Stefan Ullrich's Landscapes; the incidental, the banal, and the ubiquitous, in conversation.

Oct 10, 2022 2:31PM

'When I look at the landscape, I do not focus on particularly striking or representationally worthy the conventional sense of traditional landscape painting. I look at the incidental, the banal, the ubiquitous...Forest motifs that probably no one would take serious notice of. But this was not about integrating a particular object into the picture or depicting a special scene, but purely about working out the structural elements and the relationship of these to each other.' —Stefan Ullrich.

Stefan Ullrich’s picturesque canvases are colourful and bright, but remain peaceful and serene. Ullrich’s contemporary elements radiate through his use of the landscape, taking you on a journey through nature and its features, in their most reductive sense. Below, Ullrich discusses in conversation the methods of his art making, the origins of his artistic practice, and his future ideas.

Stefan Ullrich, Solitary Tree (2019).

When did you start working as an artist and why?

I didn’t start out as an artist at some point, I’ve always felt like an artist since I was a child. And I have always liked to draw and paint. My father used to be a portrait painter. I often looked over his shoulder. He copied Rembrandt’s Night Watch, for example, in order to learn and also out of admiration. The painting has hung above the couch in our living room for as long as I can remember.

At school I drew caricatures of teachers for our school newspaper. In art class we once had to paint a still life. I still remember it very well. It was a Coca Cola can, and I was particularly proud of the realistic way it was painted. Next to the Coke, I painted a glove that didn’t want to succeed at all. I struggled with it until I gave the picture to my art teacher in frustration. I didn’t expect her reaction at all. She cried out loudly and was very excited. She told me that the glove was painted masterly. She didn’t say anything about the Coca Cola can. I didn’t understand art at the time, but it made me curious.

Ullrich in his studio.

How did you get to your current artistic practice?

I didn’t go to a special art school, I am an autodidact. That can be seen as a disadvantage or an advantage. I was not ‘influenced’ by any art school or art movement. It’s hard to imagine what kind of pictures Francis Bacon or Paul Gauguin would have painted if they had gone to an art school.

I make art from my innermost heart and from my soul. And I love this independence. I am generally a freedom-loving person. I acquired the technical skills in two ways, a lot of practice and art courses, both from books, workshops in person and online.

In the 90s I did a lot of watercolour, primarily still life, but also figurative. Later I added painting with oils and acrylics. I had also started copying, you can learn a lot there, e.g. Dali and Picasso.

Stefan Ullrich, Slanting Edge of the Woods (2019).

I became more intensively involved with oil painting when I heard about plein air painting, an art movement in the USA. Unfortunately, a movement that didn’t exist in Germany and is rare today.

I was fascinated by the possibility of having direct contact with nature when painting and to let this emotional, but also visual, auditory and sensitive influence flow into the painting. Like the Impressionists did, but at that time the visual aspect was in the foreground. It was an additional experience to realise that it is a completely different painting than painting from a reference photo, because you don’t just see the scene to be painted, you are almost overwhelmed by the visual impression.

In addition, you don’t have the time you have when painting in the studio, because the external conditions, such as weather, clouds and light conditions, change quickly. So you are forced to paint faster and also more spontaneously, less with your head and more from your gut. And that makes plein air painting very attractive.

I use painting on location mostly to practice my eye and to create sketches for larger paintings. These sketches are performed either in oils or pastels. Pastels are an amazing medium mainly when it comes to colour.

Through my interest in the art of the British painter David Hockney, I also came to digital art, i.e. to incorporate digitally altered or painted-over sketches or photos into my final paintings. This combination of traditional plein air painting and digital modifications provides decisive impulses for my art and the development of a painting from the idea to the final realisation.

Stefan Ullrich, Bluish Reflection From a Roof (2020).

What is your art concerned with? What do you want to express?

That is a question that cannot be answered so easily. To make art is to communicate something that cannot be expressed so easily through language. What fascinates me about art and painting is the fact that no laws or restrictions apply here as in other areas. Therefore, painting for me is a state of absolute freedom.

In our modern times, the cognitive is given a special status. There is currently a social upheaval towards a digital age with artificial intelligence, digitalization and automation. A change in society and the world of work that perhaps last occurred in the mid-19th century through industrialisation, which also led to Impressionism.

If you then imagine that painting is a relic of our original humanity, that the first cave paintings of pustule pigs on Java date back about 45,000 years, then as a painter you feel connected to something archaic. In addition, we feel that our environment, our planet is vulnerable and that we humans have distanced ourselves further and further from nature and in the process also know or feel less and less about it.

