Chet Reneson’s leathery face is etched by the outdoor life. It has seen its share of blinding sun glare reflected off the crystal waters of Bahamian bonefish flats. It has felt the clinging fogs cloaking Scotland’s grouse moors. The surf blasting Maine’s coastal rocks. And its share of cutting winter wind whipping the Spartina cordgrass of the Great Island marsh at the mouth of the Connecticut River, between Old Saybrook and Old Lyme.
Lean, fit, and weathered at 79 years, he might be typecast as a commercial waterman, like a couple of buddies with whom he often chats away afternoons in the kitchen of the Madison Rod & Gun Club, actually sited in Killingworth, despite its name. In reality, the resident of a rambling, 200-year-old house in Lyme has earned his keep for more than a half century as a fine artist, one whose work is so admired that the publisher of Wildlife Art magazine has called him “a master at watercolor.”
For decades, Reneson has perched on the pinnacle of sporting art, which focuses on the field sports of hunting and fishing and belongs to the same genre as wildlife art. Reneson is heir to an artistic tradition rooted almost as deep as humanity’s dawn, when forgotten fingers painted hunting scenes of man and beast on the walls of ancient caves.
Reneson does not bluff by painting wildlife and environments he never has visited. “I only paint from experience,” says he, a fact noted by another Connecticut sporting artist, Robert K. Abbett of Brookfield, in the text for a sumptuous picture book, The Watercolors of Chet Reneson (Silver Quill Press 2001). “The art of Chet Reneson is successful for several reasons, only one of them being its grounding in the realities of imagery, of nature and of personal experience…In sporting art, there is little that can substitute for being there…”
In Reneson’s art, shooters do not just point a shotgun but lean properly into it as they prepare to fire. Ducks setting their wings are positioned correctly into the wind, the direction of which is evident from the bent of vegetation. The foliage around a grouse hunter matches that growing during the legal grouse season, not a time of year when bird hunting would be illegal. The graceful arch of the fly rod lines up perfectly with the fish churning water at canoe side.
Reneson seems to revel in wild weather, especially the cold, as one might expect for someone who characterizes duck hunters who avoid Great Island once December cold arrives as “candy asses.” If the man is shaped by the places he has frequently hunted and fished, so has his painting. The landscapes of his waterfowling art are often brooding, sometimes bordering on scary. Looking at his marsh grasses bowed before the winter wind can make one reach for a sweater. When Reneson speckles the air around the grass with snowflakes, it can make you shiver.
Weatherwise, Reneson flips completely in his paintings of fishing—and of everyday life—in the Bahamas, which he has visited since the early 70s. Clouds still scud across the sky, but against a background of sunlit blue, not gray. The feel is light and breezy, relaxed. It was in the brilliant sunshine of the islands, says Reneson, his eyes first opened to the purity of color and the infinite complexity and ways in which it can be used. He began to study and look upon color differently, he says, a quest that continues.
He also studies artists whose work he admires, among them Winslow Homer, many of whose airy watercolors contain the wind, water, and cloud-swept skies typical of Reneson’s work. Watercolor is a one shot deal, enabling an artist to quickly capture the moment, ideal for Reneson but also unforgiving because it allows no over-painting. His paintings may freeze a moment in time, such as a fly caster’s arm raised and angled back as the line loops into a long ellipse behind him, but it is dynamic, filled with a sense of action, never static. His work is full of movement, large and small, and of energy, potential and released. Whether of wildlife, gun dog, or human, however, the figures in his art are painted with minimum detail.
He is as spare with paint, so he is with words. Reneson is as minimalist with his details as with his words during a conversation; he does not mince them and chooses them carefully. One of his paintings shows an upland bird hunter with his dog, a setter, which lies next to its master under a tree, taking a break from the hunt. There is no mistaking the deep affection on the face of the man as he looks down upon his dog, arm resting on the animal; except that the man has no face or, more precisely, no facial details. The sense of a man’s love for his dog is derived from the angle at which he looks down and the position of his arm on the dog. You cannot see the hunter’s hand behind the dog’s head, but you know it is there, lightly resting, perhaps with a gentle pat or two. Reneson, by the way, is seldom seen without his two extremely well-behaved English setters, even in his studio. Calling his dogs his best friends, Reneson is partial to the breed, for many hunters the quintessential grouse dog. “I’ve always had setters,” he says.
Again, from Abbett’s text on Reneson: “Chet distills his figures’ gestures and anatomy down to the absolute minimum.” Whether moving or at rest, says Abbett, his figures “are alive; their images sometimes look too abbreviated to be real, but there they are, breathing.”
By painting what he knows, Reneson enters the mind of the sportsman. Typical is a work titled, Bad Timing, painted for the conservation organization Ducks Unlimited as its print of the year for 2013–2014. It portrays an experience common to the waterfowling community. In blowing snow, two duck hunters are preparing to leave their blind after a day’s hunt, perhaps as legal shooting hours expire. One is pulling their layout boat ashore. Another holds their shotguns, unloaded, cased and ready for transport. No bagged ducks are evident so one may assume none were harvested; likely few if any decoyed. They are looking up, straight at squadrons of ducks, setting their wings prior to plunking down in front of the blind, the classic opportunity come too late. An added touch: their retriever stands next to them, tail raised, alert and ready to go, as if asking the hunters why they are just standing there.
