Ragged Glory, 46.5 x 55.25", acrylic on canvas, 2014
What are you working on in your studio right now?
I'm making painterly landscapes using loose, expressionistic drawings as the reference material, and occasionally some non-objective pictures called "Carve Outs". I've also been making "Tree Portraits" which have been ongoing since about 1998. I make them sporadically, but they are forming a significant body of work. Three of these were recently shown at Tabla Rasa Gallery in Brooklyn. They are most often close ups of tree trunks and have a range of more and less abstract, but have tended to lean more to the representational. I've been painting landscapes since about 1990, and these newest ones seem to be closer to who I am as a painter than before. At least that's how it feels to me.
I'm letting influences from my early days as a painter come to the front: Marin, Hartley, Dove, Burchfield, Maurer, Avery, and other early American Modernists. These were my first strong influences on the representational side, with painters like Hoffman, Frankenthaler, Olitski, Poons, Boxer, Bush, Noland, and others, on the non-objective side. It was around 1974 that I began my career as a painter and I was primarily making non-objective pictures from that point in time until about 1990. While all good and great painting that I've ever seen are my broad influences, with Bonnard and Matisse at the core, along with Cezanne, Manet, Velasquez, Titian and others, it is the combined and hybridized influences of both the non-objective and representational painting and sculpture that I consider great, along with the sense of wonder I’ve had since I was a kid, that comprises my inspiration. I need the woods and fields around me.
In any case, I feel like I'm coming full circle, after decades of exploring a wide variety of different types of picture making, both representational and non-objective, so that these newest paintings seem to be more fully realized in terms of how I am integrating my influences via my specific talents, proclivities and character as a painter. Kind of like what TS Elliot said: "We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time."
The Carve Outs have been important in helping to lead me to these new landscapes, and keeping me just off balance enough to make it interesting. And the Tree Portraits keep me in practice with a certain kind of vision and way of painting representationally. I like the completely open-ended form, color and composition elements of making non-objective pictures, and this practice feeds back into my representational work to keep it fresh. Whether I am comfortable with it or not, my varied ways of working seem to have a valuable function: Keeping habits at bay so my practice is always ready to re-invent itself, if needed, to keep the art at its highest level. That is the goal.
I've also started doing something I've never done before: making paintings from images of specific paintings of masters like Delacroix, Courbet and Titian. This has been a blast, and grew out of my present method of working from small drawings. I thought,. well, I am making these drawings from life, from photos I take, from other resource material, whatever catches my eye, why not make drawings from paintings I love and then make paintings from those drawings? Why not use these paintings or images of these paintings, as inspiration for resource material? Of course, there is a long history of copying old masters, etc, but this is different. I want to borrow compositions, color ideas, etc, from these paintings and use them for my own purposes, and make them my own. So I did, and so far only have a few, but have been pleasantly surprised. It was very liberating to do this, to derive so directly and consciously, and to make it my own. Drawing is very personal and the transformation happens when I draw.
Can you describe your working routine?
I get up around 6:30 or 7, make coffee for Cheryl and myself, and feed Ping and Lucy, our cats. I'm fussy about my coffee, and need it to taste a certain way, so I have honed my method over the years, experimenting with different coffee beans, blends and ways to grind the beans. I have an old Gaggia espresso maker. Not the new fancy computerized types you can get today, but a simple and beautiful machine. I've replaced the pump once, and over almost 20 years, it still makes great espresso. I hand carved a wood handle for the portafilter after the plastic one came apart. Making good coffee is kind of like making art, but a lot easier. I hand grind the blended beans ( dark and city roast ) to very fine, tamp down just right, pour the espresso into warmed half and half and milk in a cup that I like. Tiny bit of sugar allowed to settle to the bottom of the cup. A sprinkle of cocoa. Tastes wonderful and gives me a good start to the day. Cheryl and I sit outside on the porch if the weather is nice and have our coffee, listen to the birds, and enjoy the morning light and air.
I might check email and facebook, and then head to the studio. I put in 3 or 4 hours. In the afternoons I head back to my office and begin my work for Golden Artist Colors, answering technical questions from artists. After 4 I head back to the studio, unless the lawn needs mowing, or some other domestic activity needs doing. I cook dinner, watch the news and then back to the office to check email and Facebook and work on processing images, website tinkering, writing, art business stuff, etc. If there is a painting drying in the studio, I will head out to check on it. Sometimes this leads to an evening session.
Can you describe your studio space and how, if at all, that affects your work?