With my painting I want to address the archaic primal instincts that are still dormant in people and thus trigger positive emotions in the viewer of my pictures. Everyone feels good when they go for a walk in the forest, for example. But no one can explain exactly why this is so. I want to evoke such feelings when one looks at my pictures, but it is not a matter of propagating a new feeling for nature or a return to nature like the romantics.

My approach is to discover universally valid structures in nature, i.e. not to copy nature, but to reduce elements from it with regard to their character. Opposites such as density vs. transparency, regularity vs. irregularity, weight vs. lightness, hard vs. soft contours, spontaneity vs. control are often important design elements. A structured picture composition as demanded by the formalists under Hans Hofmann, that all areas of the canvas influence each other is also important here.

This principle is also found in nature, everything influences each other, is interconnected and networked. This underlying ‘something’ of nature is to be discovered and reproduced on canvas, in all its facets and variations. If I have been successful, the viewer will feel it too.

Stefan Ullrich, Group of Trees in Direct Sunlight (2022).

Your way of painting is a mixture of traditional ‘en Plein air’ visions and sensations with the latest technologies, and the result is stunning. Are you continuing in exploring this journey? Is this what we are going to see in your next body of work?

Yes, definitely. It is precisely this combination of the traditional and the modern that opens up completely new dimensions of creative and compositional possibilities. The advantage of both methods is the possibility to experiment and to work spontaneously. It is important to work out the essentials. I think you can still discover a lot of new things. Let yourself be surprised.

What aspect of the landscape is most intriguing to you as an artist? Where does your inspiration come from when looking out into nature?

When I look at the landscape, I do not focus on particularly striking or representationally worthy objects or aspects of a landscape in the conventional sense of traditional landscape painting. I look at the incidental, the banal, the ubiquitous. For example, the paintings ‘Boscage’ and ‘Ascending Edge of the Woods’ are based on quite banal, unspectacular scenes.

Forest motifs that probably no one would take serious notice of. But this was not about integrating a particular object into the picture or depicting a special scene, but purely about working out the structural elements and the relationship of these to each other.

The aim is now to create connections between complementary forms in order to strengthen these effects and weaken other subordinate ones. This is achieved by working out shapes, hard or soft edges and especially by using different colour intensities and relations. This creates a so-called image essence, practically a concentrate of the original image in terms of colour and form.

Stefan Ullrich, Boscage (2020).

One of your most recent works, ‘Groupe familial sur l’herbe’ (2022), shows a group of three figures playing and interacting with the landscape, unaware of the viewer. Many of your works previously have lacked any human element. Why did you choose to include these figures? Can we expect more human portrayals in future works? Or is this a unique situation?

That is a good question. In fact, it is the first landscape painting in which I have arranged a group of figures. But it is also a somewhat different picture from the previous landscape pictures, in which I concentrated exclusively on the pure representation of pure landscape elements.

In the current painting, one can also see a railway bridge from below in a central position, dominating the composition of the picture. The picture was created referring to Manet’s masterpiece ‘Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe’. Besides the group of figures, which, by the way, represent my wife Elke, my daughter Leonie, and my son Jonathan, the colour green dominates the picture.

Ullrich and his son, painted by Ullrich.

The railway bridge also has an ambivalent meaning. It appears threatening and protective at the same time. The composition gives the picture a more narrative character, unlike my landscape paintings before it. I found the combination of figurative, architectural and landscape very appealing and it will certainly not be the last picture of its kind.

In the past I have also worked purely figuratively and also painted portraits and double portraits. Now it was time to combine the two. Manet had also integrated a still life into his painting. You could see that again in my painting in the shovels and the blue bucket. Figures and the railway bridge, as well as the buildings in the background are painted realistically, the meadow, the trees and bushes, on the other hand, are reduced to their structural features, as is the road at the bottom. It is thus also a mixture of different painting techniques and stylistic devices. For me, it was also a question of finding out whether one can still create a unified work in the end that appears homogeneous and cohesive as a whole and does not fall apart into its individual parts.

If it were to succeed, the mutual effect of the differently painted areas would have its own special visual appeal and would thus bring a subtle dynamic into the picture that might not be perceived that way at first glance. And that is also something I like to work with, subtlety. Anyway, I am very curious to see how the painting will be received by art collectors and especially by art critics.

Stefan Ullrich is currently located in Weiden, Bavaria, Germany. He continues on his journey creating art from the environment that surrounds us.

ARTE GLOBALE has recently showcased the solo show 'Stefan Ullrich's Contemporary Landscapes of Colour and Beauty,' which features Stefan Ullrich's latest paintings. You can follow Stefan Ullrich and ARTE GLOBALE on Artsy for more updates and information about Ullrich's art.