When I think of artists that have a very distinctive uniquely personal style, and yet at the same time are consummate professionals, I would certainly have to include Tucson, Arizona artist Phil Starke on that list. One look at his website and you’ll know what I mean.
When I worked as a freelance illustrator there seemed to be an unhealthy emphasis placed upon achieving a unique style, something different, something that would separate an illustrator from the pack. I guess it makes sense, but as a fine artist I look upon that now as being thoroughly superficial.
Artists that I’ve interviewed over the years, when asked how one arrives at a distinctive, recognizable style, most seem to agree that it should evolve naturally. “Concentrate on learning,” they say. Starke would agree. “Studying other artists and their work is a big help. Study how artists use abstract shapes in representational work.” With this knowledge gained and applied, Phil Starke’s work is distinctively his, it’s not forced, it’s a natural result of lessons learned, his personality, temperament, and educated taste…all resulting in highly refined, wonderfully designed paintings.
What he’s achieved should be an inspiration to all of us as to what is possible. Much could be learned from his online classes, videos, and blog.
I’m very pleased to bring you this very informative and interesting interview with Phil Starke.
Why are you an artist? Growing up I was influenced by a Great Uncle that was a commercial artist in the 1920’s and 30’s in St. Louis. He had to cut his career short to go back to the farm and help out. He lived to be 94, so I did get to spend some time with him. He did watercolors and drawing on the farm and he would talk about his life drawing teacher in art school, Oscar Berninghaus. He was well aware of the Taos Society of Artist and would talk to me about their work. Another reason is I have a wife, Shari, who puts up with me painting all day long. It’s her support that makes it possible.
What would be your definition of art? That’s a hard one to answer in a few sentences and not something I really think about. I know it involves beauty and emotion. Francis Schaeffer, a Christian philosopher said , “With truth comes beauty and with this beauty a freedom before God.” Not exactly sure what that means but it sounds good. True art is a doxology. It should glorify God through His creation; I never want to make nature something to be glorified over God.
What do you hope to communicate through your work? That’s another one that I don’t think a lot about. I paint because I really enjoy it. When I was at the Art Institute of Chicago in the 70’s everyone was painting bad pictures about pollution (wasn’t a good school back then). The instructor said, if you’re worried about pollution or politics go pick up trash and vote. Don’t paint about it. That’s about all I learned from the Art Institute, but it was good advice. I would hope that the viewer would get the same joy out of seeing what I’m painting that I do when I paint it.
How difficult was it for you, after graduating from the American Art Academy in Chicago, to begin a fine art career? It was very difficult. Galleries were not interested in young artists back then or maybe I wasn’t very good. I was married with our first child, spent a few years in construction and working in a hotel fixing air conditioners. I was on the verge of going to heating and cooling school when I sold 4 paintings at a small gallery in Kansas City. My Dad said he would give us $200 a month if I would quit heating and cooling and paint full time. Two-hundred went a long way back then.
If I can simplify the shapes in my painting and simplify the values, then color seems to come more intuitively.
What’s the most important lesson you learned that caused a noticeable jump in the quality of your work? A couple of things have helped. One was to focus on composition and value instead of color. I was told that a painting will always work on some level if the values and composition work, no matter what colors I use. But if I have a good color scheme but a static composition and poor values the painting will never work. The second thing was not to make painting an absolute in my life. When painting was the main focus in my life, I found that I would do anything to advance it. I became even more self-absorbed then I usually am. As a Christian, I find that I tend to ruin whatever I make the most important thing in my life, even good things. We’re created to make God the center of our life. My work is more satisfying when it’s not the overriding focus, then I’m not so important in my own eyes. It takes the pressure off. That’s not to say painting isn’t important, but it’s not an absolute.
Put these words in order of importance: color, framing, values, technique, drawing, composition, concept. Concept, composition, value and drawing, color, technique, and framing.
Your work is very distinctive in design and color; what advice can you offer others for achieving such uniqueness in their own work? Studying other artists and their work is a big help. How artists use abstract shapes in representational work. Finding or designing patterns of dark and light. When using photographic reference spend time recomposing, thinking of the composition in different shapes, vertical, horizontal or square. After 5 or 6 thumbnails you start to think outside the box. Getting away from the photo is important and remembering that reality is overrated. For color, my focus is suggesting light, not copying what I see in the photo or when I’m painting outside. So, if I have some understanding of the colors on my palette, I can suggest a sense of light without having to copy photographic color. I want my painting to look like paint not a photograph.
You place great emphasis on viewing a motif abstractly; how do you suggest we do that? What helps me to think abstractly is to find the dark pattern that flows throughout the whole painting, it sets up the design and I can change the shape of that pattern to alter the composition. Looking at painters like Victor Higgins, Edgar Payne, Aldro Hibbard and current artists like Len Chmiel, Tim Lawson and Glenn Dean, and seeing how they use shapes and patterns to design their paintings is a good way to learn also. If I can simplify the shapes in my painting and simplify the values then color seems to come more intuitively.
