Steven Chmilar was born in Grande Prairie Alberta where he spent most of his childhood on a farm, helping with chores, drawing and building imaginary civilizations in the woods. While living in Calgary from 2000 – 2008, he played music professionally and won a national songwriting contest in the spring of 2006 at CanadaMusicWeek in Toronto. From 2008 until 2012, he lived in Victoria BC where he painted and performed as a solo musician. A career shift to full-time visual artist was made after the success of his first show in November of 2011. He currently lives in Sidney, British Columbia, Canada where he delightfully paints every day overlooking a beautiful ocean view.
- Let’s start with your background. Where did you study? What did you study at University?
I did not attend any post-secondary education for art. Come to think of it, my high school didn’t even have much of an art program to speak of. I remember taking art class in grade four and then not again until grade ten and not in grade eleven or twelve. I would estimate that most of the full-time working artists I know did not attend post secondary art school. That being said, I do think education is extremely important in many other fields. There is so much information available that anyone who is willing and motivated can learn. I am far more interested in learning now than I was at a younger age. I am presently a voracious self-educator as I find that knowledge of history, philosophy and psychology in-form my ideas.
- Where does an idea come from and how does it transform from an idea into an artwork?
The very beginning of an idea is probably the most difficult part of my process to describe. Like many of us, I have strong feelings (ha) about things every day, and for myself the habit of transferring those thoughts into a potential composition has become common practice. I would guess that I visualize images in my mind similar to the way many other people do. I have been asked before if I have a photographic memory but I do not believe so I have flashes of an image in mind that is usually in-complete. There is definitely colour and a strong feeling or emotion of how the piece comes across but I don’t usually know what all the small details are.
Once I have an idea in mind, I go to paper. I find that once I lay out a new composition on paper, I find out right away what will and will not work. Sometimes I have a vision that is not quite possible in terms of the spacing of three-dimensional forms and I find that out right away when I start to draw.
Once I have done many tiny sketches (approx. 1”x1”) to experiment with possible variations, I make a larger version of my favourite small sketch (approx. 4 to 6”x6”). In the larger sketch, I start to have enough space to figure out more details about what and who are in the scene. Once I complete a small drawing from the second stage, I have my blueprint from which to design a sculptural maquette. An actual three-dimensional sculpture is if favourable to work with because I love to learn as much as possible about the way actual light in numerous temperatures reflect off of different materials and textures. Once I have a lighting-look that captures the feeling that I initially imagined, I take photographs. I should mention that I like my narrative compositions to make sense in terms of the way a group of figures fill a physical space and so there is a kind of “right and wrong” to figure out in the drawing and model building stage before I get to hiring people for photoshoots. It can be incredibly useful to know that I can’t fit two people between a table and a wall before I get two different people to pose.
I then superimpose actual human models into my maquette scene via photoshop. The digital image I create for this process is only made to serve as a reference for the final painting and is not something that I show as a finished artwork in itself. Once I have completed my photoshop composite, as well as gathered many other reference images, I begin drawing onto a panel. In the drawing process, I grid my panel into quarters and begin drawing from scratch. I find it is very important to draw and not to use a projector. I believe that as technology allows the artistic process to become less laborious, that human purpose diminishes. I am predicting that it will become more and more important for artists to document their processes so that others can appreciate the human skills that were developed to create the artwork.
Once the drawing is complete, I began oil painting in an order that is similar to traditional realist atelier methods. For example: underpainting in umbers, glazing transparent fast-drying pigments, building up light areas with a fast-drying white to create a grisaille, blocking in ebauche colours if necessary and finally painting most areas in separate wet-in-wet sections of final color. In the final color areas of a painting, I add traditional mediums such as stand oil to create a surface which isn’t as dependant on varnish to appear as it did when the paint was first applied.
- Let’s continue with your experiments as a painter. What is the main difference between illustration and painting?
I have a slight phobia (ha) of word definitions in art. They are used out of necessity but I usually try to refer to specific images or artists because in some ways, I think there are as many definitions as there are individual creators. I think that across the board, the worlds greatest artists (current and historical) would have been adept at any style however it might be defined. The fundamentals are key regardless of medium.
I definitely relate to illustrations that are done with line. I have always been a big fan of etchings that go back hundreds of years. The word specificity comes to mind, which is not always necessary with painting. In some ways an illustrator who uses fine pointed ink pens may have more in common with an oil painter who uses tiny brushes and thin paint than with another illustrator who uses a very loose style with the same medium. Maybe it has more to do with our personality type than what mediums we use. I would even say that I might have more in common with a finishing carpenter or surgeon than I do with any other random person who happens to use oil paint. For that reason, I am also influenced by more people in other fields today than painters. I find entrepreneurs inspiring or anyone who thinks outside the “box” regardless of what they do. Unfortunately, there are just as many painters who I believe, think inside the “box” as there are in any other walk of life, despite the stereotype that artists are supposed to be “different” or thought of as automatically outside of the “norm”.
