At what age did you decide to become an artist?
The decision to become an artist was not an easy one for me. I grew up in a very conservative social environment that left no room for professions other than doctor, lawyer ,or engineer. So at first I would not even consider following what at the time seemed just a hobby and not a career. However ,it is clear to me now that I really wanted to be an artist although it took several attempts and false starts to make up my mind and take the right steps forward. It was quite late—at age twenty-nine—that I took the big leap, quitting my regular job and leaving my country. I went for it full-time… with no regrets so far.
How did your parents react when you told them you wanted to be an artist?
As could be expected in a conventional milieu, there was a strong resistance to admit anything connected to the arts as a career. My mother was always supportive but wouldn’t voice her view. On the other hand ,my father thought my decision was the end of the world, and he would never talk about it. We never had a conversation on the matter, and he would get very uncomfortable if the subject was ever raised. (I must admit I was for a time heavily burdened by that).
Who are your favorite artists?
Diego Velázquez, after he met Rubens and visited Italy—he proved to be the painter’s painter; Vermeer, his Milkmaid cannot be praised enough; just about anything painted by Hopper along with his simple yet deep statement “If you could say it in words there would be no reason to paint.” Also Impressionism as a movement.
Who is your favorite artist whose work is unlike your own?
I’ve always been attracted to Paul Klee’s drawings and compositions, which are quite far from the way I work, and I guess it is because I find much truth and joy in his art.
Art book you cannot live without?
Robert Henri’s The Art Spirit, for me is like having an open and casual conversation on Art full of insights and ideas to reflect upon. Then there’s Velázquez Technique of Genius by Carmen Garrido and Jonathan Brown a real treat describing and analyzing how Velázquez’s technique evolved over time from a competent provincial painter to a sophisticated and refined artist. Last but not least Max Doerner’s The Materials of the Artist, perhaps a bit dated but a must-read for any artist.
What is the quality you most admire in an artist?
Honesty: being true to her/himself for it is easy to loose track of yourself among vogues, fads and trends—just so many voices—mostly when there’s something to be gained from it.
Do you keep a sketchbook?
Absolutely. For me being an artist is a 24/7 trade, and you only stop if there’s no other choice. So I always keep a couple of sketchbooks of different sizes at hand, and I take them with me wherever I go along with a pen, a waterbrush, and small watercolor box. Lately, I have also begun to sketch on my iPad although I feel is not quite up to the task when compared with the real tools (bit attached to the old ways, I guess). I also find that sketchbooks can be artworks on their own regardless of their use to outline ideas for paintings.
What’s your favorite museum in all the world?
For years I used to visit to the Met every Friday evening whether there was some special exhibition or just to pay my respects to the Man in a Turban or to Juan de Pareja. The Met has it all and it has been an essential part of my art education for it permits close encounters with artworks and cultures from all over the world. Always a source of inspiration and good memories, I keep visiting its website, and it never fails to be a treat.
What’s the best exhibition you have ever attended?
I don’t know if I would consider it the best, but I remember the Jackson Pollock retrospective back in the late 90s at the MoMa. It made me look at his artwork under a quite different light and shows that properly curated exhibitions can truly surprise you shaking your prejudices and opening your mind to new experiences.
If you were not an artist, what would you be?
An astronomer (if possible in a space station).
Did you have an artistic cohort that influenced your early creative development?
Yes, but only after I moved to New York and started taking classes at the ASL. It was there that I found a truly rich environment and the word, inspiration, and guidance from other artists that made me feel at home. I cannot overstate the importance of those years at the League.
What is one thing you didn’t learn in art school that you wish you had?
Art school is a wonderful promised land. You feel you belong, you share a common language. Yet the art world out there is not quite the same, and it could be of great help to get some tips on how to deal with it in a practical way.
What work of art have you looked at most and why?
