Tuesday, January 7, 2014

152: Interview with Rick Stevens

I DISCOVERED the paintings of Rick Stevens on Twitter several months ago. The first image I saw was a work entitled The Universe Surrenders to a Still Mind (pastel, 20” x 40”). I was impressed by the saturated yet harmonious color energized by robust texture within a complex and satisfying composition. I went to his web site and discovered more paintings vibrating with color and texture. In a time when it’s difficult to distinguish one’s individuality Rick Stevens has incontrovertibly created his own unique visual world. I emailed Stevens and asked if he would consent to an interview for the readers of Thick Paint. He very generously agreed.

BRAD TEARE One of the many things I admire about your work is the ability to create a sense of pattern while simultaneously erasing borders. Such an approach maintains structure while preserving an organic flow. How much of your compositions are intuitive and how much are the result of an intellectual process? Do you follow a compositional method or methods?
RICK STEVENS The use of patterns in my compositions have been very useful to provide shapes, or structure, that are very permeable. It’s very important to me to maintain an organic flow in my work. I think of nature, or the material world, as very permeable. Organisms are not as clearly defined and separate from one another  as we tend to think.
I learned early on to give more authority to my intuition than my intellectual process. I can be very analytical, and it’s good to have that tool sharp and efficient, but I try to keep tuned in to a more holistic way of seeing.
I think it’s natural to seek a dependable method of working, but it’s also necessary to keep pushing the boundaries of that method, to keep it alive and fresh. I like to try things from many angles, even if it seems to arrive at the same place.

BRAD I guessed that George Inness and Gustave Klimt might have been influences, which you confirmed in your bio, yet I had trouble defining the exact aspects of that influence. Can you elaborate on how these two artists inspired you?
RICK Klimt has a combination of the sensual and spiritual that I respond to. His landscapes are heightened with vibrating patterns of colors that are simultaneously decorative and descriptive. I think that he was greatly influenced by eastern art. His compositions are so interesting. Degas, also influenced by Japanese prints and eastern art, influenced me a lot with his compositions and use of pastels. Bonnard, Vuillard and Redon I could say similar things about.
George Inness’ late work has a mystical, dreamy quality with subdued lighting that is palpable. It is not commonly known that he apprenticed under Tiffany as a young artist, but comparing his Tonalist landsapes with the smoky, iridescent Favrille glass used in Tiffany’s lamps, it makes sense. He used the techniques of the Hudson River School painters that included glazing, his work became much more suggestive after 1880. I was never taught glazing techniques but experimented with it because of his work.
BRAD I noticed that you make small graphite or charcoal thumbnail preliminaries for some of your paintings. It obviously works for you. Are there additional ways you prepare for a painting? How do you organize and remember your color ideas as you move forward with a painting?
RICK I have always kept sketchbooks. They provide a ‘note-taking’ outlet to work out ideas, compositions and image vocabulary. I can sketch while sitting as a little meditation, or out on a hike, or preparation for a painting. Those little studies are very personal, although what I’m trying to tap into and express is universal. I don’t usually have pre-meditated color schemes. I let the color relationships evolve through layers, adjusting and building up, and scraping away, as needed.

