Orange dress. By Hollis Dunlap
LONDON, United Kingdom - Not long after I created an Instagram account in October 2015, I discovered the American figurative artist Hollis Dunlap. Hollis had around eighty four thousand followers so evidently I was slow to the mark. I found his website and started really looking at his work. His drawing is exceptional, and he has a loose painterly style which you notice when you get up close, but from a distance his paintings look extremely detailed and realistic. It’s a strange kind of magic. There’s an old school quality to his work too, alla prima - evidence of classical training from life in the way he draws, and seeks out and represents the light with a palette which is refreshingly minimalist.
A couple of months after discovering his work, Hollis who is based in New London Connecticut, posted that he would be teaching a workshop in figure painting from life in Rome. This would be in July 2016 with an organisation called the Rome Art Workshops - a project created by artists David Simon and Brian Booth Craig.
Figure drawing and painting, which I do once a week in London, is not my favourite thing. I’d much rather paint a head and shoulders because I find it easier to render than an entire body with the problems of proportion, perspective and foreshortening - issues that limbs and angles of the body present. But I do it because I believe it forms the fundamental basis of all figurative work, like learning to swim - a tough but essential and life saving skill. I was so in love with Hollis’s work however - his style of painting, how he observes and incorporates the background, and his use of light - that I was prepared to do figure painting just so I could study with him, and saw travelling to Rome to do so as a once in a life time opportunity.
I paid my deposit and got busy with life, and then suddenly July 2016 appeared in that way some months have a way of sneaking up on you, and I was on a plane heading to Rome. Not quite believing my luck that I was off on my own to paint and look at art for two weeks in a beautiful city without any of my usual responsibilities, and feeling enormously thankful to my husband who was taking care of the children.
On a few occasions I’ve had the opportunity to meet authors, artists and actors whose work I greatly admire. The experience is an interesting one, because you have this idea or even familiarity with someone based entirely on your relationship with their work, rather than them as individuals. And very often the experience of meeting the person is somewhat of a surprise or even a disappointment. While I was enormously enamoured with Hollis Dunlap’s work, I’m not sure how I expected him to be in person or as a teacher. From some of his selfies, usually guitar playing videos on Instagram, he looked younger than what he is - 39. In person, he is very tall, and quite slender. While in Rome he favoured a casual wardrobe of jeans, T-shirts and trainers. He walked about like someone not quite of this world - a kind of head in the clouds dreamy quality to him. If you were to see him in the street you would guess he was a musician, somewhere in his late 20s.
Initially Hollis came across as formal and a little high strung - the result of jet-lag, and contending with a studio set up he didn’t have much control over. In addition a collection of strangers - adult artists from around the world - who arrived with expectations in terms of what they imagined he would deliver, and what they personally wanted to achieve in their two weeks in Rome. A lot of people, like myself, had never met him in person and knew him only by the reputation of his work. Understandably daunting.
His humour was sarcastic and very dry - something I greatly appreciated. But my own sometimes flippant overly-familiar approach which I adopt as a way of breaking the ice didn’t always go down well with him and I learnt when to back off. As a teacher he was professional and focused, that’s when he was teaching. At first it felt like he wanted to paint more than he wanted to teach - but then how many opportunities do you get to paint the figure from life in Rome with the light streaming in through enormous windows of the old palazzo doubling as a studio? The noise and street music of the square below filtering upwards and in.
Eventually as the days passed, in the thick heat of our un-airconditioned studio, people started to relax and settle in to the rhythm of the workshop as did Hollis. I started to get to know him a bit better, and discovered he is remarkably fastidious in how he works. There is no standing around flinging paint about in a passionate manner. He is methodical and extremely organised. He also does not wear an apron or smock - just a paint brush in one hand and a bit of folded kitchen towel in the other. And he never got paint on his hands, his face, or his clothes. Somehow, given how painterly his work is, this surprised me.
