May Guest Artist: Todd Ford
“As I was trying to sum this all up, I took another look over his paintings, and one word leapt to mind: elegant.”
In terms of pure visual pleasure, Todd Ford’s paintings rank among my personal favorites.
Originality is an over-valued commodity that has led to a lot of over-valued art (in my opinion). An authentic artistic personality is a far more enduring and worthy asset, and Todd is an artist who has that in spades. He speaks with a genuine, confident, and highly competent voice.
One of the things I’ve come to enjoy most about watching artists who blog is the way that a very clear and thorough history of their work is laid out – at least for the duration of the blog. Even retrospective shows can’t provide that, as there’s so much selection involved. It’s always fascinating to look at the earliest posts, and then compare them with the most recent. With the artists I’m most interested in, it seems there’s either strong growth, or remarkable consistency.
Todd definitely falls in the latter category; in fact, that consistency is one of the things I admire the most about his work. He achieves it in two ways; he works with an extremely narrow range of motifs and subjects, and he paints in a very stable, well-defined style.
Looking through the last two year’s worth of painting, there seem to be fewer than half a dozen motifs (with a few outliers). These, though, are carefully crafted into a wealth of vibrant paintings. I’m intrigued that he manages to get so much great art out of such a restricted number of subjects. It’s all about picking a number of elements and exploring them at almost obsessive length and depth – series work at it’s very best.
Stylistically, I think Todd has one of the most interesting takes on still life. It’s clearly not pure photorealism in the traditional sense, as he himself points out. Yet that’s also clearly the major source of the inspiration. It’s all there; the high degree of detail, faithfulness to the lighting, even some of the typical photographic distortions.
His work is also infused with a minimalist spirit – he seems to be working hard to peel away all superfluous elements, and gets to the bare essentials of the still life. The brilliant light and objects placed on reflective white surfaces remove the sense of place and context that so much traditional still life seems to thrive on. Even shadow is often underplayed, yet surprisingly that doesn’t diminish the full, warm sense of the light.
Frequently (but not always), the textures of objects are stripped away and replaced with a feeling of metal, say like stainless steel. This is often visible in the cloth; which, since it’s satin, has a pronounced metallic luster to begin with. Even this is exaggerated with heightened highlights and contrasts, often producing the sense of a hard, uniform surface.
It’s also interesting that such obviously realistic work can have such a strong element of abstract design to it. He mentions that Jackson Pollock is the artist he feels most inspired by (and he even named his son Jack in his honor). Although I’d personally be hard-pressed to spot the direct connection with Pollock in particular, to me there’s no doubt that there’s a figurative spirit of abstraction running through these paintings, if not a literal one.
Here he shows himself to be the master of the tightly cropped subject. I think this painting is just about compositionally perfect. There’s a beautiful sense of variety to the shapes and lines, and I love the way the forms twist like a helix through the space. It’s just completely satisfying; the negative spaces all work well together, the main focus – the rivet – lies nearly spot-on the Golden Mean, and it’s even vaguely suggestive of the human figure. A lot of people could accurately render the details of this object, but it takes some real and imaginative artistic thinking to produce this kind of painting.
To me, one of the surest signs of an inventive artist is the ability to take common items and combine them in surprising, novel ways. Todd certainly does that with the series of bottle and cloth paintings. I never get the sense that these arrangements are forced, but rather they take on a natural, organic feel. He seems to very comfortably transform these simple objects into a dramatic, billowing smokestack.
This piece also shows off some elements of his style at it’s very best: crisp, clean lines, bold, luminous colors, and objects set in a nearly abstract space devoid of any suggestion of clutter.
The broken bottle series is actually my favorite set of his paintings. He neatly summarized the process of working with these defunct beer bottles as follows: “Open. Drink. Smash. Arrange. Paint.” (personally, I generally stop at step 3).
I’d have to say I like this one the best of all. It boils down all the elements to their pure essence; powerfully abstract, and still reassuringly concrete. Somewhat surprisingly considering the actual scale of the objects, it generates a strong sense of 3-dimensional depth, and a true monumental presence. The lines impart a vital, vigorous sense of rhythm, and they also furnish a neat Escher-like twist where the edges of the fragments are actually exchanged (near the top). This is a painting I’d love to see in person. Every Day. In my living room.
As I was trying to sum this all up, I took another look over his paintings, and one word leapt to mind: elegant. He’s working with objects that are themselves pedestrian, but he paints them with such obvious care and stylistic refinement that the final result is… well… pure and individual elegance. Still life painting at it’s very best.
So, enough from me, let’s hear from the artist himself. I sent Todd a series of questions, and he very graciously took time from his busy schedule to answer them in depth. Without further ado:
JH: Can you tell me a little about your working process?
TF: First of all Jeff, let me say Thank You for choosing to interview me. It really is an honor, especially considering the caliber of previously interviewed artists.
