Nathan Oliveira in Memoriam
A remembrance by his paint maker
Most of us pass like the wind, unnoticed.
Nathan Oliveira, however, passed on dragon’s back leaving, I am sure, one last long red brush mark across the horizon.
A giant among 20th century American painters and printmakers, Nathan Oliveira was sure of his mark. He said he had a lucky life. He was lucky to marry Mona. He was lucky to have Joe, his son, to help him, especially during his last years. Joe also helped him get to London to see the Turners one more time. Nate was lucky to find a patron in Stanford University during the tumultuous cultural shifts that knocked Marcuse’s one-dimensional man into Ken Kesey’s merry pranksters.
“Two ways - there are only two ways for artists to make money: paint for the marketplace or find a patron,” Nate stated.
While Nathan Oliveira was a prolific artist who showed paintings, drawings, prints and sculptures internationally in hundreds of solo shows and group exhibitions, he did not rely on galleries and collectors. Early in his career, he struggled with “having to paint” for show and just couldn’t do it. His salary allowed him freedom to express the experiences of his tenure. In front of him, the San Francisco hip scene unfolded and decayed, the Vietnam war raged and the tinkerers of Silicone Valley opened the world wide web.
Nathan Oliveira was the visual chronicler of the human potential movement.
Through his 50 year career, his paintings continually revealed what was most important to him was always rooted in the human form.
He was a painter who felt comfortable with earth colors, the grit and grime, defatting and scraping away, wiping and brushing. Nate loved oil painting.
When I met him in the early 90’s, Nate was an established master near retirement from teaching. He was planning a new studio at home and before he could put painting first, he had to stop using turpentine.
Changing the solvent is a fundamental change close to the center of the painting process. Colors, oils, resins and solvents no longer mix the same, dry at different rates, make surfaces too matte or shiny. I have seen painting careers fall apart at this juncture.
Fearlessly and consciously, Nate experimented until he assembled a new assortment of waxes, resins and solvents he loved using. Advising him was an adventure for me and everyone in the Color Factory. He even came to visit his paintmakers. I always believed if we did our jobs right, probably, some of our oil colors would be part of some great paintings. My decision to supply Nathan Oliveira with all the oil painting materials he wanted was purely selfish. He took away the “probably.” Nate inspired my crew.
Quickly, he figured out that the Color Factory could make him anything he wanted. Right away, he asked for a transparent white that looked like zinc white but didn’t have to feel like or move like zinc under the brush. He needed the color. We made him a gallon of custom white with dash of ultra blue to chill the white down more.
Nate and I always had a conversation because he continually wanted to explore oil paints and painting. He quoted Francis Bacon: “I don’t in fact know very often what the paint will do, and it does many things which are very much better than I could make it do.”
Constantly he worked on new combinations of colors, resin and wax to create special surface effects. In his last 20 years, Nate explored all the ways to make painting surfaces glow.
His love of grit was abandoned after he embraced transparent earth colors. Still rooted in the real, the new colors allowed him to explore enthusiastically an even higher level of transparency. Using glaze over glaze, he created veils over his life-sized+ canvases playing find-me-if-you-can.
When finally finished, the artist had charged his paintings with light. When combined in the viewers’ eyes, the thin transparent layers capture enough energy to light up the entire surface from inside out.
Nathan Oliveira liberated color and form from the figure much as Turner liberated color and form from the landscape.
We last talked maybe a month before he died. He was worrying over the surface of a huge painting. “The sheen and shine are no longer even,” he lamented. I said, maybe you need to paint smaller to keep more control over the surface. He sighed. He was not going to paint smaller. He died near age 82 at home.