Hollis doing a demonstration in Rome
He made no bones about telling me that the way I painted (like a cat licking a hand), and set up my palette (all over the place) were practical things I ought to change if I wanted to be a proper or serious painter. A refrain I would hear several times during the two weeks, “A serious painter doesn’t do x” or “If you want to be a proper painter you don’t do y”. Sometimes these were blows to my confidence (depending on how much I might be struggling with a particular painting). It made my feel like I was a complete amateur all over again, but I reminded myself that I was there to learn not to defend my ability.
Hollis was also a masterful observer. I could sit for 30 minutes or longer struggling with something like getting a believable shadow and turn of the chin as it becomes the neck - that tough upwards angle, and he would come along and with a few marks set me in the right direction. The teachers in my art school in London would never dream of touching my work, but I welcomed and invited him to do so because I found it genuinely helpful and it accelerated my ability to grasp what he was trying to illustrate.
While obviously experienced, confident and opinionated, Hollis was also happy to share with you the things that he struggles with or worries about, making him approachable and relatable on the subject. This would also come across when he did demonstrations - talking as he worked - his internal process vocalised. As the days passed and we got to talk more inside and outside of class, I came to know him as a remarkably intelligent and sensitive person who is also kind and empathetic. I’d like to think we developed the beginnings of a friendship, but he kept a degree of formality between us reinforcing the teacher/student dynamic.
Outside the Museum and Crypt of Capuchins, Rome, with Hollis and Caius Mergy
The paintings I produced in Rome with Hollis are some of the best work I’ve done from life. Two things that were really game changing were his emphasis of observing value (what I would refer to as tone) before worrying about colour. “You really ought to go home and do at least 20 paintings in black and white” he told me. And to avoid an over-reliance on the colour red in my skin tones. While I cannot claim to have come to love Venetian Red, I did learn to appreciate its subtlety and I’ve not been able to use Cadmium Red when painting skin since, it just feels strangely obscene. I think the way I observe colour and value or tonality has changed significantly thanks to Hollis.
Of course I couldn’t leave Rome and not interview him. In fact I’d been wanting to do so since I had happened upon his Instagram account the previous year, but once I knew I would be studying with him in Rome I hoped to do the interview there. Tying him down to an evening to do this proved easier said than done however. Whenever I suggested a night for dinner, the intention would be there, and then his jet lag or fatigue from the day would kick in and he’d makes his excuses. “It’s not a date you know” I jokingly assured him, “just an interview.” I had the feeling he was taking his time to observe and get to know me before he trusted me enough to do it.
Eventually I was granted my wish, and in our second week, along with a mutual friend, we headed to a restaurant in Trastevere. It was another beautiful hot summer’s night in Rome and we sat down in one of our favourite haunts, ordered food and red wine, and I used my phone to record the conversation. The following is almost an exact transcript of the exchange we had that night, with only a few small amendments to avoid the inherent repetition in speech, especially when wine is involved.
Q: How old were you when you decided that you wanted to be an artist?
Probably 14. I think that's when I decided I better do something with myself, because I was just screwing up at school. I always did drawing and painting since I was a little child, but I didn't decide I wanted to do it. In fact, my Freshman year in high school, I didn't even take art. It wasn't even in a class. I remember the art teacher, his name was Larry Golden, a friend of my parents, very nice man, he was like, "Why aren't you in the art class? You should be in the art class," and I'd be like, "Ugh, yeah."
In Sophomore in high school, I was depressed, a little bit out of it. My grades started going down, so I figured I better start doing something, so I took art the second year and that helped. Even though my grades were getting worse, I was getting better at art and I knew that I wanted to go to art school anyway, so I stopped doing my homework. My teachers were worried about me, but luckily I had a couple that understood where I was coming from.
Q: Where did you grow up? Where was home?
St. Johnsbury, Vermont, in the United States. Very northeast, a town with maybe 8,000 people. A small town, but the high school was good because they had boarding students from everywhere - like 19 different countries. I met people from everywhere, so that was very good, even though I wasn't really happy there. But that’s just because I was a teenager.
Q: Did you go on and study art at college then?
