Is there a reason you choose to work in oils over, say, acrylic paint?
I work with oil paints primarily because of the way it absorbs, transmits, and reflects light. It has a fleshy sort of skin that feels more alive and pliable to my eye. I have used water-based media, but they seem more suited to studies and sketches. While I can create solid planes of color with acrylics, they still have an ultra-modern manufactured feel which fails to produce the dusty, worn and weathered appearance of things having survived ages of time and use, which I like to see. Oil paint better reflects the poverty most of us live in. It reflects reality as it is, as opposed to what we wish it were. That, of course, is to anthropomorphize paint, but the tradition of painting has already established that for us. Prior to the 19th century, the subject matter of oil paintings may have reflected the elitist wealth of patrons and the iconic daydreams of the then-dominant church, but the underlying statement of the paint itself I see as reflecting the artist's lives, of their often belonging to a lower stature and poverty, as simply another worker, craftsman, or tradesmith.
I see a sadness in being merely a transient spectator, yet it's ultimately the spectators who stand up to injustice, even to this day. By spectator, I mean someone taking the time to observe and to think about what's seen. An artist should be addressing everything that dawns in his mind. I see this in the painted shadows of many of those old extraordinary paintings. Shadows may not play the starring role in those paintings, and may therefore be overlooked, but this, to me, is where the spirit of the painting resides. Nothing can have much meaning without shadows. Shadows carry us back into the space created by the paint. Perhaps this is my own fantasy of why paint is applied in the way it is, but I would not like to be told that my shadows are too dark and depressing, even if they were. Darkness is a natural part of life, a normal part, to some degree, of a complex mind. It can be found in most mammals, especially those raised in bonding social environments. Permanent optimism lacks the capacity for solving problems because it doesn't understand shadows. This may be an odd way to say that oil paint permits the expression of finer nuances in extended and drawn-out thoughts. Oil paint can reveal things otherwise not possible to see.
I also enjoy taking things apart and figuring out how they work. This can be done in the mechanics of painting, too. I can try different approaches in creating marks, surfaces, or effects in the same painting before settling upon something that works, that has the right feel. The delayed drying time of oil paint allows nuanced tones, layering, scraping, and working over areas that have dried to just the right degree of tackiness for certain effects to successfully work. Creating an image is simply the excuse used to paint.
How does working from life improve the quality of your work?
Working from life references not just life, but how life experiences reality. It plays into a lot of what I do. In the simplest terms, it provides a much larger possible landscape of objects, shapes, colors, tones, and relationships from which to draw, compared to what is simply imagined as being there. In my experience, imagination is the a conceptual grasp of an idea, where details are assumed rather than seen; where a basic idea is believed and therefore accepted as complete, when in fact very little of the thing has actually been observed or worked out. Imagination may be a great starting point, but the brunt of the work is in the process of bringing the idea to life by applying marks on canvas or paper.
In working from life, the task is in suppressing the unnecessary parts of what's seen, and filling in details in the abstracted rendering on the paper. Even in a highly accurate rendering, parts are being suppressed in order to focus just on what's vital to the portrayal. And even then, edges, shapes, and shading are exaggerated to some degree to trick the eye into believing some portrayed aspect of the real world setting. In working from life, I focus on what is already there, selecting what to ignore, instead of having to pay attention to what's not there, to what's missing but is needed in an imagined scene. There's a selection process in both methods. This may be daunting when first learning to draw, but it becomes second nature in time. The risk in doing this, learning how to suppress information, is that one's approach to drawing may become indoctrinated and rigid, and lead to repeatedly making the same choices in what would be similar circumstances. Divesting oneself of indoctrinated ways of responding, if you recognize them, can open you to seeing subtler distinctions between things, shedding light in the gray areas, and permit responses to things previously overlooked.
We're inclined to make cursory surveys of what we see or hear, drawing rapid conclusions for a rapid response. That's undoubtedly an evolutionary trait for survival that has it's advantages, but it doesn't work that well in doing science or creating fine art. Yet, there is a place for it in art, such as when capturing a pose of an animal or human that will change within seconds as the model moves. What does it take to be able to do that? In fact, the previously discarded indoctrination can serve us well in making instinctual responses to what we see. The indoctrination here is not quite a formula or memorized response. What's indoctrinated is a methodology. It's little more than a dedicated intention to observe, and to improvise, as though dancing or composing music on the fly. The process sidesteps rational analysis entirely. With practice, you'll find you are seeing things that were there the whole time, but were being ignored for no good reason. In going beyond quick sketches, I find myself wandering along a branching structure of ideas, implications, and surprises. Exploring these aspects of painting can take a lot of time. There is the time in actually painting, and possibly even more time setting my subconscious to task in solving problems, visualizing, and imagining what's possible. I'm looking for what's significant, what's being systematically overlooked, and what will ultimately tell a good visual story in the most efficient but necessary way.
