Welcome to the second installation of our monthly 10/10 interviews. Each month, UART will feature interviews of a pastel or colored pencil artist. We will ask each artist ten questions followed by ten rapid fire questions. The idea was to have fun and share with you a slice of life of some of the most talented artists in the pastel industry.
Our featured artist for the month of January is Alain Picard. Picard’s artistic influences include John Singer Sargent, Edgar Degas and Joaquin Sorolla. Inspired by the beauty and diversity of humanity, Picard’s work has been featured in publications such as The Artist’s Magazine and The Pastel Journal. Picard has collected awards throughout the northeast in exhibitions such as The Portrait Society of America, The Hudson Valley Art Association, The Connecticut Society of Portrait Artists, The Connecticut Pastel Society and The Pastel Society of America.
UART: Can you tell us more about yourself and your background?
Alain: I lived in Connecticut my whole life. I was born and raised here. I wanted to be a left-handed pitcher in the major leagues. That was my boyhood dream. When that came crashing down my sophomore year of college, meaning I understood that I wasn’t going to make it, that’s when I really started to pursue my true talent with art. I remember always doodling and sketching and really enjoying art class. I remember art teachers throughout school always encouraging me and probably being quite frustrated with my fixation with baseball. I didn’t really invest in it until the first boyhood dream fell away and then I really began to understand what it could mean to pursue a career in the arts.
I went to Western Connecticut and by my junior year I had declared a major in illustration, thinking and getting counseling from the arts department chair that illustration was a good place for my drawing abilities and also commercial possibilities. So that’s where it started. I actually started doing illustrations commercially while I was in school for local ad agencies and there was a local publishing company that I worked for. I was doing commissions for portraits, now that I think back, I was doing portraits in high school for friends, who knew that I had a little knack for drawing people. They would ask me to sketch something for ten bucks and I never thought anything of it, it was a natural gift of mine, so commission portraits were something that emerged quite quickly. Even in college I did portraits and I really transitioned into that significantly after school.
I went to the Art Students League on Saturdays for a while because I had that longing to paint from live more, to study the figure and get that kind of training. It’s just a stone’s throw from New York here in Connecticut, so I would take the train in on Saturdays and paint pastel in the morning and oil in the afternoon. That was a great experience for me. That was really the early stage where I discovered that I had a real talent. In college as a liberal arts major my sophomore year when I stopped fixating on baseball, I could actually have eyes to see what was right in front of me. It took a little while to really get traction but as soon as I invested in that challenge there was no looking back. It was a passion that once you put a little fuel on it, the fire really emerged.
UART: Why did you choose pastels as a medium?
Alain: I did a lot of watercolor in high school and into college, actually watercolor was a medium I was very passionate about and quite successful at, probably because you drew with pencil and then painted it in. I’ve always had this sort of natural drawing ability. In figure drawing class in college, we had to get a set of pastels. That’s where I got hooked on pastel and the immediacy, the freshness of the color. That was my initial courtship with pastel. In paintings for our university, we did all kinds of assignments in oil, I even worked in acrylic as well, I tried all kinds of mixed media things. I think I knew early on that I would like to continue cultivating my exposure to various media so I worked in oil and really do enjoy that medium. People ask me “Why did you choose Pastel?” Well, Pastel chose me. It’s one of those things, it’s a medium that for whatever reason, I just plain understand and there’s a little magic that happens when I use it. The intuitive quality is just there and for me that sort of freshness in the color, the softness, the immediacy they all combine to make a magical exploration.
UART: Please describe for us a typical day in the life of Alain Picard?
Alain: In the studio, a typical day would look like trying to get up before my two children, help them get off to school, kiss my wife, then go out the back door to the studio, which is behind the house and address all the needs of running a business and coordinating things that are upcoming in life with workshops and such and then really get to work and put in a good six solid hours of creative work. I always think six hours is great, in terms of the act of painting, what you are painting should be done with great focus and not just mishmash. There are days where I am running workshops, there’s also seasons where I am working on the development of a certain publication. That has become quite common over the last couple of years, to be working on a book or something, so there might be any matter of photography or writing taking place as well, so I have expanded my sort of appreciation for what being creative means. I also work at a church a couple of days a week. So as you can see, days could look different.
