How did you become interested in trompe l’oeil painting?
I was always intrigued with the textures and deep shadows of reality. Initially, I worked entirely in black and white doing large photorealistic charcoal drawings. I always felt an impulse to have a strong three dimensional quality to my work. I was casting about for many years trying to find a focus for what is a relatively narrow range of artistic concerns when I came across the work of Larry Charles and the Trompe L’oeil Society of Artists. It was a galvanizing moment, and I knew that trompe l’oeil painting was my idiom. Although trompe l’oeil differs from other art forms, in the sense that it has a set of rules, I have found the supposed limitations of trompe l’oeil to be liberating.
What are the rules of trompe l’oeil?
Trompe l’eoil is an art form that evolved over many thousands of years. Initially, it was simply a way of painting that “fooled the eye.” But eventually many practitioners of the art found that certain conventions enhanced the illusionistic effect they were striving for. One convention is to keep the depth of field as shallow as possible. Effects such as taping or pinning flat objects to a board make a shallow depth of field possible. Another convention is to light the scene from the left, which increases the chance that the actual lighting of the painting will correspond to the illusionistic lighting in an exhibition. Another is not breaking the picture plane, that is, not running an object or shadow out of the canvas thus preserving the illusion that the objects exist entirely in the space within the frame. Any object or texture that has a sculptural or tactile quality is likely to end up in a trompe l’oeil painting. I enjoy working within these rules, yet I feel free to break these conventions to achieve a unique effect.
What is the inspiration behind your paintings?
I often start with some natural object to bring the painting to life, a shell or butterfly, a flower, or a leaf. Traditional tromp l’oeil can look somewhat dusty and lonely to me and I try to avoid that look by incorporating many living objects and as much color as possible. If I have included a photograph or a book I begin imagining how that object was used, displayed, and possibly loved. I imagine a kind of wordless story. If the piece has a symphony of parallel ideas it can seem very harmonious and right. It rings true. Sometimes I start with a simple texture I love and begin to weave a feeling around that texture. In The Message, I went to a lot of work arranging what is essentially just three simple objects, and creating the exact textures that gave a kind of dimensional resonance. The textures and colors must harmonize and complement each other. Then they must be lit with the correct lighting to amplify the emotional content.
How do you choose your subject matter?
I often get inspiration visiting gardens or antique shops. Frequently a specific object will trigger an idea for a whole painting. In Textures in Tin, I discovered the red kerosene can and knew I had to compose a piece based on that focal point. Objects that are old have a kind of memory that hovers around them. So I begin to imagine what other objects would exist in that same world. I collect old photos, and often I will find an object that seems to match it perfectly and a new composition is on its way.
What motivates you to paint a particular composition?
The combination of color, texture, and shadows. The shadows are particularly important to create a sense of movement through the piece. Sometimes it is as simple as a flower I want to last forever. Every flower is unique, and yet incredibly fragile. With paint I can preserve that transient beauty. For me, a really great painting has a kind of self-contained, gem-like quality.
How much flexibility do you allow yourself in your paintings?
All my flexibility takes place in the composition stage. Sometimes I think I am composing a scene around a letter, for example, only to find that I ultimately take out the letter and the composition becomes about something totally different. At that stage I try to be flexible. Sometimes you just can’t get a cherished object to work, perhaps the object that inspired the entire piece, and you have to take it out.
How true are you to the subject matter itself?
I love trompe l’oeil because of my fascination with precise painting. Although I love loose, luscious painting in other people’s work, I can’t see myself heading in that direction. With that type of painting something would be lost in what I am trying to say. If I stray from the exact texture of the object in that specific lighting I feel disappointed and either correct it or abandon the painting.
How is your work different from other trompe l’oeil painters?
Although I enjoy the discipline of trompe l’oeil I feel it is important to push the genre into new areas. I feel my work has a contemporary feel that is distinct. My use of the box, a technique I use to isolate the piece, pushing it back into space, and to emphasize the illusionistic aspects of the painting, is somewhat unique, at least in the way I use it. The box also helps me use a deeper depth of field and still maintains the necessary illusion of depth. My colors generally tend to be brighter than traditional trompe l’oeil.
Your use of light and color is very distinctive. Can you tell us more about it?
Light is extremely important in my work because it is the final emotional tone that unifies the piece. I go to great lengths to get a variety of light. Using the same lighting would be incredibly tedious for me besides frequently not emphasizing the right emotional aspect of the work. I use outdoor lighting and natural indoor lighting as well as artificial lighting, whatever it takes to capture the right emotional qualities. Frequently good lighting is the tipping point between a marginal piece and a really great painting. I like bright color and use lighting to harmonize hues. Color can be a very significant contributor to the mood of the painting. Colors that are dissonant or shrill have to be modified and harmonized so that the composition becomes a self contained universe at peace with itself.
What are the qualities of a good trompe l’oeil painter?
To do this type of work you need to be very persistent and not easily discouraged. It is a slow method of painting and patience is a virtue. A good color sense is an important ingredient to the work. I have an aversion to color clichés that keeps my work fresh. It also helps if you have a perfectionist streak.
Can you describe your technique for us?
All painting is basically getting the right color in the right place so I never start a piece until my composition is exactly the way I want it. I might start a painting at the focal point, a flower; for example, and paint the entire flower before I proceed to other sections. I premix all my colors for that section. If I can’t paint all that section in one day I will scrape the premixed color into small plastic jars and save them for the next day. I might mix twenty colors for one section depending on the light and shadow in that area. I try to paint on a regular schedule. Sometimes, especially with a larger painting, I will be quite enthused at the beginning of the painting and will lose some momentum as I go along. So like a marathon runner I need a strategy to conserve my energy. I try to pace myself alternating easy passages followed by difficult ones to gradually work my way through the painting. Some textures are difficult to capture and others relatively easy. If I am getting ready for a show I will sometimes paint 12 hours a day, six days a week. Though usually I paint around eight hours a day. My paintings take anywhere from one to two months to complete. After a particular intense bout of painting I have to take a break and recharge my creative energy. With trompe l’oeil painting it is easy to get burned out. When that happens I work in my garden.
What tools and supplies do you use to create your paintings?
I’m very hard on brushes so I use a variety of very small (000 to 01) cheap synthetics. I use a fine textured canvas which I mount with acid free glue on birch plywood, since I prefer to paint on a hard surface. I use only Old Holland paints since they are deeply hued plus the texture suits the way I paint. I paint on a table top easel. I use Gamblin mediums, usually Galkyd Medium cut with 50% Gamsol.
Do you have any favorite colors?
I like most colors and find no advantage to using a limited palette. However, a few colors I never use are burnt umber and raw sienna. I mix all my own grays usually from complements. I occasionally use Scheveningen Black with other colors, rarely using it straight (perhaps on a border). Raw umber is an extremely useful color especially with blues. I use practically all of Old Holland’s most vibrant colors, especially when painting flowers. Some of my favorite colors are Old Holland Cobalt Green, Caribbean Blue, and Dioxazine Mauve. Phthalo Blue is also a favorite. Two yellows I use a lot are Cadmium Yellow Deep and Scheveningen Yellow Medium. I prefer to use complementary colors to lower the values of colors. Some Old Holland colors look practically black straight out of the tube so they are very good for value adjustments.