Oh, yes. During high school, I started doing figure painting from drawings, and then I knew that I wanted to go to the Lyme Academy. The Lyme Academy of Fine Arts is in Connecticut, in the USA. It's a small school. It was in the '90s that I went. Very atelier style, figure-drawing and painting all the time, and that was it. That was very good.
Q: A lot of students don’t get the opportunity to do that anymore. At least the English artists complain to me that the focus all seems to be on conceptual stuff rather than old school drawing and painting from life.
Yeah. That's the norm it seems in art school, but the Lyme Academy then, especially then, and now still, although they're a little more diversified now, but then it was only painting from life. No one worked from photographs, there was no real conceptual side to it at all. It was really just, how well can you draw the figure? In that sense, it was really good because everyone was very focused, so you didn't get distracted by other things. It was a safe haven for people that just wanted to draw. That's how I felt. That was very good.
Q: Were there any teachers there that had a particular impression on you that you'd like to mention?
Yeah. Deane Keller. That was also his father's name. It was the son, Deane G. Keller. He was my drawing teacher. He passed away in 2004, but he was my mentor. He taught me how to draw the figure well.
Q: Is there something that stays with you in terms of what he would emphasise or that you always remember, and that you refer to when you yourself teach?
Oh yes, definitely. For him, it was always about the work. He loved the same artists that I love. He loved Michelangelo, Caravaggio, he loved all that stuff. He would love what we're doing right now, just hanging out here and be overjoyed about that, but he never depended on the model. His drawing style was very independent of the model because he was a total master of anatomy and form. He would get up in front of the classroom and do a demo with no model and draw the whole figure. That was one thing about him that was great.
Dean G Keller. Photo: Lyme Academy
Also he was just a really wonderful man. He was very empathetic to his students. He had a really dry sense of humour, and he really had a lot to offer in terms of knowledge about the figure. His family, his father, was an artist too who studied at Richmond, so there's a tradition of drawing in his family. His father was actually one of the Monuments Men - Deane Sr. He wasn't in the movie, but he was responsible for saving a great deal of the art there. His ashes were interred in the Camposanto, Pisa. They honoured his father for saving the town basically and all the art. There's a real history there.
Deane Keller was fabulous. All my teachers there were good. David Dewey was my Composition Painting I teacher. He was great. Jerry Weiss, another great one, a figure painter, does large paintings from life, which you don't see a lot of people doing as much anymore. He's not afraid to get a model and really paint, in the true sense.
Q: It sounds like you had quite a classical introduction to your career
There's many more teachers, too. Don Gale, sculpture teacher, Susan Stephenson, composition teacher
Q: You did sculpture too?
Yeah. A little bit. Not much, though. Don taught me more drawing and he's just a really great guy, great draftsman. Dan Gheno, fabulous teacher, does large-scale figure painting. I really had about a dozen teachers that were all good, all different.
Q: So at this point, there's no other day job for you. It's like, "I'm leaving here and I'm going to be an artist," or were you thinking you were going to be an art teacher?
I teach art now just one day a week, but it's my own private class. I've taught at Lyme off and on … I've taught at a couple places off and on, but nothing full time.
Q: Not like a regular gig?
Exactly. Now, the year I graduated college, I got a job in New London where I lived as part of this restoration team of a theatre there. I worked there for a year and a half, just because I felt like I better do something now that I'm not in school, but I still really tried to get out of that and tried to make money selling paintings.
Q: Tell me about your first exhibition. How old were you?
The first exhibition was during the summer probably when I went back home from Lyme. I got totally ripped off, but I think I showed 50 paintings at this gallery up in Vermont in St. Johnsbury. This guy said, "Oh, what a show," blah blah blah, but I didn't make much money. Some of the paintings disappeared. It was a learning experience. I was a little bit naïve. That was my first exhibition, which was a total train wreck.
