Nelson is an extraordinary realist painter whose collections are cherished all over the world. He has generously shared his skills and interest with others by founding, Studio Incamminaiti in Philadelphia to teach the rigors of realistic painting.
Your sensitivity and inclination to art showed itself in your early childhood years: “I started painting when I was 5. Did your parents encourage your passion for art? Were they creative individuals?
My mother was a pianist, so I was listening to great music all day long as a child and even now. And my father left for World War II, and in preparation for coming back, he bought an oil painting set for himself. I, at age five, promptly used it up.
And so, I would have been 5 when I did the first oil painting. Maybe not exactly what the average child would do because I was very interested in space and light and shadow and a few other things.
He also bought my mother one of the better coffee table books of that time; of course, they’re nothing like the ones now. It had illustrations of some of the great artists from the Early Renaissance on through the Impressionist, maybe even Post-Impressionist. It was about an inch-thick book, and I pretty much wore it out--just fascinated by the paintings. My favorites were, at that time, a certain early Renoir and then Rembrandt and Ingres and art like that. Even at age 5, I was captivated by this book and by art.
When you were using that oil painting kit, were you looking at pictures at that time—or in the mirror—or at your mother?Actually at 5 years old, needless to say, I had no experience. I had no formal education, no education at all.
And my aunt who I think was working in Los Alamos on the nuclear projects couldn’t send any postcards from there, so she sent things from Albuquerque, New Mexico. And so I received this Albuquerque postcard—I didn’t, my family did—and it was an Indian adobe house with these poles sticking out of the front and cast shadows running down the front of the adobe. And I found that fascinating, and that’s what I painted—not normally what, as they say, a five year old would paint. We still have that silly little picture.
As far as encouragement is concerned, I don’t think I received any negative response. But my parents certainly were not cheerleaders, so it was something sort of in between. I would run to my parents, every five minutes and say “Look, look. This is the best thing I’ve ever done.” They didn’t ridicule me at least.
Your father must have particularly had some art sensitivity. How many fathers from World War II, having been away, or not even away, would buy an oil painting set and this particular book?True, he had even done a pastel or two. Although he was a very busy businessman, he did have interest there.
As a teenager you demonstrated not just incredible talent but also a strong sense of independence. You began studying at the Art Students League in NYC at 18 and managed to earn your own tuition through work at the school. Do you ever look back and wonder about being so young with such drive and focus?
It is kind of remarkable; I honestly can’t account for it. I did go to college for a couple of years and I was thoroughly bored. I would find myself on weekends running to museums and studying various paintings, particularly among which was Rembrandt, of course. By the time I got to New York, I was completely captivated by the idea of being a painter and so I dedicated my whole life to it. Beginning then work was something I enjoyed. Work—if painting is work—why, then I was working. But I feel a little guilty calling it “work” because I am so involved in it. It’s a compulsion, and it’s gratifying at the same time—very gratifying.
With prestigious grants you studied in Italy returning later to teach in Memphis, Chicago, New York (Art Students League, The National Academy of Design) and then Bucks County, Pennsylvania. During the years that you were strengthening your skills as a realist painter, were you also reflecting on your next move to art education?Quite frankly, at that point, I was consumed with learning all these skills myself and gaining capability. I was aware that it was just completely incredulous that the teaching level was so pathetic that I just felt challenged to try to do something about it in my own way. And I’ve had a compulsion to do that ever since, for the last 50 years.
You have continued to teach. You generously established an art apprentice program in your home studio at no cost to the student and then considering the high demand for developing skills in painting realism; you founded Studio Incamminati in Philadelphia. That was a huge investment of your time and energy. What support did you have to make that happen so successfully?
Well, the students who came to me pleading that I teach in Philadelphia were my biggest, let’s say, fan club, and they were the most encouraging because they were very, very excited about the idea of something being created. The first few years, I was the sole teacher, and so I was there teaching two or three days a week, all day. And it was sort of holding back my own work. So, as the years have gone by, I’ve had students whom I have trained become the teachers. And this is part of the philosophy—that the students become teachers and start doing a little bit of teaching rather early on in their education. Now we’ve developed some absolutely superb teachers and painters who are going around this country and the world teaching. This is only the beginning of what will definitely be expanded.
That’s sensational. It’s really giving back.It’s working big time.
Your portraits are rich in realistic life details and also carry a depth of soulfulness. Who was your first well-known commissioned portrait? How did you receive that project?
