Cesar Santander is a spectacular artist who lives in New York City and specializes in photorealism. I contacted him for an interview at the suggestion of another artist. Boy, am I glad I did. He’s one of the most proficient and prolific photorealist artists living today. I spoke with him about his work, his life and why he thinks art schools should change their approach to teaching students. His website is www.cesarsantander.com but first, here’s our chat.
MICHAEL: Hey Cesar! Your work is fantastic. I LOVE photorealism and you’re a master at it. What is it about this genre that has kept you so interested in it for so long?
CESAR: I think I first became interested in photographs when I saw Life magazines in the 1950s. The images were powerful, large and showed things or events that had really existed. They were an authentic version of reality. Photographs became for me a way of exploring my subjects in ways that were not visible to the naked eye. Photographs also fix these explorations and allow you to study them again and again. Technology now even allows you to alter the photo in ways that were impossible in the past.
MICHAEL: So as an artist, what is your relationship with photographs?
CESAR: I guess I see the photograph as an alternative way of seeing the world. The amount of information in a photograph and the challenge of translating that information into paint is endlessly challenging and fascinating to me. The detail in digital photography and the ability to come in close and see microscopic details makes painting from photographs even more interesting now for me. As technology improves my source material also improves and my interest in photorealism continues to grow.
MICHAEL: I totally understand. Whenever I see photorealist works, it's as if I'm waking up and seeing the world for the very first time. Everything seems so bright, fresh and new. It's like the scenes from the film "Pleasantville," where everything goes from black and white to technicolor. Still, photorealism DOES manipulate images of reality. Do you ever have ethical concerns about how far this should go?
CESAR: I think any manipulation that I do in my images only stresses the positive aspects of the objects involved. I try to bring out the beauty or nostalgia contained in objects. I also try to bring figures or characters to life. There is often a whimsy or playfulness involved. I bring a great deal of love to the objects I paint. I think you would have to love these subjects in order to spend so many hours painting them. This affection comes through in my best work in ways that I can't control. If you try to force it, it won't work. A sort of magic is created that people who appreciate my work can sense. Therefore, I would say that whatever manipulation occurs in my paintings, both intentional and accidental creates a positive, visual world that I am proud to have been a part of.
MICHAEL: Absolutely. The fact that you seem to focus on subjects like toys and childhood objects really breathes life into the genre. However, I can't imagine your work is specifically FOR kids. Does this ever cause confusion?
CESAR: People who think my work is for children are not looking carefully enough. I think my painting has many levels on which you can appreciate it. I hope they go far beyond their subject and their accomplished technique. In a very few cases, the paintings have been bought for children's rooms, but almost all of my collectors are very affluent men who buy them for their homes or offices.
MICHAEL: Gloss and sheen seem to be crucial elements of photorealism. Is it possible to achieve the same vivid effects (glamour) without them?
CESAR: I have a lot of highlights and reflections in my work because of my subjects and the way I light them. There are many photorealists who paint faces or cityscapes where there is little gloss and sheen. Chuck Close relies on scale and composition and in his early work, incredible detail to achieve his effects. Richard Estes paints cityscapes that rely on perspective, detail and often scale to create a dramatic impact. Probably scale and detail are the most common devices used by photorealists to achieve impact or to take a subject out of context and present it in a new way. These are devices that I use also as well as color.
MICHAEL: I love the work of Richard Estes and Robert Cottingham, but I'm talking with you. What about black and white? I've seen some cool black and white photorealism, but I'm not sure the desired effect would be reached with your work.
CESAR: I was born in southern Spain and I think my color reflects my origins. I have done a few black and white paintings, but color is a very important element in my work. I often paint metallic surfaces that have a lot of wear on them. The rust and marks that the objects have are evidence of human use. They create their own network of marks. The printing on old toys and boxes also fascinates me because it is rich, colorful and original. I use highlights not only to give impact to the image, but also to create form. Color, nostalgia and intense lighting are all major elements in almost all of my paintings.
MICHAEL: It's my understanding that photorealism basically involves printing an image or outline of an image on canvas or wood and then treating the image with paint, etc. Am I correct? Also, do you do your own photography? Is the photography and transferring of images part of your process? If so, that's A LOT of work.
CESAR: All of my paintings are done from scratch on a gessoed canvas or panel. I use a projector to help transfer the image to the surface. The initial drawing is in pencil. Once the paint is applied to the entire surface, the details are painted in. This process could take weeks or even months. This is the hard part but also the fun part of the painting process. During this part, I have only my judgment and skill to guide me. It takes a lot of time and effort to produce photorealist paintings. That is why they fetch high prices. I do all of my own photography. I take many photos in order to find an image I like.
MICHAEL: I’m getting tired just listening to your process.
CESAR: Any particular painting could require a large number of photographic references. I am not just copying photographs. I am using photographs to help me express an image or idea that is in my head. Works that are painted over printed photographs are not photorealistic paintings. They are mixed media paintings. They should be labeled correctly and the viewer should understand the big difference between mixed media paintings and photorealistic paintings.
