I think a lot about art in a general, philosophical way, asking such not-new questions as, “What is art?”, “What makes an artist?”, “What is the purpose of art in society?”, et cetera. I have made some progress (I think) in beginning to approach some answers; however, I also started to fear that I was spending too much time in my proverbial armchair, and decided that I probably ought to speak to a real-live artist about some of these things (to see if I was anywhere near the right track). Lucky for me, my roommate from college is a very talented painter currently attending art school in Philadelphia. I spoke to her over the phone to learn more about her art and to get her perspective on some of these questions.
*This interview took place almost a year ago, before I quite knew what I was doing with this website.
**Also, I sent her my questions beforehand, so when she refers to questions that haven’t been asked yet, that’s why.
PhFG: So you’re in Philadelphia now?
Caitlin: Yeah, I moved to Philadelphia in September to go to a school called Studio Incamminati. It’s a four year program and it’s all geared toward painting. It’s really small, a small school.
PhFG: You’ve always been interested in art, but how did you decide to go for it and do it full time?
Caitlin: After college, or at the end of my senior year, I was debating between two things: either painting, or doing psychology. And I decided to do psychology because I thought it would be the more practical route, but also [of course] I felt interested in it. But I thought, “Okay, I’ll do that and I can do the art on the side. Psychology would be more practical.” But then I went to school at IPS [Institute for the Psychological Sciences in Arlington, VA] and things just weren’t really working out with my more practical plan. I felt like after being out of college for three years, because of the way things were going, it wasn’t as worth it to me to pursue psychology. So I thought, “I’m just going to be an artist.” I had been working to try to get licensed [as a therapist] so I stopped with that and I started waitressing and babysitting and that’s how I was paying my bills. And then I was taking classes; I was going up to a little [art] school in Baltimore twice a week that was pretty inexpensive and there was a really great teacher in Alexandria [Virginia] who I was taking drawing and painting classes from every Friday. So I did that for about two years. Sometime around early spring last year I hit a wall where I wanted to be painting more but I wasn’t able to afford studio space, but I felt like I needed to put in a lot of hours to get better and be where I wanted to be. My teacher recommended this school in Philadelphia and had good things to say about it. So I decided I might as well just go for it full time. It was like the more I was painting the more I felt like I wanted to be doing more of it.
PhFG: Did you move back home [Wisconsin] for a while, or did you go straight there?
Caitlin: No, I moved straight from DC to Philadelphia.
PhFG: So it’s a full time thing…
Caitlin: Yes, full time. It’s Monday through Friday, 9-4.
PhFG: Wow, okay. Do you work too, like waitressing?
Caitlin: Yes, waitressing, catering, babysitting.
PhFG: Wow, that’s a lot. But it’s worth it?
Caitlin: It’s worth it. Somehow I have the energy to do it, which I think is a good sign, that I’m doing what I’m supposed to be doing.
PhFG: Good. Does the school focus on a particular type or genre of art?
Caitlin: Yeah, it’s all Realist art. And the classes are very structured, the program is very structured, everybody takes the same classes, it’s like TAC [Thomas Aquinas College, where we both got our undergraduate degree]. Everything kind of builds on each other, it’s very structured and rigorous. And I also chose this school over other schools because they really focus on humanist art, and portrait and figure, and you get a lot of time with live models. Also, they emphasize doing a lot of “starts” and getting good at what’s called the alla prima approach, which is Italian for first sitting, or “at the first”. A lot of other schools will focus a lot more on doing really highly rendered things and taking forever to get things just perfect but this one is more about training your eye so you have a more accurate first impression down accurately from the beginning.
PhFG: I read this book called The Age of Insight [by Eric Kandel], which is about the intersection of art and neuroscience, and sort of how artists throughout history have had an instinctual understanding of psychology through doing portraits. For you, coming from psychology, does that influence your art or how you see the models?
Caitlin: Yeah, I hope that that comes through my art. When I start focusing a lot more on my own art — I’m really interested in doing portraits — I really hope that some of the psychology of the person would come through my work. That’s what I’d like to be able to do, and yeah, I feel there’s definitely a connection when I was deciding between psychology and art; I think it was really being interested in people that was drawing me to both those fields. Just thinking about people, connecting with people, thinking about emotions, people’s internal life.
