Welcome to the Blank Canvas Series – An interview with an Artist. These amazing artists have offered to share their insights with the Master Oil Painting Community. Please Note: The views expressed here are those of the Featured Artist and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of Master Oil Painting or Bill Inman.
TODAY’S FEATURED ARTIST: Peter Fiore
“If you paint with the idea that you may fail, you will always be a timid painter — constraining yourself to only go so far. That’s a slow death.”
Q: It appears that you spend quite a bit of time visiting the locations you paint, searching for a subject. What is it about a certain location that convinces you that the right subject will reveal itself? Have you ever invested your time on a location, or even a subject, you thought was right only to later find that it wasn’t?
A: I’m always searching for a motif that will allow me to explore light and color and emotion.
The location doesn’t convince me, it’s only after making studies and some smaller paintings that I know what any subject can yield. Once I’ve discovered a location that could yield something, I’ll go back and visit it many times — different times of day, different seasons and different weather. All have a tremendous impact on what that something can be.
I’m not looking for the final painting at this point, as in “this is what I’m going to paint”, but rather to learn a subject in greater detail so that I can create what I want it to be rather than what it is — a visual reorchestration.
Often, after spending a considerable amount of time on a painting motif, things just don’t go any further for a number of reasons. It could be that my ideas have shifted or it could be that another subject, another idea, manifests itself in a greater way and I’ll go down that road.
Q: When we first spoke to you about being a guest artist on the Blank Canvas series, you replied with “I’m in Newfoundland chasing down icebergs for a new body of work.” That’s probably the coolest reply we’ve heard so far to a Blank Canvas invite! Can you tell us about your trip, and what appeal icebergs hold for you?
A: My fascination with icebergs started with a slideshow I was giving to students at the School of Visual Arts in NY where I teach. In the slide show I included a couple of images by Frederic Church, specifically of his iceberg studies. I found these online and apparently they had been cropped. The cropped studies appeared with a very modern sensibility of design. They were portraits of icebergs, not grand vistas, but portraits and that intrigued me greatly.
Immediately, I thought what I could bring to icebergs was very much what I had done with my White Pine Suite. That the tree was a presence, not just an object. So I thought of the iceberg as a big graphic shape that would be a terrific vehicle for the exploration of light on these massive shapes — which meant that color could be limitless. The environment of the iceberg is paramount to it’s individual nature, it’s atmosphere is unique, therefore going there was a must.
The idea of Newfoundland as my destination came about with my research of Frederick Church, that’s where he went. He went to Newfoundland in 1859, one year prior to the beginning of the American Civil War, so I figured I would go to Newfoundland 159 years later.
It took me a few years to get this all in motion, do the research, and figure out my path. And of course nature had to do it’s part and cooperate.
Q: When it comes to the artist’s frame of mind you state that “comfort is paramount” and that you have an aversion to painting en plein air or outdoors – your studio is your palace. Do you see any merit to creating art under difficult or less than ideal circumstances? What are your thoughts about working from photos vs life?
A: My preference for studio painting comes from my long career as an illustrator. I started as a studio artist gathering references for an idea and then bringing it to fruition. It was always for a client, magazine, book cover etc.
It’s always been a natural process for me, but painting on location was never a part of that process. However, observation from nature was — and it remains tremendously important.
How you make the painting, under what conditions you make it, are totally irrelevant to what the final painting looks like. All that matters is the final painting. I just happen to choose my studio to work from.
For me, painting has to go deeper than just what something looks like and I can’t do that on location. There’s just not enough time. Working in the studio allows me a greater opportunity to bring more complexity to my painting. Texture is a built up process that takes time. The paint needs time for drying, and then I come back to abrade the surface, scratch, sand, glaze and whatever else I need to do to create the visual effect that I want — I can’t do that in the field.
I’ll make a music analogy, plein air painting is like a song — it’s complete and beautiful. A song has a certain quality it reaches on it’s own level, and I love all kinds of songs. But what I am looking for is a symphony — many more instruments, movements and layers, that have to take place over time. I’m not an hour or two hour painter.
Photos are invaluable tools to bring back to the studio. But unless you understand what you are looking at and the true nature of the subject, your photos are going to ring empty. A photograph freezes a moment, and life is not a frozen moment. You have to learn to go beyond the photograph, reorchestrate and create something alive.
The photography bugaboo is that too many artists copy photographs, and their work looks like painted photographs. Often even mimicking the surface quality of the photograph, which is flat and smooth, almost like they are painting glossy photos. That’s an easy trap to fall into. The photograph, to a fault, is held sacrosanct and we can compare every mark we make to the photograph. Somehow the photograph ends up acting as a religious icon, and it is not. It’s just an idea, a jumping off point.
Often the issue with plein air is the lack of quality light — many paintings are done in the middle of the day. While it captures that feeling of the middle of the day, for me, it’s not the most compelling light possible. The best light for me is early morning and later in the evening, when the sun is lower in the sky and has more color temperature. Very difficult to capture en plein air since those moments are extremely fleeting.
Q: Light seems to emanate from within your works, like your beautiful painting ‘The Chapel’. How do you achieve that?
A: ‘The Chapel’, in particular, exemplifies being in the right place at the right time of day.
I stood there at about 3 pm on a January afternoon waiting — the light was low in the sky. The light came through the trees creating a wonderful sense of depth and space. It had all the potential drama I wanted. The direction of the light was terrific but the color was flat — what I mean by that is it was all light and shadow, high contrast, devoid of color. That happens in photography, very little color because of the high contrast situation.
