The day makes a difference.” 

A large part of his training included the use of natural light - hence, Wingate’s window. 

“People painted in this style with the natural light, with the single light source for many years,” Wingate says. “I was so thrilled when I...could learn this tradition. …Now painters can use artificial light, but I don’t think you can beat the natural light.”

The high window’s light falls down on a scene of the Nativity. The model posing as Mary cradles a baby-doll Jesus in the manger. The work is for the third of five paintings of the Joyful Mysteries of the Rosary that Wingate is painting for St. Mary Mother of God Church. Today Wingate depicts “the true light that enlightens every man” (John 1:9). He depicts the rosier skin tone of his model’s face, trying to capture the tender expression of the Blessed Mother as she gazes on her human and divine Son, blending the lines of her neck into shadow. 

Shadow – the contrast to the light, forms another part of this tradition. In order to create the illusion of depth that makes the paintings realistic, the light is vital to create the shadows. 

“What we’re trying to do on a flat canvas or piece of paper is create the illusion of depth,” Wingate says. “[...] It is the shadows that give it that depth.” 

Wingate strives to “paint the natural world as beautiful as it is. You try to set up a beautiful arrangement, a beautiful composition, in this light, and then just paint it exactly as it is.” This, however, can be an elusive task. 

“There are a lot of nuances about things you see well, things you don’t see well - lost and founds as they are called - things that come to your eye first, and things that just melt into the background,” Wingate says. “If you can get that natural world look with the lost and founds, with the leading items leading in your picture, you get a very realistic and true to life image.”

But one cannot focus too much on the shadows, or too much on the light. Balance is needed. Losts and founds. Shadows and light. 

“If I look into the shadows, say, under the veil, and let my eyes rest and settle...then I’ll make too much of that area,” Wingate says. “Distance helps with that. I like to keep my eyes moving so they don’t settle and refocus and readjust.” 

That is why the artist stands at least 15 feet away from his work, so he can look between scene and canvas. 

“The best viewing distance of a work of art is three times its greatest dimension,” Wingate says. “[The painting is] almost six feet wide, so I should be 18 feet back. You can see the whole thing better.”

He covers the distance in three long strides and paints Mary’s veil. For this work alone, he has spent 18 hours painting St. Joseph, and a similar amount of time, broken into three hour sittings, painting Mary. 

It is a lengthy, unhurried process, Wingate admits. 

“But I guess when you think about how long it will be hanging, it’s not so long,” he says. 

Wingate uses linseed oil to mix his paints, which he applies to the linen canvas using hog bristle and sable hair brushes. On his palette, he blends colors of viridian green, ultramarine deep, cadmium scarlet. 

“I think cadmium scarlet is my favorite color,” Wingate says. 

Wingate needs all these good materials - brushes, canvas, paints, and palette. 

But as for the most important tool? 

“The light.”