MICHAEL: How did you become an artist? Do you come from an artistic family?
CESAR: My father had skill in drawing. He studied mechanical drawing and he worked for a company doing precision metal work. My mother was a seamstress. She made clothes commercially and made her own clothes. She even designed and made handbags for herself. They both had talent, but didn't have the luxury to make art. They had to make a living. I didn't study art until I went to Pratt Institute after I graduated from high school. I intended to become an industrial designer. During my first year at Pratt, I became interested in drawing and painting. I majored in printmaking during my last three years at Pratt. I graduated with a BFA in 1969 and became a teacher in New York City. It seemed to be a secure way of making a living. I taught for four years in New York and six years in Miami, Florida. In 1980, I left teaching and have been painting professionally ever since. I lived in Canada for 25 years and moved back to New York about five years ago. I have had almost 20 solo shows and have exhibited in Toronto, New York, London and San Francisco.
MICHAEL: How would you say your experience and travels have affected your work? In other words, how has reality affected your work ... given the fact that your genre is photorealism?
CESAR: I think reality can be expressed in more literal terms or it can be used and changed in subtle ways to express our vision. When I paint toys, I group them in ways that show an interaction between them or I view them close up or put an image behind them. I am not trying to paint a straight literal rendition of objects, but rather the objects as they exist in my imagination. This is similar to how children see toys as they play with them. It is how the toys exist in their imagination. Painting literal reality is fine, but what interests me is putting my vision into my paintings. This approach is equally valid and has held my interest for many years.
MICHAEL: You know Cesar, I think ALL artists should get as much money possible as they can for their work. Dealers too. Who doesn't want to make top dollar? However, I'm frustrated by how the art market and art media are obsessed by big money and high prices. This reinforces the public notion that art is not within the reach of everyday people and therefore they don't consider it a priority ... hence, art programs are constantly in jeopardy. What do you think about all this?
CESAR: I think there are a number of different things going on. The reason Warhol, Picasso and Van Gogh fetch such high prices is because they rarely go on the market. Whenever one is available, there are a number of wealthy buyers competing. The public is interested in this and the auctions get a lot of media attention. I think this is inevitable.
MICHAEL: That’s true, but there are definitely other factors too.
CESAR: The museums and art schools seem to promote the most peculiar types of art. Anything new is valued because no one wants to be considered reactionary. No one wants to miss the next big movement. Therefore many galleries and museums show work that could not possibly attract the general public. Museums and galleries are thought of as elitist and only a small percentage of the population go to see art. Add to this the fact that the value of the arts in stimulating intellectual growth in a wide range of subjects is not appreciated in our schools and we have the present situation. Contemporary art is seen as an elitist, unimportant element in most people's lives … and this trend is growing.
MICHAEL: So what do you think can be done about this? Personally, I think we must put art education back into elementary school programs. For example, most guys who worship football and the Super Bowl today went to football and soccer practice as school kids. They were conditioned to at least appreciate football. The same should be done for art.
CESAR: I think there should be more art education in the elementary schools. I also think museums and art schools should promote a wide range of artistic styles and forms of working. They have a narrow focus today. There is excellent work being done in many mediums and styles. Museums and galleries should find ways to educate more young people about art and get them to come and look at art. I think fewer young people go to museums or ballet or attend classical music concerts than they used to.
MICHAEL: Do you ever learn anything about your work from people who don't know much about art? You know, people who show up for an exhibition?
CESAR: I always listen to observations about my art. I think most people who don't know a lot about art are impressed by the technique in my paintings. They usually don't look very carefully and find the subjects cute or pleasing. Those viewers who devote more time begin to appreciate the other levels of content that the paintings have. I think I usually learn more about how people look than about my work when I have an exhibition. It is nice to see the work in the context of a gallery and to receive encouragement from those who see it. The highest compliment is when a collector is willing to spend thousands to buy a painting. That really makes me feel appreciated.
MICHAEL: I'm sure it does! Finally Cesar, what are your hopes for the future of your work and art in general?
CESAR: I plan to keep developing my imagery. I'm now working with a great commercial photographer. He is taking photos under my direction. They should present the objects with a level of clarity and detail that I have not yet achieved. I plan to do a series of large paintings based on these collaborations. Each one should take me about two or three months. I am at work on the first one now. It shows 35 crayons and is almost four feet by five feet in size. I'll keep posting my paintings on Facebook as I complete them. Let me know what you think of my latest painting. We live in an age of pluralism. There are more artists working now than ever and they work in a great variety of styles. It is interesting to see what is being done both good and bad. It is a very interesting time because of the technological revolution going on. We never would have met without it. I think the pace of technology will just increase. I am curious about what technology will do to art and to life in general. There is reason for optimism because of the number of visitors to museums like the Met and MOMA in NYC. I think this reflects a growing interest in masters from the past. I hope that there are more artists from the present who can stimulate public interest in the future.
MICHAEL: Thanks so much Cesar. I totally enjoyed our chat.
For more information about Cesar Santander, check out his website at www.cesarsantander.com