“The standards are all internal. I don’t need anyone to tell me what is strong and what is not. The voice within is loud and clear; it banishes all other voices from the studio.” –Catherine Kehoe
Known for her intimate abstract constructions of sensuous color in still lifes, self portraits, and figures, Catherine Kehoe is currently preparing for a solo exhibition slated for March, 2011 at Howard Yezerski Gallery in Boston, where she has been the focus of several solo exhibitions over the last few years. Most recently, her work was included in the 2010 traveling exhibition “The Common Object” organized by Zeuxis, a grassroots organization of painters formed in New York in 1995 to explore the contemporary possibilities of the still life. Since 2006, Kehoe has taught a course she developed, Painting: Powers of Observation, at Massachusetts College of Art and Design (MassArt). As part of the MassArt artist lecture series, she will be delivering a talk entitled, “The Difference Between Things” in March, 2011.
Born in Hartford, Connecticut, Kehoe studied in the Yale Norfolk program and holds a BFA in painting from MassArt and an MFA in painting from Boston University. She is the recipient of a Pollock-Krasner grant, two Blanche Colman awards, a Berkshire Taconic ART grant, a St. Botolph Club Foundation grant and a Golden Foundation grant. She has been the focus of exhibitions at Barton Ryan Gallery in Boston, Wright State University and Simmons College, along with many other group shows throughout New England, and has taught courses and workshops at MassArt, Boston University School of Visual Arts, South Shore Art Center and Art New England at Bennington College.
RH) Your work is primarily divided between still life and the figure. Can you talk about the primary differences between these two genres and the significance their separate exploration has for you as an artist? Do you have a tendency or preference to concentrate on one more than the other, or do you find yourself shifting between genres pretty regularly? Are your still lifes and figures intently structured, or do they come about my accident? Are there times when it feels the genres begin to blur their borders of their definitions?
CK) The short answer is the still life paintings are not so easily arrived at and take a long time, a month or so. The self-portraits are a kind of play, often coming after a day of puzzling out the complexities of a still life. I don’t favor one genre over the other. Each has its place and purpose.
Part of the appeal of still life, for me, is that it is within my grasp and control. I paint objects that fit in my hand, and I move them around until I find some relationships of shape, weight, color, intensity or value that spark a painting idea.
The process of arriving at something I want to paint, some arrangement, is intuitive. Usually it takes a few days to come up with something, and often I have to stop and say that is the best I can do right now, and begin painting, without necessarily being convinced of having found something worth painting. I wonder if the arrangements are more telling the less I labor over them and the less I second-guess myself. Telling of what? The paintings speak back to us. The characteristic ways we see and describe the way things look, and the way we put things together, comprise an entirely personal language. This is not necessarily something I want to be in complete control of, as much as I like control!
Some days I move things around and nothing looks interesting. Other days everything I place in front of my eyes excites me. Brain chemistry? What I had for breakfast? I am not sure why my response is different each day. But I sit down to paint, regardless of how I am feeling about it. Within minutes I am fully engaged.
Once I begin painting, it is all about relating one thing to another, and to the space. I am reminded of Matisse’s wonderful quotation: “I don’t paint things, I paint the difference between things.” I make a commitment to the selection and its place within the rectangle, and stick with it. Which is not to say that the setups and the paintings do not change during the process. Often what I imagined when I began does not have the desired effect when translated to paint. So I will take something out of the setup, put something else in. I might want something darker or more intense, or it could be that I can’t for the life of me paint that object or its relationship to the space, even after 100 tries. When that happens, I take the hint and am willing to surrender and change course.
Each still life painting takes rather a long time. It is not easy or quick for me to figure out what things look like. It can take many visits to the canvas, over the course of a month, before I begin to see the large relationships. The longer I work, the more I scrape and try again, the closer I come to seeing accurately, and the closer I come to being able to find a surprising equivalent in paint.
Over the years my interest in reducing things to their simplest terms has become central. I try to be as specific as possible to the way things look in relation to each other while leaving out as much information as I can.
Painting a still life can be fraught with difficulty and failure. What keeps me interested are those moments when I try a different, bolder or simpler way, and realize that is all I need. My fists go into the air at those moments, and I say “Yessss!!!”
Those moments don’t come every day. Very often I will end the day glad to have spent the time absorbed in the pleasure of looking, but disappointed that I wasn’t more successful. I know those “unsuccessful” days are not wasted, and that I would not have moments when everything comes together without the days when nothing does.
