A blank 48-by-48-inch panel hangs on a wall in Mark Leonard’s studio. It portends six or seven months of work, though he has yet to decide what to do with it. For the past couple of years, he has been painting with an orb motif, which he says began looking more mysterious over time to the point that he considers the later ones “slightly scary.” Looking at pictures of Frank Stella sculptures inspires a fresh twist.
“He did these big stars and then ‘punctured’ them,” Leonard says. “That’s what I’m going to do next: puncture the orbs and see where that leads.”
After choosing an art profession in 1972, Leonard devoted almost five decades to thousands of “old” paintings. During freshman orientation at Ohio’s Oberlin College, he stepped into a room where Bach music played and saw “a guy in a turtleneck sweater” amid paintings on easels.
“That’s the life for me,” he recollects thinking. This led him to prepare for a career doing what that guy was doing: restoring art.
Leonard — who grew up in Pennsylvania, where his father was a timpanist for the Pittsburgh Symphony and his mother taught fifth grade — pursued studio art, art history, and chemistry at Oberlin. (The college had a conservation department serving Midwest museums.) He subsequently earned two graduate degrees — in art history and in art conservation — from New York University’s Institute of Fine Arts.
At NYU, he concentrated on restoring paintings, which served him well as an intern at The Metropolitan Museum of Art when he was assigned Rembrandt’s Aristotle with a Bust of Homer.
“John Brealey [chair of painting conservation at The Met and adjunct professor at NYU] believed you don’t train people to restore a Rembrandt by giving them paintings from grandma’s attic,” Leonard explains, though he adds that Brealey executed the cleaning because in that stage “if you make a mistake, it’s irreversible.”
After several years working as assistant conservator of paintings at The Met, Leonard moved to Los Angeles to head the conservation department at the J. Paul Getty Museum from 1983 to 2010. He has restored thousands of master paintings in museum collections around the world. He explains that institutions with conservation departments often work on paintings for museums in exchange for an opportunity to exhibit the result before it is returned.
“I always found a great intimacy in working on great paintings,” he says. “My job as a restorer was to ‘disappear.’ As a painter [of original work], your job is to put your soul on an easel.”
Leonard found that dichotomy difficult to bridge when he yielded to the urge to face a blank panel. He took an early retirement (in his 50s) to pursue the kind of art that relies on creativity as much as it does technique.
He uses only Claybord (an ultra-smooth, paint-absorbing, kaolin clay substrate) and is particular about his paint. He has earned the right to be ultra-selective, as he collaborated with a chemist at the National Gallery in Washington, D.C., to formulate a paint for restoration that is free of toxic solvents.
“When you restore an oil painting, you have to use a material that looks like oil but is completely different, so that at some point in the future, there’s a distinction [between the restoration and the original]. Maybe in 200 years all my work will be removed and replaced,” he says matter of factly. But here he takes pride. “The materials we had in the early ’70s only lasted 35 to 40 years and were highly toxic.” From discussions in 1993 to lab and field studies and the ultimate manufacturing by Gamblin Artists Colors in 1997, Laporal A 81 became the standard resin for restoration work.
Leonard says that his resin paint requires a more time-consuming process than straight oils but provides a luminosity that only an aged oil painting achieves when it becomes more translucent.
His conservation background has had a broad influence on his art.
“I keep a tidy studio.” He wondered: If paint wasn’t covering his clothes and floor at the end of a day, was he an “artist”? As he points out, you can’t splash paint around
a master painting; precision became ingrained in him. “It’s an issue of control that I learned to embrace rather than shy away from. It’s slow.”
He anticipates it will take him four to five months to finish each of the 24- and 36-square-inch panels he recently ordered.
His pursuit of painting full time piqued the interest of Louis Stern, who operates Louis Stern Fine Arts gallery in West Hollywood and served on The Getty’s Paintings Conservation Council. “When you have something to show, bring it in and I will have a look,” Stern told him. A year later, in 2011, Leonard did just that and Stern gave him his first solo exhibition, which The Wall Street Journal noted in a profile of Leonard resulted in 26 of 28 paintings and drawings being sold.
When Leonard initially looked for a concept to explore, he thought, “I know a lot about love and loss” and contemplated how those life experiences are interwoven. Using a grid framework, he created a series of “weavings” by overlapping horizontal and vertical lines. The paintings exemplify a mastery of creating the illusion of texture, even on the Claybord he likens to porcelain.
The director of Dallas Museum of Art interrupted Leonard’s “retirement” by inviting him to build a conservation department at the museum. Leonard agreed to a five-year commitment, sold his Palm Springs house, and moved to Texas in 2012.
Around the same time, the director of Yale Center for British Art in New Haven, Connecticut, proposed Leonard create works reflecting its collections. Wandering the galleries, he found himself drawn to the cloud studies of John Constable (1776–1837). While at The Met, he had restored Constable’s The White Horse (1819). He began using the motifs of rope and spheres to interpret what Constable had referred to as “lanes of clouds.” The Yale exhibition placed the artists’ works side by side.
“My third or fourth year in Dallas, Steve Nash [then executive director of Palm Springs Art Museum] called and asked me to look at a painting by William Robinson Leigh [Thunder Mountain, circa 1910] that had conservation issues.”
Leonard and his husband, Ken Hamma, flew to the desert for the consultation, took “a couple extra days” to look at real estate, and “went back to Texas as landowners.” They now live at that south Palm Springs property in a house designed for them by architect Lance O’Donnell. (Leonard agreed to restore the Leigh painting when he moved back to the desert in 2017 and performed the painting process in the museum’s public galleries.)
O’Donnell designed Leonard’s studio in a space separated from the “living” portions of the home so that he has to “go to work” — requiring a walk outside, albeit a covered one.
“To keep a continuous thread,” he says, “I work every day, even if it is only for an hour, though I usually work three to four hours a day.” He credits Ernest Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast for inspiring his approach: “I always worked until I had something done, and I always stopped when I knew what was going to happen next. That way, I could be sure of going on the next day,” Hemingway wrote.
“Before I stop [a painting session], I know exactly what I am going to do when I start again,” Leonard affirms. Beyond that, he says, “I keep a running list of things I want to do, but it got so long, I stopped looking at it.”