February Guest Artist: Neil Hollingworth

Since late last year, I’ve been devoting Sundays to short posts about a classic painting. It’s been a lot of fun, and now it’s time to expand on the idea. Once a month I’m going to invite a guest artist to appear on my blog. I’ll feature a number of their paintings and conduct a short interview with them. Since deciding to do this, I’ve been really, really excited about it; It’s been great working up the concept, and now it’s ready!

I’m delighted that Neil Hollingsworth has graciously agreed to be my first guest. Neil needs little or no introduction. Since he’s a modest guy who would probably object to lengthy praise, I’ll simply say he’s one of the finest artists I know. He’s built an impressive following both online and in gallery space, and his blog is a constant source of inspiration and delight to many, many artists and art lovers. Detailed biographical information can be found here.

Neil Hollingsworth
Pool Bowl No. 10
Oil, 6 x 6 inches

OK, down to business. The format for these posts will be as follows: I’ll pick one or more of the guest’s paintings, we’ll have a short interview, and then I’ll ask the guest to pick one or more of their own works. For Neil, the piece I’ve chosen to highlight is one of his Pool Bowl paintings. It’s number 10 from a long-running series that has become iconic; an instantly-recognizable signature piece.

This subject turns simple sunshine into a shooting gallery of light and color, all of which are captured with a real virtuosity. Notice the care with which even the reflection of the sun is varied; the color and probably the coating of each individual ball reflects the light just slightly differently. It’s not a stylistic or even an important thing, but I’ve always loved the way the great 17th century Dutch still life painters went out of their way to arrange their glass and metal objects so that the entire light-source window could be reflected somewhere on their surfaces. Obviously, Neil has done the same thing here, and it’s a beautiful effect, faithfully painted. Details like these separate the masters from the crowd.

For me, though, it’s the cropping which really makes this painting sing. A more standard treatment of this subject would be to contain the entire bowl in the field of view, with maybe 10-15% of empty space on each side. That would be a very respectable, but predictable composition. This arrangement is a whole lot more interesting. The balls are set in such a way that they’re perfectly balanced with respect to each other; notice how the pyramid formed by the red balls anchors the arrangement. At the same time, the asymmetrical cut of the bowl itself gives an instability to the composition, and adds an air of mystery to it.

It would probably be easy enough to be dazzled with the technical accomplishment of these paintings and look no further, but that would entirely miss the point… and I think it’s an important point. Spend a little time looking at his still life page. Many of them don’t seem to work like regular still lifes. It’s almost like they’re genre paintings without people in them. They’re made up of objects that are set in a space that people definitely inhabit, but the people are all gone. They’re not compositions so much as they are frozen moments, which gives them a gentle, poignant, and somewhat haunting air. Even with this piece, I get the real sense that somebody dumped the balls in the bowl and walked away just before the painting happened. It manages to be playful and wistful at the same time. And that might just be what’s most appealing about Neil’s paintings; it’s honest art; not crushingly sincere, and not morbidly ironic. The middle way… just right.

But enough from me, let’s hear from the man himself. I sent along seven questions, and he provided excellent, thoughtful answers to all of them.

JH: Like many of us, you came to painting after several other careers. Aside from adding to your general life experience, do you feel that those previous jobs have had any specific impact on your painting?
NH: I can't say that my time spent as an aircraft mechanic or an OR nurse had an impact. If it did, the influence was negligible. I definitely believe that my time spent as a graphic designer had a significant impact. The effect was most notable in the area of composition. Cropping photographs, working with type and various decorative graphic elements for an ad, brochure or book had an invaluable effect on how I compose my paintings now.

Neil Hollingsworth
City of Charleston
Oil, 24 x 48 inches

JH: How many colors do you normally have on your palette? Does it vary from painting to painting, or do you always squeeze out exactly the same paints?
NH: I am all over the place when it comes to my palette. I think that an instructor of art would shudder to watch me lay out my paints. You wouldn't necessary know it from looking at my paintings. They tend to run slightly monochromatic, but I love colors. Because of this I possess a large collection of paints. My first stop at the art supply store is always the paint department. If I find a new appealing color that costs less than $12, I'll buy it. When the time comes to prepare my palette for a new painting, I dig through them until I've culled out the ones that seem appropriate. Each painting will have it's own assortment of colors. It's a time consuming, and occasionally wasteful process, but in the end works pretty well for me. I also have no particular brand loyalty. My paint box contains representatives from most of the commonly available brands. My wife Karen has a very structured palette. The same colors, located in their assigned positions. From these she mixes most of the colors she needs. Karen is very skilled in the use, and mixing of color. An ability that I am very envious of.

JH: Over the last 5 years, what has surprised you the most about the way your painting has developed?
NH: I'm not sure I would classify this as a surprise, but my quest these last five years has been to develop a more "painterly" look to my work. Paint looser, with more lost edges, and less detail. When I look at my work now, I find that I've gone in the exact opposite direction. With each new painting I challenge myself to actually enhance the realistic technique, and delve deeper into the realm of photorealism.