RH) Before we ever met, you joked that I would recognize you from your self-portraits, “just less scary.” While it is true that the paintings have a fresh, crisp “harshness” (which is different from the welcoming, humble and sincere artist I met), in your self-portraits I see the pursuit of pure perception. I recognized in them what you state on your website about “the search for an essential form” in as little information possible. This is especially tough when we look at ourselves in the mirror, to allow the face we know to become an essential mass of forms, without nuances leading to sentimentality. Can you talk about how this series of self-portraits came about, the choices involved in palette, composition or color, and the discoveries you made along the way?
CK) The little paintings of my head turn the gaze back on the one who is looking so fiercely. They are a record of what that looking looks like. They are entirely unself-conscious. When I look at them later, it is as if someone has captured my image without my knowledge.
After a day of working on a still life painting, successful or not, sometimes I put a mirror in front of me and do a quick painting of my head. It is usually late, but I have various types of overhead and floodlights on, along with whatever light remains from the window and skylights.
The first session of a self-portrait takes about an hour. The next day I will work on anything I have not gotten to the night before, usually wrapping up within an hour or two. Of course the light is different the next day, so I will make the second session as accurate as I can to the current lighting conditions.
I love painting self-portraits. I am always there. I quickly forget that I am looking at myself. What I see is a pattern of light falling on a large form (my head), and the way that light affects smaller, secondary forms (my features, what I am wearing).
For me, painting a self-portrait is pure perception. I am not thinking about making a good painting; I am not thinking very much about composition; I am not thinking about getting a likeness, or of flattering myself. Somehow I am able to work boldly, simply and quickly, in a way that is not typical of the way I paint a still life.
RH) Of particular delight to me, upon seeing your works in person, was the scale of the paintings. They have a gem-like power of attraction, one which draws the eye in closer to its color facets and glints of light into a far-off, almost secret world. How long have you been working in this scale, and what led you to choose it? Can you talk about the power and importance of scale to you? How do color, light and form relate to the choice of scale?
CK) I suppose the scale of my paintings forces an intimate relationship between the viewer and the painting. Made you look! It’s like whispering. There is a power in sotto voce, and in intimate paintings. They don’t scream at you, but they invite (require) your attention.
One of the things I was told frequently as a student was to paint larger. Clearly I have resisted this admonition! My very first paintings in art school were huge: 20×24 inches! From there they got smaller and smaller. I often make paintings as small as 4×6 inches, and the average size is about 6×8 or 8×8 inches.
Why so small? First, I want to have a sense of the whole painting, all at once, at a glance. I want the freedom to change things, and this is easier to do when the painting is small. Right now it also has something to do with my eyesight and the way it changes as I get older. My depth of focus is less flexible, so I choose a distance that is the same for the subject and the painting. I like having an intimate relationship to the paintings I make, and to the paintings I look at. When looking at paintings by others, I have trouble seeing large paintings, getting a sense of the whole image.
RH) Your ancestor series is a “deviation” from direct observational painting. Can you talk about why and how this series came about, and the techniques and approaches you used? (How do you work from memory, from photos, from intuition?)What do you feel you have learned in the process?
CK) My mother’s mother came from Poland. That is all I knew about her. Everyone who knew her was dead by the time I Googled her name in 2005. Through that Internet search, I found a previously unknown second cousin who began sending me jpeg images of my grandmother’s siblings, her parents, and the village in Poland.
The scans were low resolution but the images were haunting to me. I cast about for ways to use this deeply meaningful material. From the beginning, my desire was to flesh out the people I could know only through poor digital images. I began with a series of heads based on the photographs. Later I began painting the people in relation to each other and to space. I wanted to travel in time, to experience the troubled time and place where they lived.
Through this series I learned something about the history of Poland, the complexities and horrors experienced by everyone there. I traveled to my grandmother’s village, Osmolowszczyna, and met distant relatives who still lived there.
Some of the images were so degraded that it opened possibilities for invention as well as simplification. I felt free to leave out information that was not there in the source photos. The images were black and white. Some had a slight sepia cast. This led me to a range of browns, grays and muddy gray/greens. The whites took on a yellowish green quality. I made the color up as I went a long.
I spent two years on the ancestor project, living in a world of murky no-name colors. (Perhaps my current interest in intense color and value contrast is a reaction to this period of drabness!) Despite the limited color in the paintings and the source, I continued to use my full palette to arrive at those colors. As an aside, I am suspicious when someone uses the phrase “limited palette” to describe paintings that appear monochromatic. I always want to know exactly what colors are on the palette.
