Neil Callander was shortlisted for the Jackson’s Painting Prize this year with two of his entries–Healing Grounds and Sleeping Porch. Neil is an Arkansas based artist and educator, whose work is bound by an invested exploration of colour and light. Here, Neil discusses the importance of a harmonious palette, the effects of time on a painting and the lessons he has learned from painters he admires.
Above image: Sleeping Porch, 2013 – 2014, Neil Callander, Oil on muslin on panel, 122 x 122 cm
Clare: Can you tell us about your artistic background/education?
Neil: I studied art (focusing in painting and drawing) at a very good public high school and then at very good public universities. A seminal experience was studying in Italy when I was twenty—I traveled around Europe and all of Western painting became activated. Really without much distraction for a young person, I steadily pursued painting and drawing unconcerned with career implications. I think this was possible because I had a very stable upbringing and deep-rooted trust that things would work out.
I consider my first teaching gig being a summer camp counsellor, and teaching has remained integral to my creative practice. So much is learned through teaching! With every new class you have to identify what is essential and then make that clear and persuasive.
Clare: Where does a painting begin for you? Can you take us through your process?
Neil: Every painting begins within the previous paintings. Usually while in the act of painting, I’ll have an idea that is some sort of variation on the current work. I’ll jot it down and as a stand-alone idea if it sounds cryptic, kind of dumb and only makes sense in relation to the other paintings then I know it’s promising. Next I make the damn thing, and this can take a day or many years—I never know going in. To launch into the trials and tribulations of that process would be endless and probably not very helpful—it’s too personal and too varied. In other words, I don’t have a regular process and I don’t want one. But I do have a few guiding principles:
1. I rarely give up on a work, preferring to rework or transform an unresolved painting. The object develops a history that comes through in subtle and beautiful ways.
2. I don’t make detailed plans—my painting plans never work out. I just need enough to get started or make my next move.
3. There usually comes a point at which the composition is so intricate and tight that I cannot manage anymore additions or adjustments or it’ll pop. That’s when I know it’s done.
Clare: There is such a variety of painting styles featured here – from portraits, to domestic still life studies and abstract colour studies. Are they from different series’ of work? What can you tell us about each group?
Neil: I don’t think in series but I guess others are inclined to see them that way. For me any categorisation has more to do with colour and where the work was made—Kentucky paintings, Mississippi paintings, Alabama paintings, Iceland paintings, Arkansas paintings etc. The different genres just relate to the class of subject matter which is superficial. What’s being created in the studio now are suites of paintings. There’ll be one source painting (often a portrait of my son done from direct observation) that acts as a colour informant for invented scenes and abstract paintings which allow a more direct investigation of colour and mark.
Clare: This variety also extends to your brushwork which seems very explorative. Some paintings have a much looser style than others. What factors determine how you will apply paint and the tools you will use?
Neil: I think you are really noticing the effects of time on a painting. If I work on a painting for a long time the brushwork gradually tightens up, but the early looser layers remain visible in places. If a painting resolves quickly the marks will be of a similar loose attitude. In my intuitive way of working I use many brushes and mediums, and find removing paint to be a constructive mode of image making. I mostly paint on panel (or linen mounted on panel) so that I can scrape, scratch, scour and sand the surface repeatedly. Really drawn-out paintings go through many cycles of being reunified through an obfuscation of the surface and then a reconstitution of the pieces and parts. Early marks grow increasingly weathered by this process and new marks sit atop very freshly.
Clare: Can you tell us about your approach to colour? I’m particularly interested to find out about the meaning behind “Iceland Palette”.
Neil: Every painter limits their palette whether deliberately or by necessity. It’s a powerful tool for expression. Changing your palette is like the difference between playing Bach on harpsichord or electric guitar or humming it. Nobody has all the pigments squeezed on their palette at all times. Too many colours on your palette can lead to disharmony. I generally have about five to seven out at a time, but not the same five to seven each time.
