The Vibrant Paintings of Hutsaliuk

By Joan Hess Michel

Published in American Artist, Special Artists' Guide Issue, August 1969

“When you have experienced the worst, there is nothing more that can frighten you.  Poverty, hunger, or danger hold no terror, “ says Liuboslav Hutsaliuk, who triumphed over hardship and suffering during World War II to become an artist whose paintings are full of joy and beauty.  While some people may become victims of adversity and sorrow, others, such as Hutsaliuk, find inner strength and faith to turn their misfortunes into triumph. 

“There are no hidden messages in my work, nor am I interested in using my paintings as instruments of social reform,” Hutsaliuk says.  “I love to paint, and my only aim is to bring happiness and pleasure to people.  I have seen enough ugliness and experienced enough horror to last my lifetime.  However, I am an optimist and I want to tell people that there is still beauty in the world, and that man has the ability to create as well as to destroy.”

Hutsaliuk’s oils and watercolors are beautiful expressions of his philosophy.  They are dominated by bright, singing colors: orange, red,  yellow – the colors of happiness – tempered by nature’s clear, cool greens and blues.  The sun is always shining in Hutsaliuk’s paintings – it is usually spring or summer (“I don’t really like to paint snow or wintry scenes,” he says).  He is fascinated by color and the play of light and air on his subjects.  The Mediterranean seashore; the French countryside: orchards and fields feathered with green; soaring cathedrals and the long spans of bridges; busy town squares on market day; beached boasts and seaside villas; Paris: her gay streets and cafés; the flowers and fruits of the field arranged in still-life patterns – these are the subjects that Hutsaliuk chooses to paint – subjects of universal appeal.  There is a definite influence of the Post Impressionists in Hutsaliuk’s painting – the color, the light, the subject matter – but yet his work bears his own particular stamp of creativity.

“Come,  I will show you how I paint,” says Hutsaliuk, a slim  man with a shock of dark  hair and intense brown eyes.  He led me to a small corner of the entrance foyer of his New York apartment. Here next to a large, single window, was a straight-backed Victorian chair, a paint-spattered easel, and a small taboret.  All around us there were paintings: the walls were covered almost from floor to ceiling with canvases of various sizes.  A number of paintings leaned against the wall, and the dark depths of the hall closet harbored even more.  This little corner is Hutsaliuk’s “studio.”  Here , in full view of the apartment’s front door, and just to the side of the kitchen – the hub of most household activity – Hutsaliuk works long hours, sometimes seven days a week, creating imaginative canvases.  The Hutsaliuk home is a busy place.  Bounding through the apartment is Yarema, Hutsaliuk’s nine-year-old son, and here, Hutsaliuk’s wife, Renata, keeps house and follows the normal, busy schedule of wife and mother.

Hutsaliuk placed a small canvas on the easel, and rummaged in the drawers of the taboret, nimbly picking out tubes of color.  He squeezed a blob here and there on his palette and deftly blended and mixed the colors.  Then with quick movements of a palette knife, his only tool, he applied them to the canvas.

“Would you mind if I did a quick portrait sketch of you?”, he asked.  Soon the configurations of a face took shape; skin tone, eyes, and hair color emerged.  Magic was being performed.  Hutsaliuk works surely and without hesitation.  The thick impasto strokes and blobs of color blended together in a harmonious whole.  “So  - this is how I work,” the artist said with a smile.  The simplicity of Hutsaliuk’s working procedure belies his long years of study and preparation; the sound knowledge of composition, color, and drawing.

“I do not like to work directly from the subject, photographs, or preliminary sketches – whether I am painting a portrait, a landscape, or a still life.  If I have visited a place and it has impressed me, it remains clearly in my mind.   When I come to my canvas,  I paint from my thoughts.  I re-create the scene as I see it in my mind; it is not a photographic re-creation.  It has reality,  but is not a strict copy of the actual – a tree,  a building, a figure may be moved or changed for the sake of a better composition.  My paintings are slightly abstracted reality: based on actual places I have seen and for which I have affection.  They are also imaginative representations, which, I hope, will create a mood.  I prefer to think in terms of color and mass rather than in terms of the representation of objects.

“When I paint a portrait, I do not require formal sittings.   Rather I prefer to have several sessions when I do quick oil sketches of the subject.  When it is time to execute the actual portrait, I paint from my memory of the person and his personality, and from the oil studies I have done previously.”   He adds with a smile, “Sometimes people are not pleased,  they see themselves differently than I have depicted them.”  Nonetheless, Hutsaliuk  is kept busy with numerous portrait commissions which come to him mostly through personal recommendations and because people have seen and admired his work.  These commissions and the sale of his other paintings through galleries are sufficient to support him and his family.   He does not do any commercial work,  preferring to devote his time to independent painting.

