I became enthralled with art when I was in my early teens in mid- 1970's. My first exposure to painting was through books about the old masters I found at a neighbor’s yard sale. I grew up near NYC and eventually started making trips to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where I would take a sketch pad and draw from the sculpture. I was also making copies of paintings at home from all the books I could get my hands on. My interest naturally gravitated toward the 15th through 19th century. At that time I had no interest in modern or contemporary art.
By the time I was a senior in high school I had made the decision to attend art school. In my senior year of high school I attended a portfolio day and showed my very traditional, classically inspired drawings to various art school representatives. In 1980 I had little idea that what I was doing was completely out of step with what was happening in the mainstream art world, let alone art schools and academia. I remember, after showing my drawings to one school rep, being told “this kind of work has been replaced by photography.” Fortunately, I encountered someone from the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts who was more enthused about my work and encouraged me to attend. Being the country’s first art school, the Academy had a reputation for being rooted in traditional drawing and painting. I decided to attend directly after graduating high school. At the Academy, I mostly spent my time drawing from plaster casts and honing my drawing skills.
After graduating, I worked in pastel and oil. I liked pastel because it was somewhere between drawing and painting. I could control it like charcoal, so I was very comfortable with it. Needless to say, my pastel paintings were pretty tight. My oil painting was slightly looser, but not much.
In retrospect, I think it was great that I was so focused and determined to pursue a traditional path, one which drew inspiration from past centuries of art making. However, the flip side was that at 17 I had a very narrow view of what art and painting were. As a result, I wasn’t interested in modern or contemporary art. That very youthful point of view put limitations on me that wouldn’t become apparent for nearly a decade later.
Not only was my work right after art school very traditional in technique and approach, but also in content and subject. It was about 11-12 years after graduating that I began to have a desire to try something else in painting, something that was more personal… more unique to me. I didn’t know what it was that I wanted, but the feeling stayed with me until I decided to start experimenting with some large 4 x 4 ft panels in the early 90's. I began experimenting with surreal imagery, using large brushes and applying paint differently than what I was accustomed to.
I began to use photos and to invent from my imagination. At every step I was assessing and reassessing what I knew or thought I knew about painting. Gradually, I began letting more ideas in and tossing out many of the traditional restrictions I had placed on myself in the past. It was very scary at first to be out of my comfort zone, but eventually it began to feel more natural for me. My “surreal” period only lasted a year or two, but more important than the paintings I produced was what the process of experimenting taught me. I learned that it was OK to go outside of my comfort zone and to follow my instincts. With this new attitude, the sky was the limit as to what I could do. This is how I developed my voice as an artist.
Over the last 25 years since I started to experiment, I’ve gone in different directions and tried to stay open to the idea of trying new things and not being intimidated by the thought of doing something unconventional. Students often ask me about my evolution from traditional and classically trained, to a painter who straddles both realism and abstraction. The transition was very gradual and took a couple of decades.
When they ask me about how they can stretch themselves or how to start painting differently, I tell them that the first thing they need to do is give themselves the permission to try something new.
You have to think differently and be open to what may happen on your canvas. It’s about developing a new aesthetic and changing the parameters of what’s acceptable or unacceptable. Of course, depending on your personality, this can be very unnerving. There were many times when I questioned the validity of what I was doing. Making mistakes is also a large part of the process. Over the years I’ve wiped out, painted over and trashed many canvases, all in the hopes of discovering something I could not have found any other way.
I feel good about the fact that I had a traditional training as an artist. I’m a big believer in knowing your craft. The more you have in your toolbox, the more options you have to express your vision. With enough technique and an open mind, you’re only limited by your imagination.
To see more of David's work, visit his website.