Artist Interview: George Pratt
Two highly notable artists of illustration and the figurative arts come together in 'Harmonie,' our current exhibit exploring the intersection of styles and sensibilities between the art of George Pratt and Felipe Echevarria.
In conjunction with the show we have asked the artists a few questions about their process and work. Here are George Pratt's insightful answers:
Helikon Gallery: You have an impressive portfolio of illustration / graphic novel art in addition to your fine art. How do you view the intersection between illustration and fine art in your work?
George Pratt: The work that I do for myself is less about narrative and more about exploring the physicality of paint. The images are vehicles for paint. I’m constantly experimenting with ways of pushing paint around and I try to be a passenger as much as possible, allowing the painting to lead me down different avenues. I’m perfectly willing to destroy a piece in an effort to take it somewhere. I struggle against boredom.
In the sequential work for graphic novels I’m able to write and tell stories about various interests of mine. I get very caught up in researching those projects and folding a lot of my love for narrative and history into them. But there’s a pact I believe that I make with the reader or the audience. I’m asking them to believe in a certain visual world or language that I’m constructing for the tale and I feel bound to stick with that for the sake of the continuity, so that I don’t throw the reader out of the tale. In the work that I do for myself, which ultimately makes its way to exhibitions, I don’t feel that need. In fact I struggle against it. I want the work I do for myself to be much more exploratory.
However, the hard work that one goes through to learn how to draw and paint is evident in all that I do. I don’t differentiate or change the way I draw from one to another.
HG: What's the value you find in painting from life rather than from photos?
GP: Most of the painting I do from life is plein air landscape, I don’t do as much painting from models. I do quite a bit of life drawing from live models, but I prefer to work from photographs that I take. There are a couple of reasons for this: I’m not trying to painstakingly replicate nature/reality in my paintings. I want my paintings to be paintings, to be about the dialogue with paint. I find if I work from life my natural tendency is to copy the colors that I see. When I’m doing landscape, because the light is changing so rapidly, I’m able to deviate wildly from what’s in front of me, use it as a springboard and play with the colors. The benefit of landscape painting is that I’ve built up a great reservoir of color knowledge that I can then apply to my other work.
That said, drawing from life is invaluable and is needed to be able to effectively work from photographs. Photographs lie in many, many ways. We are two-eyed creatures. The camera is one-eyed and so it tends to flatten volumes and it handles foreshortening terribly. Only through the study of life drawing can one “fix” these aberrations.
So when I shoot my models I flip my images to greyscale and invent my color schemes. I treat the photographs like live models in that I don’t sit and painstakingly try to copy the image. I draw very quickly, as though the model is going to leave the stand in a minute or two. This came about through my years of living in New York city and sketching on the subway. It wasn’t about nailing things down, it was about capturing the life I was seeing all around me. The spirit, the gesture.
In sequential art and illustration in particular you strive to make the figures come alive on the page. They shouldn’t look posed, which is the struggle with drawing from live models. For them to hold these poses they have to be fairly simple poses. Whereas a photograph can capture a true action, a candid moment.
There is a great tradition of artists working from photographs and I’ve never understood the negative connotations that are thrown down. Eakins, Bonnard, Vuillard, Degas, on and on. It’s great company.
HG: When you start a piece, do you have a final image in mind? How much of the final product do you determine at the outset? Do most of your pieces also involve thumbnails or process sketches?
GP: With my sequential work I do have layouts and things that I do because I’m telling a story and there are a lot of things that need to be worked out beforehand. But for my personal work I do little to no preparatory work. I do drawings on the canvas/panels and just dive right in. I don’t want to know what’s going to happen, really. I like the discovery, the exploration, the journey. I truly fly by the seat of my pants. That’s exciting! Some pieces I live with for awhile and go back into them as they reveal more and more to me. Others happen pretty quickly and are surprises. I find when I try to force something onto the piece I usually get in the way and end up in the weeds somewhere, trying to make it something it’s not.
HG: What would you tell your younger self when you were first embarking on your artistic career?
GP: Well, I spent an awful amount of time learning to draw things “correctly”. I got very good at it, but it was an empty victory. I have to work hard to get away from that and let things happen. I think I was originally a little close-minded about different kinds of work. Being more open and inquisitive about the larger world of art helped me grow. But I was also someone who did stick to their guns and was pretty good about directing my path. I was constantly calling artistic heroes and speaking with them about their work and getting them to look at what I was up to. So many were incredibly helpful and just wonderful human beings and that impressed me. They almost all pushed me to pay it forward, which is why I love teaching.
So, be open to everything. Try it all, and more than once. Wallow in it all. Love up on all the ways one can make art. Be open to other cultures, other ways of thinking and working.
HG: What current projects are you working on and what do you have coming up?
GP: I recently took a sabbatical from teaching for a semester and went to Morocco for two months. I’ve wanted to visit there since before I graduated art school. John Singer Sargent’s watercolors moved me so much, as well as many other artists who had traveled there. But I had an incredible time there. It was wonderful and visually stunning. I did do some plein air painting there in oils and watercolors. Shot massive amounts of photographs. Lived only in the old medinas and got to know many of the people there. Spent a good deal of time in particular in Fez. I ended up living with a Berber family and was shown aspects of that city that a tourist would not have seen. I’m still in touch with them and they’re just amazing.
So I came back with all of this wealth of visual material and have begun working on a lot of paintings in both watercolor and oils for an upcoming exhibition in October. Many of the photographs will also be on display.
I’m also constantly working on various other projects. I’m still looking for a publisher for my blues novel, “See You In Hell, Blind Boy”. It’s a text novel with spot illustrations, photographs, sequential art, etc. We did a documentary of the same name where I was followed by a film crew and we retraced my initial journey through the Mississippi Delta interviewing the musicians I met. We won Best Feature Documentary at the New York International Independent Film Festival that year.
I’ve been writing on a World War One opus that I’d like to do sometime. I’ve done a lot of paintings for this, but it will be a serialized sequential novel.
Still looking for publishers for my Holocaust material and the work I did on the International project Black.Light about the West African Genocide.
For more information on George's work, visit www.georgepratt.com and on instagram@georgepratt. For more artist interviews from Helikon Gallery, visit www.helikongallery.com/blog.