In his landscape and still-life paintings, Hutsaliuk is interested in presenting his subjects in unusual perspectives. “I like to get up on a roof or get down below my subject and look up,” he says.  “I don’t like flat perspective; I find is dull and uninteresting,” Mediterranean Landscape, which is reproduced here in color, is an example of what Hutsaliuk calls “a strange perspective.”  The viewer seems to hover over the bright, orange-tiled roofs of small villas on the French Riviera.  Beyond is an inviting curve of clear, blue water – a placid bay.  It is midday, the sun is high in the sky, and we seem to feel the warmth of its rays on our backs.  The bright, quiet scene is full of the mood of summer’s noontide.   Color is everywhere; it surrounds and enfolds us; in the blue-green water, shutters,  and palm trees; the orange tiles of the roofs; the brilliant, light-reflecting white of the stucco-walled houses and the deep blue shadows of the chimney and steps.  Hutsaliuk’s color sings: vibrant, bright, and beautiful – glowing in sunlight and shadow.

In his oil paintings,  Hutsaliuk uses his palette knife boldly.  His paintings are strong and virile, yet they have sentiment and feeling,  delicacy and detail.  A remarkable effect is achieved by the strong vertical strokes which are a distinguishing characteristic of Hutsaliuk’s work.  (the heavy impasto of these strokes may be noted even in the black-and-white reproductions of his paintings accompanying this article.)   The color medium is applied freely and thickly, and then shaped in short,  definite, vertical strokes which give a distinctive surface pattern and texture to the paintings and create a feeling of depth and dimension.  Occasionally,  Hutsaliuk employs an ordinary lead pencil to sharpen and accent a stroke.  Sometimes he applies blobs of color directly from the tube to his canvas, as well.  Hutsaliuk has developed this effective – and  very personal – painting technique over a period of years.

Hutsaliuk’s paintings glow with light.  The senses are amazed and excited by his marvelous color.  When the door of the Hutsaliuk apartment is opened, one steps across the threshold into a beautiful world of color – it is like walking into a summer garden in bloom.   Hutsaliuk’s paintings cover the walls, and the effect is breathtaking.  To Hutsaliuk, color is the most important element in a painting.  He employs no favorite palette of colors: rather he prefers to experiment.  Often he browses through art-supply stores, picking up tubes of oil colors new to him, and hurries home to try them.

Hutsaliuk’s painting equipment is simple: a chair, an easel,  and his painting knife, which he bought many years ago in France – a small and supple blade of steel, which has outlived several handles, about two and one-half inches long and one inch wide.  It is difficult to realize that such a variety of effects, such diversity of stroke,  and such great detail are all achieved with this one tool.  Hutsaliuk confesses that he likes to work with the palette knife because it is easy to clean.  He merely wipes it off with a cloth when a painting session is finished and does not have to spend a lot of time cleaning brushes.  Then, too,  Hutsaliuk works swiftly (“sometimes like a man  obsessed,” he says) and cannot be bothered holding a clutch of brushes, and deciding, like a golf player with too many  fancy clubs, which one to use next.  He also likes to use disposable paper palette covers on which he mixes and blends his colors.  This,  too, makes his clean-up a minimal task.

Hutsaliuk follows a regular work schedule, spending six hours a day painting in his “studio.”  The remainder of the day is usually spent drawing, or painting nudes as “exercise.”  Admitting his debt to the Post Impressionists, Hutsaliuk says wistfully, “I guess I should have been born a hundred years ago.”

Hutsaliuk believes that as an artist, he must vary and change his approach – to think of new ways of doing the same thing in order to keep his work lively and fresh.  It is difficult to do.  He says, “I find it harder to paint now than I did ten years ago.  Experience weighs heavily on me and I am aware of the danger of repetition.  However, being an optimist, I believe I will be able to find a new and better ways of expressing myself.”

Hutsaliuk’s work in watercolor and watercolor crayon is represented here by the color reproduction, Outdoor Café.  This painting evokes a mood of relaxation and pleasure.  Empty chairs and tables invite us to pause, to sip an apéritif  in the cool shade of the trees.  When painting a watercolor, Hutsaliuk’s procedures differ somewhat from his approach to oils.  “I always paint a watercolor directly from the subject.  I came upon this Café, Ste. Maxime, near St. Tropez on the French Riviera.  It was a warm, sunny day.  I was struck by this place because of the very old plane trees which arched over the café like a shady roof.  I made several watercolor sketches of this scene on the spot, as well as an oil later on in my studio.

“For my watercolors I like to use a good strong paper with a high linen content that will stand up to my ‘fierce’ painting.  Sometimes I rub, scrape, and jab at the paper so hard that I make holes in it.  I use only a large sable brush.  Sometimes I even use cleansing tissue, dipped directly in the paint to apply color  to the large areas of the painting.  In watercolor painting, as in my oils, I think in terms of color and mass; the color tells me what to do and how to proceed.  I paint directly on the paper, no underpainting or drawing is done.  First, I prefer to lay in flat color areas and general shapes, and later on I draw in details and accents with watercolor crayons.  I do everything against the rules, but it seems to come out all right,”

For his watercolors, Hutsaliuk does not favor any particular palette of color.  “As I am painting, if I notice that I have some squares of color that I have not used- for example, browns – I will deliberately use them just to see what will happen.

