Mysterious, private and fiercely independent as a man, Chet Reneson has become the most widely recognized sporting artist in America. His vibrant watercolors, whether of a duck hunter in a snowy marsh or tarpon fishermen poling a tropical flat, are honest and evocative, executed with such clarity and spontaneity that they need no interpretation.
"One of my favorite comments about Chet is that he's always mad at somebody or something," says Bob Abbett, a long-time friend and an exceptionally fine artist in his own right. "He obviously throws that same kind of passion into his work. Every conversation we've ever had has been spirited, and it's that same spirit and passion that surfaces in every one of his paintings. It's rare to see that in this business."
At age sixty, Chet Reneson believes he is now in his artistic prime. "With the exception of a few pieces," he maintains, "I really feel I'm doing the best work I've ever done. Creating strong shapes and using contrasting colors seems to come easier than in the past. I'm also using a lot more bright colors and with a lot more success. That's not to say that I'm not working hard; I always work hard on every painting. It's just that I don't have to struggle as much to achieve what I want."
Indeed, very few artists can handle transparent watercolors with the confidence that is evident in every Reneson painting. And, in such a distinctive style, one that is bold and powerful, simple and direct.
The foundation for Reneson's unmistakable style was laid early. "Henrik Mayer, my teacher in art school, preached three values: light, dark and strong," Chet recalls. "He also preached simplification to the point of brutality. If he were living today, he'd still be telling me that my work isn't simple enough. Every time I do a painting I feel like the old codger is looking over my shoulder. He was such a driver and so demanding that if I wasn't really truly producing the best work I could, I'd want to hide under the drawing board as soon as he came to look at what I was doing."
"Chet has the ability to truly simplify a painting," notes Abbett. "It's not just the basics I'm talking about; it's the way he simplifies the whole picture. For example, he'll do a painting of a duck hunter hauling a boat through a snowcovered slough. He'll strip that painting down to the barest essentials, and that's very difficult to do. I also strive to simplify, but I want to show certain things. I like to paint more in control."
"I may not paint the way Chet does," Abbett adds, "but I admire his work greatly and I realize the difficulty of it. Of course, we can't grade people solely on the degree of difficulty, because then the guy who makes a bridge out of toothpicks would win. However, the fact remains that what Chet does is very difficult, and very few artists can do it."
Another man who played an important role in Chet's career was Jim Jeffrey, who in 1964 owned Sporting Gallery & Bookshelf, one of the first sporting art galleries in the country. Chet was only twenty-eight, eking a living as an animal illustrator in New York, when he visited the prestigious Manhattan gallery. "I went there with a portfolio of my stuff, hoping they'd handle it, I looked around at all the other art for quite a while before approaching old man Jeffrey. Full of apology, I said, 'I don't know if you're ever going to be able to sell any of my stuff; it doesn't look like anyone else's in here.' He said, 'Don't worry about what other people do. Do what you do. Now get out of here. Go home and paint.' I'll never forget that."
Today, three decades later, Chet Reneson continues to follow Jeffrey's advice, and with a fervor seldom found among modern artists. "At this stage I'm painting for myself...from my heart and soul," says Chet. "And I work continually. I have a chance to do something significant in sporting art, and I don't have time for anything but that."
Reneson would be the first to say that he has been influenced by Winslow Homer, and that Homer's art sparked his imagination the first time he saw it. Chet has drawn fire from some critics for being a little too close both to Homer's style and subject matter. Abbett disagrees. "I don't think it's a valid criticism. Homer went through many different subjects and many quite detailed paintings before evolving to a looser, impressionistic style and choosing hunting, fishing and the Bahamas as subject matter, Chet began there and has continued to grow."
"There are far too many artists out there slavishly copying
photographs, and I'm deeply saddened by that. The art world
is just overrun with them. They must never ask themselves
that they are contributing to art other than the rendering. It's
really refreshing to know someone like Chet."
Another man who knows Reneson well is Michigan art collector Bob Bartleson. "I regard Chet as the brother I never had," says Bartleson. "We've grown very close over the years. He's a very intense person and that intensity shows in his art. His paintings aren't photographic, but his memory nearly is. He can paint from memory right down to the color of clothing someone was wearing on a fishing trip.
"One day I saw one of his watercolors, of a man painting the transom of a sailboat. Two people are watching him; one is simply a bystander and the other is Chet's wife, Penny. Well, I liked the idea of Penny being in the painting, so I bought it. But there was something about the bystander that bothered me. He had on a loose, short-sleeved shirt which was flapping in the breeze, and he had one hand in his back pocket. Still I couldn't place what bothered me."
"That evening we went out to dinner with Chet and Penny and while we were eating it suddenly hit me. I said, 'Chet, the guy standing there...you forget to paint his right arm.' 'No I didn't: he said. 'He has only one arm.' I said, 'Okay, but nobody else knows that. Why not add the other one? Chet said, 'No. I know the guy and he has only one arm. Shark got the other one.' And that's the way it stayed. I now own a painting of a one-armed man watching a fellow paint a sailboat. Every time one of my guests notices it, I have to recount the whole story."
