Velko is a fantastic artist and interview subject. He has this rare ability to talk about himself, his work and art in general while making it all relatable, accessible, fun and even funny at times. In short, he and his work http://veljko-djurdjevic.tumblr.com/ are refreshing and profound at the same time. Read on and see what I mean…
MICHAEL: Velko! Your work is amazing. When I look at it, I think, this guy is a "Classical Realist Painter." Is this how you see your work?
VELKO: First of all, thank you for the compliments about my work. It never ceases to amaze me how art transcends continents, time and civilizations. We all seem to have a similar yet unique response to it. Well, I don't think much about whether I am a Classical Realist. I've learned the skills from the Old Masters, skills needed to give weight and credibility to the ideas gradually maturing in my mind. My biggest fear in creating an oeuvre is Time. Time corrodes art. The more your art is current today, the more it will be passe tomorrow. Hence, I feel a need to resist losing focus, being distracted by all the everyday news, feelings, impulses. The process of creating art is a monk like state with a Zen focus on the deep philosophical and emotional content that surpasses boundaries. I'm trying to accomplish that.
MICHAEL: Writing is the same thing. Monk, Zen, focus, philosophy. These words imply to me that you spend much of your time alone painting. There's also a sense of peacefulness in your work that also seems to imply solitude, No?
VELKO: I think artists in general fall in the 'introvert' category. When I paint, I really need to be in a calm, balanced state, filled with clean energy. Sometimes a bad vibe can make me walk away from the easel for the day. It's a metaphysical process where you are knitting energy and emotions into a piece of cloth. People around the globe resonate to what you create, they feel the urge to support you, so you can continue the creative process and making our world a slightly better place.
I have actually coined the term "ZenScape." It was even the name of my first show in the States a couple of years back. The peacefulness is what contemporary man desperately needs. One of my core motivations is Humanism and empathy. So peace doesn't imply solitude. I rarely paint figures in my landscapes, however everybody feels welcome. I was always inspired to capture and convey that Zen-ness, a calm, meditative state where you absorb and emit, interact, heal and grow as a person.
MICHAEL: Your summer and winter forest paintings are amazing. There's so much detail. Are those plein air paintings or did you take photos? They look like you spent a long time working on them.
VELKO: Thank you. For each painting, I first explore a micro oil study, either in plein air or in studio from photos. At this level, it is irrelevant really, because the majority of the information comes from my memories and impressions from nature. I work slowly, creating only a handful of paintings per year. Hyperrealism is how I convey respect to what I paint and how much the subject matter means to me intimately. You couldn't find an old icon just doodled with crayons, could you? All that immense devotion emits love, faith and gratitude. That doesn't mean I am a slave to details. In close-up, viewers can see all the minute brush strokes. I consider it a warm, sincere way of creating interaction.
MICHAEL: Yes, definitely hyper-realism. Do you paint portraits the same way? From photos of people who pose? Even the wrinkles and creases in your subjects’ faces are great.
VELKO: I seldom accept portrait commissions. It's mostly the 'VIP status' individuals who have little or no time for posing. I arrange the ambient, light, accessories and determine the poses using an assistant. For my latest, I needed less than eight minutes to obtain a sufficient number of reference photos.
In most ways, my portrait process is completely different from creating landscapes. What works great for scenes often fails when it comes to depicting human beings. My portraits are much looser, with clearer brush strokes and heavier impasto. I use four different under-painting strategies here. The energy and vibe is of a living, breathing, human being. I don't see this dualism as a threat to my artistic integrity, but rather as width and richness of one's talent.
When creating a portrait, I spend a lot of time with that person in my head. I analyze him, try to figure who that person once was and how they became who they are now, what are his/her sins and virtues. You need to resist judging and replace that with understanding. I find it essential to have a clear source of inspiration. So in portraiture, as well as in my landscape work, I find empathy and deep understanding as one of my core motifs.
MICHAEL: How do painting portraits serve you as an artist?
VELKO: To stay in shape and take a break from painting landscapes. The face is not what interests me, it's the soul. If you achieve such depth of character and intensity in the eyes, you are creating not a portrait, but a great work of art. The process can be exceptionally exhausting. The more the person on the linen breathes and observes me, the less energy I have left. Near the end, it becomes metaphysical, it almost ventures into alchemy. That painted human being is a living entity who watches us with intense wisdom, inner peace and empathy.
MICHAEL: Your work clearly comes from a deeper, spiritual place. Where do you think your talent comes from? Or is painting more about hard work?
VELKO: I am a third-generation Realist artist. My people are fanatical and curious! It took us almost seventy years combined to gather and resurrect the lost knowledge. In the Golden Age, every artist knew something, but no one knew everything. We had a unique perspective and used a chance to finally create a complete picture, so to speak.
Also, putting it in a geographical context makes even more sense. I live and work in Serbia, a country on the border between the East and the West. This means I was able to interpret and relate to both mentalities, and use their advantages. My art is a fusion of deep Slavic soul and Western scientific mind. I know I am good at what I do, but that realization is actually very humbling.
