At what age did you decide to become an artist?
Eighteen. I always liked drawing but no one ever told me I could be an artist. After all my high school friends went away to college I got a job in a factory. On one of my days off I took myself to the Philadelphia Museum of Art. No one in my family, or any of my friends, had ever been to a museum. As I climbed the great staircase leading up to the museum, I felt like I was ascending Mount Olympus, and I would, indeed, soon meet my gods. One of the first paintings I saw was Rubens’ Prometheus Bound. I stood spellbound in front of it. It was my St. Paul moment, a whole new world opened up, a world I wanted to be a part of, a beautiful, meaningful world. I decided at that moment I would spend the rest of my life drawing and painting. I searched for ways to make that happen, and five days before my twenty first birthday I arrived in New York and enrolled at the League.
How did your parents react when you told them you wanted to be an artist?
Being an artist was so foreign to them they had no idea how to react. I was not raised to have a career, or to be a professional anything. I was expected to have a family and get a job to support that family. Being a good husband and father was the key to happiness; what you did for a living was not important. Despite the fact that my parents would never understand my life choice, they were as supportive as they could be, and, perhaps even proud when they talked about their son, the artist.
Who are your favorite artists?
Rubens, Hals, Rembrandt. There are many others, of course, that I find interesting in one way or another, but anything that comes off the brush by those three makes my heart beat faster.
Who is your favorite artist whose work is unlike your own?
Elizabeth Torak. We studied together with Frank Mason at the League, and she can paint in the classical tradition as well as anyone, and did so for many years. But about ten years ago she shifted from painting the seen to painting the unseen. Her abstract paintings have a vibration, an energy, that makes you feel alive.
Art book you cannot live without?
Robert Beverly Hale’s Drawing Lessons From the Great Masters. For me it is not only the bible for how to draw, but also how to think like an artist.
What is the quality you most admire in an artist?
Do you keep a sketchbook?
Yes, of course, every artist keeps sketchbooks. Few, however, can find the one they are looking for.
What’s your favorite museum in all the world?
The size and history of the Louvre, as well as its great collection, makes it compelling. But I am often overwhelmed by large museums and find it hard to engage with individual works of art. Smaller museums, like the Frans Hals Museum in Haarlem, or the Mauritshuis in The Hague, or even New York’s Hispanic Society allow me do what I go to museums to do: see paintings.
What’s the best exhibition you have ever attended?
Peter Paul Rubens: The Drawings at the Met in 2005. Oil paintings are often over-cleaned and poorly restored, but drawings show you exactly what the artist intended. This exhibit was just one masterpiece after another.
If you were not an artist, what would you be?
Depressed, very severely depressed.
I’ve never wanted to be anything else. I suppose I could be happy in another discipline, like writing or music. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve come to love the law and might have been a lawyer in another lifetime. But if I were not an artist, I would curl up and die. If I cut my finger, I’m sure I would bleed linseed oil.
Did you have an artistic cohort that influenced your early creative development?
Not one, but a group, that introduced me to new ideas and opened my mind. When I was a student I worked at Carnegie Hall, as did other League students, and some Julliard students as well. After the concerts ended we often went across the street to P.J. Carney’s bar. It was a beat up little place back then, not the polished tavern it is now. We would order a few pitchers of beer and talk until the wee hours. They were wonderful discussions, not only about art, but also history and philosophy, politics, music, and literature. Most of them went on to become professional artists, musicians, and composers.
What is one thing you didn’t learn in art school that you wish you had?
After I had been in Frank Mason’s class for a while, I began to help out in his studio. I framed and crated paintings for exhibitions, and ground paint, and prepared canvases. I helped him select paintings for exhibitions and assisted when collectors came to visit his studio. I watched him live and learned what it was like to live the life of an artist. At the League I learned how to be a painter, but at Mason’s studio I learned how to be an artist.
What work of art have you looked at most and why?
Rembrandt’s Girl at a Window in the Dulwich Picture Gallery in London. I saw this painting when it came to New York many years ago. It was in near perfect condition, the closest I’ve ever come to seeing what a painting looked like on Rembrandt’s easel. I only saw it once but it has stayed with me like no other painting. The intimacy and tenderness of this portrait makes my heart melt.
What is your secret visual pleasure outside of art?
Do you listen to music in your studio?
Yes, classical. I like to say that I think in music and speak in painting. I call my palette “my piano” and paint in rhythms and harmonies.
What is the last gallery you visited?
I don’t visit galleries very often for two reasons. First, I live in Vermont and galleries are, literally, few and far between. Second, I’m an artistic introvert; I prefer to live with my own thoughts about painting.
Who is an underrated artist people should be looking at?
Adrian Brouwer. When Rubens died he had no fewer than sixteen paintings by Brouwer in his private collection. Very few of his paintings have survived, but you can see one of his best, The Smokers, at the Metropolitan Museum.
What art materials can you not live without?
Linseed oil. It is the only medium that is a fat. Water for watercolor, charcoal for drawing, ink for printmaking, even the clay, wood, and stone for sculpture, are all lean. The fatty quality of oil allows the paint to move like butter on the canvas and gives the painting a richness that is so important to expressing what I want to say in my work.
Do you paint/sculpt/create art every day?
In a perfect universe, yes. On days when I cannot get a brush into my hands, however, I paint in my head, like a pianist who hears music even when he is not sitting at the piano.
What is the longest time you went without creating art?
When I was a student I stopped painting for a year and a half to help a sick friend. I became increasingly depressed until one night I got so drunk my friends had to carry me home. The next day I was back at the League.
What do you do when you are feeling uninspired?
Pick up a pencil and draw whatever is in front of me. The simple act of putting a pencil to paper, or a brush to a canvas, is enough to relight the fire.
What are the questions that drive your work?
Can art change the world? Can it start a revolution, or stop one? If it can’t change the world, can it change an individual? Can it touch someone, move them? Can it make one person feel more alive, even if it is just for a moment?
What is the most important quality in an artist?
Honesty. An artist should paint what he wants to paint, the way he wants to paint it. There are often sacrifices an artist must make in order to be an artist, his artistic integrity should not be one of them. Painting what the market demands, or what will bring you fame and fortune, is not good enough. Say what you want to say, not what people want to hear.
What is something you haven’t yet achieved in art?
Enlightenment. In art or in life.
What is the best thing about art in the era of social media?
Social media is a good way to introduce art to people who are not inclined to visit galleries or museums. There are times when I post a painting and get a comment from someone whom I know has no other contact with art. I grew up in a place where art was not a part of the culture. I know what it is like to live in a world without art, and what it is like to live in a world that is filled with art. I prefer the latter.
Thomas Torak teaches “Portraiture and Figure Painting in Oil,” as part of e-telier, the Art Students League’s program of online classes.