Penny incidentally, does much more than pose for her husband's paintings. "She does all the dirty work," says Chet, "like the billing and taxes so my time can be totally dedicated to painting."
The couple met in 1958, while attending art classes at the University of Hartford in Connecticut. They were married two years later, even though he still had one semester to complete in his fourth and final year.
"We decided to go for it because we had seven dollars between us:' Chet laughs. "But those beginning years were tough. Penny dropped out of art school to pursue something more practical...she saw how I was struggling so it didn't make much sense to her to be an artist. Instead, she became a nurse and believe me, her paychecks kept us afloat for a long time. She started getting more involved in my career about 1975, and it just escalated from there. Now she runs everything."
Chet also gets some help from 28-year-son Aaron, who is currently pursuing an MBA in International Business. "He has no desire to be a painter," says Chet, "but he has an incredible eye for looking at a painting and providing a critical review of its overall scheme."
The Renesons moved into their 250-year-old home/studio at Old Lyme in the mid-'70s. At this rustic woodland retreat, Reneson zealously guards his privacy. He has no time for unwanted visitors, and he is not shy in making that fact known to those who "just drop by." If one is serious about purchasing a painting, he will spare whatever time he deems necessary. However, tirekickers are shown the exit, posthaste.
It would not be fair to paint Reneson as anti-social; he simply values his time and privacy too much to while it away on frivolity and social climbers. Chet feels ill-at-ease in a crowd, and he avoids art exhibitions and other gatherings. If it were feasible, he'd be absent even at his own one-man shows.
Recently (and somewhat reluctantly), Chet agreed to do a one-man show at the American Museum of Fly Fishing in Manchester, Vermont. Twenty-four paintings were exhibited; nineteen sold. Alanna Fisher, the museum curator responsible for the show, was ecstatic. "I expected some sales," she said, "but nothing like this! Nople came in prior to the opening, picked out the ones they wanted, and then the instant we opened they showed up to buy them."
Reneson's watercolors sell, not only because they are compelling images, but because they are priced within reach of many buyers. He keeps his prices low - currently $4,200 for a 17 x 27 watercolor - a real bargain when you consider his widespread acclaim. Of course, if you're offering your work at modest prices, then it helps to maintain a steady flow of new works. Chet completes from forty to fifty watercolors a year, which in addition to the obvious cash flow, helps to generate a greater following in the sporting art community.
"I never have less than twenty commission requests at any one time," he says. "When people call, I put their name into an envelope, which is bulging at the seams right now. And it doesn't even count the galleries who keep calling me for my work."
Chet is a prolific painter, not because it comes easy, but because he pushes himself to the limit. Whether work or pleasure, Reneson throws everything he's got into the activity. He spends a great deal of time in his studio painting, drawing, designing and experimenting with colors. When not in his studio, he's outdoors gathering reference for future works. His idea of a vacation is to do the things he plans to paint next.
Actually participating in, or at the very least, witnessing the events he paints, probably accounts for the magnetic attraction between viewer and painting. When standing in front of a Reneson watercolor, you have no doubt that the artist "has been there."
Long-time collector Dave Childers explains his personal attraction to Reneson's art. "Chet paints his own experiences, but they are also other peoples' experiences. I've hunted the same way as in a Reneson painting; I've fished the same spots with the same kind of guide and boat. I've been in bone-chilling cold in the same duck blind, setting out the same decoys. When I look at a Reneson painting, all of my own experiences come back to me. Before I ever met Chet, I felt like I knew him."
Childers and other friends know that Chet is much more of an intellectual than he appears or even wants to appear. His pleasure reading consists of biographies, history and research connected with his art. He recently studied a book on painting techniques of the mid-1800s, then tried to apply those techniques to his work. Few artists today would go to such lengths in an effort to learn more and to experiment with their technique.
Renesons art forces the viewer to use his imagination. He omits superfluous details, so you must mentally fill in the voids. Much of today's "art" is photographic realism, which tends to create uncreative artists and mentally lazy viewers. It allows the viewer to remain in his "comfort zone." Everything is laid in front of the eye; nothing is left to the imagination. The only pleasure is in identifying individual feathers, counting leaves, or marveling over the fact that every hair is in place. Chet's paintings force the viewer out of his comfort zone and allow him to experience the creativity that went into the piece. That's where the excitement in art really is.
Chet forces himself out of his own comfort zone, especially by using strong, contrasting colors. In the cover painting of the grouse shooter, he incorporated large areas of deep purple heather, emerald green grass, bright blue sky and white clouds. "With a painting like that," he says, "I really go out on a limb. I know what I want the end result to be, but I never know if it's going to work until the painting is finished or very nearly finished. If it works, I wind up with a good painting. If it doesn't, then I trash it."
Bob Kerr, a carver who has received the Queen's Award for his contribution to Canadian art, has always admired Chet's uninhibited use of watercolor. "The difficulty of what he does," Kerr says, "isn't apparent until you try to do it." When asked how he would rank Reneson among today's watercolorists, he responded, "if Chet were a cowboy, he'd be throwing a loop farther than anybody else."