Reneson’s work has been sought by top magazines, featured on covers of Sports Afield, Gray’s Sporting Journal, and Sporting Classics. He has been named artist of the year multiple times by Ducks Unlimited, Trout Unlimited, and the Atlantic Salmon Federation. Top galleries feature his work, including The Cooley Gallery of Old Lyme, noted for paintings by American Impressionists and artists from the Hudson River School. Reneson had a one-man show there a year ago and will do another next year. Some artists lose their touch as they age, says gallery owner Jeff Cooley. “Chet gets better as he gets older. He is doing his best work yet.”
Although Cooley has shown some other sporting art in the past, it is not the gallery’s forte. Cooley says Reneson’s work goes beyond the sporting reality. “It is his landscapes,” he says, that make the difference. “Chet has a tremendous sense of color and of nature.” His art would be remarkable without a single gun or fly rod in the depiction, Cooley says.
Perhaps Reneson’s biggest professional credit is that he makes a good living from his art, although it took years for the wolf to leave his door. It was not always so. Reneson is a son of Connecticut’s land. Born in Cromwell, he grew up on farms in Durham and, for most of his youth, Colchester, where his family raised ring-necked pheasants for game preserves. He worked hard as a boy, and painting, he says, “was a release.” By the time he started driving a tractor at 10 years, he had already started painting waterfowl and deer; a painting of a great horned owl done at age 12 hangs in his home.
“Great owls killed our pheasants,” he recalls. His equipment was rudimentary; early paintings were on Masonite. He carried his portfolio around wrapped in baling twine.
After high school, he says, “I wanted to go work for General Electric in Texas.” His parents hoped to keep him home on the farm so, four years after finishing high school, had him enroll in art school at the University of Hartford. Once there, Reneson’s rise from homespun country boy to the top of his chosen art reads almost like a scripted young-starving-artist-makes-good story:
Aspiring young artist meets sweetheart in art school and they marry with a seven-dollar grubstake. Wife forgoes own art career so he can pursue his, becomes nurse to help pay the bills. After graduation he grits teeth and draws innards of Pratt & Whitney aircraft engines until one day, “I walked out.” Works as a freelance—read that as poor—illustrator, producing realistic depictions of wildlife for publishers in the Big Apple. Paints on the side, still dreaming. Nervously totes some of his work into a prestigious Manhattan gallery, the Crossroads of Sport. His genius recognized and he is on his way.
Reneson’s big break came at a most propitious time, the mid 1960s. Sporting and wildlife art boomed as it rode the crest of the surging environmental movement. It was a seller’s market, and sporting art was sucked up by galleries and print houses. Prints became hot items for investors and collectors. Conservation groups, such as Ducks Unlimited and the Connecticut Audubon Society, hooked up with artists to offer their works. Production houses and publishers made millions. Commissions piled up for artists like Reneson. One day he dropped two paintings at a Manhattan gallery, and then went to lunch. When he returned, the paintings were gone. “Where the hell are my paintings?” he growled. “Already sold,” he was told.
Then came the bust. So many prints were issued that some were literally not worth the paper upon which they were printed. What caused the demise of the glory days? “Greed,” says Reneson.
Reneson saw bad times were about to get worse and acted more pragmatically than some of his colleagues, weathering the storm. While some sporting artists have given up the form, Reneson continues to produce, both originals and prints. “I advertised, I became a businessman,” he says, noting that he pushed his art via the Internet early on. Truth be told—he readily admits it—the business end of his operation is handled by his wife of 54 years, Penny. She started the advertising, the website, the print sales, and just about everything else pertaining to the business end.
“That is where she works,” says Reneson, almost reverently, pointing to a desk in their home—which also contains his studio—appropriate, no frills, and low-tech. If you e-mail him, Penny answers. “Chet doesn’t ‘do’ computers,” she explains. That figures. Penny, by the way, has not been a stay-at-home spouse while her husband jaunts off to hunt and fish. She has been with him on the bonefish flats, canoeing the backwaters of Maine, and just about everywhere else he has gone.
While Reneson avows that “I paint for money,” Penny recognizes that painting is life to her husband. “Chet paints for money as any professional. He does what he does and gets paid for it,” says Penny. In a world of wannabes, the mark of a professional artist is the ability to earn enough to work at what one loves. Earning power divides a vocation from an avocation, amateur from pro.
It is possible that paint, not blood, runs through Reneson’s veins. “Would Chet paint if he was independently wealthy?” asks Penny rhetorically. “It is my belief that he would. It is something that he was born with and he is driven to do it. He sometimes talks about retiring, but I don’t think that he could.” Indeed, Reneson is now exploring the use of acrylics, which are water-based but allow an artist to paint over. Jeff Cooley says he cannot wait to see where Reneson’s newest exploration takes him.