Well, I start by shooting reference photos with a digital camera. I use the word reference because I am not necessarily interested in a literal translation of the photo. I like to pick and choose what stays and what goes. After I get a photo that works, I then draw it on the canvas. I am a firm believer in good drawing skills. If the drawing doesn’t work, the painting doesn’t work (for me anyway). After the drawing is complete, I do something that seems to be less and less common: I paint…without an under painting. Typically I avoid all mediums too, but I do use small amounts of walnut oil. More often than not, my finished canvas has but one fairly thin layer of paint. I realize that my methods are far from conventional, but for what and how I paint, they work for me. In any case, how boring would it be if we all painted the same way?
JH: I’m really curious about the lighting you use to illuminate the still lifes; can you say a bit about that?
TF: I use a basic Fotolite unit and a single 250w Eiko Photoflood bulb with a color temperature of 4800K. It’s a very short life bulb (2-3 hours), and gets very hot. Even with the limited lifespan of the bulbs, this setup works well for me.
JH: How long does it typically take to finalize one of your still-life setups?
TF: Well, it depends. I normally have a good idea of what I want to set up and the general composition before I even step into the studio. Sometimes it all comes together with little effort and I can get what I want in less than an hour. That would include a minimum of 20 or so “good” shots that include subtle variations. Other times, I can spend an entire day in the studio and end up with nothing that works.
JH: One of the things that really strikes me about your painting is the stylistic consistency – working in a very individual style. Can you say a little bit about how you arrived at this style, and how long it took you to master it?
TF: After all of those “painting in the style of” assignments in college and then the phases of emulating artists I looked up too, I guess I just eventually found my own style. I don’t think it was ever a deliberate choice to paint how I do. Maybe it’s a combination of past experiences and a desire to achieve a certain aesthetic. I do know that I choose not to embrace the ever popular painterly brushstroke….not that there’s anything wrong with that! I do admire and enjoy the work of artists who paint in that style and occasionally wish I could paint that way! I know that many artists strive to loosen up in their approach, but not me. I’m happy with not a trace (or very little) of my brush on a finished canvas. Now with that being said, I most certainly am not a true photorealist either. As far as mastering my style…it just hasn’t happened. I would say that I have improved over time, but mastery is a strong word.
JH: How would you like to see your art develop over the next several years?
TF: That’s a good question. Since I started painting seriously a few years ago, my work has seemed to evolve naturally. I like to think that it’s better now. So over the next few years, all I can hope for is the desire to push myself to be a better painter. Oh, and to work larger.
JH: I understand you’re a full-time teacher as well; do you find that your teaching activities have an impact on your painting? Vice versa?
TF: I try to keep a separation between teaching and painting. It’s difficult some days to come home and be excited to paint when all I want to do is hold the couch down. But that’s all part of it. We all have those days. Thankfully they are few and far between. Also, there’s that little dilemma of never enough hours in the day! A more positive impact is seeing the young, talented students grow as artists throughout the year(s). Their excitement about art is not generated by selling a painting or having work accepted in a show or gallery…it’s much more basic than that and quite inspiring and humbling to me at times.
JH: What is the best working habit that you could recommend to other artists?
TF: Be diligent.
JH: And finally, can you pick one of your paintings that you’re particularly fond of?
TF: Wow. This question should be the easiest one, but it’s not. I love them all, I hate them all. If I had to pick, I would probably say the piece I’m working on right now, or the piece I haven’t started yet.
Well, that’s about it for this month’s guest feature. I want to thank Todd many times over for agreeing to participate, and for taking the time to write his responses. Please visit his blog and his website. If you’re in or near Tulsa, Boston, or Dallas, please visit his galleries to see his work in person.
Before going, I just want to say something about this guest artist series. Each time I sit down to write one of these articles, I find I don’t really want to do it; it’s actually a lot of work. And each time I finish one of these articles, I’m incredibly glad that I did.
I generally look at art quickly and somewhat carelessly. Our borderline-ADD culture and technological enabling makes it far too easy to look at paintings almost like we view commercials. Take a quick glance, then click on to the next painting… and on and on and on.
Writing these features forces me to sit down with a handful of paintings by one artist, and spend an entire afternoon looking, thinking, writing, re-looking, re-thinking, and re-writing… trying to delve into the essence and marrow of the artwork. It’s by far one of the most satisfying, broadening, and informative things I do for myself, and I firmly believe it makes me a more open-minded and well-rounded artist. Of course it also helps that I’m writing about some terrifically gifted painters.
I can’t say enough about this approach. It may not work for everybody, but I consider it to be the best form of self-education. In fact, I’d like to suggest you try it. Grab a painting you connect with – doesn’t even matter which one, really – and just start to write about it. Write about what you find compelling, details you notice, things you like, even things you don’t like. Write about structure, light, line, color, brushwork, aesthetics… anything. Observe, and write.
You don’t have to publish the results, or even show anybody else (I’ve written dozens of these essays that I’ll never share). The real point of doing them is to grow a little. I’ve always been pleased with what happens… you might be too.