Drawing teaches you how to see, Nathan Goldstein told his students. For artists, he said, drawing is the fundamental forming skill.
“We haven’t fully seen anything we haven’t touched with our eyes,” he wrote in his journals.
In exhibitions since 1950, and as a teacher for nearly as many years, Mr. Goldstein helped aspiring artists realize their vision, and he introduced those who visited venues such as the Danforth Museum of Art to his own perspective of the world.
“Art is a celebration of form,” he said in “The Art of Responsive Drawing,” a book he wrote that is taught in schools across the country. “It is also, and importantly, a celebration of life.”
Mr. Goldstein, who taught at the Art Institute of Boston at Lesley University for more than three decades and shaped its foundation program for incoming students, died of complications from kidney disease June 12 in his home in Portland, Ore., where he moved with his wife three years ago to live closer to his stepdaughter. He was 86 and previously lived in Ashland.
‘The need to make art is like an affliction, like pneumonia — it could strike anybody at almost any time.’ — Nathan Goldstein, in a Globe interview in 2000
“He was just one of the most influential teachers here at the Art Institute, both in his individual teaching of students and in classrooms,” said Stan Trecker, dean of the Art Institute of Boston.
“He was a terrific artist,” Trecker added. “It’s hard to put in words how his own artwork and his teaching influenced so many people. Not just students, but other faculty around him and others in the art community in Boston who looked up to him. He carried so much gravitas, and that allowed him to teach into his 80s.”
Mr. Goldstein wrote seven books, of which “The Art of Responsive Drawing” and “Figure Drawing” have been reprinted in multiple editions.
In the classroom and studio, he found inspiration everywhere, in what he saw and even in students he taught.
“I’ve seen students — those few naturals — who are so good that occasionally they make a move that I look at and admire, and I file it away and remember it,” Mr. Goldstein told the Globe in 2000.
More often, however, students and colleagues were the ones watching Mr. Goldstein, cataloging in their minds his words and gestures.
“He would lecture and the students would be mesmerized and the faculty would quote him and use what he said in their own classrooms,” said his wife, Harriet Fishman, an artist who met Mr. Goldstein more than 30 years ago when she took a class from him in Hawaii.
In addition to his tenure at the Art Institute, where he chaired the foundation program of study from 1971 until 1999, Mr. Goldstein had taught at New England School of Art, Northeastern University, and Boston University. Through the decades he presented workshops or lectured at schools in 38 states.
In his final years, he kept creating art as rheumatoid arthritis cramped his hands.
“He would stand there and paint; everything about him was about art,” his wife said. “He lived it, breathed it, believed it, wrote about it, and people around him knew that. When he was in the classroom, you were part of his process. He wasn’t Nathan Goldstein the professor, he was with you.”
Born in Chicago, Mr. Goldstein was the son of Russian immigrants. His father delivered milk for a living and encouraged Mr. Goldstein’s artistic interests, taking him to The Art Institute of Chicago.
“My earliest memories have to do with the slums of Chicago, and also my hitch in the Navy in very drab, harsh places and conditions,” Mr. Goldstein told the Globe in 2000. “My work seems to want not so much to erase that as to compensate for it. So the color is rich, and the forms are kind of sensual.”
As a teenager, he began taking classes in the evening and on Saturdays at The Art Institute of Chicago. At 18, he enlisted in the Navy for two years, and returned afterward to the institute. Financing his studies with the GI Bill, he graduated with a master’s in fine arts in painting and drawing in 1953.
“In high school, I realized this was going to be my life, and I’m not kidding — it’s a little like an addiction,” he said in the Globe interview. “Sometimes I stop and I think, well, it’s about midnight. But it’s 3 in the morning, and I don’t know where I’ve been or what’s gone on, it’s so engrossing.”
After a brief stint as an art director with the Federal Civil Defense Administration, Mr. Goldstein turned to painting and teaching.
He moved to Boston to teach and was married to the artist Renne Lothbein, with whom he had a daughter, the poet Sarah Hannah. His first marriage ended in divorce, and Lothbein died in 2001.
Mr. Goldstein was close to his daughter, whom he saved for last when expressing gratitude to family and friends in the introductions to “The Art of Responsive Drawing” and “Figure Drawing.”
Hannah, who taught writing at Emerson College, killed herself in 2007 at 40, not long before her second volume of poetry was published. In “Longing Distance,” her first collection, a poem invokes images of Hannah visiting her father’s basement workshop.
… in the years after
He left, still I continued
To creep down there alone,
Snap on the light, and stare
At all the myriad contrivances …
“Nathan and Sarah had great respect for each other’s work,” Fishman wrote in an e-mail. “They would often discuss poetry and painting, finding similarities in their approach to the structural nature of each other’s work.”
Fishman first took a class from Mr. Goldstein at the University of Hawaii in the early 1980s. “I was mesmerized by what he had to say. Nobody had spoken the way he did there,” she recalled in an interview. “I ended up cutting my other classes to listen to him.”
They moved to Boston in 1983 and married in 1988. In Portland, Ore., they walked their dogs after rising each day and they shared a studio, painting until 9 or 10 p.m.
“The need to make art is like an affliction, like pneumonia — it could strike anybody at almost any time,” Mr. Goldstein said in the 2000 Globe interview. “A certain percentage of the population, maybe because of the toss of the genetic dice, is going to say that it’s through visual means that I’m happiest, and I will leave our world better than I found it. It’s a very brave decision to make.”
In addition to his wife, Mr. Goldstein leaves his stepdaughter, Jessica Fishman of Portland, Ore.
A memorial gathering will be held at 3 p.m. Sept. 28 in the Danforth Museum of Art in Framingham.
“People really idolized him, but he never let it go to his head, ever. He almost didn’t like it,” his wife said. “He wanted people to stay true to the integrity of art.”
In “The Art of Responsive Drawing,” Mr. Goldstein wrote that “all our creative activities occur in the context of what we know and what we want.”
“All good art,” he added, “is in the service of something greater than the artist’s intentions.”