Tell us about your background.
I’m from the suburbs outside of Providence, Rhode Island; from the middle of the middle class. I drew cartoons as a kid. I’m not sure how I got so interested in drawing, as my family was not particularly interested in the arts. Thankfully, they were encouraging, however. Most classmates in school would think of me as an athlete, not an artist. I played high school soccer, hockey and baseball.
Having known of Rhode Island School of Design from a young age, I assumed I would go there upon graduation and applied in high school. RISD disagreed however. I was rejected. So, I went to Rhode Island College and extended my status quo; I played on the soccer team. Reapplying two years later, I was accepted as a transfer into the Illustration program.
Art school was difficult. I had a lot to learn about being an artist, about being a visual communicator, and about being a serious student. It was not until my senior year that things came together. I think my progress was stunted by the fact that I was a commuter to college, and worked four nights a week at a waitering job. More contact with my fellow students would have accelerated my education, I believe. Fellow students play a large role in one’s education.
After school, I had quick success in the illustration world and worked a freelance illustrator for fifteen years, creating for all sorts of clients. My artwork was seen in newspapers, magazines, books, billboards and products.
A few years out of schooI, I was invited to teach at RISD and I loved it. That lead eventually to my full time professorship at Montserrat College of Art where I teach currently (while still teaching at RISD, which I never gave up).
All that teaching hurt my freelance illustration career because I could no longer meet the deadlines of commercial clients. So, for the first time since college, I started to create personal work which was influenced by exposure to so many artists at Montserrat (where departments are less separated than RISD). Now I create work primarily for myself, which is what I’ll address in the rest of the questions.
Name some people, artists, artistic genres, etc. that have been influential in your work.
In my youth, I was influenced by comic strips and Saturday morning cartoons. I was alway interested in caricature as well. Illustrators like Honore Daumier, Al Hirshfeld, Jack Davis and Ralph Steadman were all heros of mine. Humor has always been important to me.
Later, I was introduced to the masters, like Degas, Cezanne, Manet and Caravaggio who all have influenced me. Other American painters such as Stuart Davis, Grant Wood, Wayne Thiebaud, Edward Hopper and John Sargent, too, have been in my mind for years. I should add that many, many artists and illustrators have influenced me. I keep my eyes open. But, in the end, I’ve come to realize that all of my work is a form of caricature. That is, the exploration of form and its recognition by viewers as truthful even if exaggerated.
Where and how do you get your ideas?
For years now I’ve tried to keep my focus narrow. Currently, I have two projects that I work on. First, are my coffee cup paintings, which come from my imagination and then from observation. The series of oil paintings depict only a coffee cup, a saucer, a spoon and a sugar cube. The limitation provides a challenge, but also a relief from wondering “what should I paint today?”. I draw ideas in a sketchbook, creating many tiny thumbnails per page. I seek delight in the image and try hard to not repeat myself. Translating the entertaining composition into a serious painting is the hard work.
My other current work is on-site drawing. For that, I do no sketches at all. The ideas are found rather than imagined. Whether I’m drawing in Italy, or nearby, for my new project (drawings along Paul Revere’s famous ride route), it’s all about finding a worthy subject, and capturing a moving moment in time.
What materials do you work with? Describe your technical processes.
For my coffee cup paintings, I paint in oils on gessoed paper. I first create an underpainting in burnt sienna and then paint thinly over that. Value is a crucial element for me, so the underpainting is very helpful in working out the darks and lights. My underpainting look very finished. I do no color studies. The color is all trial and error for me. Mostly error, actually, as I am color blind, believe it or not. (I should add that color blindness is common in men and doesn’t mean that one doesn’t see colors. Rather, matching colors and distinguishing subtleties of color is the problem).
For my on-site drawings, I work with ink on watercolor blocks. I draw quickly and try very hard to capture my impression of the scene. I then finish with ink washes. Crucial for my success is my portable stool! Often, I finish the work back in my studio, from photographs, applying many washes to get the darks I desire. Because these are intended to be created more quickly than my oil paintings, I work with just black or brown ink. Color is too hard for me to rush.
What do you find to be the most challenging part of being creative? What is the best part of being creative?
For me, the more narrow the focus, the more creative I become. The challenge is in making sure that each work is new. The fact that my works end up looking alike is not intentional. I don’t have a formula. Each piece is equally difficult. Style is what happens when you just follow your instincts. The best part of being creative? I enjoy my work despite its difficulty.
What advice would you give to someone seeking advice about being an artist?
Take yourself seriously. Create work that’s personal rather than profound. Creating art is a sort of serious play. Bring something new into the world. Learn from others, then do your own thing. Measure the amount of time you put into your work in hours. I measure mine in days. I work slowly (even on my “quick” works) and that allows me to excel. See original works by great artists whenever you can.