- A soft summer afternoon presents an enchanted moment, when mother and tiny daughter venture out together over the sun-dappled water. "How like life this painting is," muses the artist. "As adults we gently lead our children into the wider world, hopeful that the dangers will stay hidden well below the surface until we can teach them some of life's important lessons. Their confidence and trust strengthen us, enabling us to protect their innocence and instill the values we venerate."
- The Artist
An artist could not create art with such an endearing reflection of the beauty of this world unless they themselves burned bright with a passion, sensitivity and embrace of life. One look at his art will tell you that Steve Hanks was a truly gorgeous man, his brush telling tales of the whispering caress of light. In the art he created, we bore witness to the passage of the tides of life - family, love, heartache, and healing. With each image he created, we were drawn further into the human drama—What are these subjects thinking. What are they feeling. Everything he painted was rich and multidimensional. His figurative paintings, combined with their titles and layered images, rewarded viewers who looked beyond a surface glance. Light and shadow conveyed comfort or indecision. An ocean hinted at the expanse of life; a river, a transition; a lake, a place of serenity and stillness. Highways and train stations represented points of transition. The simple location of a woman on a stairway between a door and the sidewalk told the tale of how far she traveled on her journey of emotional healing.
"Art comes from a deep inner sense of direction. It starts with a re-evaluation of your own life, from a search for the source of the impulses and the mystery of it all," said Hanks, whose limited edition fine art prints are immensely popular across the country, marking him as one of the top selling artists in the United States. "I think of myself as an emotional realist. Emotion is what I want to portray. Realism is just my way of doing it."
And no one did it better. The detail, color and realism of Hanks' paintings are unheard of in this difficult medium - A softly worn patterned quilt, the play of light on the thin veil of surf on sand, or the delicate expression of a child. Hanks captured these nuances of life better than anyone. His astonishing realism came from a skillful control of washes, edges and layers, and his intimate knowledge of the properties of water and pigment. "Now I understand how to gain control by letting go," he explained in his 2006 book, Moving On. "I just want to be part of the ride."
At its core, Hanks' art is about the simple beauty in life - the innocent divinity of infants and children, the maternal link between mother and child, the aesthetic beauty of the female form, cast in light and shadow, in stillness and in dance. Each composition serves the emotion Hank sets out to paint, the mysterious air a woman glancing downward, the confidence conveyed in the upward tilt of a chin, the delightful abandon of a girl's spiraling limbs on a beach, the determined conviction of young woman's steady gaze at the wide horizon ahead of her. The deeper the emotional landscape of his subject that he wanted to express, the vaguer the location. The complete expression of the figure was his way of saying, "This is where you are in the world."
But Hanks' paintings are much more than realistic images of women and children. Rather than conveying a specific message through his paintings, he prefers to explore memories and emotions. "My paintings speak to the vulnerability that we all feel from time to time. They evoke nostalgia, transporting us back in time," he said. "All art is an escape to somewhere you want to be or a feeling you want to have. People see different things in my paintings because we all have different backgrounds and feelings."
His highly collected nudes convey an introspective solitude that invites viewers to reflect on the life path we follow. The emotional impact of these detailed, photorealistic paintings lucidly captures his nuanced appreciation for this particular subject matter - "Women occupy a special niche in my sensitivity. They express more storytelling ability. There's more magic in them," he explained. Whatever his subject—children, families, women, nudes, landscapes, water, textile patterns—the paintings are also about light, shadow and emotion. They each reveal a personal challenge, pain, or joy of the artist.
Although known for his enormous artistic ability, Hanks' main interest while growing up in Southern California was sports. As a young teenager, he pursued surfing and tennis with passion. He eventually tired of competitive tennis but continued to surf, finding a spiritual connection with the ocean, a connection that stayed with him his entire life. "Surfing had a strong influence on my paintings," he said. Though he lived most of his life in landlocked Albuquerque, his heart was forever near water as evidence by his art. Contemplative figures were sometimes painted near shimmering lakes and rivers but the Pacific Ocean is where both pure joy and the complications of relationships played out in his art... "The ocean often appears in my work, because I have such strong feelings for it... It was good for the soul to be out in the water—surfing, swimming, or simply getting in touch with its mysterious power."
While it was apparent early on that he had talent, his art career didn't blossom until the age of sixteen when his parents moved the family from Southern California to Albuquerque, New Mexico. In California, he had been very active in sports. Devastated by the move, Hanks spent much of a year in his room listening to music and drawing posters for music groups. Hanks remained rebellious, refusing to do the required assignments in his high school art class, earning a "C" in the course. "To prove I was good, I did a one-man show at the high school and sold my first painting to another art teacher," he says.
