November 1, 2012, edited
Larry Groff, Editor, Painting Perceptions
I’d like to thank Christopher Gallego for taking the time to share his thoughts on painting in our recent email interview.
Mr. Gallego studied at the National Academy School of Fine Arts in New York and teaches workshops in New York area.
He has shown with OK Harris Works of Art, Hirschl & Adler, Seraphin Gallery, the New Britain Museum of American Art, the Brandywine River Museum, the Cincinnati Art Museum, The Naples Museum of Art, and many others.
He is the recipient of fellowships from New York Foundation for the Arts, the Marie Walsh Sharpe Art Foundation, the Pollock Krasner Foundation and the New Jersey State Council on the Arts.
Can you tell us a bit about your background and what lead you to become the type of painter you are?
First, Larry, thanks very much for the interview.
I was born in New York in 1959, a grandson of Spanish and Italian immigrants, and grew up in the suburbs. My father was an energetic painter. He never taught or influenced me much but quietly hoped that I would pick it up on my own. And the strategy worked beautifully, because I took to painting soon enough, and when I did it was completely my choice.
I think of my younger self as an introvert who craved attention. And painting was the perfect way to satisfy both personalities. It enabled me to connect with others without actually being there.
The visual world always had a hypnotic effect, and still does. So it was only natural that an atmospheric style of realism would become my language of expression. My studies with the great portrait artist Ronald Sherr left me with an appreciation for the power of sustained observation.
Please tell us about two or three painters who have been your biggest influences and why?
People are often surprised to hear that my favorite painter is Morandi. That’s because my paintings don’t look much like his. But I love the idea of Morandi more than the look. Elevating the commonplace to the spiritual without sentiment is for me what painting is all about.
I admire Edwin Dickenson very much, and Velasquez is a big hero, both for the same reason.
This may sound sacrilegious, and maybe it is, but the truth is that I don’t look at art much anymore.
Mostly I like to look at the world. The appearance of things, the light falling on things, whether I’m working or not. I love seeing work of my peers, as much as the icons of the past, because of how we share this passion yet see the world in different ways.
I find several of your paintings and drawings evocative of the sensibilities involved with Antonio López García’s work. Any thoughts you can share with us about his work and or influence?
Antonio Lopez has raised the bar on all of us. His work has that rare combination of power and sensitivity and shows that any subject can be transformed into art.
His and the work of other contemporaries freed me from the traditional figure painting I learned in school, and the impact, especially on the earlier work, is clear.
But the work of the Spanish Master is often grand, complex and painted with an eye for distance – I’ve moved toward the intimate, the simple, and like to get right on top of my subjects.
How much does working from observation play with your work? Please tell us something about your process in painting.
Observation is everything. At least 50% of my studio time is spent staring at the subject and not making a stroke.
I liken observation to making a bank deposit; the act of painting is the withdrawal. You can’t withdraw without depositing without getting into trouble. I’m full of analogies, and that’s a favorite.
I paint directly and freely in the early stages, almost like an abstract artist. Really piling the paint on and using a knife for most of the work.
At some point I’ll turn the corner from near-abstraction to modeling, making corrections along the way. That’s the key; I’ll live with any errors in the drawing while fleshing out the forms, adjusting things here and there.
The palette is simple – thirteen colors, some opaque, most transparent. I love Old Holland colors and the medium is Gamsol with stand oil, but I use very little of it. The stiffness of this paint is perfect for knife work though it isn’t intended for that. I like when the paint pushes back a bit.
What aspect of the act of painting excites you the most? Why are you a realist and not an abstract painter?
I have a great appreciation for abstraction, but, frankly, it just isn’t my language.
I’ve even tried it a few times, and after a half hour of joyful paint slinging am stumped by the feeling of “now what?” I need a subject in front of me to spur my thinking.
My favorite part of the process is the refinement. Taking a painting that looks OK and pushing it way over the finish line – bringing more depth and subtlety into it, manipulating the clarity, splitting hairs with values, so to speak. This is the part that takes all of the energy and concentration I have. But I try not to make it laborious.
The game of painting is played on two levels. First, there is the artist, making decisions, solving problems, doing the actual work…
Then there ’s the other self that watches the artist at work, monitoring one’s own thoughts and emotions.
So if I get bored for example, and this can be a problem for me, I’ll pick up the energy any way I can, sometimes by deliberately making a mistake. That usually gets me going. I’m always trying to find that balance of being patient but having a slight edge.
You discuss many important aspects of painting from nature. I was struck by one thing you said; “One of the hardest things for me to witness is an artist laboring over a canvas, struggling to force the work with grim determination and sweat.”
Your thoughts here are interesting given that your richly-detailed realist work can take several months to complete. How do you keep paintings fresh and avoid looking overworked?
