A Conversation with Andrew Stevovich
VAL: As a mid-career artist, can you offer insight into how ideas for your paintings are generated? Do the images come to you in dreams, or in a flash, or as you go about mundane activities in your everyday life?
AVS: I used to often get subjects from my dreams, though not so much anymore—my dreams have gotten too strange. These days the initial idea often comes to me in a flash, and usually has something to do with an immediate personal experience. Sometimes an idea can also come from aimless doodling or sketching, or other situations that interest me, but the vast majority of ideas never get realized. Once I start to work, what came in a flash can change quite dramatically as the composition gets developed.
VAL: So you take a lot of artistic license as you go and merely use the idea as the genesis of a composition?
AVS: Yes. I do not worry about the reality of it after a while. The drawing will tell me what it needs. I do refer back to reality if I am having trouble with a gesture or something in particular. I might have somebody who is available pose for a hand or a foot or something, or sit in a particular way that will help me to get what I am after, but usually once I begin, it’s mostly just coming from my mind.
VAL: You have described yourself as an abstract artist, but that seems antithetical to the narrative content of the paintings. Are you referring to the emphasis you place on design and formal arrangement, instead of subject matter?
AVS: Yes, I think that all successful paintings have to be strong in the formal sense—a good painting has to be—and it has to be balanced in terms of the composition. I refer to my work as abstract because in my paintings I also try to reduce the psychological narrative, particularly in terms of the figures’ facial expressions. I am trying to express a lot with only the most minimal suggestion—so it is abstract in the sense of eliminating unnecessary detail. For instance, I am not interested in painting every wrinkle on a figure’s hand, because I want to create an image that is reduced to only its essentials. It is for that reason that I view painting as an abstract process: I am trying to make reality out of abstraction, which is an abstract concept.
VAL: In terms of art historical traditions, where do you see your work fitting in?
AVS: It seems to me that artists tried to produce increasingly accurate and realistic paintings; for example, portraits by some of the Italian Renaissance painters, or Holbein, whose paintings nearly exactly duplicate their sitters. Then things moved to a more gestural interpretation, and then to abstraction. It seems to me that all that area has been covered. As a result, I am not at all interested in doing strictly realistic work or strictly abstract work, repeating what has already been done. In the way that I have found, I can create something that seems new, at least to me.
VAL: How do you want your work to be perceived by others? What would you tell someone who is looking at your work for the first time? What would you hope they would see or get out of your paintings? Or, if they did not understand your work, how would you explain it?
AVS: That is a hard question. I think the first thing I would probably do is ask that they spend some time really looking closely at the painting. Over the years I have had people dismiss my work quickly, telling me that they think it is social commentary or genre painting; but then as they start to look at it, they start to see all the elements that are at play and the many different levels on which the painting is operating, and they see that it is not as simple as it first appeared. Then the painting opens up for them. So, that is the first thing I ask—for people to take time and really look at the paintings, because hopefully once they start looking, they will see what is there.
VAL: Do you want them to look more at the content or the formal qualities?
AVS: I’ve always left that up to the viewer. People can enter a work from different ways. One of the things I found with using the figure is that it made the work accessible to people who maybe would not have looked if the painting had been pure abstraction. But then, once they got into it and past the story, they would delve into the psychological narrative and also into the color and abstract aspects of the composition; so it would hopefully expand their understanding of what they are looking at.
I don’t try to direct people to look at one thing or another. There are some people who look at the work purely on an abstract basis and do not really care much about narrative, but others initially focus on the narrative.
As you know, that is naturally where most people would begin, and I think that’s understandable, but hopefully as they keep looking more deeply, they will start to see the work on other levels. The trick is to get somebody to look carefully. We live in such a fast-paced world, and people look at everything so quickly before moving on to the next thing.
VAL: Can you extrapolate on your working process and outline how a painting evolves from conception to realization?
AVS: To start, as I said, I often get an idea that begins with a rough, quick sketch. Then I start working with the drawing and develop it, taking it further along. Depending on the image, it can vary widely as to how many drawings get done—some come together fairly quickly, while others can take many drawings. Drawings are very beautiful, but they also can be very forgiving.
I usually do not rely too much on perspective beyond what is necessary to make the drawing work, but I do make some use of the golden ratio. In later stages of a drawing, I will often put in lines—horizontals, verticals, diagonals—that are worked out using this ratio. It always amazes me how in a good drawing, elements seem to fall into place along these lines.
VAL: How did you learn about the ratio?