“Often I sit before a canvas or a piece of paper for a long time,  not painting, but thinking.  When I finally do start to paint,  I am like  a mad man – I paint so fast and with such great energy.  I have difficulty stopping myself and I sometimes put ‘too much’ in a painting.

“Mostly the results of my painting are a surprise to me.  It is as if the paintings have a life independent of me; they almost paint themselves.  It is difficult for me to put into words ‘how’ I paint or what specific procedures I follow.   I don’t know, really.  I just paint.   I have no secrets, tricks, or short cuts – nor do I believe I can presume to advise anyone how to become an artist.”

Liubo Hutsaliuk is a modest, unassuming person.   He seems genuinely surprised that he is an artist, as if it were a happy dream from which he might soon awaken.  When you learn his story, you can understand why he might feel that way.

Hutsaliuk’s experiences during World War II affected him deeply.  He triumphed over years of suffering and terror to fulfill his lifelong ambition to become a painter.  His struggles did not deter nor disillusion him, rather he surmounted them and used them to an advantage forming his idealistic philosophy and optimistic outlook.

He was born in Lvov, Ukraine,  in 1923.  During World War II, as a teenager just finished with high school, he was separated from his family and sent to a forced labor camp in Germany.  His days were spent in hard physical labor, primarily rebuilding German railroads, which had been damaged in air raids.  Life in the camp was at best difficult; words cannot describe it.  If an inmate became ill and unable to do productive work, he was simply and efficiently dispensed with!  During an air raid, young Hutsaliuk was seriously wounded in the leg by a shell.  Through the efforts of his friends among the inmates, this fact was hidden from the guards and officers of the camp, for discovery would have meant death.  One of the inmates, a doctor, performed an  operation on Hutsaliuk’s leg, thus saving his life.  This experience has affected Hutsaliuk deeply, and he is still obviously moved as he recalls it today.  What impressed him most was the effort of the group to save him –man’s humanity to man.  When the war ended, Hutsaliuk was freed from the labor camp and sent to a displaced persons camp, where he spent approximately four more years.  Finally liberated in 1949, he was alone, and without funds.  He came to the United States, and was able to find work soon afterward, still clinging to his dream of becoming an artist.  He held various jobs, menial and physically  hard ones; among them melting led in a foundry and working in a bakery.  He pursued his art studies at night at Cooper Union, and finally completed his training in 1954.

Hutsaliuk’s first job in the art world was with an art service where he designed cartoon commercials for television.  He did not really like the work, but he needed the money.  He also did some illustrations for the children’s publication, Humpty Dumpty magazine.  In 1956, Hutsaliuk had saved enough money to visit France.  He spent about a year there, painting.  His talent seemed to flower in the rich, artistic soil of France, and he feels that his experiences there helped him to develop.

Hutsaliuk had his first one-man show in Paris, in 1956, at the Galerie Volmar.  During the period 1956 to 1966, Hutsaliuk was afforded a total of ten one-man shows in galleries in New York, Milan, Paris, and Toronto – a splendid average.  Hutsaliuk is very proud to be an American citizen, but he does maintain an apartment in Paris, and since 1956 he has spent abut four and one-half years in the French capital, painting independently.  Finally, in 1961, Hutsaliuk, with the approval of his wife, gave up commercial work entirely in order to devote his full time to free painting, thus realizing his boyhood dreams.   It  was not easy at first, but now, eight years later, Hutsaliuk is successful enough to earn a livelihood doing what he loves best – “just painting.”  In New York, his paintings may be seen at the Hilde Gerst Gallery.

Hutsaliuk is constantly striving to better his work.  He enjoys challenge and competition and is always seeking ways to keep his eye fresh and his approach new.  On his travels he keeps a pen-and-ink sketchbook, recording places and people he sees – an exercise in developing perception.  Because he believes strongly in visual memory, he does not find it necessary to make preliminary sketches and color notes of places he intends to paint.  Although he feels that knowledge of drawing is basic for every artist, he does not want the drawing to “show” in his paintings.  “good draughtsmanship should be second nature to an artist,” he says.

Hutsaliuk believes that paintings should act by color.  He tries to create a certain mood in a painting, and when he begins to paint, he thinks in the abstract, in masses and colors.  He hopes that people will know that his paintings were created in happiness, and respond to them.  His aim is to re-create a mood, and share his feelings of joy.

And so, out of suffering has come the gift of creating beauty.  Talent has triumphed and come to fruition and maturity.   Singing color creates a joyous mood.  In his paintings, Hutsaliuk uplifts and delights our spirits.  He helps us to share his belief that man is capable of beauty as well as ugliness; joy as well as sorrow.  His paintings are a testimony to this eternal truth.

Joan Hess Michel,The Vibrant Paintings of Hutsaliuk 
American Artist, Special Artists' Guide Issue, August 1969