Any thoughts you care to share about trends in contemporary hyper-realism?
The work of some of today’s hyper-realists is astounding.
But my favorite artists paint fairly loosely, and I see myself somewhere in between the two. These distinctions don’t matter as much as the approach and the feeling of the work.
But I was actually referring to my students in that quote. They work much harder than necessary and I wish they wouldn’t. Trying hard simply doesn’t work. It leads to anxiety and that affects your thinking.
It’s taken time to develop this casual attitude toward the process. It’s a recent development; it happened about five years ago.
Many of us are taught that great achievements are the result of pain and suffering. I used to struggle like mad with my art, lose sleep over it, lament over “ruining” pieces and so on. Painting became easy the day I decided it should be easy. It was really that simple.
This certainly doesn’t mean I feel the work is always successful. But the canvas is just a reflection of the quality and depth of the observation; it has no reality in itself. This is worth repeating – the canvas is a reflection.
If you’ve grasped something visually, you can get back anything I’ve lost. If you can’t get it back; then you never had it to begin with. Knowing this brings a contentment or rather a trust in the process, and the result is a look that is fresher and more elegant than would be achieved by trying to force things.
You also talk about the need to paint out carefully worked details if those areas look fragmented from the whole, calling this “pulling it together”. This seems like a more modernist approach to painting – to keep everything open for major changes right up until the last finishing brushstroke.
This seems a painful concept for some painters who fear losing days or weeks of hard-won work. Often you see them take the opposite approach of protecting the fragmented areas and just building up more and more details – further shutting down the painting.
What advice can you offer about seeing the big picture, getting harmony and finding the courage to paint in an open manner?
The tendency to protect is fear-based; I call it painting defensively. It helps to remember that if you’ve done something once, you can do it again.
Details and masses work together- the masses support the details and the details help refine the masses, even after they’re blocked in.
It’s helpful to drop a few details in place early on, knowing that they’ll be lost and found again many times. It’s not necessary to keep the painting open because it always is! Anything can be changed.
We’re programmed to think about things moving in sequential steps from start to finish, but a painting doesn’t. Moving forward and backward can actually be fun, but the trick is to keep it moving. Sometimes a mistake will lead to an insight that you wouldn’t have had otherwise, so mistakes shouldn’t be feared.
Here’s my advice to the aspiring artist: forget about creating a work of art. Don’t get attached to the outcome; get attached to the process. Turn this into a challenging game that will make you better in the end.
Another statement resonated with me; “I’ve noticed how inexperienced artists tend to darken things, moving down the value scale, strengthening boundaries, creating weight and solidity. Mature artists do the opposite; lightening…moving up the value scale, losing edges, making things look ethereal, keeping the clarity.”
People can get so hung up on making something look real that they can lose sight of the need to make a good painting.
Would you say that the real subject is the artist’s engagement with the motif not just making the motif look real?
Yes, I completely agree with that. The engagement, or the embrace, is at the heart of the work.
Representation can move in a few directions at once, which include clarity and atmosphere. One doesn’t negate the other, they balance. Too much line and too much detail will make a piece look stiff and motionless.
But the tonal changes – and there are hundreds to consider – you can never paint too many of them and the work will just get richer.
Sharpening up one area lets you soften another. If the work gets too busy with details it can pulled together with the method we’re talking about.
Oil paint is more transparent, even the whites, than we think, so it would take a very thick layer to completely obscure previous work.
And then there’s effortlessness. It’s the most beautiful quality any art form can have.
What’s the difference between a great dancer and an average one? Ease of execution, fluidity. Laboring over a work will give you just that – a labored look, which can make the viewer feel uncomfortable.
You have to keep others in mind, not just yourself. You might feel proud of all that hard work you’ve done. But is the piece moving, or just impressive?
In a world threatened by global warming, political and economic chaos, and the never-ending disasters of all kinds; why should painters still care about beauty?
One of the things I like about my job is that I know it is not going to save the world.
Because I don’t want that responsibility, it’s too much. Given the things you mention, it’s true that civilization doesn’t need painters.
And it doesn’t need poets, actors, musicians or athletes either. But how dull would life be without them? These people inspire us.
One role we artists have is to remind people of the extraordinary things they’re capable of. I can get inspired, for example, just watching a master pizza chef tossing and spinning the dough, casually doing something that to me seems so impossible.
The joy of doing, of being in the zone with work that you love is unlike any other. The evils of the world can’t be eliminated and they can’t be defeated; they have to be replaced by something higher.
Art is about more than the creation of beauty; it demonstrates an enthusiasm for life, which is contagious.
Spreading some of that enthusiasm around is the artist’s contribution to the world.