| Work

Video Interview Q&A

Date: 1993

Video Interview Q&A
In 1993 the Evansville, Indiana, Museum of Arts, History and Science commissioned a documentary video essay on my work by the filmmaker Calvin Kimbrough. As a kind of background briefing, I sent the following questions and answers to Calvin Kimbrough. My responses to the interviewer’s questions during the filming in my studio were unscripted and unrehearsed.

Q. Why do you choose one artist whose work you cite in your paintings rather than another?
A. I do not look at a painting by an artist to see if it may be useful in my work. Paintings are a very large part of my visual memory bank. I draw and paint every day, and while I am at work images of other paintings come into my mind, and I become curious about whether such an image, say, a painting by Vermeer or a painting by Hopper, can be fitted into a new composition (not the one I am working on). With my “School of…” paintings, for example, I need figures sitting at a desk or standing beside a desk.  And I need still-life objects that will fit on a desk – like the apples on desks in my School of Athens or the globe in the School of Vermeer.

Q.  How did you get started painting the “School of…” series?
A.  I made my first “School of…” painting in 1984. It was the School of Vermeer. That painting came about because I was in Washington one day in 1984 looking at the Vermeers in the National Gallery and one of the wall labels for a painting identified it as “School of Vermeer.”  The words triggered a visual image in my mind of what a school of Vermeer might look like.  It was a very literal image of a schoolroom with a black chalkboard and an American flag and a picture of George Washington on the wall and tall windows and a high ceiling. In fact, it was the schoolroom that I knew when I was a child. The image of a schoolroom was very much in my mind at that time because starting about 1978 I had made a number of paintings of schoolrooms. Now I saw that I could take the figures in various Vermeer paintings and fit them into the interior of an American schoolroom. I painted my Vermeer citations in the manner of Vermeer but not the schoolroom and the schoolroom furniture. So one sees two things at the same time. I saw that the School of Vermeer worked and went on to make the more than 40 paintings in this “School of…” series.
Q.  How did you get to your second “School of…” painting, to your choice of artist for this painting?
A.  The School of Caravaggio was my second “School of…” painting. I became interested in the paintings of Caravaggio while I was living in Italy. During the seven years I was in Italy I was working mainly with Vermeer imagery. But although I was working with Vermeer, I was, of course, looking at the art around me – and that was Italian art, not Dutch art.  I am not an artist who paints directly what I see. I do not sit down and paint the landscape in front of me. Or set up a still-life subject to paint.  I construct my paintings from images, using photographs and reproductions.  I was involved with Dutch painting while I was living in Italy but when I returned to New York I worked a lot with Italian painting, especially Caravaggio. So, after painting the School of Vermeer, I turned again to Caravaggio and put figures from his paintings into the same painted schoolroom, this time painting the figures in the manner of Caravaggio.
Q. When you are attracted to an artist whose work you might want to use in a painting, how do you proceed?  Do you visit museums to study paintings by that artist? Do you work only with reproductions?
A. When I get interested in an artist I go to museums to study that artist’s technique. It is important to me to see the brushwork and the application of paint. And especially I want to study the actual color – as opposed to reproduction colors.  And to see the things that reproductions leave out and misstate and distort. At the same time, I begin collecting reproductions and art books about the artist.  The reproductions go in a drawer in my drawing file and I label the drawer with the name of the artist. I keep referring to the reproductions in that drawer. And I read the books; it is not just a visual study that I make. At this stage, while I am thinking about possibilities, I add anything to the drawer that might apply. That includes my sketches and drawings for the painting I am considering. It is an active visual search that I am engaged in. And I keep looking at my collection of photographs of schoolrooms.  And if things come together, I get a new painting.
Q. What about the actual painting process? You say you make preparatory drawings. Do you use a projector to project an image on to your canvas?
A.  I often begin developing an idea for a painting by making a drawing of a figure in, say, a painting by Vermeer, then drawing a school desk to see if the figure and the desk fit together. If the quoted figure and the desk cohere visually, I go on by adding more desks, schoolroom desks in rows, and adding figures and still-life objects from other Vermeer paintings.  From this kind of preliminary, often sketchy, drawing, I then may make a more finished drawing in pencil on paper, resolving, or bringing into focus, issues of perspective and proportion.  A slide projector is not useful because I am actively adjusting proportions as I work, not making a transfer from a reproduction by projecting an image on to my drawing paper. My way of working is to cover the reproductions I am using with transparent sheets of acetate marked off in a grid of 2-centimeter squares. I then make a proportional grid on my sheet of drawing paper and transfer the images in pencil.  I ink in the figures and desks, say, with pen or brush, and then I erase the penciled grid lines. Next, I define major areas in color, with an acrylic wash or with watercolor. Sometimes I seal the paper with shellac over my ink drawing and paint directly with oil paint, instead of using acrylic or watercolor at this stage of the work. The next stage is likely to be a color study in oil on paper, or at this point I might paint a study in oil on a small canvas about the same size as that of the drawing. I do this as an investigation of the technique of the artist whose work I am integrating into my painting.  By the time I am ready to begin my painting, in oil on canvas, I have concluded its size. It usually is double the size of my preliminary drawing on paper or the study in oil on paper. My first step is to mark in pencil a grid of squares and again I draw in the composition, repeating the process I used for making the preliminary drawing. Even when I am fairly certain of what I am after, this is not a mechanical process of copying out my drawing on canvas. The grid is there as a guide for enlarging the drawing to the size of the canvas. But the process is an active one of visual decisions and adjustments as I work with the painting.
Q. You speak always of painting in oil. Do you use other mediums?

