PRINCETON — Behind the house, there’s a small brick garage that’s been turned into a summer art studio. One enters by going past a screen curtain held shut by magnets. On the shelves stand an assortment of art supplies and a collection of art books. One volume about the work of artist John Singer Sargent sits on a table.
The focus of the studio is the portrait in progress. It’s only the latest of the many paintings 65-year- old J.R. Shuck of Princeton has created during the past 40 years.
Shuck took a break while an orange cat, Buddy, sat and watched. A garden fountain was running just outside the door.
“It’s just something I’ve done for 40-some years,” Shuck said of his work. “Ever since I retired from the real world; well, I worked for the coal industry mostly, but I’ve helped my wife with restaurants. Between jobs I helped her with that, and I squeezed in some college education over the years. I have a bachelors degree from Bluefield and a master of fine arts from Syracuse, N.Y.”
Many people were introduced to Shuck’s paintings when he started hanging them at his wife’s business, Kim’s East & West Restaurant, near the Mercer County Courthouse. He pointed out a mirror sign he made for her.
“She was there 16 years,” he recalled. “She had a good clientele there. It was a good business.”
When customers came to dine, they saw Shuck’s work and started asking about it. Soon he was selling paintings and getting inquires from people who wanted to commission portraits and paintings of landscapes and other specific scenes. Shuck said he liked drawing and painting when he was a boy, but his interest bloomed even more when a person he knew tried painting and gave up.
“I’ve been tinkering with art, drawing and sketching since elementary school, but I guess I started seriously painting a little over 40 years ago,” he recalled. “It was 1968. Well, this young fellow, he was John Singer Sargent wannabe. He turned out to be a frustrated artist, and he had, like, this military footlocker, and it was just totally full of oil paints and brushes; and all kind of art supplies and all that. He just got frustrated and he just gave it to me, just gave me this footlocker full of stuff.”
The supplies turned out to be a treasure trove.
“I guess in the 60s, it was pretty close to a thousand dollars worth of stuff. That was when a tube of oil paint was $8 apiece. Not now, though,” Shuck said. “I found myself with all this stuff and I said, ‘well, I might as well take a shot at it.’ I always had sort of a knack for it. It took off pretty good.”
Shuck said he sneaked his first efforts into the trash before anyone could see them, but he kept practicing and he began to succeed. During the 1960s, he worked in Detroit’s automotive factories before returning to West Virginia in 1972.
“That’s when I started painting around here. I had been painting in Michigan for a couple of years. I’d say it started in ‘68. I came back here and started painting and it kind of caught on. I think Kim having that restaurant helped a lot because I’d hang my paintings on the wall and got more exposure than I would have otherwise,” Shuck recalled. “People would see my work and like it, and word got around. Now I have people commission formal portraits and stuff like that.”
The portraits cover a wide variety of people. Some are of local dignitaries. Shuck painted one of former Judge John R. Frazier of Mercer County when he retired; it now hangs at the Mercer County Courthouse. Another shows Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower congratulating Staff Sgt. Junior Spurrier of Bluefield for receiving the Congressional Medal of Honor during World War II. It now hangs at the Those Who Served War Museum at the Memorial Building in Princeton.
Another portrait features a famous figure in West Virginia’s history, “Devil Anse” Hatfield of the Hatfield-McCoy Feud.
“The administrator of the local Moose Lodge commissioned me to do that. Some friend he had in the upper echelons of the Moose claims to be kin to Devil Anse Hatfield.” Shuck smiled “And I don’t know anybody in West Virginia who doesn’t claim a connection to Devil Anse Hatfield.”
Railroad scenes, coal tipples, and other subjects are among the many paintings Shuck has created during the last 40 years. For Shuck, creating an image that looks like something from life is fascinating. When asked what he likes about painting, he thought for a moment.
“To put something on a flat surface, you know, that has depth. You can actually look in a painting like a landscape. I guess that’s part of it, to get something on a flat surface and make it look three dimensional had some sort of fascination about it for me,” he said. “And, of course, I hit the books hard. I always study other artists in books.” He pointed out a nearby bookshelf. “Oh, that’s just a few I bring out in the summertime. I have shelves of them in the house.”
“My philosophy on really succeeding in art is to hit the books, and I think that’s about the best way to succeed in anything. Read how the do it and learn how to do and new editions on how they do it. When I do a painting and I run into a snag or I’ve got a problem and I can’t seem to work it out and can’t seem to make it look right, I go to the books – Sargent and some of these old masters – and I see how they painted it, and it helps a lot.”
The 19th Century artists such as (Claude) Monet and the impressionists are good, but Sargent is especially helpful.
“He’s more like a traditional realist and an impressionist and a water colorist. He was just a really an amazing jackof-all-trades artist. He’s one of my favorites,” Shuck said “He did 800 portraits and 8,000 other paintings. He was a prolific artist. You could see how he did different things.”
Shuck said he admired the old master painters because they could create great works of art under what would be considered primitive conditions today. Instead of electric lights, they worked under sunlight and candlelight. They also had to mix their own paints and make their own brushes. There were no local art stores or online art businesses that delivered.
And like those artists, Shuck practiced to learn how to use oil paint and watercolor as well as acrylic paint.
“You just have to get into them and keep working them until you get the feel of them,” he said, adding that he prefers acrylics now. “I use acrylics because they don’t have the stink of turpentine. They dry basically the same way as oil on canvas.”
Art specialists estimate that acrylic paintings will last just as long as those painted with oil paints, and some oil paintings are 400 years old, he said.
Painting with watercolor paints is especially challenging.
“Watercolors are a whole different matter. With watercolors, you need to have a plan. You better know what your plan is before you start, because it’s totally unforgiving. With oils and acrylic, you can go back and work over it, paint over it, but with watercolors it’s a onetime shot. If you blow it, wad it up and throw it in the garbage, and the watercolor paper is very expensive. It’s mighty expensive. To do a really good watercolor painting, you’ve got to do it right. If you smudge it, you’ve smudged it forever.”
Shuck was working on one type of painting he enjoys doing, a portrait.
“I’m also fascinated with portraiture because people get so excited with a painting or a pencil portrait of their child or something like that,” he said. “They see that likeness and they say, ‘Oh, my God! It looks exactly like him!’”
For many people, the idea of having a hand-drawn or painted image of a loved one is exciting. Portraits of family members are especially popular.
“Those pencil portraits of the children, they are really a drawing card,” Shuck said. “Around Christmas time, I get totally bombarded with orders for those things.”