UART: You are known for your stunning portraits and you do a lot of live portraits. Can you describe your process with live portraits?
Alain: I do a ton of portrait demonstrations. Most of them are live portrait demos. I love the opportunity to study someone from live. Right from the start when I worked on portraits I realized that first of all, I was going to need to work from live a lot and really cultivate that ability to see, so I did. The other side of what I understood, was that there was a need to work from photographs, commercially, as well as I have a love for cultures and the exploration of that in projects like Cambodia and Rwanda, so those are situations where I need to photograph and then paint. I developed an approach to my work from photographs which is really the same physical feel. I put the photograph up in a similar way, I look in a similar way so that my approach of observing is so similar to working from live that going from one to the other is very easy and natural.
Early on when I did live portraits, I would do a drawing first and then I would be filled with a glowing sense of panic because the clock is ticking and I knew I was running out of time and I didn’t really get much color going. So I adopted a new methodology to try to cover the surface quickly and develop a real painterly portrait. So what I do is try to block in the big shapes right away, as of matter of fact I do it in color right off the bat. Then I set them, typically with a wash, sometimes I set them just by rubbing it in, depending on the surface. Then I will work in and refine that shape, kind of from an out of focus to an in focus look, bringing in refinement and detail as I am more and more confident with the location and the scale in proportion to the shapes. So I block it in, I always start with the darks then go to the middle then go to the lights last. Those are the sort of things I always do. Start simple, deal with the big shapes first then the little shapes last. I go right in from the start with soft pastel. I work with a light hand at first and a heavier hand at the finish. It’s a very exciting, vibrant, expressive portrait that emerges from that type of painting approach.
UART: Your painting style is very unique, with broad strokes in a very impressionistic manner. Was it a conscious decision to move in that direction or is it something that came naturally?
Alain: I think that originality emerges from an honest and persevering exploration. An artist that just works authentically, you know they just keep working, will develop originality. I think there is something to be said about looking at artists that inspire you and copying the master work is a wonderful way to learn and grow. My particular stylistic preference has really grown over the years from a really authentic search of how do I most genuinely express what I’m trying to say visually when I’m painting a portrait or a landscape. My love of broad strokes is something that nourishes me when I see it and it’s fulfilling to me creatively. I think that has also developed cause of some of the necessity of live painting and quick painting. I learned to work with these broad strokes in order to cover things quickly. Mark making is very beautiful and something I appreciate in my work and not to refine it all out and not to blend it all out. I think it was a conscious decision to leave the marks, but I think that that style has been something that has just kind of floated to the surface for me over something like 18 years now of creative development. I always kind of feel bad for university students who feel that pressure to have a style at the end of college. I think that’s unfair and people should just paint, just paint a lot for a while and originality is a consequence, it is a natural thing that will just come out if you work a lot.
UART: You are a full time artist. Can you tell us how you did it and what advice would you give to someone who is looking to go full-time?
Alain: I think that there’s a conviction that you have, that this is what you ought to do. That you ought to be making art. I just knew that if I was going to make it as a professional artist, my strategy was give everything to it while I don’t have kids and I don’t have huge bills hanging over me. I just resolved at an early stage to just do anything I could to get paid from the work of my hands, from the artwork I could create. I think that the important part is to understand this conversions point where your talent, your ability and your uniqueness creates an opportunity for you in the market place. You told me that I have an ability with portraits, well that was something I discovered where I could make money, really enjoy it and provide a great service to people. Commission portraits developed into teaching people portraits and I had to open up to the idea of teaching, there was a point where I was not open to it and I’m so happy that I did because I really enjoy it. It has been a lot of fun. I guess my encouragement to people is you really have to draw a line in the sand and develop that sense of resolve that you are going to work hard at making more money from your art. I think sometimes necessity creates incredible opportunities for you and I think teaching, for me, was probably birthed out of a slow time when I couldn’t get the commissions and I didn’t have the sales in the gallery. I needed to open up and get over my insecurities and teach a workshop or a class, so I tried it and everything else was history. So often the thing we are afraid to do is the thing that opens a new door to us professionally. So you got to get out of the boat, you got to go for it, that’s part of it too, try new things. I tried every opportunity that presented itself to me that opened the door to both enjoying creating art and making money from it.
