Artist Snapshot: Wendy Artin

Exploring the mind and habits of an artist in twenty-five questions

Wendy Artin interview
Wendy Artin in her studio, 2022. Photo: Leo Boschin

At what age did you decide to become an artist?

I loved to paint and draw as a child, as many children do, but unlike many others, I never stopped. Already in first grade, my wonderfully inspiring art teacher, Jeanie Kornblueh, had us lose ourselves in contour drawings of our sneakers, in linoleum prints of our favorite toys. My mother plastered the walls with our paintings and drawings. My best friends and I sketched each other, made storybooks together, drew in the Museum of Fine Arts Boston galleries, whistling our chorus parts in harmony. Art was a refuge during my shy teenage years, when I was proud to have a large portfolio under my arm. I sketched in subways and coffee shops and museums. I never considered it a viable profession, and for many years worked trying to earn the most money possible in the shortest amount of time so that I could spend the rest of my time drawing and painting. As I sold more and more pictures, it became less and less reasonable to do things like put up wallpaper, make legal graphic displays, and speed type. Rather than deciding to become an artist, making art became the only thing I did.

How did your parents react when you told them you wanted to be an artist?

My parents were always so encouraging. I do not think I ever told them I wanted to be an artist, because that was not how I thought about it, but they always told me that it didn’t matter what I did, I just had to love doing it and do it well. 

Who are your favorite artists? Wendy Artin interview

A few of my favorite artists are Phidias, Degas, Sargent, Klimt, Kollwitz, Ruskin, Schiele, Blossfeldt, Fantin-Latour, Corot, Rodin, Wyeth, Maxfield Parrish, Twombly, Jasper Johns, Toulouse-Lautrec, de Kooning, Dine, Nolde, Franz Kline…

Who is your favorite artist whose work is unlike your own?

Maybe Franz Kline? The de Kooning doors? I love Wayne Thiebault’s cakes too… 

Art book you cannot live without?

My first favorite art book was Anatomy for the Artist by Jenö Barcsay, published by Octopus Books in London. I studied this book incessantly as a teenager; it is full of clear and beautiful drawings. 

What is the quality you most admire in an artist?

I love it when you can see the marks that make up the image, the materials, the trace of the human hand. I love seeing the ordinary transformed into art, the teetering between banal and sublime, both in subject matter and in material.  

Do you keep a sketchbook?

I have many sketchbooks scattered around that I mostly use for preparatory sketches, which means that several might be open and in use simultaneously. If I am traveling or going to an event where I will be able to sketch, I will take whichever one has several empty pages. To my great surprise, I have recently painted in sketchbooks that have pencil sketches of my twenty-year-old daughter as a newborn! 

What’s your favorite museum in all the world?

What a difficult question! When I was young museums were dusty empty places where I spent days, months, years, drawing and painting. The lighting was often terrible, but they were so still and quiet. Now museums are tremendously popular and filled with people moving, listening to audio explanations, taking selfies… trying to draw in the Vatican can feel like drawing in the middle of a superhighway. I think my top favorite museum might be the Louvre, except the Parthenon Frieze is at the British Museum, and then, The Met has such fantastic lighting…. Also the peaceful Museo Archeologico in Naples, Palazzo Massimo in Rome, and so many more.  

What’s the best exhibition you have ever attended?

I think the best exhibition I have seen was the Michelangelo show at the Met. It was incredible to be able to see the drawings up close, to see how humble they are, and how beautiful – the magic of a drawing on paper made by hand. I love drawings and paintings where you can see what the artist did to create the illusion, where you can almost recreate the movement of the artist’s hand and imagine the model. 

If you were not an artist, what would you be?

I love to play the violin, and I love to dance, and I also love to cook… what beautiful things to do all day. If I had four lives, or four times the time in a day, I would definitely spend all of my time on each one of those things and try to become really good. I have great admiration for musicians, dancers, cooks: such magical things to do as a profession.  

Did you have an artistic cohort that influenced your early creative development?

I am not sure how much these people influenced my early creative development, but I always loved to go out to sit on city sidewalks and paint with my SMFA Boston friends Chuck McNally and Taliah Lempert. In Paris for a period, Jean-Michel Aucler would suddenly appear behind me and give me instructions on what to do, what not to do, which I think did actually influence my drawings, then a mixture of pastel and watercolor and ink. However, I did not ever belong to a painting group, nor did I have a constant painting companion.

What is one thing you didn’t learn in art school that you wish you had?

Although I think of art school as being a place to learn about art, to look and experiment with all sorts of different mediums and try out different styles and techniques and equipment, I do wish that somewhere along the way I had learned about the practical things like whether or not an artist should become a business, and the fact that it is beneficial to start putting money into a retirement fund as soon as possible. I still have monumental doubts and wells of opaque non-knowledge about so many practical things, and think that I would have benefited from a clear well-intentioned class for independently working artists. That said, I loved the impracticality of art school – I have always loved making drawings and paintings just because I loved to do it, and art school was for me a dreamlike place that I never imagined existed, because it was full of people who, like me, were just trying as hard as they could, all day, to make the best picture possible.  

What work of art have you looked at most and why?

