IE: What are the merits of egg tempera?
DS: I like that slightly unreal quality of egg tempera. Despite the fact that it doesn’t have the light lights and the dark darks of oil paint, it dries immediately, so you can scumble and glaze, and scumble and glaze—two verbs we hear all the time in painting—you can build up light, opaque layers and then put thin sheaths of darker, more saturated color over the top, and it glows through. You see a lot of that in Rembrandt
, in oil, and in Vermeer
. But while Rembrandt and Vermeer had to wait 24 hours, at least, for their oil layers to dry, an egg tempera painter can apply the next layer in seconds.
You can’t be an impasto painter. You can’t put thick ropes of paint on. You can’t be van Gogh
or Franz Kline
. If you try to put a really thick layer of tempera, it will dry, crack, and flake off. But it’s a very translucent medium: keep the layers thin, and you can have hundreds of them so you’re staring through multiple layers until they just go on to infinity, and disappear. That gives it a luminous, otherworldly feel. There’s something very opalescent about egg tempera.
I always found that I had to make a very big painting in oil to have the same visual impact of something much smaller in egg tempera. It’s not for plein air painting because you’re using powdered pigment—it’s too fussy, and a little bit too slow-going, at least the way I use it. So on a practical level it made all sorts of sense. I could paint in small studios, which were cheaper than big ones; it was a medium that attracted people’s attention because it was relatively rare. It still is relatively rare.
IE: How did you arrive in New York?
DS: I loaded up my junk in Madison, and I drove here with a friend, Colleen O'Reilly. We graduated the same year, and we had a sublet right behind Pearl Paint on Lispenard Street from a friend of a friend. The same friend later said, “If you're looking for cheap rent, go to Greenpoint.”
IE: What was the appeal of New York at the time? Was it the only option?
DS: Well, Chicago would have been a softer landing. It was closer and less scary. New York City was the scary place, the most competitive place, also a much, much rougher town.
IE: This was 1984?
DS: 1984. In Greenpoint, when I first came up onto the street—I think at Greenpoint Avenue—I remember looking and thinking “This is the most breathtakingly ugly place I’ve ever seen in my life.” Greenpoint was so provincial. Manhattan Avenue was a cash-only economy. Everything was dirt cheap. The apartment we got was considered very expensive: $450 a month for this rambling walk-through. We would take the G train to the L, and in those days, I would get off at one or two in the morning with five Polish cleaning ladies and that’s it. But after several months of being there, I started looking out of the back window and thinking, “This is really very cool. And I like all the clotheslines, and the way the fire escapes....” I started painting, looking out the window.