I have a relatively new studio that we built on our property, finished just several years ago. I feel very fortunate to have this new space. It's a 24 x 40' building that is insulated to the hilt, with electric, heat, and great lighting via fluorescents and LED track lights. The floor is concrete, with a special painting platform that is made of particleboard covered with indoor/outdoor carpeting. I can roll out a piece of canvas, staple it down and start working. I almost always start on the floor. Medium and smaller works are on painting boards that I can move around. I divided the open space into three parts: Studio, storage and wood shop. The painting area or studio is about 23 x 22 feet, with the rest of the space equally divided for storage racks and the wood shop or stretcher building area. The studio is about 60 feet from my front door, so a short walk from the house. For decades I had rented studio space at Delavan Center in Syracuse, a great old commercial warehouse with a landlord who loves having artists in his building and has been a great supporter of the arts over the years. I still rent storage space there. It seems there is never quite enough space, and this is probably true for most artists. I feel very grateful for my studio and expect this will be my last one. Having this self-designed space a short walk from the house allows me to be more productive.
Tell me about your process, where things begin, how they evolve etc.
I start on the floor, and use drawings or watercolours as my resource material. I paint on un-stretched canvas, stapled to painting boards or my painting floor, and the work is cropped afterwards. This allows for very wet and liquid painting methods, which is typically how I start. I like to have a lot of flexibility built in to my method so I have lots of options as I work. I find the edges of the painting, along with the final shape as the painting progresses, and usually after its dry and on the viewing wall. I use joint tape to crop the painting, mark the edges, measure and build the stretcher to size. A sixteenth of an inch makes a difference for any painting, whether it's abstract, non-objective or representational,… and getting the crop right is an important part of the process for me. I've been working like this since the 70's. This way of working is not new,….a tradition handed down from long ago. Bonnard worked in a similar way with canvases tacked to the wall. Most of the painters I mentioned who were modern influences for me worked like this: Noland, Frankenthaler, Olitski, Bush and others. It frees me up to paint beyond the edge, since I don't know where that edge will ultimately be. Better not to know. This allows for a much more open-ended picture making process.
My "palette" is contained within hundreds of plastic containers of different mixtures of acrylic paints, mediums, gels and pastes. They are loosely organized by color and consistency. I have shelves of very liquid, pourable paints, and I have buckets of thick, gooey paints, rough aggregate mixes, and everything in between. Some have a lot of gel or medium added so are glaze like and translucent, while others are loaded up with pigment and densely colored. I like to have a very full range of these mixtures on hand at all times so that my choices, while working, will be as specific and targeted as possible.
I most often start with raw canvas, but often change it up with colored grounds, absorbent grounds, resistant grounds, etc. I like surprise, and I will often orchestrate things so the unexpected is invited. In the beginning, in particular, I often use a lot of water and very fluid paints, combined with thicker mixtures, so working horizontally is necessary. I've been pouring a lot. I can always move the board to allow for movement if I want. Of course, with lots of fluid paint on the canvas, there is often a lot of unexpected movement and this is part of the process. But, I can exert some control when it is needed. Thick passages of paint can be used to dam up flowing areas if I want, and that leads to something new and unexpected in itself. On and on. I like to feel just enough on the edge with the process, so that the paint stays alive, and just enough in control so the picture is as fully realized as possible.
Still Life, acrylic on canvas,19.25 x 22.5", 2014
What are you having the most trouble resolving?
Over the years, my biggest complaint has been my large output of different kinds of pictures. I’ve even made botanical watercolors concurrent with my acrylics on canvas at the time. A critic friend of mine once told me.." Hoffman had the same problem". This was a kind way of saying, .."well, it can hurt your career, because you will confuse your audience, but you'll make some great pictures." I have a lot of curiosity with picture making and go with what I think are my best instincts. This has paved a long and circuitous path for me, but I feel like the decades of varied exploration, and living in the "provinces" has been good for my art. I like to think that this has enabled some resistance to easy answers and the fashions of the moment.
Do you experiment with different materials a lot or do you prefer to work within certain parameters?
I find acrylic paints, mediums and canvas offers more than enough in the way of materials. I love paint, and I love to have a lot of materials on hand so I don't feel any need to draw back or reduce, or hesitate. I go with what David Smith says about materials. Essentially,..Do not skimp. My parameters are: Acrylic paints and mediums, and canvas. I also make lots of pencil drawings and watercolors which I use as take off points for my paintings.
What does the future hold for this work?
Who knows the answer to that? My ambition is to continue to make the best art I know how to make, and to do so for as long as possible. I'd like to have more shows, more representation. And, once again I would reference David Smith, and in particular his "Questions to Students", written in the early to mid 50's. It's a list of 44 questions. Here is number 44: Do you think acclaim can help you? Can you trust it, for you know in your secret self how far short of attainment you always are? Can you trust any acclaim any farther than adverse criticism? Should either have any effect upon you as an artist?"
Is there anything else you would like to add?
Thank you for this opportunity to talk about my work
Scott Bennett in his studio, 2014