I might have said The Raft of the Medusa, by Gericault, as I gazed at that each day I was in the Louvre in Paris as a teenager, but in fact the work of art I have most looked at is an antique head of Aphrodite that I used to see as I walked home in Rome. She was everywhere, moving from place to place in the plastery front of the shop of the sculptor who cast her, nestled amongst gilded frames in the antique stores of via Giulia, tripled in a lavish composition on the wall of a home décor boutique, even as the window display of a nail salon. Moved by a sense of neighborhood, I too brought her home, then decided to paint her. I painted her again and again, changing the lighting, the angle. Each time she grew more beautiful and fascinating, her face full of nuance, dreamy and elsewhere, eternally mysterious. Occasionally, I wonder if the secret to her beauty is simply her missing nose. 

What is your secret visual pleasure outside of art?

My secret visual pleasure outside of drawing and painting is probably photography. I love the incredible amount of detail that I see and do not necessarily want to render in paint or charcoal, the detail of bark crevices and tiny branches and pine needles. It is a luxury to have an excellent phone camera at hand, to be able to take photos at moments when I don’t have a sketchbook or painting supplies. I love the rigidity of the camera, the way it frames what I am seeing, the way I cannot alter anything other than the angle and the size. I love that I can point the camera straight up at the underside of a tree, capture fleeting moments of pink skies, flashing smiles, people in movement. I also love the strange accidentals that happen with the camera, the blinding moments and unexpected halos of light.

Do you listen to music in your studio?

I do, I love to listen to music in the studio. I also listen to podcasts and audiobooks, but have a hard time listening to words if they are too intense. A chatty loose podcast is nice to have on in the studio, otherwise, music. I go on binges, listen to one song nonstop for three weeks, to the despair of my children. I listen to a wide variety of music, from classical chamber music or piano solos — Chopin, Bach, Brahms — to Latin music, old boleros like Eydie Gormé and Los Panchos, Alexander Abreu, cheesy bachata, Neapolitan songs, dance songs, Janis Joplin…. I love music.

What is the last gallery you visited? Wendy Artin interview

The last gallery I visited was in a tiny side street near Piazza Navona, and the show was watercolors of roses by my friend, fellow watercolorist Fausta D’Ubaldo. Her paintings are beautiful, delicate, dreamy, and she grew the wide variety of roses in her garden.

Who is an underrated artist people should be looking at? 

I love Lesley Kendall’s loose watercolors of clover, aloe, geranium. I love Stephen Early’s nudes, Koen Ivens‘ trees, Kathleen Speranza’s roses, David Dodge Lewis’ skulls, Bruno Walpoth’s moody wood figures, Israel Hershberg’s exquisite cypress trees.

What art materials can you not live without?

I cannot live without watercolors.  They are so small and portable and fast—a small box holds a world of potential of value and color.

Do you paint/sculpt/create art every day? Wendy Artin interview

Yes I do, except on very rare occasions like when I am traveling. I find that the more I paint, daily, the better it is: I become faster and more efficient, details are easier to capture, I become better at seeing and understanding the medium and the paper. The more time I spend painting, the more rewarding the painting is, which is a great incentive to paint even more. At times I become very absorbed in other activities like playing music or dancing, and I have to tell myself not to spend too many hours on them because that can end up being terrible for the painting.  

What is the longest time you went without creating art?

Possibly around three days? I always at the very least have a sketchbook and pencils, or refillable brushes or pens.

What do you do when you are feeling uninspired?

There are so many different things to work on: if one thing is not going well, I try to change mediums, scale, or subject matter. 

What are the questions that drive your work?

My work is about how the light hits the subject matter and how that can be expressed with the medium, about shapes and seeing and the creation of illusion and the miracle of watercolor. It is about brushstrokes and color, about light and dark, about the density of pigments and the way they flow out into a bed of water, like sand going back into the sea. It is about quirky details that can be made in one brushstroke, about wide washy areas, about colors blending into each other with more and less punch. These are the questions that drive my work. 

What is the most important quality in an artist?

I love art that is handmade, that shows the hand of the creator.  

What is something you haven’t yet achieved in art? Wendy Artin interview

There are so many things I have not yet achieved in art, so many pictures to be made. I would like my paintings to be stronger, more delicate, more detailed, less detailed.  

What is the best thing about art in the era of social media?

It is so amazing to have access to all of these images, right on your phone. It used to be that to see art, you would have to go to the museum or the bookstore or the library. I would spend hours in bookstores in the art section, leafing through books that I could never buy; I collected postcards from museums. Art school was fantastic because there were all the drawings and paintings that were being made by other students, and a library right there, as well as exhibitions — lots to look at — but afterwards, I spent many years in total isolation here in Rome, because it was difficult to find galleries showing work I liked. It felt like I was the only person in the world doing representational art, until I discovered social media, and so many good artists alive and working all over the world. You now have access to works of art you have seen in museums, to the entire oeuvre of an artist, at your fingertips. There is a wealth of information on how to do things, how to prepare paper, what colors to use, available to everyone everywhere.  All of that information was incredibly hard to come by when I was growing up, when I was a young artist. These are the things that are great about social media in service of art and artists. But perhaps your question was not that:  the best thing about art in the era of social media is that it is a slow and totally absorbing process of creation that takes you away from social media!

WENDY ARTIN (@wendyartin) will be teaching Painting the Essential: Still life in Watercolor and Fast and Fluid Figures: Watercolor Shadows, workshops at the Art Students League of New York scheduled for August 15 and 16, 2022.

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