As the music of Miles Davis and John Coltrane echoed through his house, tones slightly scratchy from needle on vinyl, Richard Yarde dipped his brush in watercolors and created paintings that flowed as much from the moment as they did from his life experiences.
“Jazz is an important source of energy and inspiration when I paint,’’ he said in an interview with Smith College for a winter 1997 exhibition at the school’s Museum of Art. “I see the visual structure of my paintings as being very musical. The grid is like the backbeat, it keeps time in the work. The images that break through the grid are similar to improvisation. My process is freehand, not mechanical. I do not determine or plan everything that happens.’’
His personal narrative was its own improvisation, providing subject matter that ranged from the black heritage of an upbringing in Roxbury to his experience with kidney failure and strokes in his early 50s, adding intimations of death to paintings filled with life.
Mr. Yarde, whose highly-praised paintings are part of collections at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City and the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, died of kidney failure Dec. 10 in Cooley Dickinson Hospital in Northampton. He was 72 and had lived in Northampton.
Though early in his career he painted with oils and acrylics, Mr. Yarde established his reputation by working with watercolors, a medium many avoid because mistakes cannot be simply painted over.
“His handling is virtuosic, his colors dazzling,’’ Globe art critic Christine Temin wrote of Mr. Yarde in 1996. “He has become one of the great American watercolorists of the 20th century, as much a master of the medium as Homer was in the 19th.’’
Creating works whose size defied the delicacy of watercolors, Mr. Yarde completed paintings that measured 10 feet by 10 feet or much larger.
“They literally could take up a whole wall of a gallery,’’ said his son Owen of Los Angeles.
Some of Mr. Yarde’s work traveled nationally, such as “Savoy,’’ his early-1980s installation on the Harlem Renaissance.
His exhibition “Mojo Hand’’ was shown in venues including The Studio Museum in Harlem in 1997. The exhibit, which he created after kidney failure and a series of mini-strokes, “stands as an affecting and unsentimental record of physical and emotional healing,’’ Holland Cotter wrote in The New York Times.
Mr. Yarde was as much a virtuoso in the classroom as he was in the studio, teaching as soon as he graduated from college. Beginning with his alma mater, Boston University, he went on to instruct students at Wellesley College, Amherst College, the Massachusetts College of Art, Mount Holyoke College, the University of Massachusetts Boston, and the University of Massachusetts Amherst.
“I feel a responsibility to pass on my knowledge of visual history and literacy,’’ he said in the Smith College interview. “I hope I am guided as a teacher and as an artist by the feelings Franz Kline expressed when he wrote, ‘It’s not about knowing, but about the ability to give.’ ’’
Mr. Yarde’s son Marcus, who lives in Northampton, said that for his father, “teaching was a blessing. I think he relished teaching almost as much as he did painting.’’
Growing up in Roxbury, Mr. Yarde was the son of a machinist father and a seamstress mother whose work was an early inspiration.
“I spent a lot of time around her,’’ he told the Globe in 1993. “There were patterns everywhere.’’
She encouraged his talents and bought supplies, though others found his youthful work so accomplished they thought a child could not have painted that well.
“He talked about taking paintings and drawings to school in kindergarten and grade school,’’ Marcus said, “and the teachers would send him home with a note saying, ‘Who really created this?’ ’’
At Boston University, Mr. Yarde studied with artists such as Walter Murch.
“When he looked at your work, Murch talked about poetry and other kinds of things,’’ Mr. Yarde told the Globe in 1993. “His sense was that if the work was going to come to life, it had to do with where you’d come from. He had me write an autobiography. He asked us to bring in some of our earliest works, and he put those side-by-side with our paintings.’’
Mr. Yarde graduated from Boston University in the mid-1960s with bachelor’s and master’s degrees in fine arts, and rode a bicycle across the country to examine the world beyond Boston’s boundaries.
In California, he met the writer Susan Donovan at the house of a mutual friend. She had lived in a Cambridge apartment above a frame shop where he worked while in college, but they didn’t meet until that chance encounter in California, marrying later after both returned to Massachusetts.
Mrs. Yarde died of cancer in September, less than three months before Mr. Yarde’s death.
“He was passionate about his art, he was passionate about teaching, and he was so passionate about his family,’’ his son Owen said. “He gave so much to all of them.’’
Intellectually curious, Mr. Yarde read about everything from Japanese art to quantum mechanics or the structure of DNA, Owen said, and found ways to add subtle layers of allegory to his work.
Critics were particularly impressed by what Mr. Yarde created in the early- to mid-1990s, after illness and strokes temporarily left him without feeling in his hands.
“Just to work is an assertion against the tremendous odds of illness and is healing in itself,’’ he told Smith College for the winter 1997 show.
The paintings in his “Mojo Hand’’ exhibit, its name borrowed from a song by blues musician Lightnin’ Hopkins, were a “source of my healing,’’ he said in the interview.
“Through my illness, I became interested in the ideas of transformation: positive and negative aspects,’’ he said. “In many ways this is the work which shows me at most vulnerable. As an African-American male, the son of immigrant parents, there has been a lifelong pressure on me to be strong, to achieve, to strive for myself and be a role model.’’
In addition to his two sons, Mr. Yarde leaves a grandson.
A memorial service will be held at 1 p.m. Jan. 28 in First Baptist Church of Amherst.
After a kidney transplant in the late 1990s, Mr. Yarde incorporated shards of that illness into his art, making use of his X-rays, for example.
When death brushes past, he told the Globe in 2003, “whatever your sense of ‘reality’ was before, it collapses.’’
“My illness forced me to confront another aspect of my humanity: my need and dependence on other people and on my spiritual resources,’’ he told Smith College. “My early work is all about pride, heroism, and the struggle to be creative. Now, I am dealing with the contradictions, the fragility.’’
Bryan Marquard can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.