“The secret is to let what’s underneath shine through,” says local artist Thomas Foster Hermansader.
The artist, best known for his watercolors and oil paintings of historic Lancaster County landmarks, talks about his technique of applying layers of color on top of each other. According to him, the process, which is similar to Andrew Wyeth’s egg tempera technique, may involve perhaps more than 100 glazes to sharpen, refine and perfect his subject.
He might as well talk about the ethereal quality of his compositions and how his use of light and color elicits emotions in viewers and reveals the warmth of the cold stone historic buildings he favors in his works. .
Hermansader, the 2019 recipient of Lancaster County’s C. Emlen Urban Award for the education and promotion of historic sites in the area, will exhibit and, for the first time, release a significant amount of his original work over the course of a night-only pop-up exhibit from 5-7 p.m. Friday at Sehner-Ellicott-von Hess House, 123 N. Prince St. in Lancaster.
But saying goodbye to some of his creations won’t be easy.
“After working a few hundred hours on a painting, you get very attached to it,” says Hermansader.
Hermansader is 71 years old. This is a particularly significant age for the artist, who has been painting professionally for around 50 years.
Hermansader sold prints and a few earlier originals, but retained much of his original production to sell to help him financially in retirement.
“When I was 20-25, 70 seemed out of reach,” Hermansader says. “But suddenly I looked in the mirror last year and realized that the time had come to sell my most prized paintings.”
The Historic Preservation Trust of Lancaster County will showcase more than 50 original Hermansader watercolors and oil paintings at the first Friday pop-up event that spans the entire career, including Lancaster County landmarks such as Thaddeus Stevens School of Technology, Sickman’s Mill, Hunsecker Covered Bridge, Strasbourg Railway, Wheatland, Wright’s Mansion, Ephrata Cloister and more.
“A lot of people have seen the carvings from the different places in Lancaster County, but it’s pretty special to be able to see – and buy – the originals,” says Danielle Keperling, executive director of the Historic Preservation Trust. “Capturing historic locations in and around Lancaster County provides another snapshot of how these buildings evolved.”
Hermansader grew up in an art studio.
“My father was a portrait painter and I used to stand in his studio and watch him paint,” says Hermansader. “I was amazed by it. It was a bit like magic.
He says he remembers how, although his father was an extremely talented and respected portrait painter, he often struggled in his 30s and 40s to earn money. Portraits — even those of famous people — can often struggle to sell in the secondary market, Hermansader says.
“I knew that if I painted buildings, I would find enough people to buy prints of them,” says Hermansader.
His father advised him to develop and perfect his drawing skills, which he called “the backbone of art”.
“I was very lucky that my dad was a great person and a great artist, and the biggest influence in my life.”
Hermansader taught art at the Columbia School District from 1973 to 1989, which allowed him to paint in the evenings, on weekends, and in the summer. Hermansader worked in a spontaneous, loose style of painting from 1973 to 1981. Then, in 1981, he decided to switch to a tighter, more detailed approach. His first subject using this new, more demanding style, which he says can take anywhere from 200 to 400 hours, was Wright’s Ferry Mansion at Columbia.
Satisfied with the results, Hermansader decided to display the original painting of Wright’s Ferry Mansion on an easel, along with print order forms at the Columbia Market House when it opened for two nights around the time of the Halloween Parade of Columbia.
He took 54 orders, calculated his costs and profits, and knew he had a successful model. He has since sold much of his earlier looser work (although some will be available at the pop-up event) and occasionally newer originals, but over the next 40 years he has mainly focused on the sale of printed matter.
The prints were popular – and, he says, at least two former US presidents – former President Bill Clinton and former President George Bush Sr. – have impressions of his work.
Every shingle is exact
“I like realism,” says Hermansader. And he means it.
He is dedicated to depicting his subjects as they appear in real life. He says he’ll often spend hours at each location studying every detail of each subject through his binoculars, taking pictures to refer to later in his studio, and painting on location to make sure his colors are correct and that all its details are correct. He says he counted rows of shingles at the Hans Herr house (19) and fence posts in the background of the Strasbourg railway (159).
“I thought to myself that if an architect could spend that much time designing the building and the builder could spend that much time building it, I think I could represent it the same way,” Hermansader says.
A subject of which he is particularly proud is his watercolor of the house of Hans Herr. Many artists have tackled the subject, including the world famous Andrew Wyeth.
“Andrew Wyeth was commissioned to paint the Hans Herr House and he came in a station wagon and painted it in two hours,” says Hermansader, referring to what is currently known as the 1719 Museum. “It’s just a little watercolor and it’s beautiful and it’s also his style.”
But Hermansader was not deterred by the efforts of other artists. He told Earl Groff, the Hans Herr house curator at the time, that no artist would put as many hours as he would into a painting. He returned to the Hans Herr house a year later with his painting and presented it to the same curator, who took a moment to study it before saying, according to Hermansader, “It is the best painting in the house. Herr”.
This painting will also be at the pop-up exhibit, but it will have a “sold” sticker.
Chad Snyder, president of Charles F. Snyder Funeral Home, purchased the painting for $8,000. He will lay it out in the Hans Herr Chapel at the funeral home’s new Willow Street location, which is scheduled to open in July. Funeral homes have prints of Hermansaders’ work in several places, but this is the first original they purchased.
“We’re really thrilled to be able to own an original piece of his work,” says Snyder. “I don’t think many people have seen the original, so to be able to take it out of its attic and present it in the same city in the new funeral home for thousands of people to enjoy and appreciate when they come to a funeral, it made so much sense.
Hermansader is currently working on a painting of Steinman Park, and since beginning the project he has become intimately familiar with the details of this area – including the “Newspaper Reader” sculpture, from the print on the page which he reads by the way his shoes are bent.
“When I sign my name on this painting, it’s my way of saying ‘this is the best I can paint on this subject,'” Hermansader says. “I try to paint it as faithfully as possible. I’m proud of it.