John Garvin is the Co-studio Director at Bend Studio, writing, designing, and art directing video games. A long time Barks collector and scholar, he met Carl and Garé in the 1980s and learned new painting techniques from them. He has now been painting in the Barks manner for over 30 years. You can see more of his work HERE.
Also, see Garvin's article on Carl Barks HERE.
The Other Good Artist Garé Barks
I met Garé in the spring of 1984 after she and Carl moved to Grants Pass, just twenty minutes north of where I lived. We had been corresponding for a couple of years, mostly about oil painting. In 1982 I had sent them a gift: an oil painting of Carl sitting at his easel in the Money Bin, painting a portrait of Scrooge.
Carl wrote me and asked to give them a call to set up a time to visit. When I called the first time it was Garé who answered the phone. I asked for Carl and she explained, very politely but matter-of-factly, that Carls hearing wouldnt allow him to take phone calls easily. There is really only one word to describe her during that first nervous phone call: gracious. Her voice was deep and gravelly, and I could tell that she was a no-nonsense kind of person. By 1984 they had been dealing with - to use Carls expression - pushy fans for over 15 years. Carl explained several times - in various interviews - that he and Garé had moved to Oregon almost for the sole purpose of getting away from Southern California and the hordes of fans who would show up without invitation. Garé was not only Carls wife, partner, and companion - by 1984 she was his screener and protector as well. I was lucky. I got an invitation.
The reason they allowed me into the Barks
inner sanctum, I think, is because I was interested in
the Barkses as oil painters. Most, probably all, of the
fans besieging them were huge fans of Carls comic
the duck stories done from 1942 to 1965.
Most fans considered those comics Carls
calling in life, what he was famous for, what
he should spend the rest of his life discussing. But I
wasnt one of those fans. I came to Carl through his
painting. From that first visit, when I learned that
Garé was also a fine artist, my relationship with both
of them was all about the painting. I think fans
didnt understand then - more probably do now that
Donald Aults Carl Barks: Conversations has
come out - is that Carl never considered his comic book
work to be anything more than a job
and a tenuous
one at that.
Like Carl, Garé was an artist from a very young age. And like Carl, she was talented. After graduating from the Punahou Academy in Honolulu, she won four successive scholarships to the Vesper George School of Art in Boston, Massachusetts, where she majored in commercial art and stage design. She studied with Millard Sheets, Madge Tennant, David Vaugh and Ralph Love. (Im no expert info taken from her biographical blurb in Treasury of Living Art.) She and Carl had very similar styles in terms of approach to subject matter (a whimsical realism) and palette (a wide spectrum of colors used subtly). Its hard to say who influenced who the most.
Garés biographical blurb in Treasury
of Living Art, published in 1965 when Garés
painting career was in full swing and Carl was just
getting ready to retire from Western Publishing, has this
to say: With her husband she teamed in writing and
drawing the worlds most widely read comic books -
Walt Disney and M-G-M characters. The demands of this
exacting art field in which artists must be able to draw
anything within or without the bounds of reason has
sharpened Garés flair for creative visualization.
She paints intricately composed scenes featuring highly
detailed flora and fauna from nature or from reference
notes with equal facility (page 40).
Sometimes Garé would use animals the same way Carl would, as characters to help communicate a gag (her Christmas compositions come to mind, where we see dozens of animals gathering towards the manger.) Composition was done as if she were drawing for comics, or storyboarding for film: camera angles and viewpoint were chosen for dramatic effect; elements arranged to tell a story in a single panel. And like Carl, Garé believed in filling every square inch of her compositions with something of interest, details that would focus the eye, but also reward exploration. Carl once said that he wanted to give the buyer his moneys worth; Garés work shows the same commitment to creating something of intrinsic value.
Across the Eel
published in that same book, Treasury of Living Art,
is a good example of all these characteristics; the giant
redwoods dominate the composition, stretching from their
massive roots upwards, until they vanish past the top of
the canvas. We can imagine the trees stretching upwards
and upwards too massive and towering to be
confined within the frame of a simple painting. The
immense age of the trees is conveyed by the worn and
gnarled wood, pitted and carved by fire, carefully
textured with sheens of green moss. The fallen tree in
the foreground suggests the eventual fate of these
ancient trees, many thousands of years in the future.
Juxtaposed against the still and rooted giants, is the
small grouping of deer, seemingly caught on camera. While
one deer is oblivious and continues to graze, the two
closest to us have stopped, heads upright and staring, as
if sensing the danger of our approach. The deer are
prepared to bolt at the slightest movement.
