Question: Is there a point where your painting takes on a life of its own? Do you respond more to what you see happening in the painting or what you see happening in the model or photo reference?
I begin each piece with a graphite gesture drawing. Then, I refine the figure, or figures, with darker marks in graphite until I feel like there is a good “frame work.” It’s at this point that the painting really begins to take on a life of its own because I respond more to the painting or reference. It starts slowly; mark by mark. I’m never after a likeness or anything. The model is literally a reference. As the painting evolves I’m responding more to the piece itself.
The really tough part, for me, about this stage is not relying on a “bag of tricks” per se. That is, not recreating paintings I’ve done in the past using the same technique over and over. I really try to see the model and the piece abstractly by first responding to the composition. Each mark, each direction of a brushstroke is composition. I try to keep all of those formal aspects in mind: balance, unity with variety, directional thrust, etc. I also think a lot about opposites such as line vs. tone, hard edge vs. soft edge and so on. For me, it seems like a lot of interest in painting lies in the dialogue created between opposites in formal qualities.
Question 2. Strong drawing skills are so critical when working with figures, how do you find a balance between suggesting enough form and including elements of abstraction? Then how do you determine when to stop? Is it intuitive or calculated or a bit of both?
Strong drawing skills are critical when working figuratively but the trick is to try and forget them after a certain point. I put myself in the viewer’s shoes. I paint standing up so I constantly view the painting up close and at a distance. When I walk away from the painting, I pause for a moment and then turn around to look at it. I feel where my eyes move around the piece and how quickly or slowly. I think that’s the real energy in a painting; where and how your eyes move around. The way to adjust that movement is with variations in value contrast, passive areas vs. active areas, linear passages juxtaposed against tonal passages and so on. Seeing things abstractly and not so literally helps. If there is too much weight at the bottom of a piece, I may add a bit more information around the eye of the subject. I try not to think of anything as detail or lack of; it’s all just information…fodder for making a picture.
Sometimes a painting can come out looking a bit more representational and sometimes, especially lately, a piece comes out a bit more abstract. It really depends on what it is I’m trying to convey about the subject. Knowing that assists in the abstraction, exaggeration and emphasis of form and subject.
There are many ways to determine when to stop or when a piece is finished. Lately, I’m trying to complete a painting with as little information as possible. It’s fascinating how little information it takes to engage the viewer. I think there is a lot of power in restraint. For the most part, I rely on a mix of intuition and calculation to know when to stop. However, I believe that “intuition” is just calculation that we haven’t realized yet.
John Wentz is a contemporary painter whose process resides in an area between rigid technicality and honest expression. To learn more about John and his work. please visit his website.