Here follows the second half of my conversation with the artist Thomas Wharton. Please also see In Conversation with Thomas Wharton (Part I) here.
Q: How do you start a piece? What is the first thing you do. I appreciate this may vary from subject to subject.
This tends to vary depending on the subject. With figure or portrait paintings, I tend to start on a surface that has a neutral, mid-value tint. It makes it easier to judge the values and gives me a color to “push against” in establishing the warmer skin tones. I also establish as soon as possible where the darkest darks and the lightest lights will be. Generally, as I work through the painting, I try to stay in the mid-tones as long as possible and save the punch of the darks and highlights for later in the work. The mid-tones are where the strengths will be. It’s very much like what it takes to have a good operatic voice. The singer needs the top (money) notes, but the middle voice is where most of the singing is and where the real beauty of tone needs to be.
For landscape or seascapes, I usually start on a white surface. The challenge of these paintings is to create the impression of the vast range of values outdoors and for me, if I start on a toned surface, I’ve already lost some of the brilliance. I usually sketch the scene in with a red color, which somehow helps me keep the colors lively (especially if green is involved).
It’s very difficult to do both studio and landscape work well. They seem to require you to live in different realms. Studio situations are so controlled and outdoor subjects so fleeting and complex. The light is the real subject in both cases, and I think to some degree, whether a person excels in one or the other depends on personality factors. Primarily, how much tolerance the person has for complexity and how much control they feel they need.
Q: How do you know when a piece is finished? At what point do you stand back, put down the brush, and say: OK this is it. Related to this - the risk of overworking something.
Ideally, I would say that when I’ve communicated what I intend, I stop. It’s tricky though, because I keep seeing more and more subtle relationships as I work and those tend to contribute to the veracity of the piece. But, there is a point when I can go too far. It’s odd, but when the piece is done, it seems to drift away from me. It doesn’t seem to want anything else from me, and I stop. Once in a great while, I’ll revisit a painting, but it’s nearly always to eliminate something.
Q: Has there ever been a piece/s that you completed and then it felt difficult for you to sell, and why?
No, not really. Although there have been a couple, one of my mother and one of a good friend who died, that I did for myself. When the paintings are done, they seem to have faded away, and I forget about them. When I moved recently, I wound up having to go through storage spaces and came across art from my commercial years and from the many years of experimenting. I’d forgotten that for nearly ten years I painted abstractly! I was so surprised to see much of it, as I’d completely forgotten most of it. The joy and pleasure of art is in the making for me. When the making is done, I move on.
Q: Do you ever struggle with the dichotomy between being commercially successful and your personal aesthetic as an artist?
This question, at least for me, contains a lot of the complexity of what the art endeavor is for me. It contains issues of style, content, integrity, personal validation, and of course, financial success. The short answer is that I try not to engage the dichotomy too much. It’s the one thing that will bring on creative block in me. But, for a more complete answer, let me address the last aspect first.
Financial success brings up the functioning art market, which is a complex soup of various social, cultural, and market forces, most of which are outside my sphere of experience and interest. The contemporary art world is highly speculative from the investment perspective and perhaps in a bubble. The high end art market is infused and entangled with the cult of celebrity and in close relationship to current cultural fashions, as well as being a platform for human interaction where various economic and social classes come together in something of a cloud of mutual validation. My work exists in a far less frenetic level, but even so, there are realities that I think it’s important that I face in order to be content and continue functioning as an artist.
I entered the fine art world late in life. For that reason, I’ll never be “up and coming”, so those who are interested in investment potential, probably won’t be interested in my work. I also tend to limit my media exposure. I started controlling this many years ago when I was working as an art director and creative director in New York. I found it was important to keep my thinking clear in order to be able to offer clients fresh insights into the creative problems, so while being aware selectively as to what was going on culturally, I was able to filter out a lot of the marketing, sales, cultural, and social propaganda (noise) that floods our world. Instead, I focused more on the classical cannon and tried to keep company with philosophers, great music, great art, and the basic themes and problems of human existence. For that reason, participating in some social situations can be difficult. And, unless there is an overlap between contemporary culture and basic human problems, I won’t be commenting on contemporary life.