Well, Ive probably gone off and read too much into a simple painting of some deer grazing in a redwood forest. But, that such things can be read into her painting provides evidence that Garé, like Carl, could use the story approach to composition. To tell a story in a single panel, like a gag, you must have disparate elements that communicate one thing if seen alone, but when put together, communicate something more - elements that work separately, but also together. The story doesnt have to be profound, gags rarely are. But in the best paintings, in art, you can find something profound if you look for it. In this case, there are two story elements in Garés painting - the vast and still forest of ancient trees, and the startled deer. A painting of either element alone would not tell a story. Together, they tell a simple story of movement and stillness, indifference and timidity, life both measured in eons and in terrified heartbeats.
The arrangement of elements within the composition also work to tell this story. The first thing you see are the bold vertical lines of the sequoias, their masses of shape and color dominate the painting. You look at them much as you would if you were standing in the forest: starting at the roots - that you probably just tripped over - and then following the lines of gnarled bark upwards until you have to crane your neck to glimpse the tree tops, hundreds of feet above. You cant miss the trees. But look at how Garé uses other elements to draw your eye to the deer: first the fallen tree in the foreground, with its sharp diagonal lines that point right at the deer. Shadow lines and bright swathes of sunlight in the mid ground, also horizontal, cut across towards the deer as well. Dead branches, just behind the massive tree on the left, sweep downwards towards the deer. Wisps of branches at the top of the painting, all sweep downwards diagonally, angling towards the deer. If the forest itself and the towering sequoias ignore the deer, Garé presses everything else in the scene to call them out.
Color and light also help tell the story. The massive trees seem encased in shadow, their branches, high above us, blocking out the sun. One can almost hear the muted whispers that seem a requirement when standing in a dark forest. This play of light and shadow not only communicates the sense of stillness in the forest, but provides the focal point of the painting: the brightly lit tree under which the deer stand, and by extension, the deer themselves. The amazing sense of depth is accomplished by the way Garé grays her colors as objects recede into the background, until the forest becomes an impenetrable wall of fog that creates a backdrop to the high-contrast forms of the towering trees in the foreground.
Again, this all seems like a lot to say about such a simple thing as a landscape painting of some redwood trees and deer. But its the kind of explication that is possible because Garé made it possible. The kind of explication that is possible also in Carls best paintings. The ability to find complex themes within a simple composition is the definition of art. Art is what made Carls stories so memorable. Its what made Carls best paintings so memorable (though there has not been much in the way of published scholarship on Carls paintings), and its one of the things that Carls and Garé's paintings have in common: intended as mere commercial illustration, their best work is art.
Carl and Garé had more than just composition, style, and palette and art in common. By the time I started to learn from them in 1984, they shared technique as well. Like Carl, Garé would do small preliminary paintings in order to work out composition and color issues before committing her ideas to larger canvases. This small 6 in. x 8 in. composition shows her working out many of the same ideas we see in Across the Eel:
Both Carl and Garé would use small compositions like these to work out not just composition, but lighting, color, texture. Looking at paintings coming out of the estate auctions, it is sometimes difficult to tell if the attributions are correct: I have small preliminary paintings attributed to Carl that could just as easily have been Garé, and vice versa. That is how similar their styles could be.
Another thing Carls and Garés painting had in common had nothing to do with technique, but was more about administration: Numbering ID systems, identification, and titles. There are examples of both artists work which have no ID numbers. This painting for example, has no number ID, or title.
Its impossible to date this composition because Garé didnt date paintings on the front as part of her signature, and it does not have a title or identification number on the back. Like Carls paintings, it does have a stamp on the back a stamp almost identical to Carls that reads Reproduction of this subject in whole or in part is prohibited without the express permission of the artist Garé Barks. The commercial intent of the painting is evident by a publishers stamp on the back: © Donald Art Co., Inc. N. Y. and by a note in Garés hand that reads On this one, too, the whole painting could be toned over to Robert Woods Golds. But we know that by the early 60s, Garé was using an ID system (the same one that Carl would eventually use): Near Zion Park for example, is numbered #61-01.
Heres another example of Garés numbering system, also taken from my collection. This finished painting with subject matter also taken from the Eel, is titled High Noon on the Eel.
The numbering system is the same as Carls: #71-26 indicates that this was the 26th painting that Garé completed in 1971.
So we see a lot of similarities in all aspects of Carl's and Garés painting technique, storytelling, record keeping. Did she learn them from him, or the other way around? Its hard to say. After 1971, when Carls work moved almost exclusively towards cartoon subject matter, the differences in subject matter obscures just how similar their technique was. Compare this 1971 painting by Carl (#01-71), completed six years after Garés Across the Eel, and just before Carl started working on the famous Disney paintings, and you can see how similar his work was to Garés - composition, technique, storytelling, color, subject matter, technical handling of the deer and trees. Even the use of the title to help evoke more story.
