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In conversation with Adrienne Stein

John Lennon and Yoko Ono sang: "We are all water from different rivers that's why it's so easy to meet.” Since I started interviewing artists and sharing my work on FB and Instagram, I’ve met some of the most wonderful people from all over the world. Art is one of those things that has an international language - an incredible unifying quality. It doesn’t matter where you live, what sex you are, what language you speak, what god you honour, all artists share a compulsion to create. And in that process of creating, there are so many of the same questions we wrestle with, experiences we have, and struggles that we face. Given art is often a very solitary occupation it has been my desire to seek out artists and have a place where we can effectively meet and talk about our process and for me, personally, to learn from others. Increasingly FB requests are sent to me, people comment on my posts, I like their paintings, we exchange a few words, and thus I am finding artists and they are finding me. These kinds of explorative tentacles you send out into the world have this wonderful way of making contact with and intertwining with others on their own respective journeys. And it is in this way that I came to know the artist Adrienne Stein, although I knew her work before this through the RJD Gallery in Sag Harbor, New York.

The recent paintings of Adrienne’s that I've seen in the flesh are whimsical, magical, and haunting - a series of almost other-worldly women and still life ensembles. And while there’s a fantasy quality to her work, the characters are brought to life with beautifully observed attention to detail and classical skill. There’s a seductive Pre-Raphaelite beauty to these women and in some of the paintings, hints of decay in the landscapes that are somewhat unsettling. Like Sirens, they appear to draw you into this beautiful, magical, and potentially dangerous world in which they inhabit.

What struck me as most unusual about Adrienne's work is how she creates these incredibly whimsical narratives from life painting. Perhaps I came to painting late in life, but these days it seems that so many artworks rely on photographic reference due to very practical limitations like finding models, props, animals and creatures to paint, and especially for esoteric subject matter. But here I saw photos on Adrienne's Instragram account of great armfuls of flowers in her studio, models draped in diaphanous jewel-coloured fabrics, and bowls of fruit spilling out on her windowsill. Just like the old masters, she was constructing these sets from which to make her paintings.

I was incredibly curious to find out more about this way of working, and then of course to enquire about her inspiration given my own subject matter tends to be fairly straightforward portraiture. Where does she get her ideas from? How has she arrived at this way of working? Adrienne very generously agreed to answer these and a whole host of questions that form the conversation that follows.

With thanks to Adrienne Stein. More of her work can be viewed on her website Adrienne is exclusively represented by the RJD Gallery.

Q: I've been following your work on Instagram for a while now. It's been inspiring to see that you work from models who sit for you as well as props in your studio to build your paintings. A lot of artists these days will build these kinds of narratives from photos or in Photoshop and then paint them. Your way of working feels old school. Please can you tell us a bit about how you work in this regard?

Thank you for noticing my working methods. The imagery in my paintings is often cobbled together from many sources, but this past year I have tried to take my work to a new level by blending direct observation with imagination. Of course, working from life isn't always possible, but I find that I am more present and alert when painting from direct observation. My experience with the objects/people depicted is more palpable, and it shows in the painting. I view the model stand in my studio as a "movie set" of sorts, and I try to create the mood as vividly as possible. I still rely on photography in plenty of instances where the model is unavailable or I happen to snap a photo that fits perfectly into a painting I am planning.

Reference material in the studio for The Brides series of paintings

Working with models

The artist at work in her studio

Q: Having looked at your work, you have a strong and versatile collection. Everything is beautifully observed and there's a wonderful use of light in your paintings - from and including the still lives, the landscapes and the portraits. Again this feels very classical. Please talk to us about this?

I began my classical atelier training early. I was 11 years old when I began studying with my mentor and he taught me how to draw and paint from life and to copy the Old Masters, especially the Dutch Masters. I was really fortunate to hone these skills in my formative years and they served me well in the years to come. The deeper challenge came later, when I was 17 years old and did a summer painting program in Italy that was focused on painting the landscape 'en Plein air'. I quickly realised that the changing light in the landscape wasn't waiting around for me to glaze passages and pre-mix colours, as I had been taught in my mentor's atelier. I had to work quickly, decisively, and with intense observation. It was my first experience painting 'Alla Prima' and it was exhausting. I painted so much that summer - a painting nearly every day for a couple months. I painted at every time of day and from every location in the little Umbrian hill town where I lived. I've since had many different experiences studying in traditional ateliers as well as ‘Plein air painting in other locations in Europe and the U.S. Both have informed me in valuable ways. It helped me figuratively bridge the gap between the French Academy and the Impressionists, both of whom I enormously respect.