I wouldn't want to overstate the use of working from life, though, as I still see it as merely a reference for creating shapes and objects in a painting that feel natural, that meet some requirement in our evolved brains for recognizing believable things. It's always possible to paint things that violate these expectations, but if taken too far, it becomes visually disturbing. Picasso and Matisse are excellent cases in point. While they violated these expectations, they nevertheless incorporated just enough of these geometric and spacial relationships to draw us only slightly off the beaten path of expectation. Their images worked possibly by appealing to how fantasies work, that only the barest essence of an idea is enough to generate ability to believe it.
From birth, our brains develop expectations about how the world works, about its substance, about mass and volume and the geometry of changing relationships. These physical characteristics cannot easily be violated without triggering something in the brain that tells us something just ain't right. Paintings that take this into account can successfully pull an observer's mind in directions they may not have normally chosen to go. This may not be true of alien from other planets, but because they will have had to have evolved in a physical world, composed of naturally occurring relationships of material, driven by gravity and electromagnetism, just as here, they too must be, at least initially, driven by instinct for self-preservation. But we just don't know what might take place in their brains were they millions of years more advanced, and the product of genetic engineering, or were they entirely self-created robotic individuals. These ideas are part of what drives my art. I don't see any firm limits on what might be or should be important.
While drawing something entirely invented, to some degree it requires referencing reality as we know it if I want to believe the creation can, in some way, exist. Science recognizes this foremost idea in that knowledge must be based on material reality, otherwise it's little more than conjecture. Religion recognizes it, too, but generally doesn't realize that it's doing this. Attributions to the supernatural are composed of those material aspects of reality the brain is able to understand. If they were truly supernatural, there would be no understanding of them at all.
There are limits to what can be conveyed in painting, but I'm okay with that. There's nothing mystical about it; it's just an undertaking to find out what's possible, and then making it a reality. I don't necessarily enjoy simply copying what I see. Photographs do that for us very well. I want the substance used to build the image, the paint itself, to be just as important as what's being depicted. I like to see changing effects in a painting as I come closer to the canvas.
I'm sure some people have far more vivid imaginations than me. I find that my own imagination is synonymous with a wire-frame model that requires a kind of belief to make it work, as though the belief make me think all the details are already filled in, when in fact they're not. That is the nature of belief; one thinks he sees a whole, when it's just small parts with tenuous ties between those parts. The ties themselves are a product of belief. They may not actually be there, nor relevant, but testing the beliefs can help us find out first if they reflect an aspect of reality, and second what significance can be attributed to them.
In creating an image, I have to remind myself it's just an idea that gets fleshed out on the paper or canvas. By adopting an effective methodology for applying marks to the surface, I can tug out a number of ideas that feed back into my mind and allows me to narrow th range of acceptable marks that will build a believable and appealing visual space on the surface. It's the many times I have worked from life that make it easier to tell which marks to keep and develop, and which to let fade into the background.
What are you working on now?
There's no real end to what I started working on 40 years ago. It's been one continuous effort. But I can describe 2 somewhat different sets of ideas I'm focusing on. What's closest to my heart are the planetary landscapes. That's the easiest way to describe them. In the context of imagining landscapes and skies on other planets, the plein air paintings I do on this planet fit right in to that idea. Everything I've learned about painting from painting from life here goes into inventing the imaginary landscapes. And with our space telescopes discovering thousands of new planets orbiting other stars in just one small patch of sky, I have a renewed interest in doing this. It's what I started out painting in high school. I'm just doing more of that.
