David Gray is another one of those artists whose work www.davidgrayart.com I stumbled upon online and said, “I must chat with him.” His classical realist paintings are simply exquisite. The best part is that he’s very down to earth and approachable when it comes to contemporary art. Read on and you’ll see what I mean.
MICHAEL: Hey David, Your work is astounding. We'll definitely get into it, but first, what's YOUR definition of "Classical Realism" as expressed in your work?
DAVID: Thanks for the compliment and for your interest in my work. I guess at its core (and to keep it simple) my tie to the classicists lies in the shared aim in expressing an idealized beauty and order. Not too idealized, though. I still want my subject matter to look "real" http://dgoilpaintingtechniques.com which is not something we find in, say, most of the Renaissance artists. A certain degree of naturalism is also important to me.
MICHAEL: To me, your work is straight out of the Old Dutch masters. Rembrandt, Vermeer, etc. Yet, it has a more contemporary treatment even though the subject matter basically remains the same. Is that simply because you're alive and painting in 2012?
DAVID: Perhaps. But more likely it’s the other influences in my work. I actually find the French Neo-Classicists much more influential, particularly Ingres. He would often distort proper anatomy in favor of what he considered a stronger underlying compositional structure. I find his lines, color harmony, and overall mood of his body of work fascinating. The underlying abstract character of many of his paintings really strikes a chord with me. In my own work, particularly my still life work, I am much, much more concerned with the composition than the actual items. I also have a great affinity with ancient Chinese aesthetic, which also finds its way into my work. I do like 17th Century Dutch art, particularly Rembrandt, but I don't think there is really a direct influence there. I am enamored of Caravaggio however, who, of course, was a big hit with the Dutch. You have a whole group of Dutch artists who’ve been termed by some historians the “Caravaggisti,” or, "Little Caravaggios.” I do admire Vermeer, but he's not one of my favorites. Everyone thinks of Vermeer when they see my little turban paintings. I understand that. It makes sense that one would think, "Oh, he obviously likes Vermeer.” But really the treatment of the subject is much more influenced by Ingres...and some others.
MICHAEL: Given that your work is influenced by the past, how would you say it's relevant today?
DAVID: Well, anything that any of us does is in some way influenced by the past. No matter how contemporary or avant garde one thinks they might be, the past influences their current work. The short answer is: We're really not that different now from the way we were then. I don't think I can define how it is relevant. I can only say that it is relevant. There's a lot of philosophy behind that statement, but I will try to sum it up. I believe that in general, the human eye responds to beauty and order in a positive way. You might say we have a natural affinity for it. The aesthetic of the ancient Egyptians, Greeks, Romans (and probably others) followed eventually by the Renaissance was all based partly on the knowledge that what we see in nature points to an ideal. The Golden Section was formulated (some may say discovered) and utilized in art because it represented the ideal of that to which nature pointed. We humans are a part of nature and naturally fit into its schemes. Though I don't directly utilize the Golden Section in my work, my belief that we all respond to beauty and order influences how I make my art. I personally believe we are all created beings and as such will share a great deal in terms of what pleases us aesthetically. Another part to that is I have what may be called "faith" in my own sensitivity to what I find beautiful and orderly. I have a certain degree of "faith" that I can express it in a meaningful way to other members of species homo sapiens. This does play out and has proven to be true. The feedback I have gotten proves I am connecting with a significant percentage of the population that sees my work. Also, without using words or narrative in my work, many people have expressed to me in their own words certain emotions they feel when they see my work. In many cases, the feedback is remarkably near to what I myself am trying to communicate in the vast majority of my artistic expressions.
MICHAEL: You just mentioned beauty and order. Does art have to be beautiful and orderly to be art?
DAVID: Of course not. To me, art is simply a refined language. It does sometimes take some effort on the part of the viewer to connect with a given work, but the bulk of the responsibility rests on the artist. It's the artist's responsibility to consider her audience when creating a work of artistic communication. I have no issue with artists pushing boundaries and the genuine art lover will invest themselves into such a work in order to connect with it. So I'm attempting to communicate beauty and order through my particular dialect of pictorial expression. Other artist's aims are probably different from mine.