Q: I'm interested as to how you came to be an artist?

I am the oldest of four children, and we are a supportive, tight-knit family. Everyone in my family is creatively talented in some way, especially my Mom. She had an interior design business and also does photography and painting. I grew up around beautiful objects and antiques that my mom collected, and also watching her select colours, textures, and materials for her clients and occasionally painting murals in their homes. Many props and textiles in my paintings come from her stash.

It feels like a miracle that I get to be a full-time artist today. I paint every day, which is truly all I ever wanted. I was a day-dreamy child and have been drawing and painting since I can remember. My parents recognised my art propensity and sought out a mentor before I was even a teenager (as I detailed above). They took me to visit successful artists' studios and to museum shows. I eventually went to art school at Laguna College of Art & Design, which was an amazing experience. In class, we talked about Rubens and Rembrandt like they were just as relevant and contemporary as any living artist. It solidified my devotion to figurative realism. Then I went to Boston to get my MFA from Boston University, which focused on oil painting, but more influenced by abstract expressionism. This helped me ask deeper questions of my work and to rethink my assumptions. Each step of my journey gave me something new and valuable.

Q: How much of how you were trained influenced how you work today and has there been any kind of departure?

My great struggle is to honour the tradition from whence I came, but make it new and relevant, somehow to make it my own. My technique has not changed much, but I have adapted it for my subject matter. Also, my palette is wilder than most of my teachers!

Q: Is there any one teacher, or an artist whom you feel has strongly influenced your work or inspired you personally?

My mentor, the late Richard House. Also, every professor at Laguna College of Art & Design, even the liberal arts professors who expanded and stimulated my mind. I took a workshop with Bo Bartlett back in 2009 - he is particularly inspiring as an artist and a person. I remember seeing one of his large paintings at the PA State Museum when I was just a child. It really made an impact on me.

Q: How old were you when you had your first show and how was that experience?

I was 11 years old, and I had a "solo show" in the café of Borders Books & Music. It was wild! I was still a clueless child and having my first experience talking about my paintings. There was a reception and a newspaper interview and everything. It helped me gain the confidence to take my private practice of painting into the public.

Q: In your recent series of paintings, those of The Brides for example, there's certainly a fantasy element, a whimsy, please talk to us about your inspiration and thinking behind these?

I have spent much time trying to understand why my taste is so fantastical and antiquated. I have been told by reputable artists that I won't be taken seriously because of the sentimental beauty in my work. That is a fair assessment. I think always of my beloved Pre Raphaelite painters, pecking away in their studios in 19th century England, working on these detailed, magical, mythical paintings during the Industrial Revolution when living and working conditions were so bad. Cities were overcrowded and polluted. Handcrafted objects were being replaced by mass production. Our current world has different versions of the same problems. In a way, my work offers a similar antidote in the world. Hopefully they have one foot in this world, and one foot in a world that is hoped for.

Q: For commissions, and I see you have done quite a few, how do you approach these? Personally I find it tough to get people to sit for me. They want a painting but lack the time or perhaps the stamina to sit, but it is extremely tough to work from photos alone. Do you work from a combination of sittings and photos?

Yes, I find the same is true for me. Unless you are working with a professional art model, sitters don't anticipate how long it takes to complete a painting from life. I have painted a few commissions from life because the client specified they wanted that, but many others are done from a combo of life and photography, or completely photography. As long as the finished painting captures the likeness and spirit of the person, the means are irrelevant.

Q: How do you manage people's expectations with commissions?

I try to share as much of the process with the client as I can. They see and approve a sketch first, so that I know they are pleased with the basic composition and we are on the same page before I move on.

Q: Do you have a go-to palette for your skin tones? There are artists that stick to five or so colours.

Yes – an expanded version of the "Zorn palette", used by the Swedish painter Anders Zorn for studies. Titanium white, Naples yellow, Yellow Ochre, Indian yellow, Cadmium red medium, Alizarin Crimson, and Viridian.

Q: How do you start a piece? What is the first thing you do?