An early painting, circa 2002, by Hollis Dunlap
Q: How did you establish the initial price of your paintings, because a lot of artists I talk to, British artists, they have an exhibition show at the end of their degree which determines the starting price for their paintings
Yeah. I did that, but I wouldn't say the was my first real show. I suppose that was at the end of my graduation from Lyme. John Stobart, who's actually a British painter, who does seascapes, has a scholarship at Lyme where he donates $5,000 to the top students in the class and you get to have a show the following year. I was fortunate to get that award.
Q: Oh, wow
They give you some money and then you have a solo show at the school the following year. That also smoothed my transition after college, so that first year I could basically paint. I had some money from that, which, it isn’t a lot of money now, but then, $5,000 was a lot for me. I could do that, then I had a show the following year and I sold a few paintings there, so that made it a little easier.
Q: Did you start establishing the value of your work by then?
Yeah. I did that even before. I remember I sold my first painting my first year at Lyme, and I sold it for $550 at the student show, which is a big ...
Q: It's a lot of money
It’s a big fucking deal. Then it was, because everybody was like, "Holy shit, he sold his painting!" I remember my friend coming up to me at the opening and being like, "I can't believe you sold your painting!" I'm like, "Hey, I’ve got a plan here, you know?" By the time I graduated, I sold one for I think $3,000, and then the next year I sold one for $5,000.
Gradually, as the paintings got better, I raised them up a little bit, so you slowly do it, but you have to make sure you're getting better as you're doing that. You can't just say, "Well, here's another painting and I'm going to jack the price up."
Q: As a teacher, what is it that you most struggle with?
I think the thing for me now is that I don't always want students to paint like me. I want to help them, but sometimes I want to say, "Hey, who gives a damn about the leg being long?" or "Who gives a damn about the colours?" something here or there. That part of me feels like I just want people to enjoy themselves being creative.
On the other hand, I've been doing this for so long that I can look at a painting right away and say - I can tell right away what they're trying to do and I know right away what would make it better. Immediately, I know, but I don't always like to say it. I was talking to (a student in the class in Rome) today, I didn't want to draw on his drawing because I liked it, but he's like, "It would help me if you draw." Some students are like that, though, so everybody's a little different.
Also today, the person in the corner - I went up to their painting and obliterated the head they had painted and I felt really bad, but I'm like, I'm just going to do this, whatever, because it needs it, and I could say, “The torso is about three inches too long”, or I could just show them how to do it, because I didn't get the impression that they would fix it if I didn't do it for them.
I really don't always like painting on people's paintings, but I need to do it because it's much more clear what to do sometimes. For me, I get torn between that sometimes. The biggest thing also is at times I almost don't want to teach. Even though I know what to do, I would rather work on my own paintings than tell someone else what they should do.
Talking to the model about colour and skin tones. Rome
Q: So why do you teach?
Because I'm good at it. I communicate. I can teach people, because there's so many teachers that aren't good and they don't communicate well.
Q: What do you get out of teaching?
I get a lot. First of all, I like to meet people, I like to talk to people. I like to see what people are doing. It helps me clarify my own ideas because it makes me be a better communicator, and I just like to be around people. I don't like to be the hermit sitting in my studio all the time. That would be depressing.
Q: So there’s a social aspect to it?
Q: Talk to me about shows. Do you get an idea for a show and then work towards it with a theme for your work, or do you wait until you've got a body of work and then you do a show?
I've done both. I was working with a New York gallery for a while, and that started to be a little bit tedious because all I would do is just paint a bunch of paintings and throw them together in a show. Now that I'm out of there, the work I'm doing is definitely more unified.
The next show I have, which is to be announced, I don't know when that'll be, but when I do that, it will definitely be a little more organised thematically. I already have a group of five paintings of the same model with the same colour scheme and some of the same ideas.
Q: Where do you get inspiration from for your body of work?
Everywhere. You can think about the figure, just certain poses are good, certain people, the way they look. I get a lot of ideas too, just from things that I think about, like spiritual ideas. I don't really believe in God or any of that stuff, so I'm not really religious, but I do love all that artwork, and I think there are themes that are universal like life and death. That's very interesting to me.