UART: You’ve just made a video about underpainting techniques that will be released very soon. What are some of the challenges you face when underpainting on sanded surfaces?
Alain: Some of the challenges when underpainting on sanded surfaces would be managing the amount of pigment that you use, like managing the amount of pastel you put down before you under paint, before you use the wash. That’s a challenge, you don’t want to overwhelm the surface with pastel before washing it. Also, managing your darks, really being clear about the kind of underpainting you are doing and really managing your shapes and darks if you are trying to retain a local color in your underpainting. For me, the opportunities, the excitement and the adventure of underpaintings far outweighs the challenges. I think even the accidents can be fun and can be explorations. One other challenge is preventing your sanded paper from buckling if you haven’t mounted it. So you have to manage the wet media you are going to be applying to the sanded surface.
UART: There are times when you nail a painting and others when things don’t seem to come together at all. What is your approach when getting “stuck” with a painting?
Alain: I learned a long time ago that if I get into a rut with painting I should just start over. You get into this negative energy feeling when you are hitting a wall in a painting and you are just kind of pushing things around hoping it is going to resolve. I have some very logical things I do when I paint myself into a corner. I will begin to ask myself some questions that will clarify the route of the problem. Is it in the shapes? Is it in the color relationships? Is it in the edges? Is it in the concept? Has it just gotten overworked? From there, you can say let’s cut and run and start over if it’s overworked. Sometimes that’s the best thing you can do because you take what you learned from that and when you do it again, you do it fresher, bolder, much more assertively and you are much more clear about where you are going. Sometimes you find out that you just have an issue with color relationships and you make an adjustment and it’s all good. There are times I flipped the painting over and worked with it upside down, to try and divorce myself from the way I had been seeing it and try to see it from a new perspective. I meet these artists who are beating a painting to death, they have been working on it forever, sometimes it is just better to start over and take what you learned to a new one.
UART: A lot of people ask us about mounting paper on board. How do you mount your paper and what board do you use?
Alain: I have a few methods. I am always happy to purchase pre-mounted paper so I don’t have to bother at all. When I am mounting my paper, I use to bring my paper to a framer that was local to me and he would dry mount it. Now I am kind of too far away from my framer so I developed my own techniques. I use a double sided repositionable adhesive roll that I cut to the size of the paper and I use that in the studio, it works well for me. I also use a glue on occasion which is great for mounting both canvas or paper, but it is a more involved process so when I am going to do that I usually just take a half day and mount lots of stuff cause it’s a little messier, more involved and there’s an activation period while the glue is wet, it’s called Miracle Muck. The adhesive roll has become my go to method, it’s called Scotch 568 Positionable Mounting Adhesive. I always mount my sanded paper, I never don’t mount it because I just can’t stand it if it’s flipping around and I like to under paint and I want it to be really resilient.
UART: What are some of your resolutions, goals or objectives for 2016?
Alain: I am pretty excited about developing my Reflections of Hope Cambodia series. 2016 is an important year for me to really develop that exhibit and whatever other demands there are. There’s going to be lots of exciting workshops. I will be going to China in October. I will be going to Europe in June to see my wife’s family, which will be wonderful. But in the midst of all that, I would really like to do some significant development on the Cambodia Reflections of Hope series and that’s about telling the story of the people and the places of this beautiful yet broken place in the midst of that culture. Other resolutions are to get up earlier, I haven’t really been too hard on myself about the specifics.
Alain’s Rapid Fire Questions:
Favorite Food: Steak
Favorite Drink: Coffee
Favorite Movie: Shawshank Redemption
Most amazing place you’ve been: Siem Reap, Cambodia
Next Place to visit: Düsseldorf, Germany
Next thing you are going to splurge on: Frames
3 things you can’t live without: Coffee, Chocolate and my white extra soft Schmincke pastel
Band/singer/artist of the moment: Bethel music
Last book you read: Cambodia’s Curse by Joel Brinkley
First thing you do in the morning: Pray
You can find more information about Alain Picard on his website.
Check out Alain’s 2-Day Workshop with Alain J. Picard: Underpainting Techniques – Exploring Underpaintings on UART Premium Sanded Pastel Paper in Newtown, CT, Friday, March 18 – Saturday, March 19, 2016.