A Song in His Art Tony Bennett is most famous as a singer, but he finds painting just as important.

November 10, 1996|By J.D. Considine | J.D. Considine,SUN POP MUSIC CRITIC

NEW YORK -- When a singer talks about his or her big break -- that lucky connection that turned their career around -- the story generally turns out to be about a concert or recording date. But in Tony Bennett's case, the meeting that changed his life didn't involve music at all.

"I grew up in the projects in Astoria, here in Queens," he says, sitting in his Manhattan apartment. "Right smack in the Depression. Real poor.

"I was sketching in the street, painting on the street with chalk, and there was a shadow that came over my work. I looked up, and there was this big, tall Irishman. He said, 'I like that.'

" 'Thank you.' I was a young kid, 14.

"He said, 'You know, I'm an art teacher, and I paint every Saturday. Would you want to come with me, and just paint together?'

"I said, 'Yeah.' I couldn't believe that some grown-up would want to take me to paint. And then he took me to the museums and to the theater and to symphonies. I couldn't believe it. He opened me up to culture.

"That one day just made me a painter," says the 70-year-old Bennett. "You know, there's always one teacher that always triggers the whole thing. He was the influence, that Irishman. James McWhinney."

Bennett may be better known as a singer, but for him the two pursuits are inseparable. "I paint, and I sing," he says. "I don't want to do it; I have to do it. It's always been that way. Something just keeps moving me toward being very interested in communicating that way.

"That's my life. The minute I'm doing [either], I feel, 'This is who I am.' It makes me feel very comfortable."

As one looks around Bennett's midtown apartment, it's easy to sense that comfort. Sure, it's a nice place -- high ceilings, hardwood floors, a panoramic view north across Central Park -- but what comes across in those rooms isn't luxury so much as taste and creativity. One corner of the living room, for instance, seems almost alive with artistic potential, thanks to the proximity of the piano and a vibrant rice-paper painting by Bennett's friend, Chen Chi.

These days, music and painting are just as closely linked in his professional life. In addition to his most recent recording, "Here's to the Ladies," Bennett is busy promoting "What My Heart Has Seen," a book of his artwork. (He'll be signing the book at Bibelot this afternoon, then singing at the Meyerhoff this evening.)

"One really helps the other," says Bennett of his dual pursuits. "You learn that all the crafts are really quite the same. They all have the same rudiments -- line, form, color. Knowing what to leave out, proper balance. All these things are essential."

Even the sort of creative strategies applied are similar. Take, for example, the sort of speed and improvisation required in watercolor painting. "Watercolor is very much like a jazz solo," he says. "It has to be thought out, and well-planned mentally. You have to think about where you're going to place your colors before you approach the paper. 'OK, I'll put this here, and I'll do that. I'll put the light in first, and then I'll make everything in the forefront sharper. ' You plan this mentally, and with sketches, possibly photographs, so you know just what you want to do.

"Then, when you finally watercolor, you just do it all at one time. Because it doesn't work if you have to go over it. It gets muddy. It stops being transparent. It stops being a watercolor."

Oils are forgiving

Working in oils, on the other hand, is not unlike multitrack recording. Not only is it a much more time-consuming process, but it gives the artist a chance to edit and add layers in a way that watercolor -- or live music -- doesn't. "If there's a whole section that doesn't work, you can just scrape it off and correct it," he says.

"Whatever craft it is, whatever skill that you're searching for, you find out it's the same rules," he observes. "If you're a writer, you have to be as economical as possible to communicate. It's the same way with singing. It's the same way with playing tennis. Once you learn the rules, you know what to leave out.

"I was just talking to a fellow artist today, a wonderful, academic painter who knows technique, and he said it's so silly to tell students, 'Just paint what you feel.' He said they're so young, they really don't feel anything yet. They haven't lived it. So it's futile. What you have to do is gather up as much technique as possible."

Like any good artist, Bennett recognizes that there will always be something new to learn. For instance, he's working on an oil painting of a small, stone bridge in Central Park, a landscape he's trying to capture from sketches and photographs. But he's not happy with the way he's getting the light, and laughs as he recalls how his friend, the painter David Hockney, told him "you just can't do better than nature."

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