A great deal of my paintings are based on Cartes de Visite (CdV) from the 19th Century - the easiest way of thinking of these is Victorian trading cards, thin photographs mounted on something akin to illustration or mat board. CdVs were handed out like business cards and served as an early incarnation of social media. There were sometimes adornments like calligraphed signatures, foil stamps, or gold edges. The subjects look stoic and expertly coifed - a contrast to the current overabundance of casually snapped smartphone selfies. I roam around online until I locate a CdV that grabs my attention and then do some work in Photoshop, preparing the image for projection, pencil drawing transfer, and then painting. Here's a quick glimpse at the Photoshop manipulation. The changes are subtle but I am always focused on eliminating unnecessary details without losing anything that anchors the portrait or skews it too far into abstraction.
I enjoy stories that start late and end early. They give you the sense that you've walked into someone's life and you could be jettisoned at any moment. Stories like that leave a lot to your imagination - they aren't defining every tiny detail of someone's backstory - you don't know where they got that limp or scar or bag of money, it's just there. The author of these works has decided to introduce a counterpart to his artistic process - the reader. People bring their own baggage and assumptions - personal perceptions create a funhouse mirror effect. Think of the suitcase in Pulp Fiction or Norman Bates's mother or what happened when the police arrived on the scene at the end of American Beauty. My favorite example is the finale of The Sopranos - David Chase layered Godfather allusions with cinematic music and the tension of Meadow arriving late and trying to get parked - then the screen went pitch black. There is power in not knowing all of the answers.
In a lot of ways, music influences my artwork more than anything visual. When I turn on these songs, in speakers or headphones, my brain clicks into place and I'm transported into the zone - flow state is immediate. And there is music I love that doesn't do the trick - Charles Mingus, the Pixies, Nirvana, Kanye West, or Springsteen. The tempo and mood have to be just so and then the painting gods smile upon me. These are the albums I return to over and over and over, year after year. There have been recent additions to the rotation (like Karen Elson, Steely Dan, Amy Winehouse, and Jason Isbell) but these are my trusty old reliable stand-bys.
Metamodern Sounds in Country Music - Sturgill Simpson
I first listened to this on vacation in Key West and it lit my brain on fire - Waylon Jennings collides with Radiohead. I spent my childhood years in Texas and there is something about hearing a deep twangy voice paired with a Telecaster that takes me back to the rodeo and state fair. Throw in some metaphysical philosophizing and you've got something special.
“That old man upstairs, though he wears a crooked smile. Staring down on the chaos he created. He said son if you ain't having fun then just wait a little while. Momma's gonna wash it all away. She thinks mercy's overrated”
Also recommended - his performance on Austin City Limits (available on YouTube), specifically Listening to the Rain and I’d Have to be Crazy
Time (The Revelator) - Gillian Welch
Pure nostalgia - Gillian seems plucked from a Coal Miner's Daughter alternate reality. Elvis Presley Blues is worth the cost of the album - "He was all alone, in a long decline. Thinking how happy John Henry was that he fell down and died."
Also recommended - Tear My Stillhouse Down, Caleb Meyer, Orphan Girl, Hard Times
Blacklisted - Neko Case
The iTunes description is tough to beat, so I'll just quote it here, “Part Patsy Cline, part David Lynch, Blacklisted is a tense, torchy masterpiece for which the label “alt-country” seems pitifully inadequate."
Also recommended - In California (Live) on Austin City Limits - my favorite song of hers.
Greatest Hits - The Band
Holy shit. If I could paint something that felt like “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” or “The Weight” I would just call it a day and retire forever. There is a reason these guys are cited by so many musicians as a source of inspiration. David Chang has a portrait of them in his restaurant Momofuku Noodle Bar in New York City. Martin Scorsese directed a documentary about their final concert. They were Bob Dylan’s band. And Robbie Robertson’s biography just makes me love them more. Music as method acting.
Acid Tongue - Jenny Lewis
“I went to a cobbler to fix a hole in my shoe. He took one look at my face and said I can fix that hole in you. I beg your pardon I’m not looking for a cure. I’ve seen enough of my friends in the depths of the God sick blues.”
Also recommended - Rabbit Fur Coat with The Watson Twins and anything from her band Rilo Kiley.
15 years ago I attended the Illustration Academy in Richmond, VA. One of the visiting artists was Mark English - he was around 70 years old at the time and had been painting for decades. He carried an air of Clint Eastwood gravitas, wise and no-nonsense. He said that when people asked him how long it took him to do a painting, he’d respond something along the lines of '65 years and 3 days.’ I’ve heard different variants of this over the years and when I repeat Mark’s version, people often reply, “Man, that guy sounds like an asshole.” But I thought the opposite. Mark English is a craftsman and his value is the sum total of years and years of accumulated knowledge, experimentation, study, practice, and experience that have been honed into instinct. Bob Dylan has said that some of his notable songs were written in a matter of minutes, but a novice songwriter can't just sit down and crank out Blood on the Tracks.
My paintings are fairly quick - some take a few days, others drag on much longer. There is a process involved - locating an appropriate historical photograph, manipulating it in Photoshop, printing it, projecting it, drawing it, doing an underpainting, and then executing the actual painting, which is comprised of many layers. Sometimes the painting comes easy and choices happen instantaneously, other times it’s a street fight. A while back, I threw away over 75 ‘duds,’ paintings that just didn’t hit the mark. But, in my opinion, failure is fertilizer for success. Bottom line - one individual work of art can happen quickly but the path to get there is rarely fast or easy.
This is a question that I get pretty frequently because of the way that I paint - I tend to play around with negative space, leaving pencil marks and areas of the underpainting exposed.
There's a story about Kurt Cobain trying to perfect a song in the studio and he couldn't get the feeling right. He commented that it sounded better when he was just laying on his back on the couch. And inevitably, that's exactly how they recorded it. Because mood matters and now that computers can play chess, answer questions, predict our musical preferences, suggest purchases, and take beautiful photographs, the so-called imperfections become the pivotal humanizing element of a piece of art.
The risk that I run is overworking a painting and it's easy to 'drive past the exit.' There are other artists who fight past this point but there's a layered watercolor element of my work that dies when the surface gets too busy and/or opaque.
Gilbert Stuart's unfinished portrait of George Washington is the single image that has most influenced my historical portraits because of its energy, minimalist composition, and earthy color palette. While there are other painters that have had more of an impact on me (Alice Neel, Richard Diebenkorn, Andy Warhol) this painting is my center line. Stuart started the portrait study but never finished it (he'd go on to use it for many other replicas however). Ironically, it became his most well known image and the most immediately recognizable representation of Washington. There is an interesting juxtaposition of craft and speed, spontaneous intuitive energy and finite precision, to the piece and the incompleteness also creates some interesting symbolism for our country and its first leader. Happy July 4th.