AVS: I first started to think about it seriously in the late 1970s when I read a book, Seurat and the Science of Painting. I do not rely on these devices rigorously, because I think overuse can make the work stale and boring, but if I am looking for where to put the edge of a window or door and I am not quite sure, I find if I locate the edge along one of these lines, then all of a sudden it seems to lock in beautifully.
VAL: So the drawing is a refining process?
AVS: Yes. I do a lot of refining at that stage, as I do not like to draw on the canvas and I try to avoid that as much as possible. When I get the drawing to be fairly resolved in a compositional way and after spending a lot time just looking at it, I may start painting.
Sometimes you think your drawing is great, but when you start painting, the colors do not come together in the right way or other problems crop up; so I spend a lot of time looking at the drawing before progressing to color.
I spend so much time on the drawings, because I don’t like to draw on the actual canvas more than I have to—though changes do get made on canvas, and sometimes they are significant and extensive. One reason I do this is that I use finely woven linen that is oil-primed, and strong impressions with pencil can damage the ground and cause it to crack. However, the most important thing is that the ground be kept as white as possible, because I want light to appear to emanate from the painting, as if it is glowing from within. I need to have that pristine undisturbed canvas so that when I put in my colors, particularly the flesh tones, it will help bring a luminescence to my paintings. I don’t concern myself with the idea of an outside light source illuminating my painting, I want the light to be coming from my painting.
VAL: Can you describe the painting process itself?
AVS: In a way, I work a bit like one would work on a fresco in plaster, painting one part, finishing it, then going on to another. The face is always done in one day. It may be a very long day, but I don’t re-work it the next day, so in a strange way you could say it is all done à la prima. At the very end of the process, I will do some glazing, but it is usually not extensive and does not include large areas, normally just shadows or hair. If I have to make a large change, I just scrape out the whole thing and repaint it.
VAL: In what order do you paint in the composition?
AVS: I paint backwards. I do the face first. You are supposed to work from the shadows to the highlights, from back to front, but I do not work that way.
VAL: Can you talk about the scale of your work? It seems that you most often work small, but now you’ve just finished a monumental composition, In the Garden.
AVS: Except for one painting done in the early 1970s and destroyed in a house fire a few years ago, In the Garden is the largest, but I do have a couple of others that are close to that in size, like my two large subway paintings. Sometimes the drawings direct me to the scale that seems right pretty quickly, and other times I struggle quite a bit to decide. Perhaps an intimate subject, such as two people embracing in bed, seems more appropriate small, while a more complex composition, like a full-length lying on autumn leaves, needs to be larger. It’s hard to say—a matter of intuition, I guess.
VAL: What about the latest composition?
AVS: I envisioned In the Garden as a big painting from the very beginning. I wanted three women, full-length, surrounded by an abundance of leaves—I have wanted to do this image for a long time.
It was an unusual experience in that I produced the image in just one try. It was only preceded by a couple of small sketches and then I made it the size it is. It just seemed right to me to be that way and I wanted to do large full figures, and I wanted to do all the leaves of the pear trees. It is difficult to determine why a particular idea resonates with me.
VAL: Tell me more about ideas that captivate your interest.
AVS: Friends sometime suggest an idea, or will send me a photo from a newspaper or magazine, thinking it looks like it’s something I’d want to paint. Even if I can understand why they thought so, I’ve never painted any of these “well-meant” ideas. It’s so hard to say what causes me to be interested in a particular theme as I do not analyze things that deeply. I really like to rely on the subconscious and trust my instincts, which is usually a better means—that way my work is not contrived. This whole process of painting, for me anyway, has a very dreamlike quality, and it slips away when you try to explain it.
VAL: You mentioned the luminosity of color in your work. Can you explain the importance of color and the influences that led you to explore these ideas?
AVS: The main influence with regard to my use of color was the professor I worked with at the Rhode Island School of Design, Gordon Peers, because he probably talked more about color than anything else. He was deeply instrumental in my awareness of color and light and my emphasis on bringing a beautiful light into the canvases. He spoke less about other things like composition, and absolutely never about narrative content. He was interested in how colors relate to each other on canvas, the effect one color has on another. I always know that I am onto something promising when the paint I mix on my palette does not look right, but looks perfect on the painting.
VAL: Your palette appears to have changed or evolved over the years.
AVS: I like to think it has gotten richer and more luminous as time has gone by and also that I now tend more to use primary colors. Earlier paintings had more purples, rust, and browns, but now they seem more vibrant. That is one of the things I really admire about Gauguin’s work—that the color just glows, especially in the Tahitian ones. It’s not easy to get that effect. In my work I will sometimes go through huge amounts of paint and sometimes spend pretty much the whole day mixing colors to try to get it to work. It is a delicate balance, because the colors I use are bright but not garish. It is a hard thing to achieve—to have color be intense, but not lurid.
