Guest Artist: Pierre Raby

Pierre Raby
"3 Glasses and a Rubber Ball”
Oil on masonite, 7 x 9 inches, 2008

I’m delighted to be able to continue my Guest Artist series with another amazing artist, Pierre Raby. Though he only started blogging last year, people noticed right away. Links to his site very quickly began showing up on the rolls of many of the blogs I frequent.

A quick look makes it instantly obvious why: Here is a body of paintings done by an artist that not only has a firm grasp of the techniques of making paintings, but who has a real story to tell with his art.

One of the first striking things about Pierre’s work is the wide range of subject matter he tackles. Most artists seem to gravitate to one particular genre. Though they might occasionally throw out different types, they basically have their niche. That doesn’t seem to be the case with Pierre; he works with still lifes, landscapes, portraits, and genre pieces, and he does them all in a totally accomplished and confident manner.

While there are a lot of good painters out there, this isn’t just good and competent work, it’s interesting. Take the above still life, “3 Glasses and a Rubber Ball”. I’m usually wary of still lifes that try to combine traditional elements with one or two obviously new objects. Most of the time, it feels contrived and simply doesn’t ring true. But here is a painting that does it, and does it so convincingly I hardly notice what’s happening. The glasses are as traditional as you can get. Except perhaps for the tinting, they could happily be sitting in a piece by Pieter Claesz. On the other hand, it’s difficult to think of a more modern, borderline kitschy item than a ball of rubber-bands; they’ve been present in every dreary office I’ve ever worked in. Yet he treats it with such dignity and fascination that it feels more like a jewel-encrusted orb or an ancient astrolabe instead of something I could be bouncing against a cubicle wall. I’ll probably never look at one of these things in quite the same way again.

A good number of Pierre’s landscapes are urban industrial scenes; which is one of my favorite types of landscape. The painting below is a great example; compositionally speaking, it’s perfect and absolutely riveting, pun somewhat intended. The thrusts of the major lines all balance each other incredibly well, transmuting the massive rusted hulk of the trestle into a gracefully poised sculpture.

Pierre Raby
"Steel, Water and Sake"
Oil on masonite, 7 x 9 inches, 2008

Yet for all the blunt obviousness of the iron, there are hints and whispers here of something else -- that seems to be a characteristic of his painting. The reflections in the water reveal apparently large structures that are not visible to us at all from this vantage point… distorted by the ripples. The stairs add an alluring ambiguity to the composition; can we proceed? Is this a dead end? Even the meaning of the graffiti is not 100% straightforward. This isn’t merely recording a scene he came across in the urban wastelands; it’s making a drama.

As much as I had been admiring his paintings, I was totally surprised and a little dumbstruck at the beginning of the year when he started posting his graphite portraits, such as this one of his partner Michel.

Pierre Raby
"Michel in the studio no. 2"
graphite on bristol, 10-3/4 x 9 inches, 2009

Anybody who’s tried portraiture knows just how hard it is – even at the most basic level of getting it to look like A person, much less THE person whose portrait it is. What I usually see (often even in the works of professional portraitists who thoroughly know their way around the human face) is the stiffness of a department store photo shoot. I think it’s just unbelievably hard to confer genuine personality in the painted/drawn/sculpted image.

That’s why I was so amazed by these pieces; They’re not just good… or really good… they’re great. In fact, they scream Old Master, and I don’t mean that in terms of stylistic imitation. This does not read like just any hollow likeness; it’s an authentic and convincing psychological study. There’s something truly powerful here… transcendent and spiritual… maybe even a little vulnerable (actually, the first thing I thought was that it could have been a portrait of a medieval saint or mystic). Whether or not it actually looks like Michel, I can’t say, and in fact that’s irrelevant; I now feel like I know something about him… and maybe now I’ve learned just a little bit more about people in general.

So… I have to say that Pierre is that seemingly rare creature; a real artist. It’s a genuinely expressive and imaginative vein that he’s mining. That’s why, even though he doesn’t update his blog all that often, I keep checking back very regularly. I’m impatient for the next treat.

Pierre was gracious enough to take time to answer a series of questions about his work, now I’ll let him speak for himself:

JH: How do your outside interests affect your art?
PR: I tend to experience life as a whole, seeing it as a big work in progress. Since an early age I've been naturally inclined to question the aspect and the meaning of things with a compulsive desire to remodel it, translating what I see or feel with simple tools. Like many of us, I took different paths before realizing that if I wanted to feel complete as a being and make sense of all of this, I must find a way to harmonize each aspect of my experience by letting them merge together. This way transcendence is possible. Painting is a longtime companion, a convergence of my passion for people, science, art, design and architecture. However I don't worship the finished object, I'm more interested in the incredible journey that can result from exploration: looking, listening, creating, reaching people

JH: You paint a huge range of subjects; still life, landscape, portrait, figures (am I missing anything?). Does the way you approach each of these subjects vary, or do you end up approaching them more or less the same way?
PR: I came to oil paints only 6 years ago. Although I had a strong idea of what I wanted to explore, we know that one must put in a lot of effort in order to achieve good quality art with this great medium. It's a very long process. That range of subjects helps me to overcome technical issues, kind of a self-teaching method. For two decades I painted with acrylic but wasn’t satisfied anymore. I was looking for more sensuality and more depth in my paintings. The approach varies in terms of intentions but for each subject the finished piece must communicate a sense of strong presence. I enjoy looking at things, events or people on different levels not only the surface. By this use of aesthetic forms I want to reveal or play with many layers of insights. I don't aim to create high-realistic "trompe-l'oeil", this style is more influenced by a personal appreciation of photography and its sort of objective particularity. The title works as a hint or clue about what's represented. I deeply appreciate art that unveils without giving answers. With the use of photorealism I find it interesting to go further than the obvious reproduction of things.