I'm interested in physics. Are there UFOs? Old people are interesting to me, or young people. A lot of it has to do with just that cycle of ... I'm interested in religion. Even though I don't really believe in any of it, I think it's fascinating. I'm interested in history - I like to relate things that happened years ago to things now. That’s something I'm really just starting to get into, though, because for so long I just, ah, I'm going to paint a figure and make it look nice, but there's much more you can do.
I have some ideas for certain positions of figures. I know a lot of really good people that struggle to get out of certain things in their lives, their addictions and things that hold them back. I'm fascinated by that struggle of humanity, so I want to do a few figure paintings that deal with that theme of trying to break out of your old habits but it being a real struggle. For me I try to avoid drinking too much wine. It's such a struggle. ...
Spellcaster by Hollis Dunlap
Q: (Laughs) that would make it a more interesting interview though. Do you have, you might not like this term, but do you ever get creatively stuck?
Yeah, all the time.
Q: How do you work through that?
Just force myself through it, because it's work. It's not …
Q: Do you paint every day?
Almost, but not every day, and I start to feel terrible when I don't, though.
(Our food arrives)
Gee, that looks good. Let's pause for a couple bites here. Duty calls, right?
Oh, that's good. Where were we?
Q: We were talking about working through …
Q: Yeah, and blocks on days when you're like, "Jeez, I just can't work on this particular painting"
The thing for me is, that changes it … it's a little different because it's my job. I need to make money. When it's your job, you can't always wait for your inspiration to hit. A lot of times, I'm painting and I'm not enjoying it, but then later, I enjoy it, but I also just enjoy getting something done.
The process of painting, I think it's a myth that it's supposed to be this fun, happy burst of inspiration and that all the angels fly around your head. It's not like that, but for me, it's a work thing. It's a physical and mental exercise, but after it's done, I feel good. I feel like I did something. That's why I tell people not to wipe out their paintings, because you put all that work in. Although I've wiped out many paintings, I think it's more of a - I just work through it.
There are times when I do a few paintings in a row and I really don't like them, I'm not excited about any of them, and then I'll do one that I like. I've been through that process so many times now. The more you do it, you learn about yourself a little bit and you learn your process.
(The red wine and good food starts to kick in)
Q: Where was I going with the next question? I should have a list, which I don't have on me…
That's okay. That's why it's good to just keep that thing rolling (Gesturing to my phone which I’m using to record the conversation.)
Q: Yeah, exactly
I'll just chew while you're thinking of a new question.
Q: I'll chew, too
I'll try not to drop food on your phone.
Q: Inspiration in terms of painters, whose work you love …
What about it?
Q: ... top three?
Living or dead?
Q: Any. Or you can separate into living and dead
I like so many, it's really hard to say. I love Baroque painting. I love Caravaggio. Obviously. He's probably my favourite. He's been my favourite probably since high school when I first saw his paintings.
Q: If you had a shit-load of money and you could buy any painting ...
Q: Yup … what would it be?
I'd probably buy the first Bacchus painting Caravaggio did with the glass of wine, he was smiling at you, and maybe the still life that he did at the time.
Q: Is that the sick Bacchus one?
No, no, no. That one's a great one, though. That's beautiful. The one that's at the Uffizi, where he's smiling at you, handing you the wine, there's the jug and the ripe bowl of fruit. That was one of the best paintings that he painted. It's really a extraordinary painting, and maybe the early still life that he did. It's just a basket of fruit on a little ledge. A really incredible painting and one of the first still life paintings.
Bacchus or Bacco by Caravaggio. Photo: Uffizi Gallery, Florence
Q: What is it that you love about Caravaggio so much? (When not painting, and while viewing art in the various museums and churches in Rome, Hollis was the appointed Caravaggio buff)
Really his work, it has the depth of real living to me. It has the beautiful ... How can I describe it? The light and shade to me is not just a chiaroscuro thing. Physically there's a dark shadow and there's a light, but it's also the people's personality, there's something real about it. Everyone has their public face that they put on, and then there's things only the closest people to you know about you. I'm very interested in that element of life.
