This article appeared in December 1998 issue of Lehigh Valley magazine

by Marilyn J. Fox

He lives very simply in a 150-year-old house on a quiet residential street in Whitehall. He likes to study local history, work on his house, and spend time with his family. Some afternoons, he digs for buried treasure in old dumps or dry wells.

But if you visit him in the wee hours of the night—when the rest of the world is asleep—you’ll find an intensely focused artist working in a small studio, a studio filled with relics from the past. He’s working on his latest paintings, creating stunningly realistic and sensitive portraits of friends and loved ones, or breathtaking still lifes that tell a story. His work is held in numerous collections around the Valley and the nation. The artist is Douglas Wiltraut and, although his work has been compared to Andrew Wyeth’s, it’s uniquely his own.

His portraits are sensitive portrayals of people he knows well and admires—as with Mourning Dove, the reflective vision of his brother mourning the murder of his hero, John Lennon; or the powerful portrait of his father called Family Man. For a still life, he might choose an old wooden washtub that, when he was a kid, “served as a place to splash around in the backyard on hot August afternoons.” Using watercolor or egg tempera—an age-old medium that combines egg yolks and pigment to make an extremely permanent paint—Wiltraut captures every significant detail of his subjects.

These subjects, though born of Wiltraut’s life and environment, reach beyond a nostalgic or personal sentimentality. Rose Ackerman, Director of Operations and Special Events at the Baum School of Art in Allentown, says, “Douglas is a regional artist, but certainly his subjects are universal and recognized on the national scene.” Peter Blume, Director of the Allentown Art Museum, adds, “I admire his technical competence, as well as the wonderful spirit of his work.”

Perhaps the best mark of an artist outside the realm of his own town is his influence on other artists. As the President of the National Society of Painters in Casein & Acrylic, Inc., Wiltraut has set a standard in contemporary American painting. As a juror for art exhibitions, as an artist featured in a number of art books, Wiltraut has made an impact on the larger art arena.

Says M. Stephen Doherty, Editor-in-Chief of American Artist magazine, where Wiltraut’s work has been featured in the past, “Through his paintings, (Wiltraut) has established himself as an important figure working with acrylic and egg tempera. He also has a great deal of influence on other artists as President of the National Society of Painters in Casein & Acrylic, and has really helped revive that organization.”

Wiltraut begins each piece by drawing the essential shape and form of his subject onto the panel or paper, using photographs and slides that he has taken. His subjects are always those people and objects he finds “intriguing.”

Then, as his family sleeps, he paints. “In the middle of the night I can create my own environment—there are no phones ringing, no kids playing outdoors,” he says. “It is dark and it is quiet. I have my music on in the background, and my palette is bright under the light...the paper is in front of me, and I can focus.”

When the late night hours turn most magical, he begins to lay in colors, leaving the white of the paper to make eyes sparkle or whiskers white. He studies the lines on aging skin, and stops, focusing on which colors are warm, which are cool, then proceeds with a Zen intensity.

And simply, from a flat sheet of watercolor paper, and a number of bent and aged tubes of paint and well-worn brushes, an image is formed, an image as real in its own way as the subject he portrays.

His Family Man, for example, is a stunning portrait of his father, a man who, to Wiltraut, “, for all, and forever, a Family Man. He built our house (in Fullerton); he worked hard and he raised five kids. I wanted this portrait to capture that I took his picture just as he was taking a break from painting the house...just as he was merging into the light of the front-yard...and the house, his house, our house, casts a shadow across his chest...the shadow, the house, is part of him.”

Wiltraut infuses each subject, whether it be his father or brother, or a basket sitting on a hutch in late afternoon light, with life. As he sits talking to me in his livingroom, he gestures to objects around him, all of which are props in his paintings.

“This trunk,” he says, pointing to an antique leather traveling trunk with worn brass fittings, “belonged to my wife’s great-grandfather. It migrated to this country with all of his belongings. When I painted it, I added this little curlew decoy on top of it...a bird, another migrator.” The painting, fittingly, is called The Migrator.

In another work, Tools of the Trade, he set out to paint old rag mops hanging on a washline. One day, he spotted several mops hanging to dry on a neighbor’s washline. “I loved the way they looked, but the image wasn’t quite right, I set out to find the right image with mops.”

For nearly two years, he looked at mops—on back porches or washlines, in sheds and garages. “I looked everywhere, and took my camera wherever I went, because I knew I’d find the image. And one day, while I was on a drive (to find images to paint), I came to a crossroad...and, not knowing exactly where to turn, I stopped, and, as I often do, let the spirit take its course. I turned left, and then, there on a porch, were the mop heads! That old porch, with mops and wash rags, that would be my composition. I had to stop, and take a picture of it, so I could paint that image.

” Wiltraut painted each fiber of the mop, each chip of paint, to reveal its wear from the toil for which it was made. “I have to thank my instructor in painting, Tom Quirk (retired now from Kutztown University) for teaching me how to paint objects like that,” Wiltraut explains. “When I was a student, I remember how he told me to think about painting even the most common thing, like a door—do you kick it open to get in the kitchen form the backyard, because your hands are full carrying the tomatoes from your garden? Had the dog scratched at the door to be let in on a cold night? Did the paint blister from the heat of the sun over years and years, as kids slammed the door to run out into the sunshine to play?” Wiltraut, in turn, has taught others, both at Kutztown University and at the Baum School of Art.

At bottom, one can see that he loves to contemplate the history of things, the age of things, their very essence. His studio is filled with glass ornaments, metal jewelry, bottles, fossils, and rocks, all the treasures he finds on his digs. And all of these things, these discards from old dumps and wells and fields, are precious to him, as precious as the lines in his father’s face, as treasured as the bits of rust on an old bucket he decides to paint. It is the process of aging, the process of objects or people changing with time, that he struggles to capture. It is the inescapable passage of time, the pivotal moment when seasons change and youth turns to age, that he crystallizes for all of us.

Marilyn J. Fox is a freelance writer from Fleetwood who writes frequently about art.

Photo of the artist: Elizabeth Wiltraut (credit)
Tools of the Trade, 1986 (drybrush watercolor). The roles of women have greatly changed over the past few decades. Here these simple household mainstays represent a disappearing image of a woman toiling in her house during times long past. Family Man, 1989 (watercolor). Here is a portrait of the artist’s father, a man who has raised five children. As he stands in the shadow of the house he built himself, he could just as well be standing in a grove of spruce trees in Maine, where many of the family vacations were spent. A man who loves chopping wood, or working in his own garden, he represents the classic “Family Man.” Mourning Dove, 1981 (acrylic). This is a portrait of the artist’s brother in the month following the murder of John Lennon. As his brother sat mourning Lennon in the late afternoon sunlight, he represented to the artist how everyone felt about the tragedy. Setting Son, 1992 (watercolor). Young boys can never get enough physical activity, and the artist’s son is no exception. Here he is cooling off after a hot afternoon of swinging on a rope at a family picnic. With the day winding to a close, we see him sitting on the cool stone doorsill watching the sun set over the Lehigh River.