MICHAEL: Nobody comes out of the womb painting at your skill level. What has it taken to get to where you are? Your end product is very glamorous. Has the road been glamorous?
DAVID: Well, in my view, inherent ability plus education (both self- and formal) plus a lot of hard work equals where I am right now, with added emphasis on HARD WORK! No. Definitely NOT an easy road. I am also partly here due to the fact that I was entirely ignorant of the difficulties. I knew it would be hard to become a full-time professional actually making a living and supporting a family, but I really had no idea how hard. And we mostly just break even. Had I to do it over again ...
MICHAEL: I understand.
DAVID: Many people have no idea the sleepless nights, the hours, days, weeks, months, and years it takes for us artists to even begin to say, "Okay, I think I'm starting to get it.” I was born with "the gift," but it is taking a lifetime to refine the raw materials into what I hope will be considered noteworthy and meaningful, at least in my own generation. I consider it a life-long journey. There's really no glamour in it. It can be very lonely and heartbreaking at times. I paint every day and many days it feels like any other job. Some people will comment, "It must be rewarding to be able to do what you love." My usual reply is "Every time I get a check in the mail it is VERY rewarding!" So the life isn't nearly as ideal and romantic as some might think. But there are those special moments on occasion that tell me in my gut I am doing what I was meant to do. And I do have many blessings. The Lord provides. I have a wonderful family and quite idyllic domestic life.
MICHAEL: We're living during a time when many people (artists, etc) are lusting after fame and wealth. Obviously, this exists in the art world just like everywhere else. What do you think about this and how it impacts the art world?
DAVID: I don't really see that in the artists I've been around. The contemporary classical bunch is pretty down to earth for the most part. Sure, we want to be able to make a good living and most of us are involved in some way in promoting our work, but mostly we just want to paint well. If we really wanted to be rich and famous we would probably be doing something other than the art we do. I would love to have more money, no question, but you can keep the fame. Not interested. Any artist lusting after wealth and fame is probably not really making sincere art; I could be wrong. We are poets, not plutocrats. The ridiculous amounts of money that are moving in this strange, elitist top tier of art collecting is somewhat of an enigma to me (I'm talking about the modernist stuff, not the legitimate master works selling for millions in auction houses. I'm all for that). Most of what I see being lauded in that circle is absurd. Perhaps I need more education. I don't really know how this affects the art world. I'm among the set of artists who want to make good, meaningful work. Fame and riches are, at best, a secondary consideration.
MICHAEL: I LOVE still lifes and your work in this area is stunning. What do you like about creating them? It seems to me that creating light is perhaps the most challenging part of those paintings.
DAVID: I love composing the set up. The whole time I am thinking abstractly and trying to find something that feels right. Once I settle on my arrangement, I start thinking about how I will want to translate it in a painting. Most of those decisions involve color and value choices, which will be somewhat different from what is actually before me. I also enjoy working from life. Most of my human subject work is done from photographic reference, which is very unsatisfactory. And, of course, getting a feeling for light and shade can be a challenging part of the process. I'm getting better at it, but I still bomb occasionally.
MICHAEL: I was recently talking with an artist who destroyed dozens of his old paintings. I told him "You should've given them to me!" Have you ever destroyed any of your paintings? Isn't that ... like ... a waste?
DAVID: In the early days, I used to throw a lot of stuff away that wasn't working out. It was out of sheer frustration. I wouldn't just throw it away, I would destroy it. It has been a long time since I did anything like that. I don't throw anything away anymore. It is very rare for a painting to go awry these days, but if it does, I will usually save it. If I don't, it's not the impassioned act of retribution on the failed work it used to be. I just roll it up and toss it in the garbage. At least the stretcher bars can be reused in such cases. My wife and friends have said the same thing as you. These paintings are extensions of us. I just don't want bad paintings I've done being viewed. It's highly personal. I suppose it could be considered a waste, but there's no way I'm going to give away a failed painting.
MICHAEL: By the way, that was NOT meant as a hint on my part!
DAVID: Oh, I know. I didn't take it that way. I was just talking about general principles.
