Following Leonardo: American Artist Joel Babb on Becoming a Successful Realist Painter

By Lorraine Ferrier
Lorraine Ferrier
Lorraine Ferrier
June 17, 2021 Updated: June 17, 2021

Maine-based realist painter Joel Babb very nearly became an abstract expressionist. But a series of events compelled him to follow past mastersLeonardo da Vinci, Claude Lorrain, and John Ruskin, to name a fewto become the successful artist he is today.

Babb’s work is featured in private collections and in prominent ones, including the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston and Harvard Medical School.

Joel Babb
Realist artist Joel Babb seated in front of one of his paintings. (Amazeen)

His paintings include architecture of ancient and Renaissance Italy, cityscapes of Boston, and woodlands, especially those near his home and studio in Sumner, Maine.

Joel Babb
“The Weeks Bridge, Charles River, Cambridge,” 1998, by Joel Babb. Oil on linen; 37 inches by 97 inches. (Courtesy of Joel Babb)
Joel Babb
“The Fan Pier, Boston,” 2007, by Joel Babb. Oil on linen; 24 inches by 48 inches. Collection of Abbot W. and Marcia L. Vose. (Courtesy of Joel Babb)

A Modern Beginning

In high school, Babb immediately responded to abstract expressionist painting. At the time, he believed that the growing popularity of modern art was part of a long process of modernization when things were becoming better.

Princeton had a very strong program in Chinese painting, so besides learning Western art history, Babb was introduced to Chinese art too. “It’s a wonderful tradition of which I knew nothing about at the time,” Babb said in a telephone interview. He was taught by the late Wen Fong, who went on to become a curator at The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

Babb recalls a 1969 exhibition called “In Pursuit of Antiquity: Chinese Paintings of the Ming and Ch’ing Dynasties From the Collection of Mr. and Mrs. Earl Morse.” He learned that Chinese painters looked to the past, to the Northern Song or earlier traditions, emulating the earlier style as an expressive mode. 

“What fascinated me was that an artist could paint in the style of various early masters, not just imitating one. There was a reverence and deep understanding of the past. This was so different from the obsession with innovation and originality in modern Western art,” he said.

Babb found something similar when he spent seven months in Italy, on what he says was the start of his personal “pursuit of antiquity.” In Rome, he noted that “artists who were painting in the late 15th century were really pursuing an enterprise very similar to that [of the Chinese artists] in terms of trying to re-create what the Greco-Roman tradition had been doing.” 

Joel Babb
“On the Via Giulia, Santa Maria dell’ Orazione e Morte,” 2008, by Joel Babb. Oil on linen; 20 inches by 28 inches. (Courtesy of Joel Babb)

He was fascinated by how the different eras—the Renaissance and Baroque, for example—rediscovered and reinterpreted classical antiquity in art and architecture.

“So the sort of a simplistic idea of modernism superseding and being better than everything that had come before it just was not all that interesting [to me] anymore,” he said. He realized that all the early modernist movements, like dadaism and so forth, which had so fascinated him, were disruptive to the whole cultural tradition of art. 

Learning Art Anew

Babb had other realizations in Italy. “I pretty much realized I could not draw very well and that if I really wanted to seriously be an artist, I really had to learn how to practice my craft in the same way as if I were a classical musician. I’d be able to read music and play an instrument and really have a deep understanding,” he said.

Although he was a graduate of Princeton, working on a Master of Fine Arts degree at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts at Tufts University in Boston, he had to learn the basics.

The reason I went to Boston was because the museum school had a reputation for being very strong in that traditional approach to the techniques of painting and drawing,” he said.  

When he got there, he realized that wasn’t the case at all. “They had had a revolution, and all of the traditional faculty had left the school and gone somewhere else. And so it was all Bauhaus [artist collectives that created geometric and abstract art] and modernism, and the things that came after at the Boston Museum School,” he said.

There were, however, a few holdovers from the traditional way of teaching art. The museum had a studio where students could copy paintings. And he learned how to grind colors, make gesso and oil paints, and create egg tempera paintings. 

