Just as athletes stretch their muscles before exercising, artists limber up their eyes, brains, and hands by sketching.

—Rob Finn

Raised in the Mid-Atlantic, Germany, and New England, Rob Finn traces his earliest interest in art to two high school painting, drawing, and graphic design teachers in Burlington, Massachusetts. “Phil Young and Lorraine Sullivan were very important to my path in life,” he recalls. Their guidance and help with his portfolio led to studies at the Parsons School of Design in New York followed by College of the Atlantic (COA) in Maine.

During college and right after, Finn “jumped into” commercial art, working in tee-shirt design and mural painting (his COA history murals can be found in the College’s Gates Community Center lobby). At twenty-five, he moved to San Francisco and painted a few more murals and worked mostly in acrylic on canvas focusing on figures and architecture “with lots of transparencies and dissolves.” After twenty-two years in California, he returned to the East Coast, to Philadelphia, where he currently lives. “It’s a fantastic place for the arts,” he writes.

Seven years ago, Finn started a small watercolor project of tree portraits. Discovering that it presented a wide range of questions and possibilities, he has focused on that project ever since. “Working in watercolor has opened a whole new world to me,” he notes. “It fits my temperament very well and keeps me from obsessing over a piece for months or years. An overworked watercolor piece is a real mess.”

Reconnecting with friends on Mount Desert Island and putting on a solo show at COA in 2018 has led to dozens of extended trips to the island and hundreds of Maine tree paintings. He has also led plein air watercolor workshops in Bar Harbor, Philadelphia, and New Hope, PA.

In the following interview, Finn highlights the importance of sketches to his artistic practice. Conducted via email, the text has been lightly edited.

CL: Where and when did the impulse to draw begin?

RF: Comic books! In the 1970s, the precision and strength of [Marvel Comics artists] John Byrne and Michael Golden were great inspirations for my older brother David and me. We did a lot of tracing to learn the figure and toiled away on our own creations for years. He was more talented than I was, and I learned a lot from him.

The traditional process of creating comics exemplifies the power of sketching. One artist would quickly do the layouts in pencil and another artist would do the inking to make the images printable. The first artist was usually the more established and prolific of the two, with a very dynamic style and complex understanding of the action and the figure in space. That penciller worked very quickly because they were usually responsible for several titles every month. My brother David and I emulated that process and worked over each other’s sketches.

What started as excitement over superheroes translated into appreciation of fine art upon seeing the work of Michelangelo at the Sistine Chapel when I was ten. That interest in the human form throughout art history has been a big part of my art ever since, even though I don’t specifically focus on it now.

CL: When did you start sketching?

RF: After years of comics, my academic sketching really began in high school. I took a few classes at Mass Art and was shocked to learn how loose and free figure drawing from a live model could be. I struggled to accept gesture drawing as a valid practice—spending only thirty seconds on a drawing, not working hard on rendering and shading, going through so many drawing pads each month—but I found it liberating to let go of the idea that every drawing I was doing had to be a masterpiece.

In art school, we were required to keep a sketchbook. Filling those pages for weeks and months really developed my drawing skills. One winter day, I was tasked with drawing 300 figures by the next day. I went to Central Park and sketched ice skaters until my hand froze, and then I did more with my left hand.

I’ve kept up the practice of regularly drawing in a sketchbook and still have about fifty of my old ones. Sometimes I made my own sketchbooks by cutting and folding paper inside of a cover and stapling it together. They were just the right size to fit in my back pocket, so I could take them anywhere.

It’s illuminating to look back at my old sketchbooks to see how I used to draw and to read the notes and thoughts I captured. They are journeys through time. When I look at certain pages, I remember how I felt the day I did the drawing. There were lots of trees in those sketchbooks, and I see now that they’d been a recurring interest for decades.

Finn 1 Belmont Hills Tree sketch 2018 copy

Rob Finn, Belmont Hills Tree sketch, ink on paper, 11 x 8.5 in., 2018.

Finn 2 Browns Woods Tree plein air sketch 2021 copy

Rob Finn, Browns Woods Tree sketch, watercolor on paper, 16 x 12 in., 2021.

Finn 3 Center Campus Pine plein air demo sketch 2019 copy

Rob Finn, Center Campus plein air sketch, watercolor on paper, 14 x 10 in., 2019.

CL: What is the role of sketching in your work?

RF: Sketching with a pencil is the archetype of art. You think you can see a composition in your head, but when you start laying things out, you usually always need to move things around, change the size of this or that, maybe even eliminate entire forms to make space for what’s important to the meaning of the work. A pencil and an eraser are your best friends when you’re pushing yourself in a new piece.

I approach plein air painting like sketching because making art in the field is usually loose and fluid. It allows me to get absorbed in the light and the structure of the environment. As I focus and the weather changes and the sun moves, shapes and space become more complex and nuanced. What I experience outdoors often leads to larger scale studio work.

CL: You have focused on trees in recent years. Do you use sketches in developing these arboreal portraits?

RF:  Sketching is about describing what you see and its journey through your eye, processed by your brain, down your arm to your hand, and onto the paper. Is it a shadow or a line? Is it in front of or behind that other thing? If it’s a hard edge, make it feel rough. If it’s a sweet moment, make it feel tender. Make the mark quickly and instinctively.

Painting the final tree in my large-scale studio work is like sketching, in that realism is not my goal. I’m looking for an experience that is very visceral and immediate. I want the viewer to see the motion of my hand and brush while also feeling the primacy of the tree. With this loose approach to the final piece, I’m developing a language of marks that describes the organic processes of growth, structure, and dynamics of motion in and around the tree.