VAL: Can you talk a little bit about the design of your compositions, how you streamline, simplify, and alter them in your working process?
AVS: Yes. I just start taking out elements, which is part of the whole reduction process, taking things to their most fundamental state. I greatly admire the Flemish painters, though they do the opposite, loading their images with great detail. It’s not that I feel there is anything wrong with adding lots of detail, but I tend to leave things in the most minimal state I need to get the point across. To my eye, a composition just starts to get too busy, so I am always trying to reduce things down to the point of what is minimally needed.
VAL: You said that you try to eliminate as much as possible in your paintings, such as facial expression, but do you see your paintings as expressive and emotional?
AVS: It is not to eliminate expression, per se, but to have the expression be clear with a minimum of information given.
VAL: And how long does it take you to finish a painting—say, one of the smaller ones?
AVS: It varies so much, but in a good year I can complete ten to twelve average-size paintings. On the other hand, In the Garden has taken something like sixteen months to complete.
VAL: There is a lot of decorative patterning in your compositions. Can you talk a little about that or why you use decoration because other than that, your work tends to be somewhat stark?
AVS: Well, I think the main reason why I like to use pattern is that it allows me to add more color and variety. If I don’t have that, and since I have discarded the idea of having a light source, the compositions might look just too bland. By putting in patterns, it gives me a way to add more color and liven up the images. I like the juxtaposition of the subtle pattern and the sometimes not-so-subtle pattern with other things that are more simplified.
VAL: What role does humor play in the painting? There often seems to be satiric or ironic undertones to the narrative.
AVS: Again, I think that just comes out of my subconscious and my view of life and the human existence. Our lives are filled with joy and sadness, but also with considerable folly and humorous absurdity.
VAL: You have spoken in the past of art historical influences. Italian Renaissance and Northern European painting seem to have impacted your approach, but how direct are these influences?
AVS: Well, early Italian Renaissance painting is a strong influence. I looked so much at the works in the National Gallery in Washington, D.C., while growing up, so those works are important and beautiful to me, especially Sienese and Quattrocento paintings. What I see in this work, and what I try to accomplish in my own work, is a beautiful complexity, simple on the one hand, complicated on the other, like life and nature.
VAL: In your figures, the influence of Giotto seems to be especially pronounced.
AVS: Yes. The Madonna and Child by Giotto at the National Gallery is one of my favorite paintings—I have a reproduction of it in my studio—not for any religious reason—but because it is very meaningful to me. The composition is wonderful: profound yet simple and beautifully painted. Additionally, on a narrative level, it presents so much feeling with regard to the bond between mother and child, but without any extraneous or trite detail.
Then I started to look closely at Gauguin’s work when I moved to Boston in 1970. The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, has his masterpiece, Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going? in their collection. I never go to the Museum of Fine Arts without looking at that painting. Back then, you would walk into the museum from Huntington Avenue, go up the stairs, and it was on the wall way down at the far end, so, you could see it from across the width of the museum. It was just staggeringly beautiful there. That was when I started to gain an appreciation for Gauguin. I really like the luminosity of his colors, and I think his compositions are extremely solid.
I have a great appreciation for the work of others, like Balthus and George Tooker, but I do not find them to be influential in my own work. I did not even see really see Tooker’s work until later—and the same is true of Balthus. I had not looked at his work seriously until probably the late 1970s. By that time I was already pursuing my own direction. So it is probably more correct to say that I like their work because I see similarities in it to some of the issues and problems that I deal with in my own art. I particularly like the Balthus painting in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art of the woman who is combing her hair (Nude Before a Mirror). To me, it is a wonderful painting on many levels. Like the Giotto painting, this work embodies many of the ideas that are important to me. There is a simplicity to the painting, yet it has great complexity and depth. The image has been reduced to its most basic elements, yet without losing any of its richness and beauty.
An interesting point relating to important artists is that the two influential art teachers I had—one was in high school, and the other Gordon Peers—both very much admired Rembrandt and Cézanne, but the work of these artists does not particularly affect me. I think their work is great, but it is not anything that personally resonates with me.
VAL: You seem to particularly connect with an artist like Gauguin, who pursued his own path apart from the mainstream. Is that something you also relate to?
AVS: Yes, that is true. I feel that I should paint what I want to paint in the way I want, and not listen to other people, or be influenced by what is in fashion. I just have to feel that what I do, what I paint, has meaning to me—that is what is most important.