Of course you can't tell everyone you meet everything about you, but I find it interesting that there's just different aspects to people's personalities. In his paintings, that to me comes out in a way that, the fact that he's using a courtesan for the Madonna in some of his paintings, I think that's really beautiful. Then it was scandalous, but to me there's something very universal about that, who is anyone to judge anyone for doing something? I find that beautiful in a way.
It's also, there's something, I don't know what it is, maybe I just have a twisted mind, but I think it's beautiful that people are people. They're all the same regardless what background they come from. It has that element of life to me.
Hollis (pointing) talks to us about Caravaggio's Madonna and child with St. Anne in the Villa Borghese in Rome
Q: Jesus himself hung out with the beggars and the prostitutes ...
Q: ... and all the rest, right?
Yeah, because he understood people. Who's better than anybody else?
Also, there's a lot more to it than that. I love mythological subject matter. Not being religious, I find it all mythology to me, but I still find it beautiful, and at least, for all those little fables and tales we get some beautiful paintings out of it. For all the terrible suffering that they've inflicted over the years on people, at least we have something good from them.
Q: Yeah, and actually, if you go to the Vatican, if they did anything right, they employed a lot of artists ...
Q: ... and saved a lot of art. My question to follow this is, what do you hope to communicate or achieve through your paintings?
That's a good question. What I would like to communicate would probably scare some people away, but in a strange way, it's almost like that it's okay if you don't know all the answers, if you don't believe in God, for example, and that's okay. We're all in this together, in this life, whatever it is, and if you don't believe in that stuff, it's okay.
It's maybe very frightening, in a way, because we don't understand all the answers, but I think there are certain universal things that ...
(A song he likes comes on in the restaurant)
They have a good music selection in this restaurant. I noticed the other night, too. I think this universal theme is it could be the way the light hits a building. People think that's beautiful, even though it's just a piece of lighting and a building.
Q: There’s a lot of light in your paintings, it's a recurring theme, like you seek out the light. What's that about?
I think it's beautiful. I think for me it's a way to convey a mood, to convey something. If it's bright light, then it's like an abstraction. I like the organisational aspect of it, the physical, where the shapes are, but it can be different things, too. If it's a more grey light, that can convey a certain mood, an emotion. I want to convey the emotion that I felt when I was looking at something. I want people to feel that. I want to share that with people. That's important.
Mattias in Red by Hollis Dunlap
Q: Is that true for the portraits and the still lives you do?
Yeah, even those, yeah, definitely, because I'm interested in them. That's why I don't need a complicated pose. I'm interested in the colour and the form, and I want to communicate that that is interesting to look at. People now, they may not find that interesting, but I think it is interesting. It is to me. I would paint the same model probably every day, because there's always something you can find there that's interesting. A lot of great painters did the same subject over and over again and they still found it interesting.
Q: Do you have recurring models that you use?
Q: Is it a practical thing or because there are certain things …
It's more practical. I just have certain models that I trust.
Q: Any courtesans?
No. Not really. Unfortunately, it's not that fun.
Q: Talk to me a bit about your palette and how you came to use it and what you get out of it? (Hollis uses Flake White, Venetian or Indian Red, French Ultramarine Blue, Cadmium Yellow Light and Burnt Sienna.)
I came to it because I didn't like the colour in any of my paintings. My paintings looked like I went back to the '60s and took a hit of acid and did a psychedelic painting with the rainbow blue and purple and yellow and red everywhere. I thought that looked a little funny.
Q: Were you taught to use those kinds of colours?
I had some prodding from a teacher at Lyme named Steven Sheehan. His big thing was colour. He told me to use those colours, but I rebelled, I didn't really listen to him at the time, because I was like, "This guy, who the hell is he?" but he did actually know.
The idea was that I liked certain paintings and I didn't think my paintings looked like them, and the colour was a big reason why. I could draw anything, but my colour was fairly weak. I decided that I wanted to make my colours more atmospheric. I wanted to convey the atmosphere of the room.
