Northern painter


Dear Artist,

Visitors to Alaska museums and art galleries can occasionally see the work of Fred Machetanz. Fred was a wanderer from the lower forty-eight who lost his heart to northern grandeur. He and his wife Sara built their studio “High Ridge,” near Palmer, Alaska, in 1950. Greatly honoured later in life, his works were reproduced and his originals were collected worldwide.


Fred in his High Ridge studio, 1950

Many, though not all, of Fred Machetanz’s oil paintings use an ancient technique that was further developed by his friend and mentor Maxfield Parrish. The idea was to start with a well sanded, shiny and brilliant white primer, generally on the smooth side of untempered Masonite. Then he laid in the design, shapes and shadows using a monochrome of (generally) Ultramarine blue in a watercolour style. When dry, areas could be masked off — establishing strong and simple warm-cool areas. Then, using the equivalent of a cosmetic sponge, areas and layers were tamped in with a limited palette of transparent colours that look to me like Prussian blue, Alizarin crimson and Dutch pink. His recorded palettes also included Cobalt and Winsor blue, rose madder, Indian yellow, Phthalo blue, Hansa yellow, as well as the earth colours. The effect, particularly with carefully controlled gradations, was an extreme richness and inner glow. Somewhat like working in grisaille, Fred’s was mainly a studio technique that has now fallen from popularity. The method is notable in its ability to produce well organized compositions of contrasting light and shadow. I’ve asked Andrew to put up a step-by-step breakdown of Fred’s method. See below.

Fred Machetanz isolated his oil glazes with a coat of copal varnish. There is little evidence of cracking on Fred’s surfaces — he was careful not to be too hasty. Indeed, he aged his panels, primed both sides, and used infrared lamps. Fred had many works on the go at the same time — a system appropriate not only for drying but for serious and considered contemplation. His subjects depicted the land and the humans and animals that acted in, for, and against it. There’s a heroism in his paintings — a sort of northern cowboy ethic. He wanted to depict the state as a romantic outpost of adventure, beauty and wonder. In Fred’s words: “I wanted to do for Alaska what Remington had done for the West.”


Fred and Sara, 1958

Best regards,


PS: “When you glaze on a bright white ground it is like looking through colour rather than at it — like looking through stained glass. The glow of Alaska needs this.” (Fred Machetanz 1908-2002)

Esoterica: Fred and Sara were a lifelong, inseparable team. Together they published eight books and collaborated on a number of documentary films. Like many who take subject matter seriously, they gathered a collection of related artifacts. These and other Machetanz gifts are now in the Anchorage Museum. Fred and Sara combined an understanding of the land with an entrepreneur’s outlook. In a difficult environment they achieved a life, a living, and wide respect. Fred was a worker — he painted daily, well into his eighties. His health gave out before his spirit.


Fred Machetanz (1908-2002)


“The Harpoon Strikes Home”
oil on masonite, 1971


“Into the Home Stretch”
oil on masonite, 1978


“The Quest for Avuk”
oil on masonite, 1974







Fred Machetanz’s glazing technique


Composition is laid in using Ultramarine monochrome in a watercolour style.


Monochromatically with blue and white oil paints the painting is further developed.


Transparent glazes of rose madder, gold, yellow-orange and orange begin to establish the quality of light and colour.


“Where Men and Dogs Seem Small”
oil on masonite, 1981
32 x 26 inches









Ancient method
by Jane Champagne, Southampton, ON, Canada


“Hostages on the 504”
tempera on paper
by Doug Tiller

Strikes me that the preparation — ground, sanding, etc. — that Fred Machetanz used is identical to the technique used by mediaeval and renaissance painters, and the method we were taught in art school way back when. A local artist, Doug Tiller, uses it for his combination egg tempera and/or watercolour/oil paintings with great success.

(RG note) Thanks, Jane. From the 15th to the 19th centuries most oil paintings were built up with an elaborate structure of superimposed layers over an underpainting. Since the advent of alla prima, impressionist, plein air, direct and action painting, such a deliberate and craftsmanlike approach has become less popular.


Dutch pink
by Claudia Person, Sacramento, CA, USA

What is and what color is Dutch Pink?

(RG note) Thanks, Claudia. It’s a transparent, golden yellow lake pigment traditionally made from dried, half-ripe buckthorn berries. Not too permanent, it has nevertheless been in use since the 16th century. Modern versions, when available, are synthetic and less fugitive. A common equivalent is Quinacridone gold — a truly useful glazing colour.


