New Hampshire artist and teacher Stephen Previte paints landscapes. For years, he embraced traditional imagery — bucolic vistas replete with weathered barns and aging farmhouses. Increasingly, however, Previte is turning his gaze to the city, exploring subject matter he describes as urban industrialism. His most recent works — filled with electrical transformers, smokestacks, and utility poles — capture the stark beauty found in any cityscape, if only one takes the time to look. “I’ve never been one to paint a pretty picture,” Previte says, “and I always tell my students, ‘If I paint cute, I’ve failed.’”
Previte’s cleareyed approach to his subject matter is not surprising considering his background. He happily spent much of his career as an engineer in mechanical design technology. Then one day, Previte received a call from his mother urging him to tune in to a PBS program featuring television artist Bill Alexander. “It was a schlock show, and up until then art wasn’t even in my vocabulary,” he says with a chuckle, “but I sat there watching this guy paint and suddenly thought, ‘I can do that!’” Previte rushed out and stocked up on art supplies. “I quickly found that I couldn’t do that,” he says, “but the experience unlocked me.” A few years later, when a change in circumstances prompted Previte to step away from engineering, he decided to see if he could make his newfound passion a second career.
Fast-forward nearly 35 years and it’s evident that Previte, who just turned 70, has clearly refocused his engineer’s eye with great success. These days, he works full time as an artist and also leads art classes in his Nashua, New Hampshire, studio. He has matured into an accomplished painter, claiming first-place prizes in art shows up and down the East Coast and appearing in exhibitions at the Whistler House Museum of Art in Lowell, Massachusetts, and the Currier Museum of Art in Manchester, New Hampshire. Entirely self-taught, he says, “I attended the school of hard knocks,” adding, “I learned to paint by reading books, taking museum trips, and watching other artists.” Previte learned his lessons well, and though he still never “paints cute,” he does paint with great sensitivity. “No matter what I depict,” he says, “my subjects are light and atmosphere.”
Composition is also a factor. A review of Previte’s oeuvre reveals an innate gift for rendering an engaging visual narrative with just a few salient details. “I’ve never been about the big picture,” he says. “I’ve always felt that I could make a more intimate statement by focusing on the closer segments of life.” A faded farmhouse door, an abandoned railroad bed, or a line of telephone wires waltzing off toward the horizon can serve to enliven the viewer’s imagination. “My hope is that perhaps you can see yourself knocking on that door or gazing across that cityscape,” says Previte. “I like to put the viewer right there in the moment.”
Previte seeks inspiration from the world around him, snapping reference photos when the light and shadows are the strongest. He returns to the studio to flesh out his vision, which is true to the scenery his camera has captured, as long as it suits his purposes. “If there’s an element in the photos that doesn’t work with the composition I have in mind,” he says, “I’ll take it out. And by the same token, if I need something, I’ll put it in. I always start my paintings by looking at my reference photo and then saying, ‘Now what am I going to change?’”
Previte sketches his basic composition in paint, never pencil. “Pencils are too tight,” he says. “They lock you in. If you draw with pencil, then you have to stay within the lines, but if you start with paint and a brush, you’re already working more loosely.” Yet he acknowledges that he wasn’t always so cavalier about the details. “When I first started painting, I wanted to replicate what I saw, but as time passed, I found myself leaning toward a more painterly style, which I call representational impressionism. It takes a long time to reach the point where you’re comfortable interpreting what you see.”
He initially pushed back against his engineering training but then realized it was a gift. “For many years, symmetry was my life, and it was difficult to break free from that mind-set,” he says. “Now, however, I’ve come to realize that my knowledge of engineering is a benefit. It’s helped me to understand perspective and structure and find beauty within the urban environment.”
“Steve is a wonderful artist,” says Sara Bogosian, president and executive director of the Whistler House Museum of Art, where Previte often exhibits. “His body of work is so diverse — landscapes, portraits, city scenes — and whatever he paints, he nails it. Technically and compositionally, he’s very strong, and he has a wonderful color palette. He really understands painting, and we’re proud to display his work.”
Asked what’s next, Previte says he’s content taking it as it comes. “In engineering,” he says, “there’s always a formula, whereas with painting, it’s creative and constantly morphing.” He is certain, however, that he’ll continue to explore the urban industrial vein. “Moving to that subject matter from traditional landscapes was a quantum leap for me, and now that I’m in it, I want to dig deeper — work the images in pastels, monoprints, that sort of thing. I’m finding the subject matter incredibly rewarding. My more traditional landscapes tend to dictate ‘paint it real,’ while these urban industrial pieces allow me to be more expressive — I’m not held back by the feeling that the work must be in a certain place. I finish the paintings in a short amount of time and move on — it’s invigorating.”
See more of Previte’s work and an upcoming calendar of exhibits at his website, previtefineart.com.