Back in my studio, I redesigned the picture and adjusted the value structure, infusing it with color to create what I wanted, rather than what I saw. Painting is not specifically about copying what you see — I’m painting what I want the viewer to see. There is no formula.
Q: You’ve spoken about the “presence” of the trees you choose to paint – how they serve as stand-ins for people and how their anatomy is the person. What does that presence feel like to you? How can our community of artists, with other subjects, use the same approach?
A: They can’t.
Another artist can’t feel exactly what I feel. You have to have a reason for the subject to become important to you. It has to have meaning in your life at the right moment, so that you can infuse that energy into the painting. Otherwise, you’re just making a painting of a tree.
That’s something that came to me after looking at trees for 20 something years. All of my mature works are in series. The reason for that is because I have a specific idea, something in mind, and I have a need to explore. That turns into a body of work.
I’m not a one-off painter, meaning I don’t paint one here or there and then move on to the next subject. That’s an empty path for me.
Q: You’ve been quoted as saying that “painters should be painting for people, not for other artists!” and “painting isn’t for technical excellence but to elicit emotion in the common viewer – light is more than visual, it’s emotional”. What are some practices you suggest for avoiding the ‘acceptance trap’ that so many artists succumb to?
A: Making a painting of a 19th century subject in the manner of a 19th century painter is not timeless, it’s just 19th century painting. This is a commercial choice — today, no more Sargents are being made by Sargent.
I suggest that artists paint in their time — meaning 21st century thinking. That includes all of art history, the 20th century and all it’s movements should come into play. I’m not saying you have to use it all, but you need to understand it. Tremendous things artistically happened in the 20th century.
For my painting heroes I look at Rembrandt, Vermeer, David and Ingres, Turner, Twachtman, Inness, Bellows, Hopper, Wyeth, De Kooning, Rothko, Jasper Johns, Diebenkorn, Chuck Close, Helen Frankenthaler, Brice Marden, Lucian Freud and Neil Welliver to name a small bunch. There are a lot more — that’s the point.
There is a lot of great work out there that goes beyond — as artists we always have to keep expanding our thinking and experiences.
For me, I’m trying to make eternal moments that transcend time.
Q: You’re a successful artist who’s traditionally done well in art shows – a couple years ago you won the American Art Collector Award of Excellence from the ARC Salon Fine Art Galleries. What have you done to achieve success, especially in consideration of your viewpoint that we shouldn’t paint to appeal to other artists (like show judges).
A: What helps to make one successful is trusting yourself, being true to your own voice.
Too many paintings are interchangeable from one artist to another. That’s the trap —that’s painting for commercial success. It’s very scary to buck the norm and try to make paintings that are uniquely yourself. Ultimately, that’s what stands out though. Sometimes it’s acknowledged by judges, but more often it is passed over. I have tons of paintings that have been passed over. No response is the worst response of all, and that far exceeds the successes.
The most famous painters create only a handful of paintings that are truly eternal. It’s staggering the way history shakes out.
Q: You began your White Pine series following a severe car accident in which you were injured. During recovery you were walking through the woods and noticed how your tree, which had previously been damaged by fire, had sprung back to life even stronger, and you’ve shared before how those tragic events became a powerful creative force in your own life. Can you describe that experience? How did that affect your art, and what advice can you give to other artists on leveraging adversity?
A: As a human being, adversity is not pleasant. However, if you look at adversity for what it is, it can be an element of potentiality. That means it can be anything, based on how you think about it and how you spin it.
Adversity can force you to be more creative, to work within it’s limitations. If you just continue to sit on the couch, that won’t happen.
Also, a way to move on to a new subject is to just start making things. Make 2 things, then make 3, and then you go to 4 and 5, and you start to have the relationships of paintings and possibly a body of work as opposed to having just one offs.
Q: You once said that you aren’t afraid of failure, and the only real regret is having not tried. How has that belief affected the progress of your painting, and why would that be important for other artists to understand?
A: Success is allusive for even the greatest artists.
If you paint with the idea that you may fail, you will always be a timid painter — constraining yourself to only go so far. That’s a slow death.
The most important part of painting is making the painting — the journey, the discoveries, the excitement and the challenges of what the painting can be. Often, a painting can wane on me and then I have to work very hard to get the excitement back. Once the painting is created, it becomes an object. The process is now gone.
The painting process is the excitement for me, the fuel for being an artist and the reason to make the next one. Once the painting is created, what’s next? I have to do something to create the excitement for myself and that’s what fuels the next paintings. That’s how the icebergs came about.
Q: I’ve heard you say that it’s a misconception that artists are flighty – rather, “artists are some of the smartest people (you) know.” Why do you think that misconception exists?
A: Hollywood, TV, teach us that artists are always on the edge — they’re feelings are out of control and they are so emotional that they can kill someone or themselves within seconds.
Irresponsible. That’s crazy.
What you have to understand is that no one needs a painting. The idea is to make a painting that someone wants, and that takes a lot of intelligence and self determination, a high level of craft, and a tremendous amount of work.
Artists are highly informed people — philosophy, literature, science, art, music and history — all of these things are part of our world and you have to have a grasp on these things to internalize those elements to create your world. Nothing great ever comes in a vacuum. Art is cultural, it’s thinking, it’s passion, it’s education, it’s intellectual. I am trying to create the poetry that goes beyond the surface.