Peter Sculthorpe Inspired by Shifting Landscapes
Artist’s work captures familiar Brandywine scenes as well as distant coasts
Fieldstones are more than just building blocks to Peter Sculthorpe. They are pieces of a puzzle. When he built stone walls near his former home on the old King Ranch property outside Unionville, Sculthorpe handpicked every stone—made sure they fit seamlessly, no matter how long it took.
It was time well spent. Those sturdy fieldstones, old trees with ageless character, and lovely time-worn architecture have often been the brick and mortar of the nationally recognized artist’s meticulous watercolors and richly painted oils that over the years have captured the essence of the Brandywine Valley.
In his paintings even the smallest details convey messages, telling stories to the viewer. Sculthorpe also travels extensively to gather inspiration and subject material for his works. Over the past 15 years his sharp eye and gifted hand have captured the rugged coasts of Maine and the maritime provinces of Canada as well as a vivid Oregon coast at sunset.
“I’ve been fortunate to get to know these coastal destinations, from vast open regions to the fierce rugged coastlines,” says Sculthorpe, sitting in his studio near Rockland, Del. “Storms roll through, the seas and winds—it’s all fantastic.”
In the high-ceilinged second-floor loft where he paints, clusters of brushes, partly squeezed tubes of oil colors, and drawing materials are scattered across a pair of hefty worktables. Easels hold pictures of landscapes, misty seascapes, and villagescapes. Canvases, some of size, others small, rest on the floor. Behind Sculthorpe is a work in progress, The Opportunist, of a pair of horses in a paddock looking ready to spar. Sketches of that same scene, composed by deft flicks of his pencil, are tacked to a corner of the canvas.
The past few early springs Sculthorpe has traveled to Monhegan Island where he spends a week exploring, drawing and painting the tiny, rocky isle 10 miles off the Maine coast. It is a throwback to a slower past. A place of natural extremes, Monhegan boasts formidable 160-foot headlands tilting down to a fishing village and quiet coves.
Prominent landscape painters Rockwell Kent, George Bellows, and Edward Hopper arrived at the turn of the 20th century, and later Andy and Jamie Wyeth turned up to capture those soaring bluffs, the roiling sea, and village life.
“Its history is that of a fishing society and it was a tough, tough life,” observes Sculthorpe, 62, peering through oval spectacles. “I am fascinated by the old explorer stories around the turn of the (20th) century that really are blood-curdling tales.
“A lot of the early painters interpreted the landscape in very serene scenes. More and more I’m painting the energy of the ocean. It is so enormous, such a force. If you’re lucky enough to capture that energy coming through, it’s frightening, and it’s that element of danger that I think draws you into the picture.”
Through his masterful observational skills, superb hand- eye coordination, and dramatic lighting, Sculthorpe is able to transform a simple or mundane subject into a work of art.
There is a personal feeling that is very inviting,” says Sadie Sommerville, who staged the artist’s biannual exhibition at Sommerville-Manning Gallery in the historic Breck’s Mill structure last December.
“Take Black Duck Cove. You feel that you can walk up those steps into that little shack; it feels like you really belong there.”
“It’s a reverence for what he paints—the land, its atmosphere, the mood of the light and shadow,” observes Jim McGlynn, another renowned Brandywine Valley artist.
“It’s obvious that Peter studies and pores over his subject, painting in his articulate style,” McGlynn says. “His images glow with ‘place.’ Looking at his paintings I can almost feel the warmth of a Chester County spring day or the cool mist of the rocky northlands.”
Sculthorpe was born in Hamilton, Ontario, in 1948, and moved to West Chester with his family when he was 15. His first ambition was to become a professional cyclist and race throughout Europe. But by age 14, he was spending more and more time in his room drawing.
“The drawing process just got more and more intense,” he recalls. “Much of my work today has its foundation in what I used to draw as a kid. When I had nothing to do I was mesmerized sketching architecture and landscapes.”
On a summer trip to his Uncle Gord’s studio in Toronto, Sculthorpe experienced his eureka moment. Paying the bills as a commercial artist during the week, his uncle flourished as a landscape painter on weekends.
“When I walked into that small studio I saw Uncle Gord’s sketches on a bulletin board, and the room had that linseed oil smell,” Sculthorpe recalls with a small smile. “I said, ‘this is what I want to do. This verifies the fact that you can do this.’ ”
Pausing, he lets the memories flood back. “St. Catherine’s Day in the mid 1960s,” he continues. “Even to this day that’s exactly where my mind goes, that scene comes right back. From then on, as an artist, I never looked back.”
A graduate of Henderson High School, Sculthorpe received a scholarship to the Hussian School of Art, and subsequently studied at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Art. He sold his first painting in 1970 for $800. Continuous experimenting and study brought freshness to his works and lifted his national reputation over the next decade.
Sculthorpe has long been an admirer of late 19th-century landscape artist William Troste Richards, whose meticulous works were imbued with a delicacy and atmospheric quality that were extraordinarily beautiful. Richards spent quite a lot of time in Chester County, painting its landscapes.
“I’ve frequented many of the places Richards painted while on my bicycle,” Sculthorpe says. “I see the landscape one pedal stroke at a time and that allows me to take it in and then go back and work with it.”
Sculthorpe, an enthusiast of the New Hope and Hudson River Schools, has sold paintings to prominent private and corporate collections; he has been exhibited in an array of galleries in the U.S., Canada, and Europe. His works reside in the permanent collections of the Delaware Art Museum and the Brandywine River Museum, as well as the Butler Museum of Art in Ohio and the Frye Art Museum in Seattle.
Sculthorpe cut his teeth on watercolor. Using the demanding medium, he manipulates light and form, giving his paintings a dramatic, natural feeling.
“In watercolors, everything is entirely predicated on the sky,” he explains. “That’s really the mood setter. If it turns out well, it kind of excites the rest of the process.”
The transformation into oils was sparked by Sculthorpe’s regular journeys into Canada’s maritime provinces, specifically Newfoundland, starting in the mid-1990s. Timeworn buildings, marine and village scenes provide raw material for his compositions that emphasize pictorial structure.
“Newfoundland is like Maine on steroids,” the artist says with a laugh. “You get cliffs thousands of feet high, and I love to see how the buildings are fitted into the landscape.
“Up there, you’re alone. You really get beat up by the elements. As a painter, it’s been so inspiring. I’ve stayed with sea captains who are such salt-of-the-earth people, staying up at night drinking rum. With all its robust weather, I’m not sure the place will ever change.”
Mainly, Sculthorpe presents a dialogue on man and nature. He tells stories with his brush about the way light peeks through a stone wall, forewarning its demise. Some of his most coveted works are moonlight pieces. Moody and atmospheric, evocative and poetic, they are often accompanied by snowy pastures. He started painting them 35 years ago.
“You can lose yourself in those skies,” observes Dennis Gleason, who showcases the artist at his Boothbay Harbor, Maine, gallery. “It’s very tough to balance those levels of hue and tone, to capture the nuances of moonlight on snow-covered terrain or in an autumn field.”
“I put these colors together on the paper and they cook,” Sculthorpe explains. “Putting orange and blue in a solution and spreading it on the canvas to form the atmospheric cloud patterns. It creates this luminous green, a fantastic color. It’s scary how luminous it can be.”
Shadows also play a key role.
“You need to think about sources of shadows and the range of the hue because everything is so subtle, it’s not very direct. They are more challenging logistically, but it’s worked beautifully for me over the years.”