Working from photographs expands the possibilities of subject matter. Photography is a tool we have at our disposal as painters. This series helped me realize that I could make paintings from and about anything. It was important to me that I was not attempting to copy photographs, but was using them as a source to make paintings. It is not easy to keep the painting part foremost when using a photographic source, though many of the painters I admire most find ways to use photography to serve their painting.
Once I moved on from the ancestor series, I found it exhilarating to return to making painted images from subjects that exist in space and light in the present moment.
RH) What is the most difficult part of painting for you, and what seems to come easier? When does a painting feel successful, and when not so much?
CK) Painting is all very difficult! And it doesn’t get any easier, because as I begin to master some aspect of the medium, I set different standards for myself. The standards are all internal. I don’t need anyone to tell me what is strong and what is not. The voice within is loud and clear; it banishes all other voices from the studio.
When a painting is successful, or even when a small passage is, it has to do with finding a surprising way to describe the visible. Most often what surprises me is how far an image can be reduced and still be clear. It is a delicate balance (or a conflict) between subtlety and bold simplicity. If I can sneak a little nuance into something boldly stated, that feels like success.
Getting lost in the painting trance is easy. That is about the only easy thing about painting.
RH) Can you refer to a painting or two of yours which changed dramatically in the process, and talk about how the idea for the paintings came about, images you were thinking of, and why/how those thoughts changed?
CK) Almost all of my paintings change in one way or another before I am through. One example is a painting called “Inflatables.” The setup started out with a pale turquoise swath of silk in the lower right quadrant. I had long wanted to put that color in a painting, and thought this painting might be an opportunity to do so. I painted most of the rest of the painting first. The objects included a few inflatable toys that were of colors not found in nature. One was an intense pthalo-like turquoise blue, and once I had that in, the opposite pale turquoise corner of the painting did not hold its own against that intensity. I realized I needed something that would be a strong contrast in color, and something with a weight that would anchor the side of the painting opposite the inflatable ring. Out came the pale turquoise silk and in went an old prom gown I had bought at a thrift store. It was a deep, earthy burgundy satin that had all kinds of pink and orange highlights, as well as deep blackish-red shadows and black tulle, and it did the job of balancing the color of that inflatable ring.
As for the ideas for the paintings, they are primarily visual: contrast of color, shape, touch (shiny/dull, soft/hard). I am interested in how each object is changed or affected by the adjacent objects. I want to make a believable space, though there might not be any reason for those objects to sit together. I am interested in the movement of the eye around the painting, but it is an intuitive interest, not an analytical or intellectual one. Do some of the objects mean something to me? Yes. Am I telling a story? No. Metaphor? Maybe. Sometimes.
RH) You have put together an outstanding online website for your course at MassArt, “Powers of Observation.” It is a marvelous resource for your students, as well as for any art student or artist, and I believe it is the only teacher’s blog of its type focusing on perceptual painting, and on a specific course. Can you talk about your class, “Powers of Observation,” and why you created this site?
CK) I developed the course Painting: Powers of Observation to address the fundamentals of painting from observation. Having this solid ground beneath a painter’s feet gives her more options, regardless of what type of painting she ends up doing over the course of her life.
People who want to paint need a way to master the medium and the visual fundamentals. Without these, painters are left with limited options that are based on what they are not able to do. It astounds me that so many painting students go through art school and graduate school without ever being introduced to these painting fundamentals, and I find people are hungry for this. That was the genesis of the course.
The web site came about because I wanted to showcase the work of my students, so they could see their work in context with their fellow students. I thought this would be a way they could learn from each other.
For a while I posted student work on my own web site, but decided it best to keep my own work and the work of my students separate. I was slow to come around to the blog idea, but it dawned on me that this was a way to present student work, which is where I began. I also posted the syllabus, supply list and other information. I added slide shows with links to online albums of work by painters who were pushing the boundaries of painting from observation.
It grew from there. One semester I had some “palette geeks” in my class who were interested in what colors painters had on their palettes and what tools and mediums were used by their favorite artists. So I began inviting painters to share their palette information on the Powers of Observations site. The generous response from painters was wonderful. A few took the invitation and ran with it. Stuart Shils and Sangram Majumdar both went beyond a simple list of colors and tools, giving in-depth descriptions of the development of their ideas about color. Ken Kewley has graciously allowed me to post several slideshows of his paintings.