JH: Can you describe your typical working day? As How much of it is spent actually painting vs. other art- or business- related tasks?
NH: My day is mostly free form, but there is some degree of routine to it. The day usually begins with office tasks i.e., answering emails and computer housekeeping. This will be followed with the culling, cropping and organizing of photographs. Mornings are also the time used for preparing canvas and panels, varnishing, packaging and shipping completed paintings. I don't start to actually paint until after lunch, sometime around 1:00. If I don't need to get a finished painting photographed, and listed for ebay, I will usually paint until 6:00. If I am listing a piece for ebay, I'll knock off around 4:00. This gives me time to photograph the painting, and color correct it. A process that can be very time consuming. The listing process, and its corresponding post to my blog will finish up the work day.

Afternoons are also the time for compositional photography. It depends upon the light. If it's a good light day, a large part of it will be spent setting up still lifes, and photographing them. Or I'll get in the car, and drive around searching for something interesting in the outside world to paint. I'll commonly shoot 100 to 150 images, then, as I mentioned above, spend the mornings picking out, and editing the best shots.

Neil Hollingsworth
Oil, 18 x 18 inches

JH: You’ve frequently mentioned that you work from photographs; do you think of it as simply snapping a picture for reference, or do you find that the act of taking the photo is part of the creative process?
NH: The act of taking the photograph is the most important part of the process for me. If you start with a mediocre composition, you've pretty much lost the battle. I've seen scores of paintings created by artists whose skill in moving the paint around is very high, but their compositions are so boring that the final piece leaves no lasting impression on the viewer. I'm not claiming that my compositions are all that impressive. I'm just saying that I spend a great deal of time composing, and then editing those images, in an attempt to create an interesting painting. In a folder of 100+ images, I may find a dozen that have potential. Although, it's not uncommon to come across a dull photograph, that with some creative cropping, will result in a beautiful painting. It's a great deal of work, but work that for me is very pleasurable. I paint directly from my photographic reference, so I need that image to be exactly what I want to see in the final piece. For me, it's all about the photography.

JH: What’s the best piece of advice you were given about having a career as an artist?
NH: I've drawn, and painted since I was a child for fun. I took it seriously, in that I always wanted to produce the best painting I was capable of doing at the time, but I never entertained the thought that I would ever find myself working as a painter. Until the advent of the internet. When my friend and artist Jeff Cohen told me that he had begun to actually sell his artwork on ebay, the dream of working as an artist suddenly became a possibility. Now, my main problem, when I first considered selling my art, was letting it go, for what I thought at the time was pennies. In the past I had had no problem giving away paintings as gifts to friends, but selling them for a few dollars was, in my mind, a crime. Here comes the advice. My wife Karen, and Jeff Cohen both told me the same thing, "if you paint a piece that you really can't part with, just paint it again for yourself". This statement, along with the ability to archive my images on my computer to revisit at anytime I chose, freed me to paint and "release". It wasn't long before I had no problem letting virtually all my paintings go without remorse. I quickly realized that the more I painted and sold, the more opportunity I would have to paint.

JH: And just for fun: what do you listen to while painting?
NH: I am addicted to audiobooks. Primarily historical, scientific and non-fiction, with some classics and sci-fi/horror mixed in. I'm currently "reading" a biography of Robert J. Oppenheimer entitled American Prometheus. I supplement these with a long list of Podcasts. Some of my current favorites are: Bill Moyers Journal, the Kunstler Cast, NOW on PBS, This American Life, and TEDtalks.

Neil Hollingsworth
Antique Shop No. 3
Oil, 18 x 24 inches

JH: Finally, could you pick one of your own paintings that you particularly like?
NH: Jeff asked me to submit one of my favorite paintings. A tough assignment. Not that they are all so great, but I like different paintings for different reasons. So, I sent along three. Not necessarily favorite paintings, but representing some favorite subjects. Ones I don't indulge myself in very often. My first love was animal art [see above: City of Charleston]. I think it may still be my favorite subject, but a hard sell, so it takes a back seat. Mechanical stuff also gets my juices flowing, trains, planes and automobiles [see above: DC-3]. The third piece entitled Antique Shop No. 3 was one of my true favorite paintings, but was an unpopular painting to say the least. It lingered in the galleries for a long time before it ultimately sold. That aside, I'm very proud of it. The image came from an antique shop in Savannah GA. Every square inch of this particular room will filled with tables and chairs. The single shaft of light streaming in from a skylight onto those two chairs, seen in that gap between the legs of the hanging chairs, blew me away.

So, with that I’ll wrap up the first of what I intend to be monthly guest artist features. I’ve had a lot of fun putting this together, and I hope you all have enjoyed reading it. I want to thank Neil over and over again for participating and putting so much effort into it. You can thank him by visiting his blog regularly: http://neilhollingsworth.blogspot.com/ Neil mentioned his wife Karen, who is also a SPLENDID painter (it’s tough to imagine that much talent under one roof!). You can see her work here.