This is a new format for Zoneone Arts. I would like to introduce you to Paul Balmer using two videos and following each video with the questions that I wanted to ask after viewing them. I do hope you will enjoy being in Paul’s studios as much as I have.
- Storm ( NY studio)
What do you use as your black background?
Matte house paint
Do you always use black for your backgrounds?
Yes. I need the line work ( which is the first stage of a painting) to be black but also having a black base means I can get shades of a color just by applying the oil paint thick or thin. Example: white can be grey when brushed thinly on black – so I get a range of tones without mixing them.
This black background partly shows in the final painting (either as line, windows or shadows) and offers a real contrast to the oil paint
What do you use to draw the base lines with?
A dremmel tool (a hand held drill with a spinning disk at the end).
Using a Deremmel tool
In your studio you have squares of hessian how are these used?
A few days out of the month I will spend time messing around in the studio. Some of the best surfaces / textures can come from this time. I am always experimenting with textures. Burlap covered in a thick gesso makes for a great surface to paint on, but I usually use canvas or wood panels and a primer.
How many paintings do you have on the go at one time, as paint needs to dry?
Seven or so.
More than the drying is the fact that it keeps things interesting to jump around between paintings. 5 hours on a painting at one time is a lot. If I get bored then it will show in the painting so it’s good to change it up. Some paintings that don’t seem to work at the time, I will put away for weeks at a time and look at them every so often until suddenly the solution to improve them will seem obvious and then it’s time to take them out and start painting again.
SoHo Studio, New York
Does drying become difficult due to climate?
No. 4 days all is dry.
You appear to be very heavy handed with your canvasses, taking to them with power tools and heavy scraping. Discuss.
The surface of these paintings is a result of heavy brush strokes, sanding, scraping and drilling. To get to do this, I first build up the surface with many layers of a very thick gesso. Then I can pretty much do anything to that surface (although not when I first started using both the sander and dremmel – I would often go through the canvas. A needle and thread can sew up most holes and a lump of gesso to hold it all together did the trick).
You obviously listen while you paint. Is it music or podcasts?
Both, but I really need music for those moments when I am feeling very creative. Music seems to make the process of painting almost spiritual especially when I am listening to something ambient or orchestral. Film scores seem to do the trick too. Music is, very important, to me and the process.
Above the Chaos 64 x 64 inches Oil on Panel
All paintings seem to require a “lateral thinking” phase, and then a completely disassociated creative phase. These seem like two very distinct states of mind and both as important as the other.
Discuss the importance of the scratch lines. What is this technique called?
I don’t think it has a name and I can’t say I have seen anyone using this technique. I “sketch” into the canvas with a spinning disk. It leaves a distinct groove which I paint black). Then I use the oil paint (with no linseed oil or turpentine) which is very thick, and I brush the paint on or roll the paint on so as not to fill in these lines. The lines form the basic foundation of the painting. I do prefer a “discovering” line rather than one that outlines an object – just like you find in a pencil sketch or an etching. A line that explores the form. I also work out the composition with these lines and the more the better. Even if an object has moved entirely, I like to show these lines as well ( it’s the ghost of where the object was) It shows the history of the painting and all the decisions that were made along the way.
How many layers, over, layers do you do?
The more layers the better because as I sand the surface different colors show through unexpectedly. The process of “messing up” and ‘discovering” is, for me, the most rewarding part of the painting.
I paint the painting then use a disk sander on the surface. I repeat that sequence until the painting looks complete. Some paintings I will leave very sanded and others will be cleaned up much more. If they look too real or edges are too defined then I will sand down those areas to rough them up. The best part of doing this is all the unexpected marks and colours that show up.
Do you have a still life set up or have you transferred the image to a sketch book?
I prefer not to work from real life (for both the cityscapes or the still life paintings). I do like sketching from memory then using that drawing to help map out the etching on the canvas.
How I remember the object seems to serve me better as it makes me paint an impression or a representation of the thing. The less real, the better.
How do you choose the colours you will use?
I’ll spend some time mixing colors (on a very large glass palette). Here I will be fairly casual because some nice combinations may come from this. I will then choose all the colors that will be in one painting. All the light colours and shadow colors. If they look pleasing on the palette then they should look good on the painting. All that I mix that doesn’t look good – I place on a separate glass for another time (that goes in the freezer where it will stay fresh for another painting).
Are there certain colours, that you use, in a specific order?
I start with the lightest colours, then down to the shadow colours. I like working with a particular red and I mix many shades of both warm and cool grey to keep the shadow areas interesting. I am a big fan of Payne’s grey, also a light purple mixed with sepia for the shaded side of a white object.
Discuss the perspective of your still life work?
The less real, the more interesting the painting is to me. So by playing with perspectives and adding many horizon lines – help’s make things less predictable. It started with the cityscapes because I wanted to get many things in one painting i.e. buildings, water, boats, and bridges. If I stuck to a 3 point perspective I would be limited. By having multiple planes and vanishing points I can add all kinds of objects all over the canvas.
A building painted flat alongside one that has dimension can be visually confusing but holds a viewers interest longer. It also throws a painting towards abstraction especially if I can reduce areas into patterns that are further broken up by texture.
Line is a very visual aspect of your work.
One can’t be too exact when drawing with a dremmel and I like the fact that it takes a few lines to work out the position and shape of something.
Stripes of fabric The stripes (tablecloth) offer a way to bring a viewer into the picture. It also sets up a perspective that is soon contradicted by an object following a different perspective. A feature carried over from the cityscapes.
Sydney Opera House City and Sea, 24 x 80 inches, Oil on Canvas. (Paul Balmer is originally from Sydney.)
Comment on the importance of shadow in your work.
Shadows are there for contrast and to make objects look more dimensional. I also like the city to come out of the shadows to reach the light. These lights and darks make the composition.
How difficult is it to work with the video going behind you?
I set the camera up myself (or my wife takes the shots) so it’s not an issue. I doubt I could paint with a crew behind me.
Take two paintings that have given you delight knowing where they have gone.
I have a large New York Cityscape that hangs in the Delta lounge at LaGuardia airport with a photo plaque and description. I often get sent the picture from folks that spot it.
I have a few paintings in hospitals around Connecticut including Yale Hospital – that seems to bring some joy to people .
Yale Hospital landscape
Discuss your studio.
Current studio Connecticut
I work in an industrial space with high ceilings and many windows. It has so much light even on a rainy day. I also have two additional rooms downstairs – one for power tooling and the other for storage.
Do you only work in daylight?
No; I sometimes work at night. That was my preferred time until I had a family.
Do you see your work as in the tradition of Tonalism?
I do. I started my fine art career painting landscapes and they became tonal paintings. My current work sets up a mood with one primary colour (and limited tones). Perhaps this is why I was included in the book by David Cleveland on “A History of American Tonalism”
What led you to take the huge leap from commercial art to a freelance painter?
I learned everything from being an illustrator and doing commercial art but to be a painter was the goal. To have the freedom, with paint, every day, to interpret what you feel or see. And to spend one’s day experimenting and playing with colours and textures.
What is one part of this leap that still brings a smile to your face?
To have some people recognize my style and say “that’s a Paul Balmer” makes it pretty special.
Deborah Blakeley, Melbourne, Australia
Interview by Deborah Blakeley, October 2020
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