Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Artists and Instructors at BINDERS, #2: A Conversation with J.Z.Torre

BINDERS: The subject of your upcoming workshop at BINDERS, "Impressionist Paintings from Photos," is unusual. Tell us a bit about the theory behind this workshop and the relationship between photography and Impressionism.

J.Z.Torre: It may come as a surprise to some that artists have been painting from photographs since the invention of photography in the 1830s in France. Monet, Degas, Gauguin, Lautrec, Cezanne, Van Gogh, and many other Impressionists and Post-Impressionists used photos as templates to make paintings. In the 1860s, as the medium became easier to use and less expensive, it became an amateur hobby. Many artists owned cameras and they used photos as an alternative to sketching. Photography also changed their understanding of light, possibly because early prints resulted in high contrast blocks of light and dark, not detailed half-tones. Also, by emulating the angular tilt of popular photos, and the novel way they cropped off heads and limbs, the Impressionists gained yet another way to rebel against the Academy. We might even say that photography caused the Impressionist revolution in art.

BINDERS: Most artists would associate the Impressionist painting style with plein-air work done on- site, but you maintain that work of equal quality can be created using photographs as reference material.

J.Z.Torre: Yes, painting outdoors certainly was a cornerstone of the Impressionist movement. However, when painting en plein-air, shifting shadows and the changing color of light can be major obstacles. With a few reference photos, a quick sketch and color notes however, they could complete the works later in their studios. And let’s not forget that the Impressionist didn’t only paint on-site landscapes. ConsiderMary Cassette’s interiors with babies, Cezanne’s fruit bowls and interiors, and Degas’s ballet dancers. In my workshop I will show and tell and demonstrate everything I’ve learned about how the Impressionists made paintings -- their color palettes, their brush and knife techniques, their use of photography and their vision of the world -- which continue to be the most popular paintings in the history of art.

BINDERS: Tell us how you got interested in art. When did you make the decision to pursue painting as a career?

J.Z.Torre: How I got started in art is a pretty common story, not at all unusual. Briefly, as a boy in Brooklyn I liked to draw, and I would copy the cartoonists that drew Mad and EC comics. In high school I took a few art courses, and my teachers got me to visit the major art museums, such as MoMA, the Metropolitan and Guggenheim. But I was interested in lots of other things too, like rock and roll instead of Rembrandt. So I joined the Navy right after high school.

BINDERS: How did you break into the advertising business?

J.Z.Torre: I graduated from Florida State University with a BS degree in advertising. As a result I morphed from copying Mad comics into a Mad Men-era copywriter with a visual sensibility, and later I was creative director at a few top ad agencies in the southeast. Finally, about ten years ago, I decided the time to get back to art. So I bought some art supplies and learned how to paint in oils and acrylics. I’ve been learning ever since.

BINDERS: In advertising you won awards for your creative work. Does the aesthetic of the bold, message-driven image that is so prevalent in advertising enter into your compositions in any way?

J.Z.Torre: Advertising is everywhere, so I think it shapes everybody’s perception of the world, not only mine. Other visual influences are movies, graphic design and computerized animation, to name just a few. It’s inescapable! On an average day the average person is bombarded by over a thousand advertising messages -- commercials, ads in magazines and newspapers, signage, logos, pop-ups, the list goes on. Advertising is part of our world, so naturally it shows up in our art. But the reverse is also true: advertising repackages everything that comes from the art world.

BINDERS: What does it mean to be a “contemporary” realist? And tell us why your art has been described having a “sense of humor."

J.Z.Torre: Well, basically, as a modern day artist who paints pictures that refer to the real world, I guess that makes me a “contemporary realist.” And about any “sense of humor,” I do hope that viewers find my work fun to look at. I don’t try for laugh-out-loud-funny, of course -- just enjoyable, interesting and occasionally beautiful. Whenever possible I try to tell an amusing little story too. For example, the shoelace untied in my “Executive Decision,” and the 26-cent tip on the lunch counter in “Neighborhood Eatery,” and the topsy-turvy skew of “Head Over Heels.” Hopefully they evoke some tiny smile in a viewer’s mind.

BINDERS: Aside from the contemporary subjects that you paint, you also draw upon some very traditional motifs: the Tuscany landscapes and the flowers come to mind. Are there sources from the past that you draw on for inspiration?

J.Z.Torre: I feel both humbled and inspired when I think about the many wonderful paintings that artists have created over the past six centuries since the Renaissance. There is just so much for me to learn from their compositions, methods and formulas. As a result, I give myself the freedom to work in any style and medium I choose. For years I’ve been fascinated by Impressionist and Post-Impressionist artists. The beauty and power of their imagery, and their inventive techniques of paint handling, are well worth emulating even today. Those Impressionists were truly the “contemporary realists” of their own time, I feel. Perhaps I should identify myself as a “contemporary realist with an Impressionist accent.”

BINDERS: As a working portrait painter, how do you approach the idea of depicting a person's face? Do you rely solely on the physical attributes or do you look for ways to inject personality into the work? What advice would you have for people who are just getting started as portrait painters?

J.Z.Torre: A successful fine art portrait painting should depict a person’s “true-likeness” -- face, flesh-tones and personality -- in a such a way that is flattering, but not too flattering! For people interested in learning traditional portraiture, my first suggestions is join an educational group like the Portrait Society of Atlanta, where they will find lots of information, demonstrations and supportive artist friends. My second suggestion, study the remarkable virtuosity of John Singer Sargent -- his work goes back a hundred years yet it remains the gold standard against which all other fine art portraits are measured even today. Third, attend a workshop for portrait painting, then another workshop, and another. Learning about art is an art in itself.

To see examples of his paintings visit J.Z.Torre’s website.

Visit BINDERS website!

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