Carl made no apologies for learning from the work of others. In several interviews he mentions learning by copying the work of watercolorist Ted Kautsky. And the Barks estate auctions reveal dozens and dozens of how to books on almost every conceivable subject matter - color, lighting, technique, oils, watercolors, drawing, and so on. From the time he was a boy, Carl taught himself technique by copying the work of others. By the time Carl started painting seriously, from 1965 on, he had a lifetime of experience to draw on; he had a library filled with instruction books. He had a morgue filled with reference material. In the end, he would take what he learned, and make it his own. I cant help but think, though, that when it came to painting in oils, Carl was married to his greatest source of instruction and inspiration. There can be no doubt that Garé learned a great deal from Carl on the art of storytelling. And I think there can be no question that the good artist learned a great deal from Garé in return.
But the biggest thing the Barkss
paintings had in common, I think, is that they were a
commercial enterprise. All the stuff I wrote about Across
the Eel is true, but it has nothing to do with
why the painting was made. Or even Garés
intentions. Like Carl, Garé did not create because she
had some inner message that had to get out,
some complex idea she was trying to communicate. She was
not trying to be a Picasso. Like Carl, Garé had an
almost anti-intellectual streak - but with
much good humor.
She wanted to sell paintings that people would buy and hang in their homes. Later in her career, she was trying to sell paintings that would sell calendars and greeting cards. To sell these, she had to choose subject matter that would sell, and paint in a technique that would sell - and that meant nature and realism. I had a long talk with Garé and Carl in 1990 or so, after I had begun my animizim style of painting (see more HERE.)
Garés opinion was the same as Carls: the paintings were good on a technical level - I had been learning from them for five years by that point - but they didnt like the subject matter. Like Carl, she thought it was too out there to sell. She told me my technique was now good enough to be commercial, but I had to switch to subject matter that was more commercial: nature. By that time, Garé had been selling work to Leanin Tree and other publishers for years. She was so adamant that I give up painting funny animals and switch to landscapes and wildlife paintings, that she wrote down the name of her contact at Leanin Tree for me.
I never did contact Leanin Tree. I understood what Garé was trying to say, but I dont think Carl and Garé ever understood what I was trying to do with my own art. My goal wasnt to become a full time illustrator by then I already had a career in video games. Instead, I wanted to use Carls style of painting - best described as realistic cartoons in oil to explore other ideas. I wanted to make peoples heads hurt. To me, it was ok if the art didnt sell (in fact, I still own almost every painting Ive ever done!) I was making a good living doing video games. I wanted to see if I could use the Barks technique to create art. In short, I wanted to intellectualize funny animal paintings. They didnt get it. But that was ok. I wasnt sure I got it either.
In some ways, I think it came down to common
sense and practicality, another thing that Carl and Garé
had in common. On one visit I had brought a stack of
paintings to show them - this would have been in early
1985. I had done some copies of Carls Disney
paintings on canvas board and had strapped them to the
back of my motorcycle.
Over the last few years I began to collect
Garés work along with Carls. Not just
because of her connection with Carl, although Im
sure that was part of it, but because I had seen
Garés work, had spent hours in their studio,
learned their technique and craft. To me it seemed that
Carl and Garé learned from each other in almost every
aspect of their art, from prepping Masonite, to mixing
oils, to composition, storytelling, and palette, to
numbering and titling their work, to their commercial
aspirations. The more of Garés work that I saw,
the more similarities I could see in her technique and
Carls. More important, I began to really appreciate
her work for its own sake. Given the commercial
aspirations that drove her work, she managed to create
some amazing paintings over the course of her career.
Some paintings defy description. I bought
this colorful painting a few years ago:
What was it for? A preliminary for a commissioned painting? A commercial assignment? Set design for a play? Impossible to know. One of the things that intrigued me about this piece is the similarities between it and Carls later work: the colorful approach to the subject matter, the cartoony handling of the figures, the action and sense of a captured moment in time. The work is not typical of Garé, but it is typical of a Barks - expect the unexpected.
Over all Garé left behind an amazing body of work. Theres no way to know exactly how many paintings she completed during her career. Hopefully the Barks estate has kept records of all the files that have been auctioned off over the past few years. We know that Carl kept detailed records of his work, so maybe Garé did as well. I know that somebody purchased a collection of slides from her records - though theres no way to know if the slides were a complete record. Maybe scans will turn up online.
One can only hope that at some point in the future well see an art book that collects all of Garés work. She deserves such a collection. So do we. Carl Barkss painting career, which outlasted his comics career by more than a few years, would not have been the same without the influence of Garé Barks, the other good artist.
This contribution was written specially for this website. © John Garvin
BACK TO CONTACTS