A Closer Look: William P. Duffy
As part of the exhibition “Backgrounds & Foregrounds” Quidley & Company is pleased to present an online catalog, which explores the artistic backgrounds of these outstanding New England landscape painters. For this show, the blog will host three separate posts in the ‘A Closer Look’ series, one on each artist William Davis, William Duffy, and TM Nicholas.
Learn how William P. Duffy’s emotional and narrative paintings are informed by his formal art education.
William Duffy began his career as a professional illustrator. Like many aspiring painters, Duffy put his talents to commercial use to support himself while starting out as a fine artist. Now, after dedicating himself exclusively to painting for nearly twenty years, his emotional studio paintings build upon his strong understanding of visual fundamentals such as composition and color harmony, creating a sense of place, and often suggesting a narrative.
William Duffy was born and raised in West Roxbury, MA, his father was an amateur artist. Young William painted along side his dad as a kid, and showed great natural talent enjoying drawing and painting. However he came back to art only after graduating from Boston State College. (now UMass Boston)
Bill maintained an interest in art and knew he had the ability. He decided he could make a living as an illustrator so he enrolled at the School of the Worcester Art Museum/Clark University. There he studied under Leon Hovsepian who in turn studied under the “American Dean of Illustration” Dean Cornwell (1892-1960). Unfortunately after two years he found his time there “kind of a disappointing experience” and left the program.
Duffy attempted to become a professional fine artist but ran into the usual hurdles. In 1974 he took a job at Rustcraft Greeting Card Company as an illustrator. Although it was not what he wanted to do it proved to be important to his artistic development.
“We were all frustrated fine artists but I have to confess that I learned more about painting from my art director in my first six months there than I had during my entire time at art school – by a long shot.”
While working for the card companies (Rustcraft, Gibson, and Paramount) Duffy worked at nights and on weekend on his paintings. For most of his illustration career he was able to establish working arrangements that would allow him to work from his home studio, and to satisfy his duties in two or three days and thusly ‘buy’ himself extra days off to develope his true passion, painting.
By 1996 Duffy “was able to free myself entirely.” He was then-on committed to painting. He continued doing some freelance illustration work, some of which involved architectural renderings so he decided to brush up his perspective drawing skills at the Boston Architectural Center. “This was very worthwhile – and demanding. It was like earning a masters degree.”
In 1993 he submitted a work to the Mystic International Exhibition and it was accepted. “I remember walking into the opening reception and looking around to see works by John Stobart, Richard Loud and other leading marine artists and saying to myself, ‘What the hell am I doing here?'” During the dinner portion his painting was projected on screen and Duffy was presented with the ‘Award of Excellence’. “It was an unbelievable night for me and provided a great start, for it was the first time I realized that I truly could make a living at doing what I so love.”
As he will tell you, when he approaches painting he has three main concerns; aesthetics, creating a sense of place, and spiritual content.
The first matter while painting is where his training comes in heavily. He uses his understanding of composition, line, color, etc. to create successful images. This is something that is sometimes done intently with deliberation and sometimes unconsciously as he paints, but his grasp of the fundamentals is an always present advantage.
Duffy uses elements of the scenery like actors on a stage. Exacting detail is not as important as creating a relationship with the viewer. When painting a marsh scene, he talks of the sail boats, “For me they were vehicles to be used to create a feeling; they were actors on a stage.” Bill often starts his studio paintings by working out a series of thumbnail sketches to find a succesful composition. From there he works up sketches that are used to establish values, pattering and eye-flow. “I have found that if the resulting sketch does not have punch…it won’t work later on as a painting.”
The second ‘level’ is what most people relate to, creating a sense of place. Here he leverages his technical know-how to produce ethereal results. Like most painters will tell you, it’s all about light. Duffy has painted landscapes all over New England as well as in Ireland, the Hudson River Valley, and the Azores, each has a distinct light and atmosphere. Being able to capture these distinctions is a very useful way to convey a sense of place. Duffy’s attention and sensitivity to these details enables a viewer to make an immediate connection with the work.
William Duffy regularly paints en plein air, “painting shorthand.” These smaller, quicker paintings are used as studies to capture the essence of a place. “This is a very sensual experience – in contrast to the soul searching I find in the studio. I attempt to capture the feeling of that time, that place, that atmosphere and light.” In the looser plein air paintings, the magic of a certain moment is captured, and can then inform the artist as he develops a larger studio piece.
The third, the spiritual is what makes art great. This is a painting’s ability to be personal or special, it is the divine, the magic. This is the hardest to explain so it is perhaps best left to his own words:
“On the third level is the emotional or spiritual content. This is the most difficult one for me to articulate. Painting is a means to explore composition and express deep-seated spiritual sentiments. I seek out places that are conducive to these ends. A painting must have mood and subtle power. I try to stir the soul.”