Artist Bill Chisholm makes the connections
When we last spoke to artist Bill Chisholm, he was preparing for a show at a Newport gallery. That was three years ago. Since then he has expanded his horizons from still life painting of fruits and vegetables to human portraiture.
Not that his fruits and vegetable work lacked a human element. What is unique about his work is how his subjects - be they pears, bananas or summer squash - have a quality that makes them seem like living, breathing entities. His bananas dance, his pears kiss and his summer squash look as if they’re spooning. (We’ll have to wait and see what he does with human groupings.)
EDGE spoke to Chisholm recently as he prepared for the 2012 Somerville Open Studios - his fourth year of participation in the event. We spoke to him about his work since the last time we spoke; and the equation between artistic expression and the marketing know-how it takes to be successful in today’s competitive market.
A lifetime process
EDGE: Since last we spoke, you got married, what was your wedding like?
Bill Chisholm: Logistically it was interesting. We started looking around at various venues and kept seeing places that were way too foo-foo and had no personal connection.
Then we decided to inquire at Club Cafe, they said they did do weddings. We were thrilled to find a place which has been part of our community for so many years and the staff there far exceeded our expectations.
Both our mothers questioned us about what kind of place it was which we both interpreted as code for "will there be men in dresses and leather?"
We were both pleasantly surprised to have family there that a number of years back we thought would never have come to a gay wedding, and they had a blast. Emotionally it also was a great experience. The whole process made me more reflective and intimate with my husband. Even though as gay men we have always had to struggle to be completely ourselves and define our own path there was something wonderful about having all our families and friends celebrate our union.
EDGE: Did you ever think you’d get married?
Bill Chisholm: Obviously I only began to think about it when it became legal in Massachusetts. I was not sure if I would get married. I didn’t really think I would find someone who I both loved and felt I could share my life with. We are two very easy going independent people who know how to connect deeply and give space to each other. I feel extremely grateful to have the right to be married and I feel very proud to live in this state. For along time I have thought that one of the greatest myths is that homophobia is an external thing only.
We think that we come out of a closet and internalized homophobia is done. I can honestly say I think for me this has been lifetime process and marriage has helped change it ways I would not have imagined. We both feel much more comfortable being openly gay in a straight world.
EDGE: Has it impacted your work?
Bill Chisholm: I find that is a difficult thing to assess. I think everything in an artist’s life is always affecting their work but it is not always obvious. Sometimes it is not until years later that it becomes apparent. I know that both age and being married have made me feel more relaxed about life. It also makes me think more about belonging - to family, friends, and community. This all certainly makes me think about the direction I want to go with portraits.
Human subjects more difficult?
EDGE: When we spoke three years ago, you were painting still-life of fruits. You are now doing portraits. When did this transition take place?
Bill Chisholm: I have been working on portraits on and off for the past ten years but during the past three years I have devoted a great deal of time drawing and painting models and friends from life. I continue to work on still-life as well but much more of my time has been on the portraits.
EDGE: What led you to wanting to do portraits?
Bill Chisholm: I find everything about the portrait more intimate and connected than still-life. The process of sitting with a person for hours at a time is intimate. I am very focused but also often engaged in conversation. I find portraits are a gateway to inside a person. The painting is an object. But when it is done effectively there is something that happens when we look at a painting. When I look at paintings my first response is emotive, then I might look at light, composition, technique but those are more intellectual. The emotive is immediate and unfiltered.
So this painting, this object takes on a life of its own because of what it evokes in us when we look at it. Usually if we take more time to really look a deeper connection happens. I don’t think anyone ever looks at the art longer and more intensely than the person who makes it. For me these portraits are a kind of translation of what I feel when I look at that person. This is what happens when I see faces, I look at them, something hits me, the bell goes off and I want to paint them.
Capturing a moving target
EDGE: Are human subjects more difficult?
Bill Chisholm: Painting people is much more difficult than still-life for many reasons. In both cases you want a likeness but in still-life, my mind or the viewer doesn’t say "that’s a pear but not the pear you were painting."
However, with a person I am constantly wanting to get more of them into the painting. Skin tones are also far more challenging because they are very subtle and they can change dramatically according to the light source or the persons exposure to sun. Also still-life subject doesn’t move. Many of the people I have painted are not professional art models and they are moving constantly. I want to get to know them, I want to be engaged in conversation and I want the experience to be pleasant for them but that often means I am capturing a moving target.