JH: Does your palette change with every painting, or do you always use the same colors? (If you feel like listing them, that would be great)
PR: It slowly changed over time but not that much. What varies the most is the way I work with them depending on the size of the work. When I work on large paintings, I meticulously mix and prepare all the colors on the palette and refresh them at the beginning of each session. An efficient "ritual" to establish a sharp focused state of awareness. For little pieces, I usually work directly with no such preparation. My palette, pretty basic, is composed of:

Titanium White
Ivory Black
Lamp Black
Burnt Umber
Burnt Sienna
Raw Sienna
Madder Lake Deep
Oriental Red
Quinacridone Magenta
Quinacridone Red Violet
Cadmium Red
Azo Orange
Bright Orange
Cadmium Yellow Medium
Cadmium Yellow Light
English Green Deep
Sap Green
Cinnabar Green
Permanent Green
Phthalocyanine Emerald
Cerulean Blue
Light Blue
Prussian Blue
Dioxazine Purple
Payne's Grey

JH: Do you employ the same process with each painting, or does it change over time?
PR: The technical process doesn't change, but the artistic vision is different if I compare still lifes, urbanscapes and narrative larger works. It always starts with a strong urge to play, learn and experiment on a specific physical or psychological subject. I take lots of pictures with a large range of possible compositions, croppings and then, after discarding many from the lot, begin selecting which of these could end up creating interesting pieces. At this time, a lot of hard work is done on the computer to obtain the digital version of what will become the final painting.(Yes, like your first guest the wonderful Neil Hollingsworth, I have in my professional history some graphic design background! ). I use many printed color versions of the image chosen as a reference. Although I strive to get very close, I am careful to let the piece emerge by itself, attempting to avoid the usual stiffness that could result from these steps. For the painting part, I principally work with traditional techniques: drawing, thin monochromatic underpainting ( for figures) or basic chromatic values for smaller work. I then add as many glazed layers as the painting needs until I feel it's time to let go. You know, working with this style can be tricky as it can seduce you with the illusion that the more you work on a piece, the more you will be assured of a good result... I learned that the difficult part isn't finding enough time to work on a piece ( I'm very patient and stubborn) but that you can easily overwork and kill it.

JH: In what ways do you hope to see your painting change in the coming year?
PR: Above all things, I would like to produce more narrative pieces. For larger scales it's obvious that more time is required to complete the work, generally 3 or 4 weeks. I hope I'll be able to increase and get faster over time. As you know, my weekly schedule includes freelance work: graphic design, commercial art, sculpture. I need to be very disciplined to keep on track. Last year I tried subjects I never thought of painting before, just for the sake of exploration and for learning things that could be beneficial in the end. It turned out that I've been hooked by the making of these and so decided to split my creations in 2 directions. I will continue to produce small photorealistic paintings, a good way to learn and keep in shape. Beside that, I will explore new stylistic avenues for my narrative project. I won't elaborate on this but will eventually share some details on my blog, it's a long maturing process, very exciting though.

JH: Who’s your favorite dead artist?
PR: Kind of difficult to give a short answer, Jeff. Dropping only one name wouldn’t be meaningful and true to me. I love art and artists from each historical period but honestly, the fact is that my passion for creation is almost exclusively nourished by the contemporary art scene. I've been raised surrounded by Art History, with an architect father and a mother working at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts. From the past I appreciate a lot Caravaggio, Corot, Bouguereau, Duchamp, Hopper, Bacon, Pollock and the honorable Betty Goodwin (a Canadian artist) who died last year. Each one and many more had influenced some aspect of my skills and reflection. I'll extend the answer with major contemporary living artists who gave me the kick to explore and commit to art: Gerhard Richter, Marc Tansey, Lucian Freud, Louise Bourgeois, Matthew Barney, Bill Viola and Gottfried Helnwein.

JH: Just for fun, I was going to ask you what you listen to while you work, but you already tell us that in your blog posts. So instead, just for fun, what’s your favorite snack food when you paint?
PR: Can music be considered as a favorite snack? Seriously, I never eat while I'm working. Only liquids, all kinds, depending what time it is.

JH: Finally, can you choose one or two paintings of yours that you particularly like? If you’d like to say a few words about why you like it, that would be great.

Pierre Raby
"The other side"
oil on gessoed masonite, 7 x 9 inches, 2008

PR: This was my first attempt to paint an image that corresponds to how I look at my surroundings. It shows a little section of my jogging trail. I enjoy each part of this post-industrial area of Montreal, I could devote a whole series to it. Now, each time I cross that bridge, it puts a smile on my face.

Pierre Raby
"Didn't mean to hurt"
oil on gessoed masonite, 21 ¼ x 28 Inches, 2006

PR: Painted with desaturated colors, almost monochromatic, this was my first real narrative piece. In this particular one, I allowed myself to intensively blur the image, the brustrokes, in order to enhance the ambiguous psychological mood. The title works as a juxtaposed possible hint or clue about what's represented.

Well, that’s it for this month’s guest artist feature. I’d like to thank Pierre over and over again for his enthusiasm and patience in working on this; it was certainly a pleasure for me. Please visit his blog, and spend time going through the archives; it’s well worth it. Also, add a link or bookmark so you can visit regularly. His posts aren’t frequent, but they’re must-reads.

And… this series will continue next month. I’ve already spoken with another extraordinary artist who’s agreed to participate, and I’m totally looking forward to it… stay tuned!