Interview with David Holmes courtesy of one of America’s top art mavens Michael Corbin the www.artbookguy.com.
DAVID HOLMES: HEIGHTENED REALITY
David Holmes is one of those artists who I think responded to my artist interview query. I’m glad he did because his work is great. He’s a “hyperrealist” artist. When you look at his work, you’ll pretty much know what that means. But no know can explain it better than him. Here’s our cool chat…
“A simple photograph doesn’t really capture the extreme clarity that I struggle to achieve. My goal is to transcend the photo and take it to a higher level. My purpose is to make paintings that look more real than real.”
MICHAEL: Hello David, I love Photorealism. It’s always so contemporary, fresh and hip, but the process is so painstaking. What does your process involve and where do you get the patience?
DAVID: Hi Michael. Yes, although Photorealism has been around since the late 1960’s, I feel like it is just now becoming truly welcomed by the mainstream art world. For a long time, it was viewed as too cold and mechanical. The flashiness of the post-modern movement tended to hog all of the spotlight, but as that trend faded, people began to appreciate the beautiful work that was being done by the realists. There is a classic quality to representational art that never truly goes out of style. Fine craftsmanship and undeniable ability will always have a place in the vast world of art.
Because the process is so time consuming, it can be a bit scary to begin a new piece. It’s a major commitment. I find that it’s best to just dive in and start swimming though. After a while, you lose sight of the shoreline and realize it will be a long time until you see land again. However, the water is fine and if you keep your head up, eventually you’ll reach the beach.
MICHAEL: Doesn’t the process involve lots of drawing, measuring, drafting, transposing of images and coloring in things? In a nutshell, what’s involved?
DAVID: Everyone’s process is different, here’s mine … When I find a location that seems interesting, I take lots of pictures. I like to use a small, automatic digital camera in order to work quickly and unobtrusively. I try to get shots from different angles, lighting conditions and times of day. Also, I like to collect many people shots. On my computer, I then sort through the various images and begin assembling a layered composite in Photoshop. Depending on the picture, some of these composites can have a hundred layers or more. Each layer is an individual element (such as person or car) that has been cut out in order to be moved and arranged for optimal positioning. This process can take several weeks and is perhaps the most critical part of the entire process. If the composite is not right, the remainder of the work will be a huge waste of time. When I’m finally satisfied, I make an 11″x17″ print to be used as reference. The image is then transferred to a panel using charcoal and pencil. All painting thereafter is done by hand with brushes. Excepting basic tools, no other mechanical aids or shortcuts are used. The entire process can take up to 12 months from start to finish.
After working this way for a number of years, I have accumulated a large library of images for potential paintings. When I am ready to start a new piece, I browse through this collection and wait for something to jump out at me.
MICHAEL: Photorealism seems to require a scientific and mathematical mind in addition to obvious artistic vision. Is there struggle involved to balance the two? How does that work?
DAVID: I guess I’d have to agree with this. Although I’m an artist and creative thinker, I have always been very precise and analytical in my world view. My big personality conflict is a tendency toward perfectionism. That obviously has a large influence on the kind of art I like to do. I suppose one could examine the psychological reasons why artists choose the styles that most resonate with them and why. During my early education, I experimented with many different genres, but always came back to Realism. “Looser” styles (such as Impressionism or Abstraction) just felt too easy. To me, drawing realistically seemed the ultimate measure of one’s artistic ability. Although I enjoyed those other styles as a viewer, they did not push my buttons as an artist. I hope that no one takes this in any way as a put-down. I have very wide-ranging tastes and respect all art and mediums. I’m strictly speaking about my preferences in terms of my own work. If that sounds scientific, fine. I’ve always been lousy at math though.
MICHAEL: Photorealism has also been called “Hyper-realism” because it’s so stunning and vivid. Is this your goal when you create? To make something that is so vivid that it seems almost unbelievable?
DAVID: The two phrases are interchangeable, though I prefer, “Hyper-realism.” Using “photo” in the name implies that the work is a photographic product, which confuses some viewers. There are also people who paint on top of photo prints and label it “Photorealism,” a process I consider misleading. Because of this, I’m sometimes required to defend my work from those who question authenticity. There’s also an element of disbelief that what they’re seeing could actually be a painting. I suppose this might be considered a compliment. It’s really more of an issue when seeing the work online or reproduced small, whereby the printing process tends to make things look flat. When you see the originals at full size, the difference is more apparent.
The way I like to describe my work is “Heightened Reality.” A simple photograph doesn’t really capture the extreme clarity that I struggle to achieve. My goal is to transcend the photo and take it to a higher level. My purpose is to make paintings that look more real than real.
MICHAEL: Well said. How did you become an artist? Do you come from an artistic family? What was your first experience with art?
DAVID: Ever since I was young, I’ve loved to draw. When I didn’t have pencil and paper, I drew pictures in the air. This was unusual for our family, since no one else had any connection to art. Can’t say where mine originated, just one of those random things…
Growing up in a small, New Hampshire town limited my access to “creative stuff,” but fortunately, we happened to live near a professional illustrator who taught art classes. His name was Bill Swank and he became like a second father to me. For ten years, I spent every Friday afternoon happily improving my skills. As mentioned earlier, I gravitated to Realism early on. One of the first artists that I really admired was Norman Rockwell, from nearby Stockbridge, Massachusetts.