So I simplified what I was doing. The biggest problem I had was I was using these cadmium reds and yellows and all my figures looked orange. None of the paintings I liked looked orange. They all had the subtle, beautiful tones.
I'm one of those people that wants to try everything. I actually restricted it a bit on purpose so that I would come up with better colours, and it really worked because the colour of my painting got a lot better. It took me a couple of years, but I came to that after about 20 years of painting. They don't teach colour anymore now. All they do is they tell you to buy everything.
This is the thing - it’s nobody's palette. The only reason I use it is because, frankly, I don't need anything else. It's not even that I think you should use these colours. It's just that that's all I need. I would also add that I don't feel like I am tied to my exact palette at the moment either. It really doesn't matter what you use, I find in general that people put too much emphasis on that stuff. It's something to talk about though.
Hollis's palette in Rome
Q: But essentially you toned your palette down…
Because I'm spending so much time trying to get the values right, the drawing right, the paint application, it's so much to think about that I don't want to have anything getting in my way. I don't want any distraction. For me, it's total concentration on 10 different things.
That's the only reason for me. Really good painting to me is like an art of simplification. How well can you simplify? Which is the opposite of what most people think. Amateur painters think painting is how well you can paint detail, but real painting is how good you are at simplifying. That's the real painting. When you simplify really well, the details fall into place. If you can't do that, people worry about little things that don't really work.
In other words, if you can render someone's eye really beautifully, what good is that if you put the two eyes too close together? It looks funny. You know what I mean? What good is it if you render the face as beautiful as possible, but the top of the skull is too small? It still looks goofy.
The art to me of real painting is how well can you simplify, and that's actually true of ancient Greek sculpture. If you look at their sculpture, it's not the most detailed thing, with the exception of, coming later, people like Bernini. Before that, though, if you look at the Belvedere torso, there's nothing extra there. Everything there has a place and nothing extra. There's no extraneous description. Look at Michelangelo's David. Nothing, absolutely nothing there is out of place. Every little thing, even the vein in his hand is very specifically placed. To me, that's what I get from studying Michelangelo is that every line must have a place. Nothing there is out of rhythm with the whole. That's one of the reasons I use the palette that I use, though, because I don't need a third red colour to distract me. I don't need an extra blue to distract me. I just want to mix my colours and get to it. That's why.
Q: There’s an immediacy
Mm-hmm (affirmative). There's an immediacy to it, and it also works for me. It works.
Q: What do you think is one of the most common errors that people make when painting then?
Probably what I just said is thinking that what's actually going to make the painting look good is the detail. They see the detail more than the actual tones. I'm looking at you right now and I'm thinking about that stuff now. There's a light out in the window in the doorway. Everything in that doorway is brighter than your face right now, so I'm thinking about the painting you're doing today. There's a little bit of light here and here. Neither of those lights are brighter than that doorway.
To me, the only reason that's important is because I'd really like to be able to convey the mood of the room that I'm in, of a certain time and place. In that sense, maybe that's another aspect of painting that I like is that diary aspect of it. I really want to communicate that day, wherever I was. I like that kind of thing.
Q: You've got your old paintings and you see your progression. Do you ...
Q: ... like to keep them?
Yeah. I've got a lot of them. A lot of them are awkward, and that's okay.
Q: So you don't wipe or destroy? You paint over?
I do. I do that quite a bit.
Q: Which of those? You don't wipe or you paint over?
I paint over them. I've also wiped many paintings out. I've probably wiped 1,000 paintings out. Seriously. Maybe more.
Q: There's a bit of a masochistic element to that, right?
I think that for me, I don't do that as much anymore, because even the painting you really don't like can be good if you give it a little focus. You can fix it. Some days it doesn't work and you have to wipe it out, or I paint over it. Lately I'll paint over something, that feels better. It's always better to paint over. If you do a painting you don't like, let it dry and just paint over it.
It's a much better feeling, because the wiping out ... You already feel terrible because you did a bad painting you don't like. Then you wipe it out and you feel worse. It's much better to let it dry and paint over it. I think mentally, there's no reason to beat yourself up for no reason.