I enjoy collecting quotations and aphorisms about painting, so that became another section of the site. I added reading lists, links, and anything else I thought might spark further research in my students.
Classroom time is spent painting. I work with students individually as they paint, since everyone is in a different place with their work. When people are painting, the listening part of the brain is switched off! The Powers of Observation site puts information in a place where they can find it at their own convenience, when they are ready to absorb it.
Though I started the site for my students, I often hear from painters who are glad to find information about artists who are new to them. I always welcome information about painters who are new to me and enjoy presenting their work when I discover it.
RH) You have led workshops focusing on the psychological problems artists can face when painting the head, as opposed to the other genres. If one paints a tree too large or in the wrong place, it does not carry the “agony” that painting a nose too large, crossing the eyes, or muddying the skin can cause. And yet, it seems easier to paint a tree the right size and with the right color. What are some of the first errors people make when approaching the painting of a head? Where exactly do the errors come from, and how can they be rectified? Why is painting a head just like painting, say, an apple, and how is it entirely different?
CK) I have done several portrait workshops; the most recent one was called The Head Examined. It wasn’t intended to address psychological problems, but I wondered if anyone would sign up thinking it was a psychotherapy workshop! There were some jokes about that, but really it was pretty straightforward about the so-called universal proportions of the human head and the deviations that make up an individual likeness. As you said, when those structural proportions are wrong, it is easily recognized and the distortions can be disturbing. So I developed several diagrams of the head in profile and in frontal view. We looked at the diagrams and found surprises there — for example many people didn’t realize that the eyes fall halfway between the top of the head and the bottom of the chin. When we looked at the diagrams superimposed over great portrait paintings, we found that the Rembrandt, Velasquez, etc. portraits all fit nicely within those universal proportions. I’m pretty sure those great painters were not using diagrams; I think they were relying on their highly developed powers of observation. But the diagrams are a way of conceptualizing the proportions, which is a place to start in the workshops.
On the other hand, art history is full of examples of distortions put to masterful expressive use. My point is not that distortions are bad, but that painters should recognize them and use them with intention, not because they don’t know better.
One of the ideas I emphasize in my portrait workshops: If the big notes of color and value are wrong, or the basic proportions are wrong, no amount of detail will help. If the big notes and proportions are correct, that is almost all one needs to make a great painting of a head.
RH) What courses will you be teaching this next year and summer? Any other courses developing in the back of your mind?
CK) Fall and spring semester I teach Painting: Powers of Observation at Massachusetts College of Art and Design in Boston. The first half of the semester I set up elaborate still lifes and the second half we work from the model. In the summer I teach Painting the Figure. In the summer of 2011 I will also teach a weeklong still life workshop at Art New England, a Mass Art program held at Bennington College in Vermont.
As much as I enjoy teaching figure painting, there can be something artificial about a naked person standing in the middle of a room with spotlights on him or her. My main focus in teaching the figure is to relate it to the space and light conditions around it. In my classroom this means a dark gray floor and white walls. We spend a lot of time realizing just how dark a white wall can be, for example. I am developing a workshop or course in which the figure is seen and painted in a context where figures are typically found: wearing clothes, in interior spaces that are furnished, perhaps, and which are lit with natural light.
RH) And how do you try to find the right poise as a painter and a teacher in a quickly shifting modern world?
CK) My life as a painter can seem insular. To carve out painting time from a busy life, I must say no to many things in order to say yes to painting. I need to conserve my time and energy for what happens in the studio. What keeps the enterprise from being entirely hermetic is the exchange of ideas and images that is so readily found online. It is wonderful to connect with artists via their web sites, on this JSS blog, and on Facebook. I have been introduced to scores of terrific artists via FB. Of course it is always better to see the work in person, but the Internet helps me know about the artists, and where to see their work.
In addition to the Internet, teaching gives me a chance to engage with others on a subject of utmost importance to us all. Teaching, and the images and ideas I find online, feed my work, as much as I claim to be the stern gatekeeper of what is allowed into the studio!
Catherine Kehoe is represented by Howard Yezerski Gallery in Boston, with a solo exhibition slated for March, 2011. Since 2006, she has been teaching Painting: Powers of Observation at MassArt, accompanied by an excellent online blog. For a full portfolio of her works, artist statement, and biography, please visit Catherine Kehoe’s website.