I think the main aspect of painting – in many modern sensibilities – is the idea of self expression, or that it may serve the opposite purpose of commercial art. Rather than a person getting an assignment from an external source, for the purpose of selling a product or clarifying instructions in a manual, the person is creating something from within themselves for the purpose of expressing something that may not be commercially viable, or at least that is how I might define the difference. The idea of “what painting is” has gone so far in one direction over the past century that it has become at odds with many in the general public.
- As an artist who had valuable experiences in both illustration and painting, which one is better in your mind and why?
I would say neither is better persay, they can help to support each other. In fact, I think it is very valuable for any artist who paints with any degree of realism to have a strong understanding of the principles of illustration. A surrealist painter could even learn a great deal about the simple tricks of designing strong compositions from studying sports team logos. I have seen many artworks where a painter want-ed to skip the integral knowledge that people learn from drawing and illustration and it shows. No matter how much time a painter puts in with a brush, the underlying principles of designing structural forms (some of which can be learned from illustration more or less) shows through. I’m sure we have all seen an example of a realistic portrait where the painter was able to capture a photographic likeness in value, color and even the detail of every pore in the surface of the skin, but there was still something that doesn’t look quite right about the placement of the eyes in the skull. A peculiar use of time.
As an artist who creates his own images and does not generally do commercial work, I find it useful to use the time-line of the commercial art world for my own schedule. If there are no concrete deadlines, it can be easy to drag a painting out longer than it has to take. Over the past few years, I have had more deadlines and so I take that influence from the commercial world even though I am always working for myself first. One thing that I have learned, is that my process can only be made so efficient before it would change the finished look of 18th century northern European brush-work that I like to have. Efficiency for me at this point can not come from cutting corners off of my painting techniques, but rather from continuing to get higher prices from the sale of my original oil paintings.
- Your style is so unique. Would you please tell us about your unique style. How did it start? How has it changed through years?
Thank you for the compliment, I do care a great deal about uniqueness. From a young age, I experimented in every way imaginable with the way that things can be represented in two-dimensions. As a child I would copy popular examples and invent my own cartoons, comic strips and comic book super-hero’s. I remember drawing all of the logos for NHL teams freehand, trying to make perfect circles and straight lines where they occurred. Instead of collecting all the cards in a set, I would design my own league of players and draw each individual player complete with their imaginary team logo and stats on the back of cards cut out by hand. In my early teen years, I would copy drawings from advanced level instructional drawing books. My sister (ten years my elder) was in nursing school and I would copy the anatomy drawings from her text books. I had always held myself to a very high standard and would not consider my drawings successful until I had accurately represented what I saw in front of me. I had always held myself to the standard of the greatest artists rather than other kids in my direct surroundings.
As much as I copied, the most important thing that I learned from my childhood drawing experiments was to invent. I loved to invent my own versions of everything. I guess that is what I believe is the most important aspect of drawing that divides merely copying from being creative. Subject matter was an arbitrary selection and a reason to invent. My childhood interest in cars was merely aesthetic and an excuse to create numerous variations on a theme. It was the same with my childhood interest in archi-tecture, cartography, golf course design, heavy equipment design and so on. My early life was a life spent with paper and a writing utensil. I enjoyed a trip to a stationary store just as much as a trip to a toy store while on family vacation. I feel that I was born to do what I do now, and that I started training earnestly from the moment that I was old enough to hold a pencil.
In my early teen years, after faithfully recreating a classical painting of Cupid and Venus in mono-chrome with pencil, I realized that the formula for accurate representation was just an adept understanding of the value scale. At the time, having no new ideas of my own at that point, I became somewhat bored with drawing when an electric guitar became much more of an intriguing challenge. Over the next decade, I would dedicate myself to learning as much as possible about music for the purpose of creating in another form: songwriting. From the moment I learned a few chords on the guitar, I had to invent my own compositions. The point was always to create and the guitar became another vehicle for creation.
Being that the point of art for me was always to invent rather than copy, I didn’t become interested again in painting until I had some ideas that I felt I would want to sink a lot of time into. In about 2007, I discovered Brueghel (1525-1569). His work was the first thing that I remember seeing that truly inspired me. That is where it started. I was working in a similar way to Brueghel by inventing much of the subject matter rather than copying everything directly from life. From my examinations of his work through books, it was clear to me that he was inventing most of the people in his paintings and I think that is what made his work so special compared to many of his contemporaries who were copying from life however they could. There is a respectable level of intelligence in his work, unhindered by physical limitations of the hand. Many of his contemporaries did not invent as well- even his son Pieter Brue-ghel the younger. A close examination of his sons work reveals the lack of care in imparting a human soul into the faces of his figures.
My style changed over the years when I realized that I wanted to use life references. There’s the catch 22 after speaking about how much I like the look of invented content. I am always sure to put my own spin on every single line in a drawing. Sometimes a portrait may end up looking quite a lot like my model, and sometimes it looks unrecognizably different. At this point, my personal rule of thumb is that it has to have a certain feeling to it, regardless of whether I have to create it from nothing, alter a reference image or copy a reference image accurately. Once I build sculptures and find human models, I spend a lot of time with light and that is where I can usually tell what I want to try and keep from the references I’ve taken so much time to painstakingly create.