I want to produce work that my gallery can sell, and my hope is that by staying close to what has meaning for me and by making work to the best of my ability technically, both aims will be met.
Style and content are also an aspect of this question. I personally feel that the biggest challenge for contemporary realists is in the area of content. There is a tremendous explosion of gifted, highly trained, technically dazzling realist painters on the scene now. The market is flooded with so much incredible facility and it begs the question, what separates everyone? The answer is obviously going to be content. This is where I think the real challenge is. When you have developed your skills, what are you going to say with them?
In this regard, I’m reminded of my days as a pianist and how I admired Horowitz. He was, of course, a technical wizard, and as a pianist, I was awestruck by this and worked to develop my facility. Many years later, when I wasn’t listening from a pianist’s perspective, I realized that it wasn’t his technique that made him great, it was that he imagined the music that way and then did what he could technically to make it happen. May realists herald this as a new day of realism based on the explosion of technical prowess, but I think that’s really the tail wagging the dog.
Art is about experience. Much of the great realist art of the past was dedicated to delivering an experience through well-known cultural and religious narratives. The great abstract artists of the twentieth century sought to achieve that same aim through stimulating the viewer by the pure use of color, shape, and paint handling. The realist painter today still needs to create experience using visual symbols and creating a narrative in the viewer’s mind. The difference today is that we live in a world of diverse cultural symbols—a world without common religious, aesthetic, philosophical, or political common ground. The art market is a global enterprise. So, for the artist, what visual symbols are available becomes somewhat problematic. And, in a world where the cultural language that populates the media changes so fast, how does art have staying power.
For many artists, their work becomes one of resolving personal issues—gender, sexual identity, social class themes. While valid, these tend to either limit their audience or begin to look like editorial illustration. Other artists, myself included, tend to pick up something from the art canon—portraits, nudes, landscapes, etc. The difficulty here is creating something that is individual enough to make your work stand out. This can take a lot of time and effort. It took me nearly three years to find a way into painting nudes that felt individual and distinctive.
It is possible to break through, but, when that happens a trap awaits. I’ve known many artists who find themselves hitting on something that sells, and then winding up painting the same painting (or some version of it) for years, even decades! This is something that I particularly want to avoid. It’s partly due to my nature. I always get to the point where I just need to change what I’m doing. I feel an almost suffocating sense of being trapped. There are obviously problems from a sales point of view though, and it requires a lot of effort and will to move the rudder.
So, I might summarize all of this by saying that I think each artist needs to be clear why they are making art, what they want their art to say, and find a gallery or representative that is in sympathy with them and with whom they can work together to meet these ends and financial goals.
Q: How do you manage people's expectations with commissions?
I try to make sure that the people know and understand my work and who seem open to having things filtered through an artist’s sensibility.
Q: What are your thoughts in terms of price tags and how your art and indeed art per se is valued?
The whole concept of value is a great mystery to me, in all it’s forms, including the value of money. When you really thing about it, value is really almost a religious project. After all, what is the real intrinsic value of money? I read a book recently, A Buddhist History of the West, which among other things presented the theory that capitalism is in reality a religion masquerading as a science… that capitalism is in reality a salvation religion. The argument was really quite convincing.
To be practical though, I try to price my work (in collaboration with the gallery) at a mid-range, but also from a business point of view, one that takes into consideration the materials costs and my time.
Q: What makes you want to paint/create? What drives you?
I make art because I can, because it’s one of the things I do where I feel most myself. I’m reminded of the memory I have of learning to tie my shoes. I was probably three, but I don’t know for sure. I vividly remember the complete satisfaction that I had when I had mastered it. Reflecting on this years later, I decided that an essential aspect of being human was that “I can”. For all of us, realizing this “I can” seems to be an essential satisfaction. Maybe it’s even larger than a human satisfaction… maybe animals and plants experience it too.
What drives me is curiosity and a restless desire to learn.
Q: Do you listen to music when you paint? And if yes, what's on your current playlist?
I sometimes do, sometimes not. There are times when the silence helps me enter the painting more. When I do listen to music, it tends to be something atmospheric like Debussy or Ravel, both of whom I loved playing when I was a pianist. I never listen to music with words. Words are something of an enemy when I’m in my art head. Sometimes, I do use music to help me go in a new direction. Now, for instance, I’m listening to Rachmaninoff’s “Isle of the Dead” which was inspired by the famous Boecklin painting. Let’s see where that takes me...