But in general, he believes that schools now emphasize innovation: being different and revolutionary. “I do think that in the art schools, we have really missed out. We have not transmitted enough of what is really important about the art of the past to our new students,” he said. 

An Apprenticeship With Leonardo

In that early period, Babb felt that he was on his own. Having returned from Italy and having studied art history, something magical happened. “I found myself sort of unconsciously following Leonardo,” he said.

As Babb studied Leonardo’s system of perspective, he found it to be a transformative process: “Because all of a sudden you [could] see vanishing points, and eye levels and transverses, and all this stuff all around you which you would never be aware of if you hadn’t been trained in that.” 

Then, Leonardo was with him again when he was asked to teach an anatomy course for artists. “I actually went over to Boston University Medical School and was able to attend the anatomy lab for the dissections and do drawings. … It was just a parallel to what Leonardo would have done back in the late 1400s.

“I remember the first few weeks after I was in there, I started looking at everyone as if they were sort of a complicated machine with hinges and pulleys, and [that] they were operating all this machinery just so completely unconscious of having it, or knowing how. It was very interesting,” he said.

In the 1970s, Babb used to camp on the land where his home and studio now stand in Sumner, Maine. He remembers sitting in the field and doing pen and ink drawings of plants and wildflowers, emulating Leonardo’s style of drawing. 

“I realized that all artists are sort of starting from scratch that way, at all times. And of course, it really helps if you have a master who already knows it to learn from, so you’re not creating the whole universe from scratch,” he said.

Between Boston and Sumner, Maine 

Two American landscapes dominate Babb’s paintings: the city scenes of Boston and the natural scenic treasures of Maine. Looking back, Babb often wonders why he divided his career between two very different types of landscapes. He went on to say that the city is an environment controlled by linear perspective. Everything is designed by architects, and objects are arranged artificially. Whereas, on the other hand, nature is ordered along completely different lines. It’s sort of self-organizing and disorderly, he said.

Joel Babb
“Mount Desert Cliffs,” 2008, oil on linen; 72 inches by 52 inches. Collection of Janet Starr. (Courtesy of Joel Babb)

Boston features in Babb’s painting “Copley Plunge,” which is now in the collection of the Museum of Fine Arts. Babb entered a competition with two other artists to design a painting for a subway station in Boston. His idea was to create a ceiling painting that would give the illusion of’ the neighborhood above ground. 

Joel Babb
“Copley Plunge,” 1990, by Joel Babb. Oil on linen; 82 inches by 65 inches, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. (Courtesy of Joel Babb)

To understand the composition, Babb hired a helicopter and pilot and then flew over the neighborhood surrounding the subway station. 

“I became tremendously interested in the aerial perspective of the city,” he said. He mapped out the neighborhoods using an isometric perspective, like the paintings in Japanese and Chinese cityscapes, where objects don’t really have a vanishing point, Babb explained. 

“When you’re in a tall building [and looking down], the verticals of the buildings actually do line up at a point that’s directly beneath your feet,” he said. He used this one-point perspective in “Copley Plunge,” where the vanishing point is straight down rather than out on the horizon somewhere, he explained.

Joel Babb
Joel Babb’s painting of “Copley Plunge” is placed on the floor to see the effect of the perspective. (Courtesy of Joel Babb)

At one time, Babb was creating photo-realistic paintings, in other words, paintings that appear to be photographs. The light spreads evenly over those compositions, he said.   

His painting “The Hounds of Spring” is one example of photo-realism. It shows a different perspective from “Copley Plunge.” Babb wanted to create a doorway effect so that viewers feel as though they can almost step into the painting. In the foreground, the plants and rocks are life-size and highly realistic. Babb explained that as you proceed into the painting, up the hill, “the space of the picture will be like transitioning from a microcosm into a macrocosm.” The painting is one of a series of contemporary photo-realist paintings he created. 

