Sherrie McGraw on Abstract Realism and More

A feature on Sherrie McGraw and the wonderful synthesis of figurative realism and abstract realism.

by Laura Vailati
Art enthusiast and Editor at Miami Niche

Asking Sherrie McGraw if she prefers to draw or paint is the equivalent of asking a mother which of her children is more beautiful. Drawing has been, and still is, her great love, the means that has allowed her to see and understand nature objectively. She has made nature her own to the point of being able to recreate the air, the dimensions and the weight of reality on canvas. A reality that is, artistically speaking, abstract and composed of lines and shapes.

Drawing, for Sherrie McGraw, is the first great love, especially the figurative one in which she is able to bring out the vitality of the portrayed subject. According to the artist, drawing from nature is an excellent tool that allows you to capture and maintain the connection between life and the artist. This connection remains alive in retrospect over the centuries, allowing the expert eyes of those who understand art – especially from a technical point of view – to grasp the essence and nuances that distinguish the hand of Vermeer from that of Velazquez.

Abstract realism figure drawing
“Sunday Best” by Sherrie McGraw (Charcoal and Conte, 22″ x 15″)

In McGraw’s work, the beauty and versatility of the human body emerges in a spontaneous and fresh way, both in oil paintings and in charcoal, watercolors, and pastels. The latter two in particular are mediums of which she is very fond, and which she sometimes uses simultaneously. Pastel, in particular, is the medium with which she began to paint and watercolor helped her discover the beauty of drawing with colors.

The great love for drawing, however, did not prevent McGraw, also inspired by the ability of David Leffel, her teacher, mentor and later also husband, to see nature at a higher level, a level for which the couple coined the term abstract realism. Abstract realism is a form of realism not previously classified but which is, in fact, traceable in its peculiar characters, already in the works of the early period of Titian and in Rembrandt.

Abstract realism portrait painting
“The Old Codger” by Sherrie McGraw (Oil on board, 14″ x 11″)

Abstract realism is based on the deconstruction of the realistic image from which abstract forms are then extrapolated, which the artist is able to make real through his or her own distinctive mark. “Abstract realism is a higher level of painting that appears in different artistic periods,” states the artist. De Kooning, for example, captured in the innocence of his deconstructed forms, the sense of paint for paint’s sake.

“Abstract realism is on the surface a playful, almost childlike process, but in reality it is a very complex process, especially if you think about the rendering of atmosphere, light, and volume. It is in essence a lot of nothing in a little bit of somethings,” says McGraw. The latter quote perfectly encapsulates the meaning of the concept and can be clearly seen in the artist’s work, titled “Twilight on the Pueblo,” published by Fine Art Connoisseur magazine.

Abstract realism - "Twilight on the Pueblo" by Sherrie McGraw
“Twilight on the Pueblo” by Sherrie McGraw
Study for 'On the Night of the Night Fires' by Sherrie McGraw (Oil on board, 5.25" x 9.75")
Study for ‘On the Night of the Night Fires’ by Sherrie McGraw (Oil on board, 5.25″ x 9.75″)

Born in Wichita, Kansas and raised in Oklahoma, McGraw moved to New York to study art at the Art Students League of New York. A decision that radically changed the course of her life, not only from a sentimental point of view following her meeting with Leffel (teacher at the Art Students League of New York for 25 years), but also artistically with the vision of chiaroscuro and a very special point of view that Leffel transmitted to her.

Thanks to him she was able to combine, in a perfect synthesis, the academic and theoretical art to which she had been educated in Oklahoma, with art as a reworking of thought and evolution on higher levels than the mere representation of reality.

McGraw has numerous exhibitions and shows to her credit, including a solo show at the Butler Institute of American Art and an exhibition with American Women Artists in Sorrento, Italy, in the cloister of San Francesco. “Sorrento is the sister city of Santa Fe,” the artist reveals.

Abstract realism still life painting
“Peonies” by Sherrie McGraw (Oil on Panel, 12” x 16″)

While affirming that drawing is of fundamental importance in art, McGraw also stresses the importance of simply observing nature because it is only through observation that the life force of nature enters into the work of the artist.

Besides being an artist, McGraw is also an esteemed teacher and will be with artist (and husband) David A. Leffel, among the participants of the 2022 Plein Air Convention and Expo (PACE) in Santa Fe, New Mexico, May 17-21. During the convention, which finally returns after two years of pandemic, the couple will be interviewed by Eric Rhoads, about whom the artist says, “Eric is a superman. He certainly has a way of gathering many people together and making things happen, and that’s quite impressive.”

Learn how to paint with Sherrie McGraw from the comfort of your home:
– Still Life with Onions
– Figure Drawing: The Elemental Language
– Figure Painting: The Elemental Language
[click here to learn about these Sherrie McGraw workshops]

Plein Air Convention