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Friday, November 15, 2013

An Interview With A Realist Artist - Erling Steen, Copenhagen, Denmark

I came across Erling Steen whilst I was searching the colour midnight blue and looking for yachts that would give me an indication of the look I wanted for my store front. I clicked through to his blog and I discovered wonderful treasures that I would love to hang on my walls one day. Unlike most of the art I have collected to date, Erling Steen is a realist artist and I've always been fascinated by artists that can recreate visually what we see with our own eyes. That might sound ridiculous but when I attempted to be artistic at high school the one thing I always felt was elusive for myself was trying to get something to look as authentic as a photograph but with it's own character. This has then got me into hot water with some of my arty friends who don't like it when I question whether an artist has the discipline to create realistic drawings before moving into abstraction. So, when you finally find an artist who can do that which you never could do yourself, you find yourself itching to start up a conversation. See more of Erling's work here

Erling, when you sit down to paint something realistically it must be a lot more disciplined and finer in detail than if you were to paint something in an abstract manner. What are some of these considerations that you might think about prior to beginning a new canvas?

With my generation art schools and the  traditional  method of first learning to draw from nature became rather unpopular and many young artists  started out  painting abstract or semi-figurative  with  none or only superficial  traditional training.  Though figuration was,  so to speak,  in the  air I basically first and foremost learned to give “form” to abstract shapes on the canvas and “balancing”  the painting became the dominant issue.
So I always start a painting by sketching up abstract shapes that somewhat resemble the objects that I have chosen to paint because the main issue is the “balancing”, the “geometry of painting”, which has to be at least correct otherwise the painting will only be a nuisance to look at.
To paint a bottle and a glass is the easy part but equally important because it supplies the painting with “more to look at” with “flesh on the bone”.  I do favor  rather minimalist painting but the ideas that you get from watching nature are so much more abundant than what the abstract painter can squeeze out of his head.

Mouton Rothschild 2000 bottle, oil painting on canvas 33x41cm, 2012



Light sources are obviously very important when it comes to painting your subject matter, can you tell us about the constraints relating to light and how you use it to your advantage when painting stills and when painting human subjects?

As the objects in the still-life's must be in accordance with gravity and stand firmly on a support the light must be authentic coming from a defined source and having the feeling of daylight, otherwise the painting will fall into the categories of either surrealism or cubism and those are categories for others, not for me. For that reason I only paint in daylight.
Although I am a studio painter the light outside the studio, not only as it comes through the studio window, but also as experienced in the streets or by a walk along the coast  has a significant influence on tone, light and color of the paintings.
In recent years I have had the privilege of working in two studios in two different places in Europe with exceptionally strong and beautiful light, one in southern France not far from where impressionism was born and one in a small fishing village north of Copenhagen a few kilometers from where the Danish 19th century painters that later became the legendary Skagen painters first came looking for light conditions equal to those of southern France.
You may have noticed that all my still- life's have the light coming from the left! The reason is that I am right handed and if the light was coming from the right my hand, while painting,  would cast a shadow over the canvas and distort the light. The authenticity of the angle and source of  light is very important.
With the portraits there is a major difference as I, at an early date, found out that, because of this balancing thing, I could not have the model in the studio at some crucial moments while creating the painting so my figures are based on a mix of drawings and photos, but still the light has to be authentic.

  Lighthouse, oil on canvas 41x53cm, 1988. Collection of the artist.


Two glasses, oil painting on panel 30x40cm, 2010


Recently I have noted how much fabric plays a role in great artists subjects. Draping and cloaking of fabric as well as using it to convey movement and energy is really a fascinating aspect of art for me. I noticed, for example, that you have used velvet kerchiefs in some of your portraits. Can you tell me about your own experience of using fabrics in art and how you set about painting them?

Draperies and folds has always been an occasion to indulge in purely abstract painting in a covert sort of way and it is also a good example of how looking on nature will supply you with a lot more than you can squeeze from your head.   With the advent of oil painting  very sophisticated and impressive modulations of light and shadow  became possible which can add an abundance of detail to a painting and put “flesh on the bone” so to speak.
I paint folds now and then and usually do it with three shades of color on three brushes and then accentuate the highlights and the deepest shadows.