When working en plein air and encountered with so much information, how do you go about distilling that down to the essentials…and how do you decide what is essential? Again, finding an overall shadow pattern helps to create a very simple pattern of dark and light. When I do this in a thumbnail drawing first, then use the thumbnail to transfer these shapes on the canvas, I’m more likely to retain the simplicity throughout the painting. At the end of the painting I want the dark pattern to still be evident and strong. If I get caught up with detail, then I will lose those simple patterns.
Why paint from nature if in fact the colors observed are changed on the canvas? When I’m outside painting I’m looking at real, transparent color affected by dust, atmosphere, sunlight and a billion other factors. But when I look at my palette and see 6 or 7 colors plus white, I know I can’t begin to paint what’s really there. I can however paint the effect of what’s there, the effects of warm and cool light on objects as well as the effect of atmosphere on distant objects. If I can see the real thing instead of a photograph I can see the effects of light much better and get a better sense of how the atmosphere affects the color. Everyone sees color differently so it matters when you can experience the scene instead of seeing an 8×10 glossy (or even a monitor).
Focus on composition and value instead of color.
You use the 12-spoke color wheel. Other than the primaries, do you mix all the remaining 9-colors or do you have specific tube color you place in those slots. I do have secondary colors in a tube plus a few modifiers or accent colors. But I find that I usually block in my painting with the primaries…cadmium yellow light, alizarin crimson and ultramarine blue. I tend to get cleaner colors with the primaries and I can get more subtle color variations. Red, yellow and blue are pure colors so they stay cleaner, whereas earth colors are already muted and can get muddy faster. Using the primary colors, plus white, really helps one understand how to mix color much better.
What colors are typically found on your palette? Right now I have Titanium white, cadmium yellow light, yellow ochre (although I’m not sure for how long), cadmium orange hue, cadmium red light hue, alizarin crimson, dioxizine purple or mauve permanent, ultramarine blue, viridian hue, cerulean hue.
What are the problems encountered when using a computer monitor for reference material, and how do you overcome those issues? I recently switched to a 32 inch flat TV screen and it works great. I really didn’t have any trouble with the computer monitor, it’s just small compared to the TV screen. They’re both great compared to printed photographs.
When developing various color studies prior to beginning a studio piece, how do you decide which color scheme to eventually select? I’ll do several color studies trying different color schemes. I usually use a split complimentary but will use different schemes to see which one works best. These studies are real small 5×7, 3×5 and maybe 20 minutes in duration. It just gives me an idea of what colors might work well together. Sometimes I get tired of green landscapes so I’ll use a yellow green, yellow orange and violet color scheme to come up with a different color harmony, anything to think outside the box color wise. Any color combination will work within the picture plane if the values are right. Skies aren’t always blue and grass isn’t always green. Again, it’s more about suggesting what the light is doing to objects, not the local color of the objects.
Many artists struggle with the business of art and yet you have excelled; what sources have been most helpful to you as a self-employed businessman? Lately, using the internet to promote workshops and paintings has been real helpful. Facebook and blogging really helps promote what we’re doing. My wife, Shari, is a computer genius and knows how to market. We haven’t placed an ad in a magazine for years. But things change so fast, I think we’ve learned not to put all our eggs in one basket.
You have a teacher’s heart. Your blog, newsletter, and videos are not only educational and informative but unselfishly generous with material shared; why do you enjoy teaching so much? Teaching is a great way to focus on what I think is important in painting. It keeps me grounded in my work. So I get more out of it then students do. I can also remember early on (pre workshop age) wishing for some guidance from someone who has been at it for a while.
Tell us about the on-line classes you offer. The Online Mentoring Class is an ongoing study where the students receive an hour demonstration every Sunday that is subject or technique oriented. Along with an assignment and screen flows (photoshop videos) we talk about composition, values and color. Then the student emails their assignment to me on Thursday and I critique it on Friday and they receive it on Saturday.
Which three artists have most strongly influenced you? There are countless artists that have influenced me and I add about three more every month. Early on John Carlson was a big influence, mainly because of his book, and there was a lot of his work in the Chicago Galleries when I was there. They were great to see in person. George Innes was a big influence. The Chicago Art Institute had about 40 pieces with 7 or 8 always on exhibit. Also Alfred Sisly, the institute had a lot of his work and it was very spontaneous and vibrant.
I really don’t like competitions unless I win something.
How important is it to enter art competitions? I really don’t like competitions, unless I win something. They’re a real pain and expensive, with all the shipping back and forth, and framing. But they can be opportunities to show in different areas of the country, and to meet other artists (if you attend, more expense). They also make you paint more. You have to plan and set goals for shows you’re entering each year. Galleries tend to be subject specific, competitions can allow you to paint more of what you want to paint. Then with all the rejections you develop a thick skin and learn to critique your work more objectively.
What advice do you have for students wishing to become full-time professional artists? I’m still trying to figure out the art business, but I would suggest making sure you paint because you really love to paint, not just to make a living at it. It’s a hard way to earn a living. There really isn’t a list of things to do to become a successful artist, no short cuts from working hard to improve your painting. There are ways to approach galleries or to advertise and use social media and you can easily find them on the internet. The main thing is improving as an artist, setting goals so you have a direction in your work and finding someone who is better than you to critique your work.
Thanks Phil for your time and effort in submitting to this interview. I sincerely appreciate it and I know many others will also.