Juan Carlos Martinez is a fantastic artist who resides in Toronto, Ontario and specializes in contemporary realist portraits www.juanmartinez.com. I met him online, saw his work and knew I had to chat with his about it.
MICHAEL: Hey Juan, I love your work. You're not only an artist, but also an art instructor. How do you teach art? Can creative insight and hard work overcome lack of talent?
JUAN: Frankly, most students come to the Academy of Realist Art -- which is where I do the majority of my teaching -- because they want to improve their skills rather than give vent to their creativity while studying there. In other words, what they want is a greater ability -- an increased skill set -- in order that they may better or more fully express that creativity. I've noticed over the years that it isn't creative insight that people lack, but rather the skill to execute their vision in the way they wish. In fact, the learning process itself can become a self perpetuating cycle wherein, as ability and knowledge increase, they beget a greater artistic sensibility which in turn sparks further skill development, and so on. It is this process and its eventual expression by the ever-maturing artist that we view, ultimately, as creative insight and talent.
MICHAEL: Given reality, becoming an artist is not a choice for the faint of heart. Do you ever discuss this with your students? What was your own personal experience?
JUAN: True, it isn't easy to become an artist and, frankly, I still consider myself in the early stages of my own career. Perhaps the late-early stages, but it's definitely not a fait accompli. So, owing to that, I am often reluctant to be definitive in my advice to others as regards the "path." But, if they're interested in listening, I usually talk of the various obstacles and bumps that they're likely to encounter along the way, as well as the concept of accepting the successes, too. The path to becoming "an artist" - whatever that may end up being for any individual - is varied and often circuitous. One doesn't always know which way to go at the outset as there are many possibilities. I liken the process to pouring a bucket of water on top of a mound of dirt; the rivulets will all eventually reach the bottom, but they go along seemingly random courses, sometimes converging, sometimes diverging. My feeling of the artistic career is that it is similar to that for most people, with a little luck thrown in here and there. I also try to practice my skills and learn more as I go along and I advise others to do the same.
MICHAEL: Didn't you leave your career as an attorney to become a full time artist? That must have been an agonizing move. What pushed you over the edge?
JUAN: Yes, leaving intellectual property law practice to go into an art career seems at first blush to not only be a difficult move, but also a spectacularly divergent one. I suppose that both of those views are correct, but the reality was a rather slow, evolutionary kind of changeover than what it appears to be when read in a single sentence. I had always done art as a pastime or hobby and was pretty accomplished, but it was never really encouraged as a career. My brother had become a lawyer and I eventually moved into that realm, too, keeping the art side of things alive, but suppressed. Eventually, I moved to Toronto from my home province of Saskatchewan (Canada) when my, then, wife received an excellent job offer here. I decided to simply fold up the burgeoning IP practice I had started a few years previously and start over in Toronto. Unfortunately, I was in for a rude awakening in the big city. The competition for all jobs was impossibly fierce and there were many, many highly competent people all over the place filling those potential openings. What's more, I couldn't bring with me any kind of clientele to the law firms where I interviewed, although sympathetic and encouraging, they weren't ready to hire. This often-repeated scenario led to a long, frustrating period of fits and starts and re-examinations of life's priorities.
It also was the period where I met the excellent painter and educator, John Angel (who now lives in Florence, Italy and has an eponymous art academy). I began studying under his tutelage and quickly found that I was learning so much and that there was so much to learn. Over the next while -- which turned out to be a number of years -- I slowly fell away from any longer pursuing a legal career, and drifted into the artistic world. Among the factors that allowed me to do this, was that I hadn't started a family nor had I acquired the lifestyle often associated with being a lawyer (and which has to be paid for, somehow) so the possibility of an art career for the first time seemed plausible to me. Thus, what appears as a momentous, life-changing "overnight" move was actually a halting and gradual process that, at the time, seemed to be the right thing to do. And now, well, it's too late to turn back even if I wanted to, which I don't.
MICHAEL: Wow, you know, we're living during a time when new approaches to everything, including art, are happening so quickly. Given your academic approach to painting, how do you stay fresh and innovative without throwing out what clearly works?
JUAN: The short answer is it's easy. I'm not very fresh and innovative! Actually, although I am interested almost exclusively in the realm of figural representation, I am always looking for compelling imagery as well as ways of expressing it, which I suppose puts this quest in the realm of newness. "Academic" seems often to be thought of as being technique based, but even though that is a part, it’s hardly the whole of it. In fact, technique-wise I don't work in a particularly academic fashion any longer, at all. Still, I definitely try to keep my drawing strong and am committed to expressing volumetric form as much as I can, both of which are hallmarks of academicism. Otherwise, like many artists, I am sure, I am constantly trying to balance stuff that I know works with finding new stuff, yet all the while trying not to have to reinvent the wheel over and over.