PhFG: You don’t do abstract art, and you and I come from a classics background, so given those things I was wondering what your opinion is of contemporary art.
Caitlin: I think no matter what, with good painting, there’s abstraction going on. If it’s too realistic it looks like a photograph, which I’m not really a fan of. I think in a good painting, you do see the artist’s hand and see the artist condensing information, which is an act of abstracting. I guess for me the difference is I think that abstract artists are maybe more interested in what’s going on inside of them versus seeing something on the outside that they see as beautiful…versus a more Realist art. What I would want to do is I see something beautiful outside of me and I want to capture that, process that, it’s processed by me, and put it back out onto the canvas. I guess it’s a difference of feeling like there’s enough going on in reality that is beautiful in itself and worthy of trying to understand. I’ve had some teachers talk about the poetry, there’s poetry in the natural world, or there’s poetry in light, and I think for Realist artists, they are attracted to that and love it and want to understand it.
PhFG: On a cerebral level, I totally understand what you’re saying, but now I’m wondering how that actually happens.
Caitlin: There’s something contemplative about it. So maybe this goes into philosophy versus art. I think for a philosopher there’s contemplation that is going on, but it’s abstracted and kept in the mind, but for the artist, they have more of a drive to take it in and then put it out again through matter. An artist is more tied to material so they’re understanding [the idea, the subject] through material. The product, having a physical product is important for them. It’s been really interesting the more I paint – my actual experience, the more I’ve been doing this versus my conception of what an artist does before I was really doing it. Because the more I do it the more I feel like more of a craftsman, the more I realize how physical it is. I think that’s something that people don’t really think about, or also something that’s been lost with modern art. It’s become so cerebral, people think of artists as these spiritual beings or something. But I like the old system where artists used to be in guilds, like the artists of the renaissance were in these guilds, just like craftsmen were in guilds, because it’s a craft that you’re learning.
PhFG: Do you think that anyone with the right training could be a great artist, or do you think there’s something special, that some people just have a way of looking at the world, or does it just come down to hard work?
Caitlin: I think really great artists have something of being kind of a philosopher. I think they are able to distill information and that is something that seems to me is a gift. I think anybody can learn to be a decent drawer with a lot of training. But I guess that’s the difference between being just a craftsman and having something cerebral going on. There’s an understanding of the external world and an intuition for how to distill that information.
PhFG: When I look at your paintings, I feel like you’re sort of an Impressionist… are you in that category?
Caitlin: I probably wouldn’t call myself an Impressionist…
PhFG: You’ve been using the word realist and I guess I would have opposed Realism and Impressionism.
Caitlin: Impressionist art is in this in-between. They are the beginning definitely of modern art since they started veering away from something. But Impressionists are very in love with the outside world. They were definitely trying to understand the natural world and express that. So I would call them Realists even though historically what they started doing started this turn of events for art. But if you look at somebody like John Singer Sargent who is a Realist painter but came after the Impressionists , you can kind of see elements of both – he has classical training with Impressionist elements in his art.
PhFG: Is he your biggest influence?
Caitlin: Yes, he’s one of my favorites. The other one is Velasquez. He doesn’t get pegged as an Impressionist, but artists have recognized elements in his paintings that are impressionistic and that the Impressionists saw in his work and thought, “Oh, I want to do that, I want to have something of that in my work too.” Also Joaquin Sorolla. He’s a contemporary of Sargent, and he’s a Realist but the way that he uses color and paints outside was really new. Maybe I’ll just leave it at those three right now. I think those kind of give the best sense of what I’m trying to go for.
PhFG: When I look at your work, I’m reminded of Cezanne.
Caitlin: [Laughs] That’s probably because I had a teacher who also really liked Cezanne and he had us do underpainting in blue a lot, which is a very Cezanne move. He would have us do grisaille, or underpainting – that’s where artists basically sketch out what they’re going to paint first in one color, so they’re mapping it out, and then they lay the colors on top of it. Traditionally, artists do underpaintings in a brown tone, but then you’ll see with a lot of Impressionists that they started moving into blue, probably because they were painting outside a lot so they were very interested in capturing atmosphere, and there’s something about blue that gives things an atmospheric look. I’m definitely drawn to Impressionists for sure. But I kind of talked about that with artists who have taken Impressionist colors but then have the classical drawing skills and meld the two.
