DeWitt Hardy Taught the Making of Magic

DeWitt Hardy, Summer by the Little Shore, watercolor, 15" x 8.625"
Summer by the Little Shore, watercolor, 15″ x 8.625″

This article first appeared in The Art Guide 2019, published by Phineas Graphics, Portsmouth, NH. See much more of DeWitt Hardy’s artwork at dewitthardy.com.

A few years ago at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts, DeWitt Hardy and I had just finished touring the spectacular John Singer Sargent watercolor show. We ambled down a long hall, past display cases crowded with sculptures from distant times and cultures, and came to an abrupt left turn in front of a blank wall. DeWitt put his hand up on the wallpaper and said, “This used to be the door to my teaching studio.”

DeWitt Hardy was a painter, draftsman, printmaker, teacher, and a mainstay of the Ogunquit art community. He first visited Ogunquit in 1953, served as associate director and curator at the Ogunquit Museum of American Art from 1965 to 1976, and lead the Barn Gallery for many years. DeWitt died suddenly a year and a half ago, at age 77, immediately after a Barn Gallery opening.

In person, typically clad in sweats, baseball cap, and fingerless gloves, DeWitt was both unassuming and authoritative. In a touching remembrance for Maine Home + Design, Andres Verzosa wrote a spot-on description: “DeWitt was confident, self-aware, affable, and warm… He had a presence that reminded me of both a king and a big brother. He was someone totally in charge and comfortable with their authority while congenial and generous with their knowledge and time.”

White Poinsettia, watercolor, 11.25″ x 10.375″

DeWitt left behind thousands of drawings, paintings, and prints. A small fraction of these will be exhibited at Bates College this coming summer, in “DeWitt Hardy: A Master of Watercolor.” Robert Flynn Johnson, the guest curator of this show, sold his surfboard many years ago to buy one of DeWitt’s paintings. He says, “Hardy incisively observed a Maine after the tourists had left. In complex and original compositions, Hardy shunned the predictable picturesque in favor of harsh but often beautiful realities.”

Future art historians may well describe both DeWitt’s demeanor and his work as “calm.” His landscapes depict serene scenes, his figure studies feature languid models in postures of ennui. His technique featured no flashy gimmicks or blazing colors. I used to think he kept a way-too-messy pallet, but now I know he was much craftier than that. He knew very well how to orchestrate the quiet harmony of his colors.

“If you are drawing the nude and you are not staggered by the humanity of the human figure then you are being dishonest—and you are doing it wrong.” —DeWitt Hardy

DeWitt also left behind thousands of grateful students. In a career that spanned five decades, he taught locally at Sanctuary Arts in Eliot, Heartwood College of Art in Kennebunk, and the University of Maine at Augusta. In conversation he was always generous with his knowledge, always ready to supply a surprising bit of wisdom.

Frown (Overhead Light), watercolor and pencil, 7.75″ x 4.75″. Courtesy Deirdre B. Williams.

Russel Whitten, a protégé of DeWitt’s and now a prominent teacher, recalls how in the middle of life drawing sessions he would offer to give critiques for $7. He met students one-on-one at his dining room table. Over several years, I spend close to 100 hours at that table myself, getting advice, tuning up paintings, and talking about art.

Perhaps one reason DeWitt was such a successful teacher is that he never stopped being a student. He, along with Pat Hardy, his wife at the time, founded the North Berwick Drawing Group in 1963, and was quite proud to have consistently attended its Wednesday evening sessions ever since. I told DeWitt once that I had been bragging about how he had been going to a weekly life drawing group since 1964. “No!” he spoke with vigor, “Since 1963!”

Deirdre Williams, DeWitt’s widow, says, “Painting the nude in watercolor is notoriously difficult. DeWitt reveled in the challenge—and made a career of being good at it. He was always in the presence of naked women. He loved life, what can I tell you?” He used to say to me, “If you are drawing the nude and you are not staggered by the humanity of the human figure then you are being dishonest—and you are doing it wrong.”

His devotion to the figure paid off, both in his own skill and in a system for teaching. “There is nothing Hardy paints with more authority than tones and texture of human flesh,” wrote Edgar Allen Beem in a 1989 Maine Times feature. “Hardy’s self-portraits are among the most honest, frank and unflattering self-appraisals I have ever seen. But it was the female form at which he excelled.”

Lesson in Blue, 14.375″ x 10.5″. Courtesy Deirdre B. Williams.