As a painter, I situate myself “on the porch” of the house of great perceptually-based painters of the late 20th and early 21st centuries such as Edwin Dickinson, Lennart Anderson, Lois Dodd, and Fairfield Porter. I’ve become invested in how these painters observe and translate colour relationships in a manner that is distinct from painters who use imagined colour. A complementary colour relationship always exists between light and its accompanying shadow, and perceptually-based painters often surprise by stretching the possibilities within colour harmonies through inclusion of perceptual colour phenomena.
In Iceland I arrived at a limited palette through painting the shifts of green as the perpetual daylight reflected off the grasses (Indian Yellow Deep, Venetian Red, Mars Violet, Perylene Black, Scheveningen Blue, Cobalt Blue and Flemish White). Without a true red, my Icelandic palette leans towards a secondary triad of green, orange, and violet. I’ve continued to use this limited palette and its intrinsic moodiness has infused my recent paintings with some of the vivid peculiarity of an Icelandic summer.
Clare: Is “New Watermelon” the name of your studio? Can you tell us about it?
Neil: In Tuscaloosa Alabama we lived on New Watermelon Road. My studio was in the basement of our house. It was huge and gloriously—built to be a workman’s shop. I stored lawn equipment in there too. I tend to title work using specific and straight-forward descriptive language and the results can have poetry.
Clare: What are your most important artist’s tools? Do you have any favourites?
Neil: Geek out time! I use all sizes round Robert Simmons Sapphire brushes. I also like those very cheap flat hog bristle brushes you get at the hardware store (Guston used these). I take very good care to build and prepare my painting substrates in the traditional way—mounting linen on wooden cradled panel with rabbit-skin glue and then two coats of oil ground. No acrylic gesso for me—something off-putting about starting a painting with a layer of plastic.
Clare: How has the lockdown of the last few months affected your practice?
Neil: It’s been logistically difficult to work—my studio is on campus which is shut down and I have not been able to access it for months. Our world is changing rapidly, and being inside the moment it’s hard to know how the moment will affect me.
Clare: What are your art influences? Who are your favourite contemporary or historical artists and why?
Neil: In the studio I make no distinction between contemporary and historical painters. The same ideas have been available to painters all along the way. But I do proudly follow my lineage of American painters. Some of my painting instructors (Eve Mansdorf and Tim Kennedy) studied under Lennart Anderson who studied under Edwin Dickinson who studied under Charles Hawthorne who studied under William Merritt Chase. Dickinson is the most relevant for me—the notion that he is a painter’s painter comes from his wide-ranging approach which I admire and emulate.
I’ll run through a few more that have been important for me. When I saw Catherine Murphy’s paintings for the first time it was like being struck by lightning—how those delicate and intense negative spaces charge her domestic scenes! Frans Snyders (like many 17th century northern Europeans) mixed symbols of life and death, while embracing nasty moments as part of a delightful whole. Rembrandt might have been an extraterrestrial or divine—those portraits are alive. The deep mathematical order of Piero della Francesca’s compositions have a stillness and poetry that I find increasingly compelling. Lois Dodd and Fairfield Porter share a direct approach to painting that belies their complex ideas. Ann Gale has many disciples of her mark-making (soft edges without blending) but I didn’t study with her so I guess I’m a pseudo-disciple. De Kooning taught me that we don’t necessarily get to paint like the painters we most admire. And we definitely aren’t over what Philip Guston did with figuration.
Clare: What makes a good day in the studio for you?
Neil: In the moment I’m not sure I judge a good studio day accurately. If I feel a painting is going well one day I’m so often proven wrong when I walk into the studio the next day. I guess a good day would be realising in the morning that yesterday’s labor resolved a painting, then knocking off early and eating some good food.
Clare: Where else can we see your work online or in the flesh?
Neil: I currently have work up at Goose Barnacle in Brooklyn, New York.
I’m a member of an association of still life painters called Zeuxis.
My website: www.neilcallander.com
My Instagram handle is @neil_callander
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Jackson’s Painting Prize.
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