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Inside the World of Mort Künstler

 At his upcoming exhibition at the Nassau County Museum of Art in Roslyn Harbor, one that will be held from Sept. 25, to Jan. 9, visitors will be able to gain insight into the creative processes of Mort Künstler, an artist renown for his authentic and moving portrayals of scenes from the Civil War.

This latest exhibition of Civil War paintings is entitled “For Us The Living.” There will be sketches, drawings, props and photos available, as well as preliminary studies, for visitors’ perusal.

Before paint ever touches the canvas, Mr. Künstler goes about the painstaking process of gathering information. He travels to the sites he will be painting, often observing re-enactments, and working with historians. He creates sketches and notes regarding the terrain and the battles. A known historian, John Heiser, once admitted that Mr. Künstler “brings the scene to life,” by taking great pains in making the details exact. On the way home from his historical trips, Mr. Künstler says, he “puts all the pieces together in his head,” and is anxious to get to his studio to begin working.

 The entire third floor of his Oyster Bay Cove home is his studio. It is immediately evident that it is a very busy place. He says it is the only part of the house where the cleaning person is instructed not to clean, as Mr. Künstler doesn’t want anything disturbed. It isn’t perfectly neat, but neither is it messy; there are drawings, props, textbooks and notes surrounding the area where he paints, which is set on a movable round platform which is built into the floor. This allows him to swivel his canvas in order to take advantage of the best light. If Mr. Künstler needs a break, he can always gaze out over Oyster Bay Harbor. The view is awe-inspiring.

“The beginning of a painting is when the thinking takes place,” Mr. Künstler said. He makes a “thumbnail sketch,” which represents the general concept of what the painting will eventually become. This is when he maps out where figures, buildings, horses, and the like will be situated in the painting.

Next, a larger sketch is drawn (in charcoal), with the shapes of the horses and the men drawn in greater detail. At this point, Mr. Künstler makes adjustments to the picture, deciding whether he wants less sky in his finished painting, or where a flag might be placed, for example.

A grid pattern is drawn over the preliminary drawing then, so that when it is transferred to the canvas, it can be precisely enlarged, square by square. The final range of dark to light areas of the painting are then worked out, on a separate sheet of white paper. “This starts to give the feeling of depth, although this is a very rough, general concept of how the painting will eventually look,” Mr. Künstler admits.

The next stage is what he refers to as “the most frightening moment.” Mr. Künstler said, “There is this beautiful, piece of white, imported, Belgian linen canvas, and I’m about to maybe destroy it.” He then draws the grid pattern on the large, blank canvas, preparing for the transferal of the drawing to the canvas. Next he begins the transferring process, “square by square, so that the composition on the canvas is exactly the same as the preliminary drawing,” he added. He continually makes adjustments as needed. He uses drawings, sketches and photos of models “to get the positions right.” He has plenty of props on hand, as well, to render the details with meticulous accuracy.

Before he adds fine details in paint, he lightly lays on the primary areas of color. At this point, he uses the paint sparingly, so that he doesn’t obscure the charcoal sketching on the canvas. “This is when the mood of the painting starts to emerge,” said Mr. Künstler. His paintings constantly evolve as he works, and he admits that it can be difficult to actually finish, as artists tend to keep amending their work.

“I had a teacher in art school who used to say that it takes two people to paint a picture; one to paint it and one to hit him over the head to let him know that it was over with and finished, and take the painting away from him,” Mr. Künstler said, with a grin. The last step is adding his signature to the painting.

This incredible glimpse into the creation of a Mort Künstler painting, at the Nassau County Museum of Art should not be missed. The artist is releasing a fully-illustrated book, also entitled For Us the Living, issued by Sterling Publishing, which will be available for sale at the Nassau County Museum of Art’s gift shop at the time of the exhibition. For more information, contact the NCMA in Roslyn Harbor, at 484-9338.