Usually, I make thumbnail drawings to determine possible compositions, and then I begin gathering props and source material, and determining a model/models. The rest is basically carrying out my own orders.

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.

Rembrandt is alleged to have said to his student: "A painting is finished when I have accomplished what I originally sought to express." That is a nebulous statement, and often comes down to taste. I love both Sargent with his rapid, bravura brushwork, and also Holbein with his painstakingly articulated surfaces. I prefer more finished, rendered surfaces, so I usually stop on a painting when I feel that every square inch of it is finely articulated and the colours still feel pure and fresh.

Q: Has there ever been a piece/s that you completed and then it felt difficult for you to sell, and why?

The Brides are very sentimental to me. La Fête Sauvage was a particularly personal painting and took months for me to complete. I was sad to let it go, but thankfully it sold to the collection of Art Renewal Center and is currently part of a traveling exhibition that started out in Barcelona and is now in NYC at the Salmagundi club. I am happier to share it with a wider audience, rather than it keeping it to myself.

La Fête Sauvage, 2014. 48" x 24". Acrylic on canvas. Collection of Art Renewal Center

Q: Do you ever struggle with the dichotomy between being commercially successful and your personal aesthetic as an artist?

For me, the struggle is about cohesiveness. I love painting still life, figurative, as well as landscape subjects. I feel like my work is all over the place, and collectors respond better to a more consistent body of work. I am trying to combine all of it in each painting now, so that each painting combines a figurative, still life, and landscape component – just to unify it all.

Q: What are your thoughts in terms of price tags and how your art and indeed art per se is valued?

It’s always good to be as objective as possible. Rather than being priced by the subject matter or "desirability" of a painting, it is priced by the square inch. The size is a good gauge of the time and effort in any painting.

Q: What makes you want to paint/create? What drives you?

An inner vision, a yearning to create a world for others to visit. Also, a pure love of the craft, and a desire to continue the lineage of painting.

Q: Do you listen to music when you paint? And if yes, what's on your current playlist?

I am an NPR/podcast/audiobook addict, so I listen to a lot of spoken content when I paint. Right now I am listening to Joseph Campbell's The Power of Myth series. I also listen to old jazz standards and blues. Billie Holiday is always a favourite. I've been listening to Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds lately - there's a haunting gothic quality there.

Q: Which artists, living and deceased do you most admire and why?

Such a long list! I will name only a few whose books are on my studio table now:

Van Dyck, Rubens – the movement/action in their large compositions and the incredible textures of flesh, velvet, and taffeta they render.

El Greco – for breaking the mould during his time.

Kaspar David Friedrich – those melancholy landscapes! So emotive.

Paula Rego – for the strange, dark inventiveness in her work. Her drawings are so gritty.

Mark Rothko – so much atmosphere in those colour passages.

Andrea Kowch – her work is both real and surreal.

John Everett Millais – the rich colour and fine detail!

Vincent Desiderio – I saw his work in person at Marlborough Chelsea many years ago. They are large and mysterious and ambitious compositions.

Rodin – prolific, gestural, romantic.

Marcel Dzama – for his ability to cross over successfully from painting to drawing to film to animation.

The Spanish Still Life Painters (Baroque) – so much sincerity in that work, and a dark drama.

Q: At the end of the day, when you put your brush down, what is your favourite way to relax?

With a glass of Merlot and something interesting on Netflix. I am a big fan of The X-Files.

Q: Do you have any other talents hobbies that might surprise people? An instrument, a sport etc?

I am embarrassingly un-athletic. I write poetry, and have often written sonnets to accompany my paintings. I have shared them with almost no one!

Q: What book is on your bedside table right now?

Ten Windows: How Great Poems Transform the World by Jane Hirshfield.

Q: If (money permitting) you could buy any piece of art, what would it be?

Probably one of Rembrandt's late religious portraits. That, or any painting by John William Waterhouse.

Q: Do you have any superstitions / magical thinking regarding your work or how you work?

Someone once said "What you work on, works on you". I stand by that. Painting is a spiritual practice, and to me it is like prayer. When one seeks earnestly and diligently to craft something true, to reach for something transcendent, it transforms one from the inside. I try to make paintings that will better me by working on them.

Q: What have you learnt about yourself through painting?

My curiosity runs deep, and the answers I seek turn into more questions.

Q: If you weren't working as an artist you would …?

Be a writer.

With thanks to Adrienne Stein

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