As artist Jack Nolan sits on the back of a fountain in St. Michaels, Md., he doesn’t realize the back of his pants are getting wet. He’s focused on drawing the picturesque building in front of him. A roaming golden retriever seeking a little company ambles over to Nolan and places its muzzle on Nolan’s knee. The dog keeps its head there for the 30 minutes it takes Nolan to complete the sketch.
That sketch is one of many that the 80-year-old Longboat Key resident eventually turned into a full-fledged watercolor painting.
“I don’t look at that painting now without thinking of that golden retriever,” he chuckles.
This memory is conjured from just one page of the pocket-sized notebook the artist and watercolor teacher always carries with him. His home is filled with boxes and cabinets of these notebooks containing treasure troves of sketches for future watercolor recreations. They are notebooks he has filled as he traveled the world, spent time with his five grandchildren and enjoyed adventures with his wife, Mary. Nolan’s life is measured in sketches.
“I told the kids, ‘Forget the paintings, go for the notebooks!’” Mary Nolan says. But each grandchild has his own painting from Grandpa Jack specific to each of his interests.
Nolan first started habitually carrying a notebook in the early ’50s, during the Korean War. His notebooks fit in his Army field-jacket pocket. He’d sketch scenes and people all over Korea to mail to his sweetheart, Mary, long before they were married.
“Around every corner was a subject — it was really terrific stuff,” Nolan says.
During his time in the Army, he was a cartoonist for service newspapers. But, his career took a much different path following his service.
As a professional engineer, Nolan founded his own construction company, Nolan Scott Inc., a company specializing in large buildings and 400,000-square-foot distribution centers.
During business presentations, Nolan would fill a blank newsprint pad by drawing his clients’ projects on the spot. His method impressed them and could hold attention in a way that Nolan says was different than his colleagues’ approach. He would also constantly doodle during board meetings.
“Mary called them a ‘boredom index,’” he says. “If I came back from a board meeting with minutes covered in drawings, she’d say, ‘Must have been a boring meeting.’”
But Nolan swears he has never been bored.
“If I have a pencil and the back of an envelope, then I’m not bored.”
As the company neared its 25th anniversary two decades ago, Nolan followed through with his plan to retire and sell it to his employees.
“It’s a cliché, but you don’t retire from something, you retire to something,” he says. “When I got close to selling the business, I got a little panicky about what that was going to be.”
It only made sense that then 60-year-old Maryland resident would pursue his passion for art. With retirement on the horizon, Nolan started attending night classes at Maryland Center of Art.
“I’d show up in a tie and suit and sit next to a girl with hoops in her nose,” he says.
In addition to eclectically populated art classes, Nolan took workshops with esteemed watercolor teachers he calls “giants,” such as Tony Couch and Anne Abgott — both gave him the encouragement to keep pursuing watercolor.
“Tony Couch said (while looking at one of my sketch books), ‘My God, you draw like me!’” says Nolan. “No one’s ever said anything better to me in my life.”
He learned mantras for painting such as, “Being exactly right is always wrong,” or “Water is deeper and darker than the sky reflects.” To demonstrate, he opens a notebook a little larger than those with which he usually works, a gift from Abgott — a handmade journal with handmade paper. Inside is what Nolan refers to as his “sketches,” but they appear to be mini works of fine art, full of sky and water.
Abgott is the reason Nolan started teaching.
“She dragged me into it, you could say,” he says. He has been teaching for the past eight years and has befriended many of his regular students.
He was teaching regular classes at the Longboat Key Center for the Arts, a Division of Ringling College of Art and Design, but has switched to hosting monthly workshops on Longboat Key and in Lakewood Ranch and as far north as Art Center Manatee. He encourages his students to find their own style.
He gets distracted from talking about teaching as he flips through a few pages of another notebook; he can’t help but digress. Each page is a memory of a different colorful setting, for example the Rod and Reel Pier, on Anna Maria Island. In between the more “finished” sketches, there are simple drawings of people: an ink outline of a woman holding an ice pack on her knee; a man wearing a long coat and glasses waiting for a train; and an airport scene of people waiting for flights.
He refers to his fascination with people-watching, saying there’s nothing better than “free models whom you don’t have to pay to sit still.” Nolan appreciates an hour-long wait in a bustling place because of the sketching opportunities it lends.
Next, he opens a cabinet full of notebooks above his studio counter space in his home. He pulls out another one, telling stories as he flips through it; the contents are a clear indication of his worldly travels — always with his wife at his side and a notebook in his pocket.
The sketches of his travels to places such as Fiji, Venice, Italy, and Belgium, became invaluable when he was approached in spring 2012 by advertising agency Young & Rubicam to do a series of 12 paintings for a campaign for Crystal Cruises. The agency representatives told him the concept behind the series would be paintings representing a made-up couple’s experience on a cruise. “She keeps a journal, and he paints,” Nolan says of his concept. It wasn’t a stretch from the couple’s own travels.
The results of the campaign span the pages of glossy magazines such as Condé Nast Traveler, National Geographic and Architectural Digest. He pulls down another notebook to show a few of the ads, then goes back to an earlier notebook.
Nolan points to a drawing of a little church in the countryside.
“Mary slept in the car while I drew this,” he says. He talks about another sketch-turned-painting that hangs in the couple’s bedroom. It’s a scene in Venice, Italy, drawn at dinner over a glass of wine.
“While I was drawing it in the book, she was making up stories about all the people,” Nolan says. Her stories were based on such scenes as the laundry hanging on lines outside: Two sheets signified a couple who slept in separate beds; conservative dresses meant the woman worked at a bank.
“I look at that painting and I can still taste the wine I was drinking,” he says.
Nolan can recall a story or a memory with every sketch in his notebooks.
“They are better recollections than a camera for me,” he says.
Saturday, Jan. 19
10 to 11:30 a.m. at Keeton’s Art Supply. Free. Call 747-2995
Saturday, Jan. 26
9 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. at Keeton’s Art Supply. Tickets $40. Call 747-2995
Saturday, Feb, 16
10 a.m. to 4 p.m. at ArtCenter Manatee. Tickets $70 to $95. Call 746-2862
Tuesday, Feb. 19
11 a.m. to 4 p.m. at Longboat Key Center for the Arts, a Division of Ringling College of Art and Design. Tickets $75. Call 383-2345