During the Pandemic: A Conversation with Benjamin Patterson

Pictured Above: Lakeshore, oil on wood panel, 16”x 20”

Written by: Francesca Sinnott

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Pictured: Self-portrait, oil on canvas, 13.5”x18”

Life during the pandemic has not changed very much for Benjamin, a self-described “art monk.” He doesn’t “get out much, preferring a comfortable solitary existence” dedicated to his writing and painting. He is also an amateur art historian, and at one of Co|So’s Artist Meet-Ups Benjamin gave an historical presentation on John Singleton Copley. Benjamin was intrigued by Copley’s life story. An “extremely talented and diligent artist, Copley was the toast of colonial Boston and after moving to England pursued an extraordinarily ambitious series of history paintings, though he struggled to rival the stature of his fellow American, Benjamin West, in the highly competitive London art scene”. Benjamin tells me “I am honored to be in the Copley Society, and I am grateful for the opportunity to show my work through the gallery.”

Growing up, Benjamin loved drawing in pencil and charcoal. He graduated from the University of Chicago (2008) with a BA concentration in Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations. During a junior year abroad, he found himself studying drawing and painting at the Angel Academy of Art in Florence under John Angel and Jered Woznicki, and after graduating from Chicago he returned to complete his education in Florence (2009).

Since art school, Ben has been doing commissioned portraits and also likes to create his own decorative portraits. Sometimes he will use a model, and sometimes he will invent “a character-type from imagination, like a Dutch tronie, with expressive and aesthetic qualities which transcend any interest in who the person happens to be.” When in a mood to relax, he works on landscape paintings, though his “most ambitious projects are history paintings of canonical subjects like Bacchus and Ariadne or the Crucifixion”. For visual reference, he relies heavily on Old Master paintings and constructive anatomy as well as photography. Though he would like to work more from life,  he does not have the space or the lighting in his studio to work from a live model.

All of Benjamin’s paintings are originals, but they will channel the old Masters like Rembrandt, Titian, or Raphael. Benjamin makes a living from his smaller paintings, and his work comes from referrals. Each painting can take anywhere from one week to several months to create.

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Pictured: Portrait of Julianne, oil on wood panel, 12” x 16”

During a Zoom tour of his 106-year old studio, which is essentially the living room of a house filled with antiques and (his) paintings on easels, Benjamin shows me an illustration of a “compositional armature” which was used in the Renaissance to generate symmetrical lines in a painting. He provides me with an art history lesson on the shifts in the use of this technique over hundreds of years and how canvases with certain proportions, “such as 1 by the square root of 1.5 or 1 by the square root of 2, were preferred by Renaissance painters because they generate beautiful symmetries.”  

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Pictured: Judith and Holofernes, oil on canvas, 32” x 45”

This painting was “inspired by Cristofano Allori’s elegant interpretation of Judith’s beheading of the Assyrian General Holofernes from the Deuterocanonical book of Judith in the Old Testament”. The allegory has been the subject of many Renaissance and Baroque paintings. “In a painting like this, I start with several gestural sketches to get a feel for the subject-matter and how I want to arrange the basic elements in the composition. I then draw a ‘cartoon,’ a full-scale drawing of the painting, working first from imagination before turning to visual references in Old Master paintings and photographs.” He casually motions to the wall of art reference books on the bookcase behind him and excitedly talks about the human figure and how “there are so many variables in the proportions, posture, and lighting of the human figure that it is almost impossible to find an exact match for what I am looking for on any given occasion. Even though there have been thousands upon thousands of paintings of the human figure, the variety of the figure is inexhaustible.” 

 Benjamin uses natural pigments as the Old Masters did and is able to describe in detail the difference between “rose madder, cadmium, genuine vermillion and venetian red (red oxide) pigments”.

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Pictured: Penitent Magdalene, oil on canvas, 27” x 33”

This winter, Benjamin painted pastoral landscapes that were complex, involving allegorical figures. He shows me an example of a pastiche modeled after several paintings by Dutch artist Nicolaes Pieterszoon Berchem.


Pictured: Italianate Landscape, oil on canvas, 16” x 20”

Some landscapes that Benjamin also worked on this spring are inspired by the Hudson River School. Benjamin cites as inspirations artists like Albert Bierstadt, Frederic Church, and Thomas Moran. 

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Pictured: Cobblestone, oil on wood panel, 12” x 16”

Benjamin has a website but admits he would rather paint than promote himself. His advice to other young artists, “follow your passion but keep your priorities in order.” His book, Ave Gratia Plena: On Painting after Postmodernism, will be published this fall. It is about the current movement behind the revival of classical painting among painters learning the skills of the Old Masters and aspiring to make something of it.  Sounds almost autobiographical, don’t you think?