Oh wow, I can barely remember. I know that a businessman, an associate of my father’s, asked me to paint a portrait, but it was way too early. I didn’t have that kind of confidence when I was about nineteen. Then when I was in New York studying, I was asked to paint the head minister of the All Saints Unitarian Church on Madison Avenue in New York, and I painted Dr. Walter Donald Crane. Right about that time, I also went to Europe—to Italy for a couple of years—so I painted a lot of friends and a lot of things but not high profile commissions. So let’s see, oh gosh, it’s very hard to remember. It's just been a question of slowly going up a staircase. And it’s hard to know if there’s any one point where the light starts flashing and suddenly, oh boy, I’m painting some important people. I don’t put that much into the celebrity status, because I’ve come to the conclusion that all people have depth, and all people have something that I would love to extrude and put into a painting. And so, it’s not just kings and queens and princesses that I go into with depth. It’s virtually everything I paint, frankly.Then again getting to know these people—some, I have become very good friends with. Perhaps the deepest relationship might be with Diana, but I also had a wonderful relationship with Margaret Thatcher. I painted her twice, so I spent many, many hours with her—both during the paintings and other times. We were great friends.
Generally speaking, we make friends. And because I’m painting friends, their humanity is very much in the forefront. It’s very gratifying that way because I don’t hide what I’m doing and then sort of flash it to them at the end. They are part of the process, and they see what I’m doing the whole way. And I think they really, really gain from it. People I never would have expected would get excited and interested in the project do become interested and excited about the project. So, that’s very gratifying. I’m not just painting an object. So, it makes a big difference.
Now that you are famous and in museums, galleries and collections all over the world, do you have an agent(s) for your art or do commissions come to you directly?
Well, they normally come to me directly. I run across so many people and so many people are aware of my work that I don’t need someone out there peddling it. But often I’ll get, for example, a recommendation—someone will be sent to me by a museum director or museum curators or people that are in the art world or that kind of thing—or just because of connections that have somehow or other been attained over the last half-century. But selling paintings—I just run across people that really want them, and that’s very gratifying.
Occasionally, I will have a show with an exhibition, for example I just had two very, very important exhibitions in Russia. I was invited by the Russian Academy of Art to have a major exhibition there, and I did, two years ago. And then the State Russian Museum in St. Petersburg wanted the same show and got it. So, I showed at the two very major Russian Museums. And that was I guess word of mouth, people heard about me, or whatever, and they approached me.
You have said that “You cannot make a major difference doing things in a minor way”. Has that belief driven you to succeed?
With the major things in my life, my painting, and therefore my teaching—and of course my family—there is no element of complacency as I approach these things, and that might be represented by calling it in a minor way. So for example—the teaching—I could teach a few students or have a few apprentices here living with me around the house, but actually I think reaching a greater number of people and influencing art worldwide is my ambition. I think we’re well on the road. I think art needs some major changes. And what they call modern art is just ridiculous. I think it’s time to reset the clock and reset the direction of art, and we’re doing that. But it’s a big responsibility to teach people not just talk about it.
Words almost become meaningless. But I think we can change some things, but there has to be better art out there for people to grasp on to. And with great hope and luck, I and some of these students will provide that. So that’s what I mean by doing something in a big way. But I don’t mean that you should make—when you fix breakfast—spend a lifetime on it. I think you do have to select the most important things to address your time with.
At 75, you remain very active by painting almost daily and continuing to teach at Studio Incamminati. Do you have daily routines? Do you still have any unfulfilled goals?
I have exactly the same routine I think I’ve always had, but maybe it’s more of a routine than it ever was. I get up early, often its dark and I’ll come to the studio very early in the morning, and I will paint without sitting down often for ten or eleven or even twelve hours.
And, it’s no more difficult for me to do that now, in fact perhaps easier than it ever was because it’s become quite a habit. I do know that many of my students fall on the floor in exhaustion after about an hour, and I’m like the little battery that keeps on going. And I feel I have every bit as much energy and a whole lot more experience and ability than I had when I was much younger.
Do you work out? Do you do some physical exercises that help you maintain this incredible routine?
A little, but I have little, little ambition to become an Arnold Schwarzenegger.
Do you possibly have any unfulfilled goals at this point?
Just more and better paintings—I think my paintings are almost becoming more ambitious in the last five or six years than they’ve ever been—and more complicated. I think they’re more competent. I think they have greater appeal visually, and I think they’re more exciting. I think they have greater depth, and so this is all an accumulation of knowledge that I’ve gained over all these years. And I’m enjoying the heck out of being competent.
But, there is nothing like knowledge, and one of my statements that I would make, unsolicited from you, is that “show me somebody that is self-taught, and I’ll show you someone who is incompetent and ignorant.” Because there is such a vast, vast, vast resource in art history and those paintings and painters that have come before, that somebody who has not seen those—because if they’ve seen those at all and studied them at all, then they’re not self-taught—they’re getting it from—self-taught means total ignorance, and I’m not for that at all. I think the more you know, the greater the creativity.