Q: If you weren't an artist or you weren't painting, what do you think you'd do?
Q: You're a musician, too, right?
Yeah, but I don't know if I would do that for a living. I don't know. I play guitar. Of course I'd love to be in a band and make lots of money, but that's not as common anymore. A little harder to do that. Many musician friends, they're just happy if they make enough to buy a beer.
I would like to do something like archaeology, I'm very interested in that, too. That's something I've thought about at one point. I thought that would be fun to study. What else? I like physics. I like certain scientific things. I've read a few books on string theory. Very hard for me to understand, not being very good at math.
Photo: Ben LaRose
Q: Have you seen the film Whatever Works, the Woody Allen film?
No. I haven't seen it.
Q: The main character (played by Larry David), his area is string theory
I do find that interesting. I'm not very good at math, so that might put a stop to that ambition, but if I were good at it, that's something I would love to do. I'm very interested in, is there alien life out there? How did the universe start?
Q: What do you do to relax when you're not painting
Drink beer, go to the beach, read, play my guitar. I find that I feel happy at the beach - I love the ocean.
At this point more food and wine arrived and we decided to finish the on the record interview and continued our conversation about art, love, life and shared our impressions of Rome. Eventually we said our goodnights, and on the way home I got a beer from the small cafe on my block. There was a French art film with Italian subtitles showing in the square as part of the Trastevere film festival. Despite it being 10.30pm mid week, people and children were sitting outside on this warm summer’s evening on folding chairs and blankets. I found a spot and sat for a while sipping my beer - not really watching the utterly incomprehensible film, but more so taking in the wonderfully surreal atmosphere. Back in London, at that time on a week night, I’d probably be in bed - teeth brushed, having the usual late night neurosis about the following day. But here I was sitting on a bench in the street on my own, feeling completely safe and strangely at peace. I remember a sense of immense gratitude for having had this unbelievable opportunity to paint with Hollis - this incredible artist whose work I had discovered almost a year earlier and admired so much. For the genuine friends I had made during those two weeks in Rome. For the abundance of beautiful and inspiring art and architecture I had seen. And for being alive.
Postscript: The interviews I do here and for Fashion Globe are almost all conducted via email or Skype. It’s exceptionally rare that I have the opportunity to interview someone at such length in person as I did with Hollis. I also only interview artists whose work I like and admire, and for that reason I am to some degree always present in the writing in terms of my impressions of their work and how it influences me. But ultimately these interviews or conversations are about the artist concerned and not me.
However the experience of how I found Hollis, and then going on to paint with him in Rome for an intensive two weeks, formed such a unique set of circumstances that inevitably I was going to be a part of the story. I also felt it important to communicate what happens when you meet someone whose work you’ve admired from a distance and how that impression compares with meeting them in person and learning from them.
Since getting pack to London and continuing to paint I still have Hollis in my head - reminding me not to get stuck in the details when I should be observing values/tone and using simple shapes to do so. Or to incorporate the background to help establish the form and mood. It’s easier said than done, and I appreciate that I’m not going to suddenly 'get' things he’s come to master over 20-odd years of painting; nor am I going to abandon my own style of working in favour of his. I want to take the valuable things I’ve learnt from him and use them to enrich my own way of working.
Saying that in Rome it did occur to me on a few occasions that attending an adult education art class for a few hours once a week can only teach me so much. A lot of what I’ve learnt has been through my own trial and error, and the experience of having more intensive time studying with someone like Hollis that’s had classical academy training revealed my lack of knowledge of some fundamental basics. I think it opens an interesting debate about what exactly defines the basics you ought to be taught while at the same time being careful not to impose or infringe on a student’s developing style.
I’d like to thank Hollis Dunlap for doing this interview with me, for trusting me with both the on and off the record stuff, and also for what he taught me in Rome, which has been invaluable.
For those of you interested in doing a workshop with Hollis, he will next be teaching in Menorca in Spain this
October. Details here.
Hollis’s website: hollisdunlap.com
His Instagram: hollisdunlap