By Fran Cain
My art teacher at the Lafayette Community Center, Gary Bergren, comes by and reminds me for the third or fourth time today that in order to bring the foreground forward, the darks must be darker, the colors warmer and more saturated, and the details sharper than the background. And the middle ground must be a little darker than the background, but not as dark as the foreground. And the ocean water should reflect the sunlight, but be lighter and more transparent close up than in the distance. I mix more paint because I keep running out. But what did I use the last time, and why doesn’t it match? With a few swipes, Gary shows me how to get my colors back. “Add just a touch of yellow,” he advises.
I feel fortunate to be working with Gary Bergren, a local artist who was born in Berkeley and grew up in Moraga and Lafayette. Gary is incredibly patient with his students. He doesn’t seem to mind repeating himself. Even when I’ve been in a classroom filled beyond capacity with students, he stops at each station and tirelessly explains theory—color, composition and perspective–applying it to each student’s unique piece in order to enhance and improve their work. I’ve watched the seemingly simple addition of a highlighted path or tree transform an adequate painting into something stunning.
Gary is a pretty humble guy. He’s embarrassed to tell me, after I insist, that his paintings sell for as much as $15,000 out of a gallery in Bozeman, Montana. Still, he struggles to be better. Going to art museums, he asks himself “Am I there?” “No,” he answers.
Considering his skill, I’m surprised that he did not attend traditional art school. Instead, he has taken many varied college classes and workshops. He has studied under, David Hardy, who founded the Atelier School of Classical Realism in Oakland, and Charles H. White, whose influence can be seen in Gary’s work. He is inspired by artists such as Rembrandt and James Bama. But his father, Ted Bergren, his mentor and idol, influenced him the most. Gary describes his father as a “Renaissance man”, who was a teacher for many years, but also a musician, sculpture, and writer. He taught Gary art basics from an early age, and devoted decades to Gary’s growth as an artist.
Gary’s mother, an interior decorator, had a flair for beautiful color and design work at home. “It rubbed off,” he says. “She encouraged and cultivated my talent.”
Gary paints portraits and still life compositions as well as landscapes, in representational style. His portraits of a cowboy sitting astride a stallion are pristine in their almost photorealistic detail. Looking closely at the blue eyes and mustache of the cowboy in “Plains Drifter,” it’s hard to imagine how this is a painting. In “Duskrider”, the man and the animal are in perfect proportion, and the colors of the sun setting over the mountains behind them have an ephemeral quality, as if any minute the sky will darken into night. His painting “Homage (to the Buffalo)” depicts a Native American man in traditional attire holding a buffalo skull over his head. The intensity on his face leads me to contemplate his thoughts, and his finely rendered body adorned with bone and turquoise jewelry is candy for the eyes.
I work hard in Gary’s class. Many of his students are long-time followers. Suzy Elsworth-Heithcock (August, Diablo Gazette), has been his student for 14 years. Gary advises, “Find subjects that you have the most interest. Be good at drawing. Paint one painting after the next. And enjoy yourself.”
After two years of classes, I begin to understand the term “tortured artist”. The more I learn of art, the more challenging it becomes. But I love that challenge and the familiar feeling of tension and sometimes frustration that I knew from my corporate days — a stress now relieved with a more satisfying reward of creating works of art in a different, somewhat bohemian environment of like-minded artists.
“Do you have any pthalo blue?” he digs into my paint box. “No? That’s okay, manganese will do nicely.”
In addition to the Lafayette Community Center class, Gary teaches at Shadelands in Walnut Creek (Walnut Creek Recreation) as well as other places in Contra Costa County and around the Bay Area. He was recently shown at art Cottage in Concord and featured in Diablo Gazette in April. Currently, some of his work can be seen at Valley Art Gallery in Walnut Creek and at Gallery Elite in Carmel.