Bill Kuchler is an introvert, except when it comes to discussing his painting — something he has done as long as he can remember.
"I’m very content to be by myself, in the barn painting," said the 74-year-old former advertising creative director who now spends much of his time in the converted 11/2-car garage at the end of his driveway that he calls Blue Barn Studio.
Since retiring four years ago, Kuchler (pronounced kook-ler) has developed a following for his acrylic and watercolor scenes of rustic America through works displayed at Long Island art museums, libraries and gift shops. But most people discover him through his Facebook page, facebook.com/BlueBarnStudio, often making appointments to visit the studio to purchase originals and prints of his favorite subjects: barns, lighthouses and close-up scenes of rural life.
Among his fans are artist Holly Gordon, who has included Kuchler’s paintings in two shows she curated for Islip Art Museum. "There is something very quiet and sensitive about his nature, and I think it comes through in his artwork," she said. "He is quite versatile and his work is realistic and has a wonderful sensitivity to it. He is very attuned to being a Long Islander and his environment."
The Brooklyn native grew up in Richmond Hills, Queens. When he married 54 years ago, he and his wife, Dorothy, lived in Whitestone before moving more than a half-century ago to a house with a sprawling and leafy backyard in West Islip.
"Painting has always been part of my life since I was a kid," he said. "My father painted, but he wasn’t a painter — he worked in a factory. But he was a magnificent painter." Proof is on the walls of Kuchler’s studio: a head-and-shoulders portrait and a reclining nude of his mother painted by his father, Kurt.
"There was always a drawing table for painting in our house," Kuchler recalled. "I thought everyone had one in their house until I went to my friends’ houses and they didn’t. My influence was him and his painting. That made me want a career as a commercial artist in advertising."
Trade school start
To pursue that career, he attended Thomas Edison High School, a trade school in Queens, to take advantage of its commercial art courses. "That was the extent of my formal education, but I did take classes at the School of Visual Arts and the Phoenix School of Design, mostly related to graphics and advertising. My first job was in an art studio in New York. We did all the creative work for an ad agency. I spent my whole career doing that, commercial art as a graphic designer."
Kuchler had painted as a hobby for most of his life, although he stopped for more than a decade about 20 years ago when "life got in the way." He returned to it when his wife signed him up for a course with local watercolorist Bill Decker, and "I realized how much I missed it."
Since retiring four years ago, he paints "whenever he has a chance and there’s no chores to be done." He noted that his wife keeps him busy helping out in their lush garden.
"I promote myself as a painter of rural and rustic America," Kuchler said. "So it can be anything from a lighthouse painting to a barn or one of my favorite paintings of a rusted lock on a barn door. It was the rust and the rough wood textures that made it dramatic. Most of them are done in a realistic style. I consider myself a sentimental painter, so anything I paint has a sentimental feeling to me."
As to the subjects, "I paint what I like, whether they sell or not," he continued. What he doesn’t like to paint are portraits. "I found that very unsatisfying." What he likes, he says, are landscapes and rustic scenes.
His clientele likes them as well. His original paintings sell for between $300 and $1,000, but he prices most of his prints at $25 to keep them affordable.
His newest project is trying to paint all the lighthouses on Long Island. He has done Horton Point, Huntington Harbor, Montauk Point, Cedar Point, Plum Island, Stratford Shoal, Little Gull, Bug Light, Orient Point and several scenes of the Fire Island tower, leaving 11 to go. "I try to paint them all in a way that you haven’t seen them before," such as Fire Island in the snow — the first in the series, completed about a decade ago. Another view of that lighthouse, on a stormy day with lightning bolts in the sky, was a challenge. "I never painted lightning before."
One lighthouse painting provided perhaps his biggest claim to fame: Dan’s Papers on the East End contacted him to do a cover illustration of the Montauk Point Lighthouse in 2019.
Painting an 'heirloom'
Asked about his affinity for lighthouses, Kuchler said, "I think it’s the history of them, that these things have been standing there for hundreds of years. Painting lighthouses and their surroundings encompasses everything I like about painting. It’s the textures, the history."
"I don’t think I’ll run out of Long Island lighthouse paintings," he continued. "I don’t think I’ll live long enough to run out of them. I’ll do the same one in the snow, I will do it in the rain, I’ll try to do it in a way that no one else has done it."
A previous series was on covered bridges he saw on a trip to Vermont.
"I try to paint things I haven’t painted before," Kuchler said. "When I start a painting, I think to myself that ‘I can’t wait to see how I do this.’ " Usually he starts with a sketch and accumulates as much reference material as he can.
The self-described introvert, Kuchler demonstrates his sentimental and emotional side when talking about a favorite painting, a recent watercolor. "It’s just a picture of a swing in front of a tree. It’s in my backyard and that swing has been there for 50 years," he said, choking up as he recalled his children and grandchildren playing there. "It’s like a family heirloom. The first year we moved into the house, the first thing we wanted to build was a swing."
Even on days when he’s busy with chores, Kuchler tries to paint at least a few strokes. "I like food. I like my family. I like to have a drink now and then, and I like to paint, but it’s not all in that order," he said.
He creates in the cramped, overstuffed garage turned barn. Nearly every surface is covered with something: paintings of lighthouses, barn doors, front porches and landscapes. There are also newspaper front pages from important events he has collected since the 1950s, Superman comics, baseball mitts and memorabilia, Benny Goodman and 1960s folk music album covers and concert posters from Pete Seeger and Harry Chapin, a milkshake blender and other paraphernalia from Woolworth’s soda fountains (because his mother was a server at one) and shelves of art books.
The most unusual feature of the studio is a barber chair resting prominently in a corner by the front door. "I always wanted a barber’s chair," Kuchler explained. "They were having an auction in Babylon and I told my kids about it, and a week later they were bringing in the barber’s chair. The kids chipped in and got it for me. I sit in it and listen to music to get inspired."
In the rafters there’s an old suitcase his wife gave him for Christmas (and to which he affixes travel stickers), an old wooden sled and other Americana. "It’s hard to explain to our friends that this is the kind of thing that makes me happy," he said.
At least he doesn’t have to explain his attraction to painting to his wife and children — they are also creative. His wife, whom he met while they were studying at Caton Rose Institute of Art in Queens, paints and creates stained-glass pieces and other craft work. Of their children, Scott is a musician, Adam is a wood craftsman who builds furniture, Lucas draws, Noelle is a writer and does theater, and Amber is a singer and dancer who has also done theater.
Kuchler and his wife enjoy being busy in their artistic pursuits. "I love him, and I love that he’s happy with what he’s doing," Dorothy said.
Even when he’s not painting, Kuchler said, "I’m thinking about painting all the time. I spend more time thinking about what I’m going to paint than actually doing the painting. And when I finish a painting, I can’t wait to see what I will paint next."