PhFG: Right, so it’s not just that they’re using messy brushstrokes to hide the fact that they can’t draw.
Caitlin: That’s what’s pretty interesting too, about the history of art. The Impressionists were all classically trained, so they were all able to draw. But then they did a lot of experimenting – for example, there were a lot of new pigments to work with, and then they were painting outside. There was a lot of different stuff because of scientific advancements – photography was happening – so they were influenced by a lot of modern things. They were all able to draw. But with a lot of modern artists now, drawing is not emphasized, so that’s why you see people saying things like, “Oh, I want to do my own thing, like the Impressionists.” But that doesn’t really have the same validity or the same backbone as the first Impressionists had.
PhFG: Do you look down on people who are just doing abstract stuff so they don’t have to draw, or do you think that’s okay?
Caitlin: No, I do think it’s okay. I was talking earlier about Realist art and saying that in good Realist art you see the hand of the painter and if you don’t it looks too much like a photograph and then I don’t really consider that to be good art, really in general, or a good painting, because you might as well just take a photograph. It’s not really painting anymore, in my mind. So I think abstract art is a lot more about the hand of the artist and I think that that is just something that you have to allow for and you have to say that that is also art. Art is a free thing [laughs]. It’s an expression of… art is a free thing. So you have to say that very abstract art is also art and that maybe they’re interested more in the qualities of paint, or the qualities of composition and just simplifying those and abstracting, getting to basics with thinking about those things. I know a lot of Realist artists really dislike it, but I don’t. Because I think that it’s important that an artist has freedom.
PhFG: What do you think makes something art? My tentative thought is if it’s done truthfully, if it’s coming from a place of truth, then that makes it art, or if it maybe just makes someone else feel, stirs something.
Caitlin: Yeah, I think it does have to do with truth.
PhFG: Then, in a way, it becomes subjective. You just have to take people’s word for it that it’s making someone feel a certain way. But I guess that’s fine…
Caitlin: Yeah, I guess it’s fine! [Laughs] I do think it has something to do with truth. It’s because no matter what, art is something that is not direct, it’s always being processed through a person, through the seer.
PhFG: How many more years of school do you have? You’re in your first year?
Caitlin: Yeah, three more years.
PhFG: The future is a long way away, but what are your goals or plans, or what’s out there for you to do after school?
Caitlin: I would like to do portraits and get commissions for portrait painting. And then do my own work and show it at galleries. I actually had my first show this summer – it’s just a small gallery in Lacrosse [Wisconsin], where I’m from – but it was a really good first experience. My mom is friends with the gallery owner, and I didn’t know what the heck I was doing. And she was helping me frame things and telling me what to do, which I knew I wouldn’t have been able to do if I had a show anywhere else. She was willing to show me what needed to be done, which was awesome – so supportive and awesome. And then I did pretty well at that first show; I sold a good amount of things, which felt good.
PhFG: Oh cool, congratulations.
Caitlin: Thanks! So there’s those two things – getting commissions and having work in galleries – and then there are competitions that help to get your name out there. And I probably will teach as well.
PhFG: Like privately, or at a school?
Caitlin: Maybe at a school, like I’m going to now, which is like an atelier. Either that or there’s a small possibility that I could teach at a university because I will have a certificate through this and then I have a Master’s in a humanities with Psychology, so maybe that’s something that could work out. But I’ll have to see. Right now, I’m poor. I’ll probably be poor for a little bit.
PhFG: All the paintings on your website, are they for sale?
Caitlin: No, because most of them sold. Almost all of them sold.
PhFG: I would have bought one already, but we’re poor too. So that’s my excuse.
Caitlin: It’s cool. This year has been a transition year for me. At school, this first year, we’ve focused almost exclusively on drawing, we’ve been doing a lot of work in charcoal. So yeah, I’ve just been focused on transitioning… I want to be out painting and working on getting a collection of stuff again that I can sell. So on my Facebook, someone asked, “Are you selling stuff?” and I totally avoided it. Because this year has been a transition year.
PhFG: Are there any unrealized projects you have? (I recently read Ways of Curating by Hans Ulrich Obrist, and he said that he asks that question of every artist he talks to, so I thought, “I’m going to do that too!”) So, are there big ambitions you have that you can’t do now because of resources but that you’d like to do in the future?