Sorolla’s sea paintings. Those artworks use the most refined technique, loose brushwork and lush palette to capture light, people, fleeting moments in time, bringing them almost to life. When you look at María on the Beach at Biarritz you can almost feel the salty sea breeze on your face while the painting has been applied in a seemingly sketchy bold manner. Also, I can hardly praise and recommend enough Sorolla’s small sketches (there are a number of them at the Hispanic Society in New York), must-see lessons for any artist.
What is your secret visual pleasure outside of art?
The play of light on glasses, metals, and water, the night sky, my three girls (my family).
Do you listen to music in your studio?
Yes, all sorts, from jazz to flamenco, although I work sometimes in complete silence. Music is a great companion in the long hours of work, and I carefully pick what to listen to when I paint.
What is the last gallery you visited?
A show entitled Odalisques: form Ingres to Picasso at Granada’s Museum of Fine Arts. An exhibition about representation of the female body under the male gaze and its evolution from classical to modern art and the tension between tradition and innovation at a time, when the suffragettes campaigned for their rights, and women were entering formal art academies for the first time.
Who is an under-rated artist people should be looking at?
When I think about artists who deserve major recognition and haven’t gotten it yet, I can’t help thinking of so many talented people I met at the ASL back in the day. For me it is not so much about the lesser but known artists, but rather about the number of really gifted people who never stand out or get the proper credit.
What art materials can you not live without?
Definitely my set of oils and my fountain pen. I have changed studios several times and adjusting to new places has always been very disruptive, occasionally leading to periods of time when it was nearly too difficult to come up with the will and energy to create. The solution I found was to devise an emergency portable studio consisting of an oil thumb-box, canvas paper, and sketchbook. I keep them always at hand and ready and they have saved my day many a times.
Do you paint/sculpt/create art every day?
I try to. A line, a sketch, a painting. There has been only exceptional periods in my life when I couldn’t work regularly in the studio, but even then a paper pad and ball pen would do.
What is the longest time you went without creating art?
I haven’t actually experienced a creative full stop, but there was a period of time of about three months when things really slowed down due to the fact that my family and I temporarily moved to Colombia. Getting all our art supplies and tools plus adapting to a new life and setting up a studio took its toll, and I almost didn’t paint at all though I continued drawing. This experience helped me to arrange the survival art kit I have described before, and it has proved quite useful.
What do you do when you are feeling uninspired?
Normally, I favor work over inspiration, so I hardly have problems getting to draw or paint. Something that worries me, however, is the possibility of being out focus or experiencing lack of concentration. Concerns of daily life can put me off easily and take away the zest art demands. On the other hand, and in addition to reviewing your favorite masters, I have also found great help in checking artworks done by fellow artists who happen to be on a similar road as yours.
What are the questions that drive your work?
I’m convinced that art conveys what words cannot and that each of its creations becomes a unique struggle to arrange in space a way to break free from time. So I guess fleeting reality, the fact of sheer presence, is at the root of my motivation to do art, to reveal the quiet immediacy of the world, its labors and days. Painting is my response to the wonder that there is a world at all and a human gaze trying to cope with it.
Then comes another sort of motivation: the attempt to put all that on canvas or paper, preserving certain a abstract quality, holding on to an expressive brushwork that consciously seeks tension and doubt and trying to make the most out of a limited palette. Surely a terrific and never-ending undertaking.
What is the most important quality in an artist?
Be true to her/him/themselves.
What is something you haven’t yet achieved in art?
I always have the feeling that I’m not quite there, not yet, invariably sensing a sort of discomfort about my artwork. In art, I find joy but no peace.
What is the best thing about art in the era of social media?
Although it is time-consuming, the use of social media opens up the possibility to reach (and be reached by) almost anyone anywhere, to share and learn, to keep in touch, and to follow friends, artists, galleries, museums. (A great example is this intercontinental “Artist Snapshot” series.) For sure, social media is here to stay, but it is also good to be able to balance the amount of time and energy we put into it, so it doesn’t became too distracting or a surrogate for true art-making.
José Cáceres was awarded the Art Students League’s Xavier Gonzalez and Ethel Edwards Travel Grant in 2002. He lives and teaches art in Spain. For more of his work, follow him on Instagram @josecaceresart.