- When you create art is there a particular message you intend to impart
I want people to think about things that I feel are important, but have been overlooked. I feel there are already a billion plus images that explore general feelings like beauty for beauties sake, or weirdness for it’s own sake, darkness for its own sake and so on. I avoid anything that I feel is “overdone” on pur-pose. The fertile ground for me, in terms of subject matter, are very particular topics and ideas that I haven’t yet seen explored in the specific way that I want them to be depicted. I remember once hearing a famous musician say that they were first inspired to make the kind of music they really wanted to listen to the most when they couldn’t find it out there. I feel somewhat the same with art. I do see many great examples of all sorts of amazing work, but there is something deeper into my idiosyncrasies that I do not already see, and I imagine that could be the same for everyone. Every single person is already unique and so if they are true to themselves, their artwork will automatically be original.
On the subject of originality, I am a big proponent of genuine emotion in all aspects of human behav-iour. I have a sensitive internal detector for artificial expression that goes off while driving through suburbs, walking through greeting card isles or talking to some salespeople. If they believe in their product, they shouldn’t have to be artificial to sell it, just tell the truth. That is how I feel about an art-ist representing their work; if we tell the truth while making the work, the sales-pitch is already done. Paintings can sell themselves and the independent artists role as a salesperson at that point is just to get the work in front of more eyes.
Back to the question of what message I want to impart, I want to encourage people to think more than less. Like Socrates, I believe the unexamined life is not worth living and like Nietzsche, I believe a mountain must be climbed one gruelling step at a time to properly appreciate the view from the top. I believe that human purpose increases when people have worthwhile goals to accomplish rather than moving further into a “push-button” existence. I believe that the general populace is at a disadvantage by not thinking and speaking philosophically. I believe that the biggest, most complicated and toughest subjects should be common speak in order for the human race to flourish. I believe it is the responsibility for people who are educated in advanced concepts to make those concepts palatable for the general public, rather than making them more obscure.
On this subject, I must also take the opportunity to be candid here and break any kind of “fourth wall”. I think it is important for people to engage in “smart person language” without any of the pretensions or high-status associated with it. It is important for me to admit that I feel I know nothing. I did not attend post-secondary education but I want to learn about these subjects more than ever now that it is on me and not for a mark on a paper.
- What piece of your artwork would you like to be remembered for?
I tend to favour my most recent work, so I would imagine that whatever was the last piece I just created would be the one I would want to be remembered for, if I could only pick one. Otherwise, I would pre-fer to be remembered for most of my oil paintings and some of my drawings. I am pretty calculated about what I work on so I tend to only go into spending time on an idea if I feel strongly about it. Therefore, it might be easier for me to list one or two pieces that I would not want to be remembered for.
- Do you keep an on-going sketchbook for studio ideas and random images or do you sketch for a specific project.
I do keep small coil-ringed brown toned sketch books. Most of the sketches are intended to support an idea for a large oil painting. I do believe it is important to draw as much as possible for skill development, but unfortunately most of my time has to go toward developing ideas for larger more complex oil paintings. At this point, I find there are a lot of potential drawing exercises that come up as a result of large painting development. I might for example, take one of the characters that is part of a larger narrative, and do a sketches of extra positions or light looks of that one character. Most of my single-figure paintings were derived from larger narratives. One out of the many to be explored in greater depth.
- Besides hard work and talent, what other traits has led to your success?
Well thank you for saying so. I would say the definite third trait in that list besides talent and diligence is … I’m having a hard time finding one word for this. Tenacity, stubbornness, another way to think of it would be the term “spine”. I think it is absolutely necessary for artists to have a spine so that they can stand up for themselves, not only when doing business but when defending the use of their time before they become successful. I should mention though, that this goes hand-in-hand with the level of confidence in our work. If I feel extremely confident in what I have created, then I will stand in front of any critic without fear.
If there is doubt, a person can only go so far to putting excess energy into defending, publicizing and taking risks based on their work. Feeling great about my art was always the most important thing to me. I believe in spending 99% of our time and energy on creating the greatest art we can possibly make before being too concerned about business, and by business I would include the effort to have a massive social media following.
- What’s next for you in the future?
Currently I am working to finish a few pieces for separate collectors. Being that I am independent, I base most of my show decisions on what work I think I might have available. It is always nice to have group show opportunities at various galleries and I may do another in 2020. Other than that, I usually know what my next two or three upcoming paintings will be well before I actually put a brush to board. The ideas exist in sketch form before I build reference sculptures and do photoshoots with life models. My paintings take a great deal of time and so knowing what my next two paintings will be can be a many-month job description.
It has been exciting and constantly motivating for me to experience a gradual increase in popularity with my work. There has not been one major event that took me from level two to nine for example. It has been more like one level higher per year on average. In some ways I feel like a have so much more to show and do and so I am confident that as I strive to go further into my work, the results will be equivalent.
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