Andres Ortega is a longtime artist who resides in Miami, Florida. I saw his work http://andresortegaart.blogspot.com/ for the first time online. While his specialty is figurative realism, I wanted to talk with him about his chocolate-themed works. I own a few of them and even commissioned a great one he agreed to call, "Chocolate Dream." His talent is far reaching, so why would an artist spend so much time painting a single subject like chocolate? Read our chat and find out why. Oh, by the way, this interview first appeared in my book, “Art For The People: A Collector’s Journal.”
MICHAEL: Hey Andres, thanks for talking with me. First of all, as of this writing, you've been doing a lot of chocolate inspired paintings. How did you come up with this idea?
ANDRES: Well, first I found about the painting a day movement on the web. I said to myself this is a good way to practice my painting. I thought about it and I started with these paintings. My first paintings were different, I painted flowers, people and still lifes. These first pieces got attention but not like any other paintings. After a couple of weeks, the idea came up because I noticed that still lifes were getting more attention. What really triggered the idea was that I wanted to make a still life painted in the classic way “realism,” but with a subject more updated - not the same old subjects like flowers, fruits, etc. Also, I wanted something that people involved in art or not could understand and feel familiar with. All this happened during the week of Halloween and there it was. I painted a chocolate and some Oreos cookies for my first two. The results were really good and more people looked at my paintings and I started to get e-mail requesting another version or even asking for the kind of chocolates they like to see. I also noticed the faces of the people who came to my house when they saw these pieces. They really enjoyed looking at the mix of art. An everyday chocolate makes them feel identified with the painting and also helps them lose the intimidation with a painting. That is still going on today. I am working on some other ones with candies, chips, etc.
MICHAEL: You know, I love chocolate, but I would think that it's quite a challenge because while it tastes luscious and great, isn't it boring to paint? I mean, it's bland and brown.
ANDRES: Oh yes, it’s a big challenge, but fun at the same time. You said, "bland and brown," but that is when composition and light comes into play, especially light. Back in 16th century Italy, you'll find Caravaggio's paintings were also simple. He's the artist who really invented the still life as a painting itself. Before him, nobody thought a piece of art could be done with fruits only. I'm nowhere near him, but I get inspired by his use of light and composition. With the chocolates, I also play with the wrapping. They come in all colors, so this creates balance with the dull browns of the chocolate bar.
MICHAEL: Do you like chocolate or have any memories about it? I've always wondered how people who work with food can resist eating it.
ANDRES: Both I like them and I have a big memory. When I was eight years old, I ate so much chocolate that I ended up in a hospital with a liver problem. Can you imagine that? Now I eat them, but no more than a piece a day. I don’t get fat or anything because I run a lot of miles a week. Actually, last Sunday I ran the Miami Marathon. My problem is with my two daughters (10 and 15 years old as of this writing), I have to hide the chocolates or they will eat them before I finish the painting.
MICHAEL: I remember reading somewhere that during shooting of the film, "Chocolat," Johnny Depp ate so much chocolate that he couldn't stand the site of it. I'm not sure it's true, but it would make sense. It's interesting how you've taken your chocolate health scare as a kid and as an adult have turned it into something great. By the way, congratulations on the marathon! So many people think that artists are eccentric people who spend endless time in their studios, but if you're also a runner, you're clearly engaged with life. How does this affect your art?
ANDRES: Thanks! Most of my ideas for paintings if not all of them come while running. This is a period of time with myself and after a couple of miles, my mind goes clear and boom! There it is. I have a new painting in my mind. I can go back home ready for my new painting. Hey you make me laugh with this, “So many people think that artists are eccentric people who spend endless time in their studios.” That is so true. You know, sometimes when they get to know me, they get in shock because I look like a runner!
MICHAEL: I used to run 22 miles a week on the treadmill in the gym but I would always get writing ideas. Words, phrases or essay ideas would pop into my mind and leave ten seconds later. I'm thinking about going back to it but bringing along a pen and pad. If I could write and run at the same time that would be great. We've been talking about chocolate and running, two things that everyone in the world, regardless of status can relate to. It's funny because I think that true "art" exists with these things in the "real world" and not the "art world."
ANDRES: Yes, that's right. Art is around us all the time in every simple thing, but some people are just afraid to just take a look at art because they feel intimidated or they believe they need some kind of “special knowledge” to understand art.
MICHAEL: That's definitely true. Something just occurred to me. You mentioned realism earlier. I'm looking at a couple of your chocolate paintings that I own. While the approach is realistic, I also detect a hint of impressionism. They seem very slightly blurry ... almost wistful. It's almost as if you're viewing chocolate in a nostalgic way. Am I right?
ANDRES: Yes, that’s the different between realism and hyperrealism. In hyperrealism, the paintings have details all over the surface. This makes them look like photographs while in realism, only the main focus of the piece has a lot details. The surrounded areas are blurs that give you that nostalgic feeling. I use that trick together with a strong contrast between light and dark. This gives you the feeling of depth in the painting. You are right. This little trick is from impressionism and also represents the borderline between realism and impressionism. That is why some scholars call it, "Late 19th Century Realism."
MICHAEL: You've just finished a painting for me that we've decided to call, "Chocolate Dream." I sent you the box of chocolates to interpret on canvas and you've captured it well. Not only is it deep and rich like chocolate itself, but it's so richly realistic. What were you thinking while you were recreating it? Does your mind wander when you paint or do you stay focused on the subject?
ANDRES: At the beginning of a painting, I don’t think of the subject itself because that’ll make it more difficult, especially when I am working on a portrait or still life. What I do is this: I look for lines, shapes, shadows highlights and colors. The hardest part of a painting is at the beginning and the end. At the beginning, the hard part is the composition set up. On this particular painting, I was focusing on the arrangement of the elements so it looks interesting, but not to mechanical at the same time. I didn’t want to lose the simplicity of the subject. And at the end, the difficulty is to when to make the decision to stop painting. I never know when a painting is done!
MICHAEL: I would say that realism is my favorite painting genre ... especially figurative realism. As an artist, do you think you'll ever move away from it?
ANDRES: I don’t think so. I’ve been painting since I was nine years old and I always have been pursuing a good realism technique. I’m really a very classic artist and I participate in competitions with portraits or paintings that involve the human body like the old school of classic realism. It makes me feel good when people look at my paintings and they say, “It looks real like a picture,” especially when it’s a portrait. It won’t be the same satisfaction for me if I have an abstract painting and I need to explain what it means. Good thing is that at this time, realism is having a comeback. There is a big movement right now and that makes me keep working for years. I thought I was working on the wrong side because there wasn't much realism out there, but during the last few years hyperrealism and representational realism have been taking off.
MICHAEL: You've been painting for a long time! Finally, whether you're creating chocolate works or not, what do you want your body of work to say about you?
ANDRES: About me? Not much really. I like my work to speak for itself and about the subject of the work.
MICHAEL: Thanks Andres.
Check out Andres Ortega at http://andresortegaart.blogspot.com/.