BRAD Your work in the 80s was primarily representational. Representation seemed to reach its maturity around the turn of the century with each succeeding year’s work becoming more abstract. Was that evolution a conscious decision?
RICK STEVENS My evolution to abstraction was not that linear. I have bounced back and forth between more representational work and abstraction (sometimes both simultaneously) since the beginning of my career. I did make a conscious decision to focus on a more representational direction in the late 90’s to early 2000’s for a while before getting into the direction which I am still on now. I continued to do plein air, and some studio landscapes until around 2008, when I moved to Santa Fe. It will sound ironic to some that I stopped doing plein air around when I moved to this haven for plein air painters. I will probably do it again, but there are plenty of good landscape painters who are covering that genre.
BRAD Your representational work shows a strong abstract undercurrent. Is representational painting an ongoing interest or do you see yourself phasing out that aspect of your painting project?
RICK My work is a combination of being self referential and alluding to something else. By self referential I mean that there’s an emphasis on the materials, the paint being, in large part, the subject matter. But there are also allusions to the landscape; the spatial relationships, textures, patterns, color combinations in nature.
I have always allowed myself the freedom to do either or both, although I may focus on one direction for a period of time. I’m sure I will do more representational work in the future.
BRAD How have your collectors and galleries reacted to your evolution and intermingling of representational and abstract art?
RICK I have been fortunate that both my more representational work and abstractions have sold equally well as I have evolved. Most galleries have been willing to try both, but some have a niche which supports one style over the other. I have left galleries before when switching directions, but it was time to move on anyway.
BRAD From your videos it looks like you start with an oil underpainting. Can you tell us more about how you prepare your surface? Paper or canvas? Do you ever use texturing mediums? Do you mix oil sticks with your pastels?
RICK For the oils the canvases get an acrylic tone, actually two layers of color after 2 coats of gesso. For pastels the paper also gets a tone to begin with, after a layer of vine charcoal. The color is from powdered pigments rubbed into the paper. My assistant prepares them. I let him choose the colors.
I use textures in my oil paintings. Cold wax and gel mediums for body, and sometimes I apply a gauze with the wax for added texture. I often use gold leaf in selected areas in the oils too.
I don’t mix oil sticks with pastels. They are completely separate mediums. I will use colored pencils with pastels however.
BRAD Some of your paintings are very large–larger than most pastels. How do you prepare them for galleries? Do you frame them under glass?
RICK The oils have greater potential to go large than the pastels. I frame the pastels under glass. I frame the oils in a contemporary gold leaf floater frame.
BRAD I’m impressed by how many layers of color you use and how willingly you cover layers in pursuit of an improved harmony. Do you have trouble fixing that many layers of pastels?
RICK The use of fixatives is a very important part of my process with pastel. I can keep going with many layers. Sometimes I will use a heavy duty fixative (not normally recommended for pastel) when I want to rebuild. It also affects the texture, or appearance of texture. I often scrape off layers with a knife too. Usually it’s very selective scraping.

BRAD I love the names of your paintings. On your website I ran across the phrase Landscapes of the Mind which I think is very evocative. Having trouble naming a painting often signals that I probably don’t know what the painting was actually about. Intent is an important aspect of art for me. Do you think of your names first or do they come to you later?
RICK I come up with titles when they are completed. I may try to use words in the title that are evocative, but not too definitive. They are, like the work, open ended. I don’t deliberate about what each painting is about. I may reflect on my intent in general towards my work, but since I am oriented more as a painter than a writer, I am inclined to dig into matters that way initially and then occasionally make attempts at verbalizing it later.  
BRAD The name The Universe Surrenders to a Still Mind and the visual content harmonize perfectly. When I paint an abstract I have to be totally relaxed and focused. I don’t think most people understand that aspect of the abstract painting process. Was finding inner peace an important part of your artistic journey? Is it something that you struggled with?
RICK You use past tense in phrasing that question. I think that finding inner peace is a moment by moment process. I use the process of making art as a spiritual practice to help me arrive at inner peace. When my scattered mind becomes focused I am getting there. Whatever mode I am painting in I find that to be true. I usually start my morning with Tai Chi before I begin painting, which helps to get me in a good space, but if I waited until I was completely at peace before working I would never get to painting.
BRAD In your videos you occasionally use a brayer to apply your underpainting–do you have experience as a printmaker in an earlier phase of your career?
RICK I use a brayer to roll on oil/wax mixtures that I mix on the palette. It can be applied at any point in the painting. I actually first saw it used in another artist’s video, Rebecca Crowell, who teaches cold wax workshops, and gave me some tips as I was starting in cold wax. I have a pretty modest experience in printmaking, mostly going way back to college days.
BRAD I love your work and appreciate you taking time from painting to share your ideas and methods with the readers of Thick Paint. Many thanks!

Brad Teare January 2014


  1. Many thanks for introducing us to this exciting artist. Truly inspirational!


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