Art wasn’t my first career choice, but looking back, I suppose it was a foregone conclusion. My parents supported me when I applied to art school, even though they worried how I’d support myself afterwards. At the Rhode Island School of Design, I encountered a field I’d never heard of called, “Graphic Design.” It perfectly blended my creative, visual side with my rational, logical side. After graduating in 1984, I worked at several design firms that included advertising and marketing. I discovered that I had a knack for this and found it to be even more fun than pure design. Eventually, I became an art director and then creative director of ad agencies in Chicago and San Francisco. As it turns out, my parents needn’t have worried about me supporting myself…
After 18 years spent making ads however, I felt a yearning to return to my art roots. It had been years since I’d painted anything and my skills had atrophied. I knew that if I wanted to do serious work, I had to make a full-time commitment. With the generous assistance of my wife Katia, I quit advertising and plunged into the world of “fine art.” It was quite an education learning how this strange world functioned. To be a success requires much more than just artistic talent, it also takes persistence, planning and good communication abilities. My marketing background proved especially valuable in this respect. Regardless, it’s a slow process building a body of work and reputation. After almost a decade, I feel like all my hard work is finally beginning to pay off.
MICHAEL: You know, I hear basically the same story from artists about their careers. I think things would be so much different for living artists if we could get art education back into schools. However, it would take a generation or two to see the change. What do you think?
DAVID: I totally agree. The schools have cut most of the arts courses along with many others that I consider important. That’s a whole separate can of worms though. Perhaps the bigger issue is how we Americans do not value art the way that other countries do. Our culture seems to view art merely as a play thing for the rich. Museums and galleries are treated with suspicion. In Europe, it’s natural for “regular people” to buy art and enjoy the whole spectrum of creative endeavors.
I don’t know how long that will take to change. American culture is much more oriented toward “lowbrow” than “highbrow” and that’s the way most people seem to prefer it.
MICHAEL: Given that, what do you think about the art world and art market and how they function today?
DAVID: The big dilemma in today’s market is that it’s very difficult for working artists to get their work seen by potential buyers. The main options are either art fairs (which take serious time and money) or galleries (which are exclusionary and expensive – 50% commissions being the norm). Here in Minneapolis, we have an excellent alternative – large warehouses that have been converted to artist studio complexes. Hundreds of people work together, providing mutual support, encouragement and shared expenses. Several times a year, they have weekend open house celebrations, which have grown into major neighborhood events. These attract huge crowds and produce lots of sales directly to the public. They also raise the profile of art in the community and promote a positive image, eliminating the whole “art intimidation” factor. I think that this success could be easily replicated in other cities.
MICHAEL: When you’re in the middle of working on a piece, would you say the process is more intellectual, emotional or spiritual? What goes through your mind while you’re working? Do you work in silence or with music or the TV playing?
DAVID: There are several different stages. In the beginning, I’m excited about the new piece, but also aware of how much work lies ahead. I work quickly to fill in large areas, which provides the illusion that I’m making tremendous progress. Soon comes the long middle, which is where most of the hard work happens. The challenge is to avoid burnout. Since I’m usually working alone in my studio, I have a variety of tricks and distractions that help get me through it: music, talk radio and the frequent use of Facebook for virtual conversations. I find you have to play little mind games along the way to stay motivated (“If I do this large boring area, I will reward myself by doing this fun little spot next”). It takes great discipline, so I’d say it’s more intellectual than emotional. However, I have found that long periods of intense concentration can sometimes induce a kind of “Zen” state, which is interesting. Hours can fly by without any apparent effort.
The last stage is usually the most enjoyable. I’m jumping around the painting making tiny little tweaks that bring everything to the final level. It is amazing how small adjustments have such enormous effect overall. After working on the piece so closely, it is difficult to see it in perspective, without being critical. Sometimes I catch a glimpse of an older finished painting and am surprised by the details. It is almost like I painted it in a dream state and only half-remember the process. Weird, eh?
MICHAEL: You’ve just described the writing process. You know David, art seems to be so much work for so little apparent reward. Few people really appreciate contemporary art and many who do are super-wealthy folks who go for Warhol and Picasso. What’s the point? What is art even contributing to the world?
DAVID: It may sound like a cliché, but I think the only reason to do art is for yourself. If other people appreciate it, that’s great. The art world is going through a sea of change right now, trying to redefine itself and stay relevant in the face of powerful, new competition. For most of history, painting and music were the dominant forms of creative expression. Humanity’s best and brightest created masterpieces that exemplify our noblest aspirations even to this day.
However, during the past century, we’ve seen an explosion of new creative outlets such as movies, television and commercial design. As the number of distractions and diversions multiply, less people have the time and patience required to engage with a “static” medium like painting. In our frenetic, modern world, traditional painting seems a bit like a lost art (pun intended). There is still a lot of life left in the medium though. Given the cyclical nature of popularity, everything old will one day be new again. Audiences are fickle, tastes change and each generation rediscovers treasures from the past to claim as their own. Painting will always have admirers, as evidenced recently by the skyrocketing prices paid at auctions (which might say more about the uber-rich in today’s new gilded age, though…).
Any creative person will tell you that art is a calling. You do not choose it, it chooses you. As long as people continue to paint, great work will be produced and eventually the world will take notice. That is the reward. We do it simply because we have to, and the result is our contribution the world.
MICHAEL: David, we could continue, but I think you’ve wrapped it up nicely here. Thanks for the cool chat.
DAVID: Thanks Michael. That was a lot of fun!
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