Fine art

An American master

The artistry of David Leffel is celebrated in new film to be screened in Taos


‘Painting is concerned with all the 10 attributes of sight, which are: darkness, light, solidity and color, form and position, distance and propinquity (proximity), motion and rest.” — Leonardo da Vinci

Artist David Leffel has been painting and teaching here in Taos since 1992. To commemorate his work, the Taos Center for the Arts will present a film, “David A. Leffel: An American Master,” at 7 p.m. Thursday (May 18) at the Taos Community Auditorium, 145 Paseo del Pueblo Norte.

An opening reception beginning at 6 p.m. will precede the screening. In the auditorium’s Encore Gallery, an exhibition of 18 original paintings by Leffel will be exhibited. The limited exhibition will be on view for four days only, today through Sunday (May 21).

After the film, a question-and-answer session will occur with the artist, film director George Gallo and film editor John Vitale. This is sure to be one of those Taos evenings that people will be talking about all over town for weeks to come.

The paintings can only be described as masterworks – all of them. Exhibitions of realist portraiture and still-life paintings are not a common occurrence in Taos. Take the time to look, let them draw you in. There’s more to what the paintings may appear to be upon your first viewing. Is there anything hiding in those shadows? Are you missing something? Let Leffel draw you into the portrait or object itself. Think about those 10 attributes da Vinci talks about. Leffel spills his still life onto the table surface and creates more space, he moves your eye across the surface and back to the subject matter. What’s going on is more than the chiaroscuro light and dark effect. The paintings are rich with color, movement, texture and warmth. There is a great deal of warmth here. Look closely, allow yourself to be drawn in.

To Leffel, the paintings of the Dutch master Rembrandt van Rijn are like old friends. He contemplates Rembrandt’s body of work here: “How can I relate to what he did and how he did it? What’s going on in his head? My main thing was trying to understand light and shadow, chiaroscuro,” Leffel says in the film.

Leffel and his partner, Sherrie McGraw, an outstanding artist in her own right, moved from New York City to Taos for a better quality of life and the freedom of space here.

Leffel remains a studio portrait painter, even with all of the Taos light and propensity for painting en plein air around him. Although it rarely happens, a landscape painting will occasionally sneak onto his easel. Leffel creates realist portrait and still-life paintings. Speaking with him, observing his teaching technique, you’ll see his true passion is painting portraits. He’s looking directly at you as he speaks with you, more than likely problem solving how to paint you.

On his easel is a portrait of Taos artist Jonathan Sobol. He said he prefers to paint people who are interesting to him. A loving portrait of Leffel’s circle of friends, the film might also be subtitled, “A Painter’s Love Story.” A visit to his home and studio reveals he is surrounded by paintings of all of those friends and loved ones.

Jonathan Warm Day Coming makes an appearance in the film. The documentary loosely follows the progress of Warm Day Coming’s portrait and the results. During the film, you’ll notice the majestic portrait of the beloved Tony Reyna, of Taos Pueblo. It’s now owned by a collector in San Francisco, California.

The term “abstract realism” is mentioned in the film. Here’s how Leffel explains it: “It’s a way of seeing – seeing things in a more abstract way. Light falling on an object and light flowing from an object. My way of seeing things is as abstract sequences, rather than particular things. I’m seeing it as how the light travels. You’re fitting the person into that abstraction, into that matrix of your concept.”

Painting during daylight hours is important to Leffel. He reserves every moment of precious daylight to paint. On what keeps him motivated and fresh, he says, “I just feel there’s so much I haven’t painted, so much I don’t know yet. Hopefully I can understand more.”

He strives to breathe life and movement into still-life painting. The sculptor Wallace Rosenbauer was Leffel’s first drawing teacher and the lesson he remembers that truly sparked him was to “draw the model as if there were air around her.” This put Leffel into a different state of mind and a new way of seeing something. “We as humans have a moral obligation to each other, to the earth, the planet, to be intelligent,” Leffel states in the film.

“He’s almost as well known for his teaching as he is for his painting,” stated Emily Wilde, assistant director at Total Arts Gallery in Taos. As a teacher, Leffel is regarded as intelligent, unified, logical and well-rounded.

About his teaching, he said, “When I wanted to teach, I wanted to teach at the Art Students League. Teaching gives me a chance to talk about something I love. Most teachers don’t see painting as a logical discipline, as a problem-solving discipline. There’s an underlying logic of how you perceive problems, why something works and why something doesn’t work.”

Leffel’s books, “An Artist Teaches: Reflections on the Art of Painting” and “Self-Portraits: A Journey of Insight,” will be available at the event.

The artist’s paintings are presented by Total Arts Gallery, 122 Kit Carson Road, Taos. Call (575) 758-4667.

Tickets to the film screening are $12, $10 for Taos Center for the Arts members, $5 for youth. Call (575) 758-2052 or visit