After high school graduation, Hanks "jumped in the car and went back to California," enrolling in summer session commercial art courses at the Academy of Art in San Francisco. "The only way I could convince my parents to let me go was to say I was going into commercial art," he said. "I didn't even know what that was." He did well in his classes, but it was a life drawing class that captured his interest. He focused his energy on the study of anatomy and figure drawing, transferring into the California College of Arts and Crafts in Oakland, eventually graduating with a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree. Initially, he drew in pencil and painted in oils. His paintings were impressionistic, while his drawings were more realistic. However, an allergic reaction to oils forced him to experiment with watercolors. Using the techniques learned from other media, he found he could create watercolors as "finished" as oils.
Following college, Hanks took a job as a caretaker at a Campfire Girl's camp near Cuba, New Mexico in 1976. The pay was minimal, but the rent was free, and all during the winter months his time was his own. For the next four-and-a-half years, Hanks focused on his art, experimenting with different media—watercolor, pencil, acrylics—and honing his craft. "If I hadn't spent so much time perfecting my drawing skills," he comments, "I would not be the painter I am today." His first romantic piece, "Daisies and Lace", was a harbinger of his developing style—it featured a lacy dress and a serene sunlit setting.
As a result, a unique talent gave birth to his genius through hard work. Few artists could duplicate the emotional depth Hanks achieved in his spectacular watercolors. Each painting was meticulously drawn with great attention to detail, each watercolors reflecting a moment in time. The viewer's reward was a grand interconnectedness with the artists' favorite moments, which reflect the our experiences as well, a style that Hanks called "emotional realism." He often leaves the faces of his figures obscured or turned away, not only to leave the face to the imagination of the viewer but also to allow the entire image to express the emotion. Backlighting is also a signature element of his style - "Sunlight has become one of my favorite subjects. I'm fascinated by how it filters through things, how it floods a whole room with color. Often my paintings are really more about sunlight than anything else."
Jurors, galleries and collectors have long recognized Hanks' formidable talents, considering him the preeminent artist working in the technically exacting domain of realistic watercolor painting and justly rewarding him with many accolades. Hanks won the Arts for the Parks Marine Art Award of Excellence in 1990 and 1994, and has been one of the Arts for the Parks top 100 artists since 1989. In 1991, Hanks received the National Watercolor Society Merit Award and the National Academy of Western Art awarded him the Gold Medal in 1992. Since 1993, he has been one of U.S. Art Magazine's top ten American artists. When the Pacific Rim show in Seattle, WA decided to open the show up to a wider variety of art in 1999, they selected Steve as Artist of the Year. Steve was one of five winners selected to the U.S. Art Hall of Fame 2000. He was named as one of the top 25 selling artists in the June, 2002 issue of Decor magazine. The 7th Annual Andre Agassi Grand Slam for Children chose Steve as their Feature Artist in 2002.
In the fall of 2014, Hanks painted a rare self-portrait in his studio. It is both layered and complicated, befitting its subject. In the painting, there are reflections of reflections, and he includes the tools of his trade and the studio artifacts that surround him. The life model, perched on the artist's chair, studies her portrait on the easel. The tumbling quilt and her leg convey the tall verticality of the painting, yet the horizontal portrait and the framed art on the wall keep the eye focused on the center of the painting. The artist has stepped away from the easel and is framed in the circular mirror. Viewers are left to wonder, "what is he studying. The model, the painting, life. In the mirror, above his head to the right, is the leading edge of a surfboard and below that, another mirror and within that, the reflection of the artist in the circular mirror and so on.
"Steve Hanks was a man driven by private passions," wrote a colleague in the introduction to The Art of Steve Hanks - Poised Between Heartbeats. "He never painted to sell, but only to survive and follow his star. Each painting is a momentary glimpse through the moving curtain that hides the secrets of his craft. Each painting is a mystery that needs to be sorted out and unraveled." These words suggest something of the complexity that was Steve Hanks. A product of the turbulent sixties, his artistic vision began with hard-edged caricatures, moved through the artistic fads of the day, and, finally, to a quiet, curious celebration of the world around him.
"I've tried to be responsible and put positive images out into the world... I hope that my work brings comfort, pleasure and insight into people's lives," explained Hanks, who resided with his wife, Laura, in Albuquerque, New Mexico where they raised their three children who were often portrayed in his art. "I want my whole body of work to tell a story when I'm gone," he said. "It will tell the story of my life emotionally."
Hanks passed away in 2015 from complications of treatment for cancer.
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