Landscapes of earth may seem more familiar. The peach trees I paint are one of the things I find very appealing that I can actually go and sit down right in front of them to draw from. Fruit trees of any type fascinate me. We haven't always had fruit trees. They evolved from flowering plants that appeared in the Cretaceous period some 125 million years ago. In creating these landscapes, I draw on everything I know about science, geology, and atmospheres, first to account for the laws of physics, and then to anticipate how life-like things, or the remnants thereof, might have affected the environments I'm envisioning. For instance, if we had never observed the evolution of wings on this planet, would it have been possible for any of us to anticipate such a thing? Probably not. That's what's so wonderful about science. It's full of surprises. And art beautifully expresses those discovered ideas.
These drawings and paintings are essentially about us more than about alien species. They are the outcomes of our ignorance, our intolerance and bigotry, our stupidity, but also about our intelligence, foresight, and endurance. Just about everything can be expressed as a Bell curve. There is no ideal in nature, merely a range of possible experiences. That's what I like to explore. These paintings are about the beginnings of life, the end of life, the absence of life, construction and disintegration. These are the hard facts of life in a universe that for all appearances has no purpose. Once you step off of this tiny little planet, it's all madness that any of it should exist, yet it does for no apparent reason at all. We continually update our myths to account for the useless waste we find out there, as though it's all about us. But because it's not, we try not to think about it too much. Yet, the illusion that what we do is important is necessary if we're to do anything at all. And why not? It's one more thing we've managed to imagine into existence.
I call this body of work Small Worlds.
How has your style changed over the years?
As a teenager growing up in Atlanta, Georgia, my friends and I would visit the Fernbank Science Center. One thing that never ceased to captivate my imagination and wonder was a small painting of a nearly face-on galaxy as seen from the surface of a barren, rocky, and cold planet. I later learned this was painted by Chesley Bonestell who created many of the early space and planet scenes used by NASA prior to digital renderings and actual photos taken by spacecraft and landers. The painting was a gorgeous little gem that inspired the subject of my first oil painting.
After starting out in this way, I then studied art and learned to draw. I could pretty much already draw anything I wanted to using my understanding of math and geometry, but putting in time drawing directly from life helped me to develop a sensitivity to the quality of my mark making. In that, I developed a signature. Drawing became an immediate interaction with a developing image. After this I was able to put everything together to come back to my original feelings about inventiveness and the planetary landscapes with which I began.
The desire to reach beyond ordinary day-to-day views and conceptions of things has been a part of my work since I began painting, and is even part of what I'm doing when in the field painting peach trees. A landscape is not simply an ordinary view of somewhere on earth, it is an extraordinary view of somewhere in the universe. I'm not so much interested in reproducing what I see. I'm interested in creating a place that can only exist within the canvas. I want to see the structure, the texture, feel the heat or cold, and catch the background sounds that come from minor movements of hidden life, or a fall caused by gravity. Much of the painting may feel familiar, but something about it says, I'm an alternate universe. Sooner or later it takes you to a place you've never ventured to before. This keeps me wanting to paint. Curiosity, and wondering what else is there? What's next?
I've made excursions from figurative to landscape, to abstraction, but these are more or less necessary steps in learning to paint. While working down any of these avenues, stretching the meaning of these terms becomes inevitable. Imagery blends across the iconic boundaries that we imagine dividing the genres. The terms are merely a convenience, a short-hand, that makes it easy to grasp an idea quickly. In reality, they are all mixed together to varying degrees in all paintings.
In short, I don't like simply rendering an image with the precision that might come from a photograph. That's far too mechanistic and limiting to me. Rules bore me. I imagine far away worlds using a methodology similar to how I approach things on this planet. That methodology uses pretty much just one rule: how does it work? Everything else is derived from that. I sometimes imagine myself as being from another planet, seeing the earth for the first time. Nothing here would have any inherent meaning or importance to me. Everything is an unknown. I proceed from there to piece together explanations for what I see based on what can be found out. I use this methodology in painting alternate worlds. It may be that not everything can be found out. That may be true in painting, too. There's always a mystery, somewhere. What's that thing peeking out from behind that doodad? What's that doodad? There may seem to be a sense of order or relationship between things, but why? It's not always clear why. It may never be clear. Not knowing is okay. These painted mysteries are metaphors for any problem begging to be solved, but for which there is no known answer. I don't know is a good answer. It leaves the door open for art, science, and learning more about everything. Pretending we know things that we really don't closes that door.
Many iconic artists other than Bonestell have influenced my thinking over the years, but I find myself returning to the memory of seeing this first small Bonestell painting as being characteristic of my deeper goals in painting.