I talked to Deirdre about his devotion to study. She said, “In the evenings he would stay up and put the classic art books out on the table and compare his own work to what he found there.” To which I smiled and replied, “Yes, he was comparing himself to his peers.” So he didn’t just work at being good, he worked at being as good as the best.

“We are in the business of making magic.” —DeWitt Hardy

DeWitt approached painting as a job to do: you do the right things in the right order and you make a good painting. He knew that the best paintings look artless in composition and effortless in technique. But such success is not something bestowed by a generous muse, rather the product of careful planning and hard work. “Bill,” he told me, “We are in the business of making magic.”

Once, at his dining room table, DeWitt showed me a painting he was working on: a view out to sea with waves rolling in and a dog running across the beach. “I’m not happy about the dog,” he said, “I’m going to work on that.” Two weeks later he showed me the painting again, and the dog was gone. Completely gone—without a trace. “Damn, DeWitt,” I said, scrutinizing the unsullied surface of the paper, “How’d you do that?” After much twinkle-in-the-eye suspense, he revealed that he’d simply trimmed off one end of the painting. Magic, indeed.

He was famous for using a hand mirror, looking back over his shoulder to assess his work. Maria Ayer, a student and framer of his work, says, “I always thought it was amazing that someone with his skill relied on such a workmanlike technique. For him it was a job, it was hard work.”

“You know, Bill, you don’t have to wiggle your brush like that.” —DeWitt Hardy

Watercolor is an infamously challenging medium. Robert Flynn Johnson has nicely summed it up: “To a woman who once asked Edgar Degas what sort of watercolor set she should buy her son, Degas replied that it would be safer to buy him a revolver.” Most students of watercolor will not find that humorous.

DeWitt Teaching at York Art Association. Photo courtesy Bruce McMillan.

DeWitt made the difficult easier with a teaching system that now lives on in generations of grateful students: Draw carefully, divide the image into areas of flat washes, paint light to dark, and add the shadows last.

Many of us struggled against his seemly too-strict simplification. During my first class with him he observed my efforts to give some pizazz to a scene of marsh grass in the late afternoon: “You know, Bill, you don’t have to wiggle your brush like that.” It was great advice then and still relevant now: quit trying to be arty and concentrate on the basics.

Many defiant pupils did not get off so lightly. Ken Fellows, a longtime student of DeWitt’s, recalls a favorite scene from a studio class. “Come on, DeWitt,” spoke up one novice, “there’s lots of ways to paint the nude. We don’t have to do it your way, do we?”

DeWitt turned on the hapless student, pointed his finger and growled, “Yes you do! And I’ll tell you why: If you go home and paint the nude your way, you will get confused. And then you’ll get frustrated, and then finally completely discouraged. You’ll give up painting… and then you will die!”

“He had the kind of charisma common to great teachers.” —Simon Harling

DeWitt’s classroom manner was a mixture of gentle encouragement and tough love. An athlete most of his life, DeWitt brought to the classroom some of the trash talk of his years on baseball and hockey teams. While a few were put off by his blunt banter, most of us not only rose to the challenge, but came to adore him for expressing it. Painter Simon Harling puts it well: “He had the kind of charisma common to great teachers, they make you want to please them.”

Leda (Self Portrait with Deirdre), watercolor, 12 3/8″ x 14 3/8″, Private Collection. Courtesy Bates Museum.

Simon recalls one evening at a life drawing group, where DeWitt advised the room full of diligently scribbling students to take a class in anatomy. As it happened, a couple of the students there were MDs, who spoke up to say that, well, actually, they had studied quite a bit of anatomy. To which DeWitt replied (with a major twinkle in his eye), “Well, then, maybe you just don’t have any talent.”

Ken Fellows recalls an early class in which DeWitt came around and examined Ken’s watercolor in progress. “Well, Ken, at this point in the painting there are three ways you could have gone wrong. And you’ve managed to do all three of them.” Ken was chagrined, yet delighted at the attention—and at what he calls “his perfect score.”

The tales of tough love make great stories, but for every caustic comment he bestowed countless gentle words of encouragement. I rarely saw him critique a student without something reassuring to say. Maria Ayer again: “He was not pretentious, he was giving, he was thoughtful and genuine. He asked my opinion, like it was really important. He was a listener—he made you feel like the most important person in the room. It was always a joy to see him, in his same sweatpants and beat-up t-shirt, with his beat-up portfolio full of beautiful paintings.”

DeWitt Hardy, left, with author and painter Bill Paarlberg at a show at the Kittery Art Association. Photo by Nancy Grace Horton.

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