EDGE: Have you been satisfied with the results?
Bill Chisholm: I have been very satisfied with both the results and the experience. That being said painting is a life long learning process. We are raised to think we learn something, go to study for a while and that is it. Painting and drawing, especially for portraits require constant practice and learning. Most of the professional artists I know love to keep learning what others are doing and how someone’s approach is different from their own.
Painting slows everything down
EDGE: For years you worked as a photographer -- obviously the mediums are different, but is your approach similar in painting a person than photographing them?
Bill Chisholm: They are similar in that there is that "something" that I want to capture; however painting slows everything down: the process, the interaction, the results. It evolves gradually over time. Photography is immediate. I also learned to see much more through painting. My understanding of color, light and dark, has been vastly improved. I find beauty in many more places now that I am painting, in everyday objects, the landscapes and people. When I was working in photography I spent twenty years primarily doing fashion photography and that business has a very narrow view of what is beautiful, sexy and attractive - worth capturing. Painting has blown that wide open for me.
EDGE: You now use an advanced printing technique to create the canvases that you sell -- could you describe it in layman’s terms?
Bill Chisholm: I make and sell reproductions of my originals using a giclee printer. The word giclee come from the French word which means to spray. The ink is sprayed on in very fine amounts. What is critical about these inks is just as oil paints have pigment, the inks used for these prints do also. So the colors are very accurate and also very stable. In my case I print directly onto a canvas and stretch it like I would a normal oil painting. These prints have an archival rating of about a hundred years, oil paintings are over 600 years.
Working with Photoshop
EDGE: Your work benefits from your knowledge of advanced photo editing programs such as Photoshop. Do you find them invaluable tools in creating the final work?
Bill Chisholm: When I started painting I never knew how much my previous work with photography would be used. It is impossible to make these giclees without the use of the camera, computer, and programs like Photoshop. Also even though I have been painting many of these portraits from life most people don’t have the time to sit for the entire portrait so sometimes I will begin with a live sitting, continue from photographs I take, and then finish with another live sitting.
There is no substitute from seeing the subtleties of a person’s skin tones in person. However, having a great control with the camera helps, it allows me to get a great exposure and then working with a camera raw format and Photoshop I can get color, contrast and light balance exactly where I want them
From a creative standpoint I know much of my vision has been influenced by looking through a camera. I usually like my paintings to be fairly clean and with direct compositions. However I am not interested in "photographic realism" where the goal is to make the painting look like a photograph. I was very drawn to oil painting because of the many ways in which the medium of paint can be handled. Throughout the years I have continued to exlpore that from a very textured to very sleek surface, etc.
The marketing challenge
EDGE: Where can your work be found?
Bill Chisholm: I show annually at Somerville Open Studios and by appointment in my studio, but I also show at galleries and art shows around the North East.. These are all listed on my website.
EDGE: Have you seen the marketing of art change over the years?
Bill Chisholm: The marketing of art has become very broad. The previous model of selling art only through galleries still exists and is strong but there are many other avenues. I think it depends on the person. Some people like to develop their collection and vision with the help of a gallery. Some people like to go directly to the artist at open studios or art shows. I have people buy my art through the internet and it is clear they don’t want to talk to me or anyone about it. Because of these different ways people like to buy I market accordingly. There is no one right way.
EDGE: You do virtually everything yourself -- from creating to marketing and merchandising. Do you enjoy the more commercial aspects of what you do?
Bill Chisholm: I love what is at my fingertips, the ability to make giclee prints in my studio - 10 years ago that would not have happened. I love that I can make my own website, sell through it, stay in contact with collectors and other artist through Facebook and constant contact. I enjoy the social aspects of art shows, working with galleries and openings but more for the connection rather than a hard sell. Art is a very personal taste, I work hard to create the best work I can and when the right person comes along the work sells. Although I like all those parts of the business mostly I would rather just be painting.
EDGE: What’s next for you?
Bill Chisholm: I’d like to do some more plein air painting with friends up in Gloucester and Rockport where I lived for ten years or down in Provincetown, it helps clear my head. Mostly I would like to do cohesive bodies of portraits and figurative work from within my communities.
For more on Somerville Open Studios, visit the Somerville Open studios website.
For more on Bill Chisholm, visit his website.
Click here to read an earlier interview with Bill Chisholm and to see other examples of his work.