The science-fiction reader 1983



I recently wrote something about negative spaces but I am not entirely sure that I understand  what they are. Can you explain in your own words what is a negative space and how do you use these spaces to convey messages or to deliver a tone or feeling to your art work?

I am not quite sure what you mean by negative spaces? It sounds a bit like art critic talk? But I do of course come to think of my monochrome black backgrounds which I think are rooted in modernism. I see my black backgrounds somewhat like Piet Mondrian's grey backgrounds.
I mentioned before that I am a bit of a minimalist and I am very fascinated by what you do not see, what is not visible. Black is a color, but a color that you do not see, it is usually red or yellow but can also be blue or green but you only experience its color through the influence it has on the visible colors.
Another thing you don't see in most of my paintings is the ground plane, but it is there mirrored in ellipses and angles on top of bottles, glasses and other objects.
And then of course the black gives my paintings maximum contrast.  

I have always admired artists who have more than one discipline. Recently I was in the Blue Mountains outside of Sydney, visiting the home of Norman Lindsay, and I noted that he was across many disciplines of art and craft, from model ship building, to cartoons, etchings, paintings and sculpture. Do you also indulge in any other disciplines of creativity?

In the mid seventies my painting began to take off in a promising direction and as I felt comfortable and at ease with it I began to look around for some other activity because I knew from my own experience as well as from art history that the process of painting demands a certain degree of distraction, you can not sit there looking at your own painting all the time, so I joined a fencing club and embarked on a life long adventure  in this discipline. It was my luck that eastern Europe started to fall apart at that time and world class fencing masters from Poland came as refugees to Denmark. As I was over 30 years old when I started fencing a competitive career on even a moderate level was out of the question so after the first fifteen years in fencing I became a coach.
The highlight of my fencing career was the few years that I had the privilege of coaching Pernille Svarre, World Champion in Modern Pentathlon in 2000.

Some years ago I got myself a camera to take photos of my paintings for publishing on the internet but could not help pointing the camera in all kinds of directions. Today I have a small pocket camera that I carry with me all the time and the results are as you can see on my photo blog.

Who are some of the painters that you admire and of these which one do you think made the greatest contribution to art?

Among my idols are René Magritte, Piet Mondrian, Juan Gris, Vilhelm Hammershoi, Anna Ancher, Chardin, Edward Hopper, Cezanne, Jan van Huysum, Rachel Ruysch, Jan Vermeer, Jan van Eyck,  Giorgio Morandi, Andrew Wyeth, just to mention a few.
The direct inspiration and influence come from painters like Luis Melendez, Willem Kalf, Juan Sanchez Cotan and the two paintings in the Louvre by Baugain.
The greatest contribution to art we have to divide between the two Jan’s, Vermeer and Van Eyck.

Self-portrait 1985

I would venture to say that some of your portrait paintings have a ‘Nordic austerity’ to them. Would you be able to explain what my constitute this feeling and how you give across this feeling as you paint your art?

Of course I am born and raised in a Nordic Lutheran country but Denmark never was that austere but rather liberal minded so I think it mainly comes from the Flemish so called primitives and their way of “constructing” portraits in the less flexible egg tempera medium. The more realistic portraits that come with Rembrandt and the pure oil/resin technique  and which evolve into the typical salon “naturalistic” portrait in the 19th century are in my opinion less interesting and also more redundant seen in relation to photography.
So perhaps the “austerity” is a result of  “back to the roots” of a more “constructed”  figure painting.

Self-portrait 1982



Do you think all young artists should be taught the discipline or realist artistic expression before they develop their skills for abstract expression or do you think that artists should gravitate to this area of art only if it pleases them?

I think that learning to give form to abstract shapes first  is a major step forward in the disciplines of painting and sculpture  and  that it somehow mirrors a major step forward for civilization.
It is a problem with abstract painting that it is contaminated with iconoclasm and it is a problem with hyperrealism that it has a tendency to drown out “form” but between purely abstract and excessive hyperrealism there are an abundance of possibilities for painters and  sculptors.


M/Y Al Mirqab, oil painting on canvas 81x65cm, 2010

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