I recently read “Inside the Painter’s Studio” by Joe Fig (2009, Princeton Architectural Press). It is an interesting and sometimes helpful collection of interviews with 24 very active, full-time painters working in New York. In the preface he lists the 18 questions that were put to each interviewee. At the end of the book as a sort of appendix he published an interview with himself. I thought it would be fun to use his questions to interview myself and see what happens.
When did you consider yourself a professional artist, and when were you able to dedicate yourself full-time to that pursuit?
Around 1996 or so, an instructor at the Art Students’ League was critiquing my drawing at told me that it was time I started showing my work. Until that point I had no notion of doing any such thing. That instructor got me thinking in a whole new way. I was able to pursue painting full-time when I was laid off my day job and the company gave me a full year’s pay. This enabled me to enroll in the National Academy of Design and paint in class in the morning and at my studio in the afternoons. After three and a half years I felt ready to go on my own without further instruction. I have seen too many “students” who hang on to their schools and instructors for years and they never do anything of their own. I felt it was important to develop in relative isolation although I did sometimes miss the atmosphere of the class studio.
How long have you been in this studio?
A little over two years. The studio is about one third of my living room which I share with my family.
Did you plan the layout of your studio or did it develop organically?
Well, since the studio part of the living room it was planned to give me adequate space while giving my family plenty of common space.
Has the studio location influenced you work?
Yes. It is in my home and it is small, so I have to rule out any very large work, but that has not been an issue thus far. I prefer “human-sized” paintings. The light is not that good, so I have to use artificial light much of the time and that has been an adjustment, but I haven’t been working from a live model for quite a while so natural light is not as crucial. Also, working at home provides too many distractions, so my painting time is usually broken into smaller slices. The upside to working at home is that I can look at the work whenever I feel like it. What is on my easel is almost the first thing I see in the morning and the last thing I see at night.
Please describe a typical day, being as specific as possible.
I generally get to work at about ten or eleven in the morning after getting the family moving. I take my daughter to school and usually do some grocery shopping, stop by the library, hardware store, etc. Lunch is around noon and then back to work until four or so when I have to go and visit my elderly mother. I am spending a lot of time taking care of her. If I don’t have a caregiver then I have to fill in and that means whole or half days away from the studio. It is rough work.
Do you listen to music, the radio or TV when you work? If so what, and does it affect your work?
Lots of radio and CDs or iTunes. I used to work for a major record label, so I have a very large collection of music, but Chicago also has a serious classical music radio station (WFMT) that I have a hard time turning off. I used to listen to NPR, but the news seems to disturb me more than it used to.
I used to listen to books when I had a separate studio, but it is too distracting in my current environment. Once, in my old studio, I got greedy and tried to learn french from a CD. I assumed that since listening to books was highly compatible with painting language learning would be as well. It was not. I couldn’t concentrate on anything. It was an interesting lesson in cognition.
What kind of paints do you use?
I started out using Winsor and Newton, but one day back in NYC I discovered a little shop on Prince Street in Nolita called Vasari Paints. It took me several months to get up the courage to go inside and see what they made and I was captivated by Gail, who is a co-owner of the company. She could have sold me anything! The shop had huge mixing table and Gail just start opening tubes and mixing all kinds of truly amazing combinations. She knows color. They have since been gentrified off of Prince Street but the paint is still the best. I took my instructor there after she sampled what I had purchased. She had been using W&N for decades and gave them up on the spot.
How long have you had your painting table, and how did you decide how to set it up?
My table situation is terrible. I need more surface area and I’m trying to figure out how to manage it. My palette sits on a stool which has always worked for me. That was the way we set up in painting class. I am very attached to my palette. It is a piece of heavy cherry wood from a TV/media cabinet. The TV I had back then was too big to fit on the special shelf, so the shelf became my special palette. One of my fellow students told me my palette was “sexy.”
Do you have any special devices or tools that are unique to your creative process?
No, none that come to mind. All my tools are pretty much standard: brushes, knives, rulers, compass, etc. One recent addition I made is a thermal printer which is designed to print temporary ID labels and such things. I am using it to make a series of portraits and maybe I’ll find other uses for it.
Are there specific items here that have significant meaning to you?
My last instructor gave me a vertebrate on a chain as a parting gift (I had been her monitor for several years). She told me it was meant to remind me to have a strong backbone. I bought one of the jars that hold my paintbrushes in Seville, and when I look at it I am reminded of that strange, beautiful city.
Do you work on one project at a time or several?
I prefer to work on several at a time. Besides keeping things interesting, panels need time to dry. I never use anything in my paints except sometimes a little medium of linseed oil, stand oil and turps or sun thickened oil and turps, so drying times can last days.
When you are contemplating your work, where and how do you sit or stand?
I’ll do whatever is necessary. I am always looking at my paintings. That is one clear advantage of working in the home. Much of my work is small enough that I don’t need too much distance.
How often do you clean your studio, and does it affect your work?
I’m pretty neat and I clean as I go. I also clean my brushes after every use. I kept things tidy even when I had a dedicated studio.
How do you come up with titles?
I am ambivalent about titles. I see their necessity in a marketing sense, but I don’t like to put into words what is supposed to be purely visual. I try to keep the titles straightforward, unless I come up with something more interesting. At all costs, I try to avoid pomposity.
Do you have assistants?
No, I work very slowly, so I can pretty much handle things on my own. When I have shows is when I really could use one. My wife has been an invaluable help in those situations.
Did you ever work for another artist, and if so, did that have any effect on the way you work?
I was monitor for the three instructors I studied with, but I never worked for one in their studio.
Do you have a motto or a creed that as an artist you live by?
I would like wider recognition and more sales, but so does every other painter and it is hard, hard, hard to attain. So it is important to remind myself that I am doing this first and foremost for my own satisfaction, knowledge and experience. I do it because I love the whole process. The upside of limited recognition is that I am free to explore in any direction I choose. I have seen many painters who seem to get locked into a style once they are “discovered.”
What advice would you give a young artist that is just starting out?
Find other people serious about art. A good instructor who you connect with and who knows what she is doing is worth everything. Having friends who do what you do on a similar level of earnestness will keep you going. I felt that I had neither when I was young and it took so much time to make up for those deficiencies. In forming association with other artists, don’t join a self reinforcing clique. Try to find people with your passion, but with their own ideas and approaches.