In my case, I think that the most depressing or frustrating time was the first year and a half after I finished studying. I was no longer in an environment where people had the same values I have in art, and it was of course very difficult to hire models to get better at the craft. I had to work a part time job; in fact I was making less money per hour than I was paying my model. There were a lot of sacrifices, and it required a lot of faith. There were periods where that faith waned, and at times I was tempted to do something else. I thought I might find another career in which I could make money more easily and stably, but even though I entertained those thoughts it never really stuck. Art is just too much a part of me; it has been a part of my whole life. I don’t think I could really exist without it. I know that sounds a little corny, but whether it's painting or drawing and telling a story, I compulsively have to do it.
The transition really began when I was looking at an art magazine, American Art Collector. I opened it up and saw that there was a gallery in Nantucket, where Moby Dick was partially set; at the time I happened to be making whaling paintings, because I live in Mystic, CT, and there was a whaling boat on the water outside my house. I sent them an email in their little inquiry section of their website, and they got back to me. I was really nervous, because there is this feeling coming out of art school that no one is going to want to represent your work, but they came and took the work, and it just built from there. In retrospect it seems very easy in the manner I’m describing it, but in reality it was a difficult and testing time.
You’re one of the few realist narrative painters working in the States right now; with very few teachers and resources in the art of narrative work, how do you develop and execute your narrative paintings?
Well, I’m incredibly flattered, sincerely flattered, that anyone out there would consider me a narrative painter. Narrative painting is the main reason I wanted to become a painter; I’ve always been interested in creating beautiful studies and beautiful paintings, but my whole life I’ve been motivated by the desire to tell stories. Painting is the way I want to do that, and the paintings that I connect with most in history are the ones that depict some part of the human experience.
I actually feel that I’m very unsuccessful with my narrative work, but I’m very glad to hear that you and other people feel that I’m getting somewhere with it. However, as you said, without a real group of people working in this manner in a contemporary setting, learning this craft is difficult. Looking back on history, I can only guess and imagine how the artists of the time were working. I look back through art history to aid in handling the understanding of light and form and the scale of figures against each other, and even looking at illustration there are strategies, like those of Loomis, which can be very useful. However, I still feel like I can’t manage putting all of this information together in a way that I like. My paintings can be described as narrative, but they still have this quality that comes out of this sort of contemporary “atelier” style; they are usually single figures in an environment, and the environment isn’t as lucid or clear as the figure itself. I definitely think that narrative work is something I’m still working on.
I do have to say that I certainly see other painters doing good narrative work, especially some Chinese painters, or my friend Josh LaRock, here at GCA. He has done some narrative paintings and done quite well with them. I’m optimistic that I’ll get better with time, because narrative pieces are what I want to do, but sometimes I feel at a loss for how to make my work better and more like the paintings in history that I love. Those pieces just look so effortless. If you look at a Caravaggio, it just seems like he decided, “Hmmm, I’ll put a figure here, and a horse here, da da da,” and I mean I’m sure there is much more to it than that, but I’d really love to gain that fluidity.
Yes, definitely. Essentially, (and it’s not dissimilar to the traditional Water Street/GCA procedure) I begin drawing in graphite on paper, and I try to get it as accurate as possible. I think of shapes on the picture plane, judging height to width proportions, and trying to break them down to smaller shapes; as well as taking comparative measurements. Relatively soon in the drawing process, I shift over to a more conceptual line of thinking. I begin to examine the drawing at a deeper level than the purely optical, asking myself, ”What are these shapes? Oh, this is a nose, let me make it look more like the nose of the model. This is the cheek of the model, now I have to make sure it connects to the nose well.” The shape patterns begin to take on even more meaning, as I begin to deal with terminators of form shadows, the areas where the light is tangent to the form, and cast shadows, as in form blocking light from reaching another form. All this data is refined, and it begins to take on real volume and real form in a linear capacity.
From there I transfer the drawing to linen, and I create a wash over my conte transfer. I do this monochromatic scrub-in with raw umber and turpentine, and it begins to develop a faint and preliminary impression of the form. None of the values are supposed to one-to-one correspond to the values in life, but they’re supposed to retain a relationship that depicts the effect of the visual phenomena of light on form. Now, this is where the fork in the road is; I have tried a variety of things after this initial stage. The most typical one is a translucent full-color ebauche, where I go over the whole portrait and consider the large planar relationships of the form. Then I mix colors close to the local hue of the model, and the values that I will need to render the model, and I begin my final pass. What people see when they’re looking at a very undeveloped area next to a highly modeled passage is the uncovered ebauche.
I usually try and highly develop one particular area at the beginning of a portrait (I don’t necessarily recommend this particular part of my process to everyone out there), because I need to fall in love with that piece. I need something to feel protective about that will keep me
excited. I know that’s backwards to what some may consider a good working process, but I need to be attached to that initial piece because it helps boost my confidence and it reminds me that I know how to paint somewhat. Ebauches don’t make me feel that way; they make me feel like I’ve been very sloppy. When I initially paint an eye very well, or a nose very well, and the illusion that it is coming off the canvas is very clear and lucid, it also helps me render surrounding areas and build out of that. Capturing that standard of quality from the beginning is very useful to maintain a high level throughout the portrait. For better or for worse, that is essentially why I do that.