MICHAEL: Serbia is very cultural, but do people there appreciate contemporary art? Most Americans do not understand or collect art. They prefer sports, video games, television and music. Do Serbians want art?
VELKO: Serbs enjoy art as much as any other nation, I believe. Art is silent and eternal. It has helped us navigate through many hardships in history. There is a story of enemy soldiers breaking into Renaissance Master Coreggio's studio. They found him painting a rose. Both parties stood still, observed each other for a moment, the soldiers then left and the Master continued creating his art. These were two parallel universes in a brief interaction in time.
This may sound strange, but I wouldn't like to become too well-known or celebrated for my artwork. It's not an elitist or bourgeois thing. Art itself is simply not loud or aggressive to reach everybody. However, if you listen, you will hear it and be welcomed into a subtle, divine realm. (I have to go now. 1 a.m. here. I have a mountain biking day-trip tomorrow morning. Please send the next question and we'll continue the interview as soon as I'm back.)
MICHAEL: Velko, I decided not to edit your mountain biking comment out of this interview because I think it’s a charming illustration of how your life includes more things and not only art! I hope you had fun. Moving on, what do you think about the art world/art market and how they function today? Picasso and Rothko and Warhol are dead, but they’re richer than ever while living artists are struggling.
VELKO: The struggling artist theory is a myth. As in any other profession, the majority simply sucks. Only the top five percent of artists for all times have been able to make a good living. It is hard to become established, but if you bring unparalleled dedication and quality, ultimately recognition is inevitable. I see it as a test of will - if you believe in your art long enough, others will start believing too.
We are witnessing a wave of record-breaking auction sales. It is plain business and economy and has very little to do with art. Various groups lobby hard to establish something as a new currency on the market. The mega rich buy it because apparently it is a good way of diversifying and preserving wealth in turbulent times. Diamonds are just rocks, until people agree that now they’re officially worth millions.
MICHAEL: Funny. That's true. Are you a full time artist? How are you surviving as an artist in Serbia? Are you really a doctor or lawyer who paints for fun?
VELKO: I run pyramid schemes in third world countries. Painting is just a cover up! Joking aside, I am a full-time artist with international collectors’ support. I’m happy to say that each of my paintings is sold in advance. I have a hard time supplying my current gallery. There’s only one small winter scene available on the market.
Art is an extreme sport. You need to perform great under great stress. You need to learn to love the uncertainty and risk. You need to feel the passion and confidence about what you create. Wealth is abundant, everyone possesses money. However, a Hyperrealist artist is able to produce no more than a couple hundred paintings during his career. So in simple math, very few people will ever be able to get to own my paintings.
MICHAEL: You're hilarious. Who knew? An artist with an actual sense of humor! Do you paint every day?
VELKO: Well, painting is not an occupation for nerds. All of the Old Masters were bad-asses in their own way. Art is a very possessive lover. Everything in my life revolves around it. And you can only balance extreme with extremes, the work hard, play hard thing. I'm passionate about free diving, mountain biking, expeditions, adventures keep me fresh and excited about painting. The farther away I go from creating, the closer I can get back to it.
MICHAEL: Why aren't you in New York or London? Shouldn't you be in a REAL art city where you can flourish? Come to America! Nothing against Serbia, mind you…
VELKO: Technology has changed the game completely. Everybody is connected with everybody. We now have freedom to create art from wherever we prefer and deliver it globally. My paintings have seen many more cities than I have ever visited. On our planet, there are 196 parcels that we call countries. I don't care too much about where I am, as long as I feel inspired and connected with nature. But if the moment comes, the States are definitely my favorite.
MICHAEL: Tell me about Serbia. Where are you exactly? What do people there think of contemporary art? Do you know many artists there? Serbia is seems very exotic to Americans like me. Does it have a strong art tradition?
VELKO: Serbia is a country in Europe, with Belgrade as its capital, which is where I live and make art. The country has a very turbulent past. It used to be a flourishing, unique mix of capitalism and communism until the war in the 80s. It is still picking up the pace and people are trying to adapt to the free-market economy. There is a love for the arts, but nowadays, fewer people are able to treat themselves with an original painting. Other than that, Serbia is affordable, picturesque and welcoming. Oh, and girls are stunningly beautiful. Do I hear the sound of booking a trip to Belgrade?
MICHAEL: Absolutely! Finally, you know we haven't spoken about the world economy or homelessness or a cure for cancer or anything really important. What's the point of art? What can art do for the world?
VELKO: Once a lady from California, who never met me before, sent me her life savings because she felt a need to have one of my landscapes. When I stood in front of Michelangelo's "David" my ears went numb and I almost cried. Art is powerful. It heals and develops our potential. It speaks a universal language and transcends time, civilizations and borders. It has a clear purpose. Art inspires us to become our higher selves.
MICHAEL: Bravo. Indeed it does. Thanks Velko. This has been great.
VELKO: Thanks Michael, it’s been a pleasure!
Check out Velko Geurgevich at http://veljko-djurdjevic.tumblr.com/.