Fine painters of Alaska
by Sharon Griffes Tarr, Lansing, MI, USA


“Blustery Day”
watercolor painting
by Sharon Griffes Tarr

We were privileged to see some very fine oil paintings by Alaskan artists while visiting in Anchorage and Fairbanks. Fred Machetanz is unfortunately one we missed. I was particularly impressed with Eustace Paul Ziegler and Sidney Lawrence and saw a number of their pieces. This was such an exciting trip. I love Alaska and wish I could spend a great deal of time there. Perhaps in another lifetime?



Mt. McKinley Paintings


“Mt. McKinley Packhorses”
oil on canvas, 34 x 40 inches
by Eustace Paul Ziegler (1881-1969)


“Mount McKinley in Mist”
oil on canvas, 20 x 15 inches
by Sydney Laurence (1865-1940)








Visit at Fred and Sara’s home
by Merrilee Zenone, Salem, OR, USA


original painting
by Norman Lowell

I was lucky enough to visit at the home of Fred Machetanz as I lived near Palmer in the Mat-Su Valley, Alaska. His paintings are heroic and depict the essence of Alaskan scenery, especially the cold of winter! Sidney Lawrence is still the most inspirational artist of Alaska for me as well as Norman Lowell with whom I studied for several years. Mr. Lowell was in Anchorage in the late ’60s and early ’70s then retired to a homestead near Homer when his arthritis made it nearly impossible to paint.


Use of photographs
by Paul Beresford, UK

I’m sure you get questions of this nature all the time, but if you could answer this one, it would possibly help me. I feel that copying from a photograph is somehow frowned upon — an easy way out and ultimately I have this voice in my head telling me that it is degenerate and not the way to go. I’m so self-critical it’s difficult to think what to do. The photographs I take are my own images and the ideas are my own, so that’s something.

(RG note) No guilt, Paul. Pros use all methods to achieve their ends. Fred Machetanz was one of them. He used the three “golden references” — from life, from the imagination, and from photo reference. But for some reason guilt comes with the territory. I once paid a surprise visit to Norman Rockwell. He met me at the door of his studio and kept me waiting while he stuffed 8 x 10 inch glossies into a drawer.


The spirit does not die
by Bettie Ruble, Rosharon, TX, USA

I painted for years and tried many different things to paint on. One was Masonite with white primer. It was called wipe out or Shiva at that time. I went back in and added shadows. How I wish had seen some Machetanz paintings and wish I could try again. However I am now 80 and my hands will not take my commands. Thanks for showing me what I could have done with them. I now make Art dolls from polymer clay and have won best of show with some of them. I have, however, not given up yet — and like Fred Machetanz my health is giving out before my spirit.


How are most folks doing?
by Elli Ellinghausen, Kirklan, WA, USA

I am meeting many artists and musicians these days who are in their 40s or 50s and are feeling the financial pinch of an insecure future upon them. Many do not have monies stashed away in order to continue to live and make their art… and they are looking desperately at ways to survive. They feel disillusioned at giving their lives to something, and being so poor at the end. I keep praying to find a solution, a place of paradise, a cooperative effort they can join to help somehow… an artists’ colony or business to develop to help them continue to create. The compassion I feel is deep and personal, as I am in much the same boat. In my youth, the fight seemed exciting and worthwhile. I begin these days to feel tired and more than a little naïve… How are most folks doing? Is this just the age-old problem of the world undervaluing artists in general? Or is it some lack of talent, (and thus monetary success) or motivation, or is it poor planning?

(RG note) Thanks, Elli. Success for artists is dependent on a range of factors — good times make it a bit easier — bad times make it a bit harder. The factors you mention are all important — hard work, luck, opportunity, connection, talent, location, etc., play their part. However, it’s been my observation that artists are not undervalued. Rather, they tend to be honoured. It’s poor quality art that is undervalued. That’s why an artist’s main goal ought to be to raise quality. Quality tends to get noticed. If you cruise through our archives you might note that the main thrust of my letters — indeed the whole Painter’s Keys site — is to attempt to help creative people raise quality. Greater understanding, greater care and greater respect for our craft are part of this. Here are a couple of clickbacks that I sincerely hope may be of value to you: Success in art and Times are bad.


