Sunrise, Sunset

An exhibition of Graham Nickson’s watercolors is on view in the Lehman Art Center. 
Graham Nickson P’16 always just assumed he would be an artist. He began painting and drawing at a very young age, and both his father and his older brother were artists. The path he felt destined for took on a new meaning, however, when he met one of his brother’s art teachers, the painter Frank Auerbach, in London when he was 13 or 14 years old.
“My brother was in a conversation with this artist, in a very intense manner, and the seriousness and the sense of purpose and sense of immensity of the project that Auerbach put across in that conversation impressed me enormously,” Nickson said. “My instinctive idea that I would be an artist became something more special and powerful.”
Nickson went on to get a master’s degree from the Royal College of Art in London, win the Prix de Rome, The Harkness Fellowship at Yale University, the Guggenheim Fellowship and the Ingram Merrill Fellowship. His work is in the permanent collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, MoMA, the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. and the Fogg Art Museum at Harvard University, along with several others. He is currently serving as the Dean of the New York Studio School of Drawing, Painting and Sculpture (NYSS) where he teaches full-time.
An exhibition of his work is now on display at the Robert Lehman Art Center through May 3, and Friday evening Nickson was on campus for the exhibition opening.
The works on display are all watercolors, and many depict sunrises and sunsets. About half were painted last summer on Nantucket, and the others were painted in Italy, mostly in Umbria, between 2003 and 2007.
Nickson started painting the sky in the early 1970s, when he was a student in Italy. When he first arrived in Rome, expecting to continue the work associated with his master’s program, a portfolio with over 150 of his drawings and paintings was stolen from his car. With his plans for continuity dashed, he looked for a new project.
“It was a complete surprise,” he said of observing the sunrises and sunsets. “It’s important to paint these things from direct experience. You never knew if anything would happen. It was an adventure.”
Nickson painted every dawn and every sunset for two years while he was in Italy, and he continues to be fascinated by the subject. Painting in watercolor, however, is a fairly new endeavor for Nickson, who is known for his large acrylic works, some measuring 10 by 20 feet, which can take him up to five years to complete.
“I’ve suddenly become very passionate about it,” he said of the watercolor paintings. “It’s the other side of the coin. The watercolors are spontaneous and there’s the time element; you have to work very quickly.”
Working from his New York studio, Nickson simultaneously labors over large canvases he paints using acrylic or oil paints, and the watercolors, which he completes in an afternoon.
“Both works are benefited by each other,” he said.
Direct observation and looking deeply and thoughtfully into his subjects is important to Nickson’s work, and, as a teacher, he does more than just instruct students on the mechanics of painting.
“We try to make them find the way through the labyrinth of life. Instead of glancing at the world, we teach them to see the world,” he said. “And that means we encourage people to find their own way to ask very real questions about the nature of their activity, and to find their own personal vision.”
One of the ways this is accomplished is through a program Nickson founded at NYSS called the Drawing Marathon. Students in the program, who range from professional artists to people with no previous drawing experience, spend 12 hours a day for two weeks in an intense study of observation and drawing, and Nickson is there with them every step of the way.
“It’s become a very important program, because it’s changed the way a lot of people think about drawing,” he said. “Instead of thinking about it as a production of artwork, it becomes a lifetime of investigation, of discovery. They eat, drink, and breathe drawing.”
One of the things Nickson focuses on throughout the two weeks, he said, is encouraging students to think about drawing in terms of poetry rather than as a shopping list. To him, poetry is about connections.
Through this program, Nickson has come to have the same effect on his students that Frank Auerbach had on him many years ago. Former students often reach out to him.
“You get a call from Tokyo or Chicago saying, ‘I’ve been thinking about what you said five or ten years ago, and it’s still reverberating,’” he said.
Nickson’s daughter, Serena, is a fourth-former at Brooks. She has been drawing and painting with her father from a young age, and is currently interested in poetry; her poems have been published in the Brooks literary magazine Still Waters.
Exhibiting his work at his daughter’s school is special for Nickson because it draws on the sort of connection he is always seeking.
“I’m basically doing something that registers how important Brooks is to my own family. I’m putting myself out on a limb, and saying what you’re doing at the School is crucial and important.”

Click on the photos below to see the full album from the art opening.
Click here to learn more about the Lehman Art Center.
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