Voices of Experience - An Interview with Damien Gonzales
Voices of Experience
Damien Gonzales embraces science and engineering, using them to understand the southwestern light and landscape as well as the technical aspects of painting the panoramic views of his native New Mexico. Gonzales is largely a self-taught artist, encouraged by family and artist friends, and learning by studying favorite books and magazines. He has participated in many national juried exhibitions and events and was named by Southwest Art Magazine as "An Artist to Watch". He wrote to us about growing up, meeting artists along the way, and immersing himself in the New Mexico light and land.
"As far back as I can remember, I was fascinated with drawing and later painting. My parents saved the first drawing I ever did, around the age of two, which I still have in a scrapbook. So from then until now, I don’t remember ever deciding art would be my primary focus—it just always was.
I’ve always lived in the southwestern United States. Typically in the Southwest the lighting is stark, the atmosphere is thin and clear and desert colors are usually earth tones. In contrast, in lower elevations the atmosphere is more soupy and creates very different effects. I recently painted in Tucson and saw for myself again, after having not visited for many years, that in the low-lying Sonoran desert the distant gray and beige granites and even trees that are the same as those we have in New Mexico, take on a deep rose cast because of the thicker atmosphere. Occasionally I've mistakenly thought artists were over exaggerating some of those colors so it's great to paint in completely new places.
I prefer painting on location. For years I spent more time in the studio plugging away and was surprised to find I progressed two or three times faster when I started painting outside regularly. For most scenes I’d rather have the real thing in front of me versus contriving in the studio or looking at photographs for reference. I think painting outdoors is the best thing any landscape painters can do for themselves. It's easy to see paintings made from photographs and not from studies done on location.
My overall painting process is very flexible and can vary quite a bit from painting to painting. My general approach is to stay as open minded as possible and adapt as I go without too strong a preconception of what I'll do. For me it's better if the subject dictates the approach and I subordinate myself or else the paintings get bad quickly. When I head out to paint on location, along the way I think about general lighting, weather conditions, overall cast of the day, predominant tones in the landscape and the topography. When I see something of interest, I’ll think about some general concepts for a painting and rough compositions but not lock myself in. When I find a good vantage point, I refine my ideas and settle on something. I usually set up a panel on my paint box and sketch the scene in pencil using sight-sizing for the major elements, focusing on the largest value groupings and moving things around a little if needed.
What do you feel makes your artwork or style unique?
What are your preferred materials?
For painting grounds I use standard oil primed linen with a finer texture since I paint thinly and gessoed panels that I prepare myself. For brushes I use common bristle and sable brushes—nothing special. I also spread paint a little with my fingers and sometimes use the pointed end of a wood handled paint brush, a palette knife or even steel wool for details and texture. I use commercial oil paints in tubes and have all the usual colors but I tend to rely more heavily on a handful of earth tones—Yellow Ochre, Red Oxide and the Siennas; Ultramarine and Cobalt Blue, Titanium White and Mars Black. When my values are under control I’ll amp things up with stronger colors if needed. I mix my own medium from different proportions of Stand Oil, Turpentine, Damar Varnish and occasionally a drop of two of Cobalt Dryer, if I need to accelerate drying. I’ll vary my mix depending on where I’m going to be painting. If outside in hot dry air, I’ll increase the amount of Turpentine in my medium, for example.
Among the older historical artists that inspire me there are Michelangelo, Vermeer, Sargent, Sorolla, Bierstadt, and Moran and others. I also like more recent artists like Wilson Hurley, Robert Lougheed, Nicolai Fechin, and Jimmy Jones to name just a few. I also find inspiring work on the internet, which I search regularly. I have a collection of favorite books and magazines I occasionally refer to such as The Enjoyment and Use of Color, Art and Visual Perception: A Psychology of the Creative Eye, old issues of Southwest Art, American Artist and Art of the West from the 1970s to the present.
In addition to your native Southwest, have you had the opportunity to paint in other parts of the country and world?
What words of encouragement would you like to give to beginning artists?
Develop your own vision for your work and find great mentors that can help you do that and are willing to critique your work honestly. Remember that all the difficulties and failures along the way are important, too. There aren't many shortcuts, so stay tenacious and work hard but with purpose. If you paint landscapes, paint on location as much as possible and don't force a scene to conform to your preconceptions and idiosyncrasies. Try to subordinate yourself, so that as much reality and natural beauty as possible enters your work.
To see more of Damien Gonzales's work, go to:
All artwork © Damien Gonzales
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