Joel Babb
“The Hounds of Spring,” 1988, by Joel Babb. Oil on linen; 96 inches by 68 inches. Collection of Harvard Business School. (Courtesy of Joel Babb)

But photo-realistic painting is in Babb’s past: “I don’t aspire to be a photo-realistic painter. I want my paintings to look like paintings. I want to see brushstrokes, and I want to interpret the color in a more traditional way.”

Babb’s realist art adheres to the ideals of 19th-century art critic and patron John Ruskin. For Babb, this means, “You should study nature with great humility and not try to impose your own ideas of what it should be on it, but try to learn from it.”

“In a nutshell, the philosophy of realism is that if you really look and explore a very small corner of the universe, you can perceive immense natural forces and universal principles that apply everywhere. I’m not quite sure how the alchemy of that works, but that’s the aspiration,” Babb said. 

Joel Babb
“Crystalline, The Big Cypress Preserve, Florida,” 2004, by Joel Babb. Oil on linen; 40.5 inches by 48 inches. (Courtesy of Joel Babb)

Past realist painters have helped with that aspiration. “When I think about my own struggle with trying to represent nature, I didn’t get very far until I discovered the drawings of [French painter] Claude Lorrain and the way that he structured the space and the composition.” 

Lorrain’s drawings showed Babb “how to structure recession in a natural landscape, overlapping foreground, middle ground, [and] far distance, [and by] alternating light and dark masses, and atmospheric perspective.”

“That traditional way of representing space enabled artists to really represent nature much better,” he said.

A Heartfelt Painting

Most of Babb’s artworks are landscape paintings. He has, however, painted a series of historical medical paintings. The reason is literally close to his heart. At 13 years old, Babb had heart surgery. “It was sort of a live or die proposition, and it was very traumatic,” he said. So in the 1990s, when Babb got a call from a doctor who wanted him to paint the first successful organ transplant, carried out at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in 1954, it piqued his interest. 

He’d always been fascinated by history paintings. “Here it was, a historical event with the possibility of doing a significant painting … and so it just appealed to me in all sorts of ways,” he said.

The room where the surgery took place no longer exists, so Babb worked from two black-and-white photographs that were taken during the surgery. He also attended surgeries to become familiar with the operating room setup. Dr. Joseph Murray, who carried out the world’s first successful kidney transplant and who received the Nobel Prize for his work, showed Babb around the hospital.

Joel Babb
“The First Successful Organ Transplantation in Man,” 1995–1996, by Joel Babb. Oil on linen; 70 inches by 88 inches. The Francis A. Countway Library of Medicine at Harvard Medical School, Boston. (Courtesy of Joel Babb)

The painting now hangs prominently in The Francis A. Countway Library of Medicine at Harvard Medical School, opposite “The First Operation With Ether,” painted by 19th-century American portraitist Robert C. Hinckley. That painting details the first use of anesthesia surgery, which occurred at Massachusetts General Hospital on Oct. 16, 1846. 

The doctors who commissioned Babb’s painting said to him that Hinckley depicted “the most important surgical innovation of the 19th century, and our operation, in all modesty, was the most important surgical innovation of the 20th century.”

Western Art Heritage

Babb believes that a successful painting is the result of a combination of artistic processes coming together. He suggests that artists spend a third of their time painting outdoors and maybe a third of their time painting from photographs, and then the remaining third of their time painting from just their imagination. 

Joel Babb
“Painting by the Brook, Breughel Watching,” 2012, by Joel Babb. Oil on linen,; 48 inches by 42 inches. (Courtesy of Joel Babb)

“I love painting outside. And I think it’s a necessary antidote to using photographs and working in the studio because [in photographs] you don’t see color the way the eye really sees it in strong light until you work outside,” he said. 

Joel Babb
Realist artist Joel Babb and his dog Ruskin in the woods. (Courtesy of Joel Babb)

Reflecting on his journey as an artist so far, Babb experienced modernism’s sway and the drive to be innovative early on in his school study. But as he moved into realist art, he experienced a sheer reverence for nature and also for the great traditions of the past, about which he’s adamant we shouldn’t ignore.

To find out more about realist painter Joel Babb’s paintings, visit JoelBabb.com

Lorraine Ferrier
Lorraine Ferrier