Painter of Light: Nathan Solano

By Rosemary Thomas
When I moved to Pueblo from the Deep South almost 20 years ago, the very first thing that hit me was the unbelievable amount of sunshine. It was like nothing I’d ever known and it was quite overwhelming; I felt so – exposed. Not long after my arrival, I saw a Nathan Solano painting. It was of the landforms around Lake Pueblo State Park. I was struck by how this artist had so effectively captured the sunlight in his painting. It perfectly expressed my awe at the quality of desert sunlight, and it also captured my feelings of being bared and unprotected. When the publishers of the PULP suggested that this issue should be devoted to the sun, my very first thought was: I have to interview Nathan Solano!

PULP: So, how DO you so effectively capture the sunlight in your paintings?

Nathan Solano: I’m not painting the sun, I’m painting the highlights made by the sun.

At this point, Solano suggested a demonstration. We left his studio and went outdoors. We stood, facing each other.

NS: [facing the sun] Look at my face. Now, let’s swap places. See? That halo effect? That’s all it is. It’s nothing mysterious, people just don’t see it. When the light was in my face, it was so harsh. I was stark white. If you were going to paint a model, where would you put your model to get the most impact? I don’t “catch the light,” I paint the highlights. Your eye goes right to them. It’s also the time of day that you paint and where you face your subject. Do you see what I mean about the light? There’s a difference between looking and seeing. Artists have to learn to see, not just look.

PULP: Your early works were mainly Pueblo scenes, and now your subjects are mostly cowboys and Native Americans. What caused this shift?

NS: I was asked to do a show of Pueblo scenes for Sangre De Cristo Art Center when I moved back to Pueblo in the mid-nineties, hence all of the Pueblo paintings. I have always painted a variety of subject matter. I was an illustrator for years and had to draw and paint everything from cars and furniture to people. I started helping area ranchers herd cattle, so I started painting what I experienced. Painting Native Americans was a natural transition. I do a lot of research on both subjects. You have to know your subject matter.

PULP: It’s been said that Taos has “perfect light.” Any comment on this?

NS: The light here is the same as Taos – it’s no different. The best time to paint, as far as the color, is early morning or early evening. Some painters will paint in the daytime and they won’t use shadows and light. So it’s not the light here, or in Taos, it’s the time of day when you paint based on what you want to capture.

PULP: Do you work from life or photos?

NS: Both. I use a lot of models and I take my own photographs. Almost every artist uses photographs. If they tell you they don’t, they’re lying to you, unless they are strictly plein air [doing the actual painting of landscapes or other subjects outside in the open air]. And the ones that don’t [use photographs] are handicapping themselves. You miss a lot of detail – you can’t capture gesture – without photographs.

PULP: Another thing I’ve noticed about your paintings, which also contributes to the feeling of light and sunshine, is the way you handle your edges. Your subjects are separated from the background in a way that makes them seem to shimmer.

NS: Many artists start with a colored canvas. I am terrified to start on a white canvas.

PULP: Yes, but with yours, the colored underpainting shows through at the edges causing the subject to look like it is illuminated from within.

NS: I never could stay in the lines.


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