MICHAEL: We're living during a time when seemingly everyone in the art world is looking for the new, hot thing that's going to turn the world inside out. How much of that do you think is smoke and mirrors and wishful thinking? Can tradition be the new thing?
JUAN: Well, I suppose that "the new, hot thing" and a certain amount of smoke and mirrors has always been a part of the art world. Whether there's more or less of it now, I can't say. But, in all events, I don't think I'm likely to be a part of THAT art world any time soon. But hey, if there is a revival of traditionalism, I'll be singing as loud as I can in that choir, for sure. For my part, though, I mostly just focus on what I do and see where that takes me, and don't pay much attention to what's new and hot.
Of course, one cannot ignore the modern world entirely, nor would I want to. I mean, this very internet that we are communicating through as well as social media has revolutionized much of any artist's world. Although to answer your question, I feel there is, indeed, a move toward realism/traditional art/representation out there. Yet, I have always had artist friends who temper my enthusiasm for this feeling by saying, "You realists are always claiming there is a revival of realism nowadays. There isn't now any more than the last time you claimed there was!" Who knows, perhaps they are right and we are the only ones in the art world who think there is such a movement. But, all said, I remain hopeful.
MICHAEL: What's your daily routine like? Do you paint every day? Do you listen to music or watch TV while you paint or do you need silence? Is the process meditative and spiritual or more emotional and erratic?
JUAN: My routine is not as routine-like as I hope it one day becomes. I'm afraid that for the time being, I teach too much in order to have a proper painting schedule. Most weeks, I feel I'm in a catch-as-catch can situation. However, when I do get down to working on a piece, I will typically listen to something, either music or podcasts, but this will vary depending on what it is I am doing -- i.e., if I am painting backgrounds or broad areas, then I can listen to pretty much anything, and do. However, if I am doing something that requires careful observation such as, say, the shape of nostrils, eyes, or mouths, or anything of a more intellectually-demanding nature such as on compositional issues, then I will typically only listen to silence or to Baroque music. On the whole, the process of painting for me is work. Compelling work and frequently satisfying, yes, but work all the same.
MICHAEL: Toronto is such a hip, cosmopolitan city. How does it inspire you? Is there a sustainable art scene AND art market there?
JUAN: Toronto is, for sure, a good city to live in and it is, as you say, pretty cosmopolitan, too. But, I wouldn't say that TO, or “The Big Smoke” as it's known, inspires me particularly. Most of what I think about doesn't come from the modern world. There is an art scene here, though, and it does thrive for some of the people within it, but I think like anywhere it is especially subject to the whims of fashion or the tides of the economy. Many of Toronto's artists are hard-working, avid and interesting people and as I think of it, I realize that that is probably what I like the most about the art scene here, despite that I'm not a big part of it!
MICHAEL: Like most artists, you're very concerned with your technique. Do you think people who see your work should also be concerned about technique or can they just enjoy it without deconstructing it?
JUAN: Yes, I definitely think that a picture - or whatever kind of art it is - should be able to be enjoyed without any analysis or deconstructing other than what's "on the face of it," so to speak. If someone wants to delve deeper, then of course it can be even more gratifying to them if they find what else there may be in the piece. I suppose you could say that the best art is able to be enjoyed at a number of levels of depth, including on its surface!
MICHAEL: Wouldn't you be better off if you went back to practicing law full time? I mean, isn't art basically self-indulgent bull crap? Most people don't even understand it and living artists are always struggling. What's the point?
JUAN: Well, first off, there is no way I could go back to practicing law, even if I wanted to, which I do not. It's simply been too long a hiatus. Regarding what's the point of it all, though, I'd say that although I suppose there is a great deal of self-indulgent, or perhaps, self-centered work being done today, that is a roller-coaster I do not wish to be on. I mean, once current popularity sways to someone else as the "next new thing," the old next new thing is left behind (there are notable exceptions to this, of course). In all events, it seems artists tend to be compelled to make their art and will find a way to do so as much as they are able, despite having many different sources for their inspiration. For my part, I look for, or think about, imagery that I find compelling, interesting, or attractive, for any number of reasons, and then try to realize that vision. This is true for commissioned portraits as much as it is for any other subject. However, in the end, the art is not about me. I can only go by my own guidelines, yes, and hope that someone else out there might like what they see, but that is not the same as self indulgence. If it were about me - that is to say, self indulgent - then I'd be afraid no one would find it interesting, but me, I guess. If they did, it would not last for very long. A dangerous path to travel for any artist.
MICHAEL: Well said. Thanks Juan. This has been great.
JUAN: Thanks very much. It was my pleasure and honour doing this and I shall try to keep in touch.
Check out Juan at www.juanmartinez.com