Q: Which artists, living and deceased do you most admire and why?
Oh, there are so many. I won’t comment on the living, because I wouldn’t want to leave someone out… also, while I look at a lot of living artists, I try not to “study” them so that I don’t wind up mimicking them. From the past—Giotto, Velasquez, Rembrandt, Sargent, Degas, Bonnard, Munch, Diebenkorn, Park, Neel, Guston… so many… too many to name. I think of them as friends. But, if I have a best friend, it would be Vermeer. I just love Vermeer. His work has always looked contemporary to me. The compositions sometimes are so surprising and sometimes cropped in a way you would expect from Degas. People tend to think of him as highly realistic, but when you study Vermeer, you realize that he generalizes and takes a lot of liberty with reality. Most of all though, what I love about Vermeer is the way he (in a few paintings) was able to capture people deeply engaged in an activity, sometimes just thought. And, of course, there’s the light!
Q: At the end of the day, when you put your brush down, what is your favourite way to relax?
I listen to music, and lately I’ve begun to play the piano again. I love to read, but am a slow reader, so poetry is a particular pleasure.
Q: Do you have any other talents hobbies that might surprise people? An instrument, a sport etc?
Nothing surprising… I’m a good cook and I can wiggle my ears and cross my eyes… does that count?
Q: What book is on your bedside table right now?
I read a lot even though it was very difficult for me to learn to read. In fact, I was nearly held back a couple of grades in school because I had so much trouble. I tend to have four or five books going at once, placed in strategic places around the house and studio. Right now, I’m reading a fascinating book by Ursula Goodenough, called Sacred Depths of Nature. She’s an evolutionary biologist who writes about the principle mechanisms of biology in conjunction with her struggle to reconcile her scientific viewpoint with her Lutheran upbringing… It’s fascinating.
In the studio, I’m reading a book on Nathan Olivera and the writings of Philip Guston. I admire both artists enormously, especially Guston for his courage.
I’m also reading (the bathroom book) The Happiness Hypothesis, but Jonathan Haidt, and in the living room, The Art of Bill Viola, another artist I find very inspirational.
I always keep poetry books in the studio and find poetry so inspiring. I keep Elliot at hand always, and right now am reading James Agee and Wallace Stevens. I don’t share Steven’s world view, but enjoy his company. It’s like having a friend that you can have civil arguments with.
Q: If (money permitting) you could buy any piece of art, what would it be?
There’s a painting by Vermeer at the Met, I used to visit every time I went. It’s so unassuming that it may be surprising that I would pick it. It’s called, “Portrait of a Young Girl”. She’s a little odd looking, I suppose… certainly not beautiful in the usual sense of the word. But, her expression is the essence of gentle human warmth. I think to have captured that is nothing short of miraculous. I could cry just looking at it. Whoever she was, she is giving Vermeer a look that we all long for.
Q: Do you have any superstitions / magical thinking regarding your work or how you work?
Not about my work, but I do have what I call, “Checking Disease”. Sometimes, it can take me twenty minutes to leave the house.
Q: What have you learnt about yourself through painting?
That work—maybe obsession is the better word—is important to who I am as a person.
Q: If you weren't working as an artist you would …?
It’s hard to say. I’ve done so many things and reinvented myself so many times. When I stopped being a pianist and went into art, my music friends were so puzzled and couldn’t see the connection. But, for me they both felt like they came from the same place.
One more thing I’d like to add… it’s something that didn’t come up in your list of questions, but is something that I feel very strongly about.
I think it is important that artists not mistake who they are as a person with their artwork. Yes, a person’s work is personal and sometimes comes with strong feelings, but your work is not the measure of who you are. That doesn’t mean that failure and discouragement aren't experienced. It means that they are experienced in perspective, as are the joys of success and achievement. Without this separation, it is impossible for an artist to maintain the perspective on their life and their work that is necessary for a long career.
*With thanks to Thomas Wharton - whartonstudio.com
Click here for In Conversation with Thomas Wharton (Part I)
For more artist interviews click here