Melville Holmes, Artist

MELVILLE  HOLMES was born in San Francisco in 1950 and received his first training in oil painting at the age of nine. Midway through his college years the path of his career became set: To do new paintings like those of the Old Masters.

After fulfilling a B.A. degree in Art (Drawing and Painting) in 1973, Holmes initiated his own independent post-graduate studies to find out how the Old Masters achieved their effects. Although the art department at his school offered an M.A., college and university art departments by that time had abandoned the mastery of traditional skills in favor of free self-expression. The last living links to the Old Masters tradition had also died out by the early 19th century.

Holmes learned what he could by reading and practicing his craft. His pictures acquired an Old World blending and glow, but he soon realized that he could not advance until he saw the original works he had only admired in art books. In 1980 and 1985, extended stays in Europe found him examining the paint surfaces of Old Master paintings for himself. Recovering traditional craftsmanship, Holmes had begun grinding his own colors, but in 1987 he faced a crisis when his trusted Copal Painting Medium was discontinued.

The alternatives were troublesome. Opinion among the leading artists manuals was strongly divided as to what the Old Masters really used to attain their fused enamel-like effects. One author’s recipe for permanence was another author’s doomsday prophecy of darkening and cracking. Holmes was beginning to see that the most strongly held opinions were founded largely on conjecture. He was also forced to admit that his own understanding and knowledge remained that of a dilettante.

Eschewing formulas that could weaken the paint film or proprietary media of uncertain derivation, Holmes undertook the difficult challenge of heat processing Congo copal into an oil varnish for mixing with his paints. He plunged deeply into the literature, from the earliest Medieval manuscripts to the most advanced analytical chemistry, in an exhaustive study of the history, technology, and chemistry of pigments, oils, and resins. His inquiries made it clear that the confusion surrounding the paint media of 15th– to 17th-century artists had partly occurred because of the scarcity of reliable records detailing the studio practices of individual painters together with insufficient scientific means of analyzing the composition of their media. Since then, great strides have been made in the molecular analysis of historical artists media.

In 1999, Penn State University Press published Holmes’s conclusions in his research paper,  “Amber Varnish and the Techniques of the Gentileschi,” as an appendix to Artemisia Gentileschi and the Authority of Art: Critical Reading and Catalogue Raisonné by R. Ward Bissell. In it he was able to track down the documented addition of a varnish very similar to copal in the still well-preserved paint used by 17th-century Italian artists to create their softly blended effects. Their technique turned out to be essentially the same that Holmes had developed independently.

“I broke the sound barrier,” says Holmes, “and showed that it could be done.” After that accomplishment no one questioned his skills. By 1998 his work was exhibited in Seattle’s Frye Art Museum in the one man show, “Old Master Dialogues.” But his work continued to defy conventional classification, neither avant-garde, “contemporary realism,” nor even the neo-academicism derived from the 19th-century French ateliers that had recently proliferated. As one New York dealer put it, his paintings “defy placement because the style and content suggest seventeenth century sensibilities (perhaps earlier).” Nevertheless, these very sensibilities conjoined with his in-depth studies would qualify him for projects that he never anticipated.

Beginning in 2000, Holmes brought his skills into the historic renovation of Spokane’s legendary Davenport Hotel, a repository of English, Italian, French, and Spanish architectural and decorative styles that had fallen prey to neglect and inept touch-ups. His knowledge of traditional craftsmanship and styles of the fine and decorative arts brought a “literate but not literal interpretation of the past” to this much beloved institution at the heart of Spokane, which had been closed for years.  His studies in art conservation made possible the restoration of the hotel’s murals and oils on canvas, and his extensive vocabulary of painting techniques can be seen throughout the hotel. From gilding and innovative-yet-traditional color creation to carpet design, Holmes’s influence there is too broad to list in a short space, though his designation as the Davenport’s “Artist-in-Residence” sums it up.

According to his artistic philosophy, Holmes defines works of fine art  as “objects of contemplation”  that suggest avenues of thought to the viewer even if they serve a decorative function. His subjects include still-lifes, landscapes, portraits, and figure paintings executed in numerous translucent and  opaque layers. He also does fine art restoration, faux finishing, mural painting, and color and décor consultation for private and public spaces. In addition, he is available to conduct workshops and public lectures.