Switching on with ontogenesis
by Yaroslaw Rozputnyak, Moscow, Russia

Many people feel a close relationship to children. It is a feeling arising from the phenomenon of ontogenesis (at the first stages of development all living organisms are very similar) — that is we are more close relatives to children and less to their parents or to the same children in elder age. When I go to plein air with my wife Olga Knyaz for painting, we always take small pieces of primed cardboard and give these freely with a handy brush and paint to small children that are coming and looking. Taking the brush (sometimes the first in their life) they really switch on great inspiring impulses. Relative ontogenetic influences work. All small children are relatives of artists.


Acrylic drying problems
by Dave Kellam Brown, Dallas, TX, USA


“Flower peddler”
original painting
by Dave Kellam Brown

I notice more frequently that plein air painters mention that they are using acrylics. I am new to painting and have only been using acrylics for a couple of years because I am impatient and I tended to wind up over-blending or “mushing up” my oil paintings. Acrylics don’t blend well enough in the studio and outdoors they drive me crazy with drying out on my palette. Using small amounts of paint is frustrating. I tried a wet palette but in the Texas sun or Colorado wind, it dried up anyway and the paper even blew away!

Do you or anyone have suggestions or references for extending acrylic drying time? I’ve used retarders and a spray bottle; they help but don’t really get the job done in the open air. In my studio I would use oil except that the solvents give me headache and I hate the clean up.

One last, but related question — is it reasonable to attempt realistic portraits with acrylic or am I just setting myself up for frustration? Any references for this subject?

(RG note) Thanks, Dave. Been there, had the problem. A few tips: Use acrylic medium, not water. Add the retarder to the medium and shake it up. Use the brush differently — the whole brush, not the tip. Do it in the shade. In acrylic, speed’s a virtue. Acrylic teaches speed. When you first start out with acrylics, they dry up too fast. Believe me Dave, after a while you’ll find they don’t dry fast enough. Because you can cover a bad passage and still have it look fresh, acrylic’s a winner for portraiture.


Studio lighting
by Jill Rix, Kelowna, BC, Canada

We are moving in the next two months and our new home will have a room for me and I’m thrilled. I would like your opinion on the paint colour for the walls. The window faces West-North-West. Also, is there a particular type of lighting that might be installed?

(RG note) Thanks, Jill. I used to think that bright cheerful colours like yellow were good for the spirit. But because of the reflected light — and the potential for artists to be thrown off in colour choices, I favour white. If the studio is particularly bright you might consider darkening slightly while keeping the tone as neutral (neither warm nor cool) as possible. With regard to incandescent lighting, daylight fluorescents seem to be okay. Supplement these with halogens approximating daylight — mounted directly on or nearby your easels or workstations. On dark days and at night make sure all lights are on. Highly recommended for artists is the Ott light — colour corrected, very bright, fairly expensive.


Networking venues
by Dawn Smith, Panama


“Animus Version 2”
Foils & acrylic on acetate & parchment
by Dawn Smith

Please have mercy on a pilgrim and answer me two questions: The first is — what’s the best way to break into the British or French market without having to do fairs? My work does better in private settings, rather than group co-ops. Coming from an unorthodox background, the galleries may be leery of my lack of standard credentials.

Also, how can I participate in biennials? I have looked on the Web and talked with individuals, but can’t seem to get any answer. I am in Panama, and here it seems to be about knowing someone, and about being Hispanic (I’m a gringo expat). Any help or clues would be appreciated.

(RG note) Thanks, Dawn. All our work does better in private settings. Group shows distract from and neutralize the uniqueness of private creative beings. Hence the timeless wisdom of the “solo show.” The method of attracting the right kind of commercial galleries is similar in most countries that have a healthy and competitive gallery environment. Britain and France are among them. These days, more and more galleries and dealers are using the Web in order to assess work. Nothing succeeds like success. If one gallery, anywhere, is working for you and has an online presence, give them your best and all the encouragement you can. Send your card or an invitation with your Internet info to other galleries you might like to be in — and leave it in the hands of the Goddess of Art Commerce. Credentials, incidentally, are not as important as your stuff.

Regarding biennials, be careful. Biennials have developed into sprawling commercial art fairs that charge an entry fee and often give little or no benefit to the artist. When packaged with travel, they can be an expensive way to see Italy. It’s been my experience that even the established, invitational ones don’t produce much in the way of believable prestige, but that’s probably just my ignorance. Biennials that aim to feature specific ethnicities or other groups are particularly odious. Art fairs with active dealer participation, on the other hand, are a growing segment of art commerce and have become valuable networking venues.





Ghost Rider Mountain

original painting
by Alice Saltiel-Marshall, Canmore, AB, Canada


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