MICHAEL: You know, the art world seems to be moving in this direction propelled by technology, video, photography and group events. Since you're an old school, traditional painter, this doesn't really affect you, but has it had any impact?
DAVID: Well it does affect me in that it is a cultural influence, so to speak. I can't help but see the work that is crafted using new technology. If it's good art, it can really be a positive influence. I am particularly impressed with some of the computer generated imagery and animation. They are really starting to get good. The color harmonies being achieved are sometimes quite remarkable and even enviable. So it's had an impact in that I respond very strongly to good art. Some of the new hi-tech stuff is excellent. I'm all for good art making, no matter what the medium.
MICHAEL: And your concerns?
DAVID: There is that little worry that it can somehow cut into the financial viability of the old craft. Some optimistically say there will always be a good market for good traditional media. I feel that that is a foolish idea. I'm usually skeptical of the words "always" and "never". The only thing you can count on is that things change. And things are moving so fast. I hope there will always be a good market for it, but I don't know. The future of this country and the world is so unstable, I feel. The best I can do is continue to make the best art I can.
MICHAEL: Absolutely. I totally know what you mean when you referred to the future. It's scary and art seems so inconsequential, yet at the same time I think if more people appreciated art, perhaps we'd be more in touch with true human priorities. What do you think?
DAVID: What ARE true human priorities? If you could get us all to agree on that, I think we would be well on our way to a much more peaceful world. There have been books and books written on the subject. To be sure, most artists and art lovers tend to be empathetic. They are usually open-minded and accepting of others. Is there some key to world peace in that? I don't know. I don't think art can change the world. Art is an expression. Throughout history you have all cultures engaging in various art forms as acts of expression, from music and dance, to visual art, architecture, literature, you name it. I don't think they changed anything. They were just the medium of expression. As one old scripture reads, "Out of the abundance of the heart, the mouth speaks.” In other words, art follows the condition of the heart. So what is going to change the condition of our collective hearts? Love, forgiveness, giving, sharing, considering others, respecting others. Who really lives this way? My personal belief system teaches me to live this way, but do I really do it? Mother Teresa lived that way. We praise and honor her memory, but do we want to follow her example? I could go on and on about this. I don't really have an answer for you there. Just more questions.
MICHAEL: Interesting. What do you think about the art world and how it functions? It is a huge industry like others where money is a big deal. Do you keep up with the art market and gallery comings and goings?
DAVID: Well, I know it's been tough for many galleries the last couple of years. Several have had to close. As for the art world, well, it's pretty big and there are many facets and tiers to it. I mostly concern myself with my own galleries and their clients. At the level I am selling work, my peers are very sincere and hard working. The collectors buy the work because they genuinely love it. I'm not yet a big name so I know there is no status involved in buying an original David Gray (You mean the Irish pop star paints, too?). How it functions for me is I try to make the best art I can and someone usually buys it. Simple. I'm pretty cool with that. I'm not much of a businessman and I don't have time to sell my own work. The galleries that represent me are hard working folk like me and they do a pretty good job. They are all very enthusiastic about my work and I'm happy to split the retail price of the painting with them. I hope I can eventually build a name for myself so I can make more money, but I'm kind of dumb where that is concerned. I'm a craftsman. That's about all. Right now in this economy, I am very happy to be able to paint full-time and support my wife and kids. We scrape by somehow. I hope for better, but all things considered, I'm a very rich man. In many other parts of the world the would-be-artist is just trying to survive day to day any way she can. Death and destruction lurk around every bend. There is no art market in those places. In view of that, I have a very cushy life. Can't complain.
MICHAEL: Finally David, What would you like people to know about you and your work while they view it ... Or does that not really matter to you?
DAVID: The only thing I want them to know is that my work is 100% hand crafted. I do not use any mechanical means to get the image on the canvas. Everything is hand drawn. I also stretch all my own canvases and prepare my own panels. Beyond that, I don't require anything of my viewers. I just hope I can connect with my audience.
MICHAEL: Thanks Dude. Great chat.
DAVID: Thank you for the interview. It's been very thought provoking.