A. I sometimes use acrylic as underpainting, then paint over the acrylic base in oil. And very rarely I use acrylic paint for an entire painting. But that really is a rare event. Basically, I am an oil painter.
Q. Would you say something about the schoolroom images in your “School of…” paintings.  Is there a single schoolroom that you show from different angles? Or are there several schoolrooms that you represent?
A. I started with a single photograph in a magazine. It looked so much like my schoolroom in grade school that I made a number of drawings from the photograph, then some paintings.  As my “school of…” paintings developed into a series, I began looking for and collecting photographs of schoolrooms. And I went around and took snapshots of period schoolrooms with old-fashioned desks and schoolroom fixtures where I could find them in country museums. That was mostly in New England and Upstate New York and Canada. I now have a collection of photographs showing schoolrooms and school desks  in many different configurations and  seen from  many different angles.
Q. To me, an image of a schoolroom is by nature a nostalgic image. Is this an intentional part of your work – to produce a nostalgic image?
A. My first schoolroom paintings were straightforward paintings of schoolrooms. After the first three or four of these paintings, I realized that something was needed or these would be merely nostalgic images of old-fashioned schoolrooms. I didn’t see what that might be and put the paintings away and went on to other work. When I made my first “School of…” paintings a few years later I saw that when I painted a schoolroom in the style of another artist I purged it of the down-home sentimental quality that had earlier bothered me.  The nostalgia that adheres to a schoolroom image gets bent or warped when the observer sees two different images at the same time.
Q. Is that why you cite or quote the paintings of other artists in your work?
A.  Yes, I want people to see two things at the same time. Juxtaposition is basic in my work. If I make a painting quoting an obscure image and my quotation goes unrecognized, the beholder will miss the point of my painting.  So I quote familiar, recognizable images. But while I want people to recognize that I have incorporated another artist’s work in my composition, there is no mistaking a painting of mine for a painting by the artist I am quoting, no matter how well I have succeeded in emulating that artist’s style and technique.

-- Calvin Kimbrough, George Deem: A Conversation, Documentary video portrait produced and distributed by the Evansville Museum of Arts and Science, Evansville, Indiana, 1993