Caitlin: Yeah, something I’m really interested in doing, I’m really interested in landscape and I’m interested in portraiture, or just meeting people. So what I’d really want to be able to do is convincingly and non-awkwardly put a person in a landscape or put people in a landscape and be able to combine painting outside with something that has a very human element or human presence in it. That’s not something I’ve done yet. All the pictures of people I’ve done have been in studios, and I haven’t had a lot of experience painting people from natural light yet, but that’s another reason why I like this school, because eventually we will be working on painting people in natural light. So once I feel like I get experience doing that I think the next step would be being able to make compositions with people outside or in natural light.
PhFG: I was interested earlier when you were talking about alla prima and getting better at first impressions. Are there any bullet-point kind of things that they teach you or that you’ve learned that helps with that or seeing things more as they are at first glance… or, what’s the process?
Caitlin: Yeah, the process is going through a billion starts. So that’s why they’re having us work with charcoal so much. We’ve gone through hundreds of gestures. Like, at the beginning of the year we’d do minute-long gestures for an hour. We have a piece of paper that’s kind of thicker and it’s not a very gritty surface, so you draw it out with the charcoal and then you can wipe it off with a paper towel and then reuse the paper, it’s almost like drawing on a chalkboard. So at the beginning of the year, we’d be going between doing one-minute and five-minute poses and just doing it, wiping it out, and then the model would change pose and we’d do it again.
PhFG: Could you notice an improvement throughout all that?
Caitlin: Yes, I have definitely noticed an improvement in my work. I’m a lot more confident, I have a better sense of proportion, and I’m a lot better at seeing the big shapes and the big lines. For everybody, everybody’s tendency is to want to get in and maneuver and noodle and start refining. But really what makes something powerful is just a confident first start. And once you get that down, it’s like having scaffolding, and then you can build on top of that. But if you have weak scaffolding, then your painting ends up being weak.
PhFG: With that practice that you did, was it more about changing the way you saw or just changing the way you described it on the paper?
Caitlin: I think it’s changing the way that you see. Because you’re training yourself to see the big movements and the big shapes, and when you’re first starting out, your brain just doesn’t really want to do that, for whatever reason, I don’t know why, but our brains just don’t want to do that, so you really have to train yourself to do it.
PhFG: In your everyday life now, do you kind of see people like how you would draw them?
Caitlin: Yeah, kind of. It’s funny, I have this one teacher who will always tell us, “I want you to get up in the morning, and just have everything, all you see is shape,” and she kind of drives me crazy. But I definitely do think about the way light is hitting shapes now and sometimes if I look at something I’ll get kind of caught up in thinking about it, but then at the same time I don’t want to sound like I’m always thinking like, “Everything’s just shapes! I don’t see people anymore, just shapes!” But I have been thinking a lot more about light on form.
PhFG: Coming at this from a writer’s perspective, I’ve seen a lot of comparisons between painting and poetry. So, talking about the alla prima – I’m kind of obsessed with this now —
Caitlin: By the way, that’s a very Impressionist idea, an Impressionist focus. Because you see so many landscapes in Impressionist art because people were going out and just painting in plein air, so if you’re painting plein air, you want to have an alla prima approach, because the light is moving, the sun is moving. So at the most, you have the four hour period either before noon or after noon to get it captured, because if you paint the same thing in the morning versus the afternoon it’s totally different, the sun and the shadows have flipped sides. So they wanted to get good at that approach.
PhFG: I see… So I was thinking, wondering if there’s an analogous approach in writing, to getting better at seeing what things are. Some analogous practice you could do as a writer.
Caitlin: I think it would be something like poetry, because it would be something very condensed. Poetry has that condensed meaning, you’re just trying to pack as much information into as little as possible, or as few words as possible.
There’s poetry in the natural world, there’s poetry in light, and I think for Realist artists, they are attracted to that and love it and want to understand it.
Many thanks to Caitlin for taking a couple hours out of what sounds like a very busy schedule to talk to me. Her artist’s site can be found here.
I hope you found something in this interview to delight, educate, or inspire you, and I look forward to hearing your thoughts in the comments.