I love Francis Bacon’s approach to painting as a direct line to the nervous system. One of the broader goals of my tree portraits in the last seven years has been to investigate the correlation between the physiology of humans and trees. When we establish empathy with another being, we de-objectify them and learn more about ourselves in the process. We’re used to that experience when we see portraits of people. Not so much with a portrait of a tree.

CL: Did you use a sketchbook during your Winterthur fellowship?

RF: I used sketchbooks for finalizing compositions in pencil and drafting presentations to other fellows. I am more comfortable writing with a pencil and paper than on a computer. I read out of the sketchbook when I’m presenting, and I can follow the evolution of my ideas through all the arrows and cross-outs. It wouldn’t be very clear to other people, but it is to me.

Finn 10 painting plein air with Old Nursery Tree 2020 copy

Rob Finn painting plein air with old nursery tree, 2020.

I did many outdoor watercolor pieces at the estate, but not really in a sketchbook. In the past I had painted sketches in books, but now I find it better to do plein air sketches on high-quality paper taped to a board so I can set up the easel and stand up straight. That’s a great lesson I learned the first week of painting at Parsons: stand up when you work on art. It’s better for your back and it lets you get your whole body into the piece.

CL: Can you show how a sketch led to a painting?

Finn 9 Winterthur Champion Tree plein air sketch 2020 copy

Rob Finn, Winterthur Champion Tree sketch, watercolor on paper, 10 x 8 in., 2020.

Finn 8 Winterthur Champion Tree 2020 copy

Rob Finn, Winterthur Champion Tree, watercolor on paper, 52 x 35 in., 2020.

RF: In Winterthur Champion Tree, from the plein air sketch to the finished piece, I changed the composition and the contrast of light and dark in the trunk, so we really appreciate the height of the tree. It’s the largest Tulip tree in Delaware (which is full of big trees) and I wanted to give the piece a sense of scale. Most of my paintings from the fellowship are over four feet tall, whereas the sketch of the Winterthur Champion Tree is just 8 x 10 inches.

Finn 5 Hadlock Brook Tree sketch 2019 copy

Rob Finn, Hadlock Brook tree sketch, graphite on paper, 11 x 8.5 in., 2019.

Finn 4 Hadlock Brook Tree 2019 copy

Rob Finn, Hadlock Brook Tree, watercolor on paper, 52 x 35 in., 2019.

My sketch of the Hadley Brook Tree [in Acadia National Park] helped me figure out which nearby trees to include in the finished piece and how to get the correct curve of the carriage road. The sketch allows me to use a lot of shorthand marks to denote texture. It took me hours of painting the final stones in that bridge to render a specific feeling, whereas I was able to achieve that in half a minute with a pencil.

CL: You also use photographs as part of your painting process. Are they like sketches in how you use them?

RF: Taking reference photos helps me capture information. I take the pictures from many angles and sometimes at different times of year. I pour through my files and select maybe one out of a hundred to paint. Sometimes I edit and merge several images. I project them onto the paper, trace the basic elements, and then work for days from the photo on a large desktop screen.

I go through a lot of technological processes to achieve a finished piece with the looseness of a sketch. My goal is a piece that shows physical spontaneity, but I find it very hard to accurately represent specific trees without a reference photo. Probably because they are so non-Cartesian. They have very few right angles or clearly discernible volumes. Their bodies are not like ours with our standard proportions. Tracing the photos gives me a light pencil framework on which to hang the loose improvisations of brushwork.

Maybe someday I’ll be able to accomplish these large pieces in the field in one four-hour session with extraordinary precision and fluidity. Not yet! The Spanish painter [Joaquín] Sorolla and the Pennsylvania Impressionists did that. It’s something I aim for.

CL: You are a member of the Philadelphia Sketch Club (PSC). What does that entail?

RF: The Sketch Club is a group of artists young and old who do life drawing with models, put on shows, and get together and socialize at the historic property in Center City Philadelphia. There’s a garden, a library, and a large studio where many great artists have worked over the last 164 years. PSC is America’s oldest artist club and, like the rest of the city, it’s unpretentious, irreverent, and filled with lots of real characters.

Finn 7 Raymond Farm Center demo sketch 2019 copy

Rob Finn, Raymond Farm Center demo sketch, watercolor on paper, 10 x 14 in., 2019.

Finn 11 Walnut St Tree sketch 2020 copy

Rob Finn, Walnut St. Tree sketch, ink on paper, 11 x 8.5 in., 2020.

CL: Why sketch?

RF: Painting is a physical act. Just as athletes stretch their muscles before exercising, artists limber up their eyes, brains, and hands by sketching. The thirty-second gesture drawing in a life drawing session connects your eye to your paper. The marks you make might not be discernible as a body and that’s the point. Just make a mark and make another; new pose; do that for ten minutes and you’ve disconnected the editing function in your brain and you’re operating in creative mode. That’s when the good stuff happens.


[Finn is represented by Artemis Gallery in Northeast Harbor, Maine. This summer, he will be teaching a plein air workshop at the Bar Harbor Historical Society 23–26 July, and participating in its annual Hudson-to-Harbor event, which culminates in a benefit exhibition at La Rochelle on 2 August.]


Image at top:  Rob Finn, Old Nursery Tree plein air sketch, watercolor on paper, 10 x 14 in., 2020.