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Hollis Dunlap, "Dreaming Girl," 2008, oil, 24 x 32 in.

Hollis Dunlap: A Compelling Hybrid of Divergent Styles & Skills

Connecticut artist Hollis Dunlap is quickly emerging on the contemporary figurative art scene, and in this interview he responds to questions about his calling as artist, the traditional and conceptual influences in his work, his opinion on technique versus content, what he looks for in a model, some of his favorite fellow painters, and more.

Hollis Dunlap, “Empty Chair,” 2013, oil, 18 x 24 in. 
Fine Art Today: I read in a recent newspaper article on your work that when you chose to accept the calling of artist, you knew it would take at least 15 years just to learn technique. You said that after that point you were finally starting to get it and it was time to branch out conceptually. What does "branching out" from just skill and technique to conceptualization look like or mean to you, and why do you think this is an important step for artists to take?
Hollis Dunlap: Good question. I probably haven't branched out much, since I am still interested in the same things that I did 20 years ago. I don't think this will change, since I will likely always have the same taste in paintings. I am improving in very small increments. When I started working with oil paints I may not have known how long it would take, but as I get older I feel that I have a better understanding of the effort it takes to paint the way certain masters painted. If you like realism, it doesn't really get easier -- you are able to do more, and hopefully the results are better, but there are always new challenges. I struggle with my draftsmanship and mark making in every painting, and although sometimes this makes things very difficult, I also feel that a work that causes an artist to struggle has the potential to be more thought-provoking. At the very least, it feels satisfying when a form finally looks right.
I enjoy this process. I like artists who push their limits and who haven't figured it all out, who question things. I have a desire to be more narrative in some ways, since so much of the work that I love was religious in nature and presented clear story lines. Having said that, I don't want to sacrifice any of the richness of a small painting or study to become more conceptual.

I suppose what I am saying is that one never has to "move on" from technique; it can always be integrated into a conceptual style. I find technique interesting, otherwise I wouldn't have continued painting for this long. I do love conceptual painting, but if I see a beautiful drawing of a figure, that's all I need. Some of the happiest moments of my life have been in figure-drawing class, when everyone is just trying to do a beautiful drawing of a model. No pretension, just pure appreciation of drawing form. Technique can be a great combination of labor and thought. It's not like stacking a pile of wood, although it can be as meditative. Generally when one stacks a pile of wood, each piece is not slaved over and precisely placed. There is a saying I often hear that goes something like, "You need to learn the rules in order to break them." I find that statement to be a bit misleading, because anyone who believes that likely won't produce good realist work, since they are more eager to move on to "the real work," even though the real work might be right in front of them. Having said that, if a work is visually beautiful but also happens to be interesting in terms of content, that's a bonus.

Hollis Dunlap,  "Xuriah and Ashley," 2013, 24 x 30 in. 
FAT: In reading descriptions of your work by other writers and artists, I notice that a lot of people use the words "classical" and "high realism" and allude to the influence of artists such as Velázquez and Vermeer. I see some traces of that influence and a strong traditional foundation, but I would sooner compare you to artists such as Diebenkorn or Antonio López García -- two representational artists who pulled some of the stronger aspects of modernism into their work to create new forms of realism. Your work is obviously representational, but there are also nonrepresentational elements. Do you agree with the classical categorization of your work or a more contemporary definition?
HD: If I had a choice, I would prefer to be considered contemporary, although you never know what someone will say about your work. I talk about certain artists a lot because I admire them, although my work doesn't necessarily reflect their influence in an obvious way. Michelangelo was my favorite artist for many years, and my work doesn't look much like his. I related more to his inner struggle, as well as the emotional power and sense of longing in his work. There are so many artists that I like, and I have tried to take a little from each. I love Caravaggio, but I also love George Inness, so each style has influenced me over the years. However, "one does not simply paint like Caravaggio." I would have to work a lot harder than I do to produce even a single square foot of painting that resembled his, so I've probably taken a few influences that are easier to assimilate into my work. Maybe I relate more to an artist such as Degas, someone who is interested in good drawing as well as good color and interesting mark making. Besides painting the actual forms of heads and hands, I also enjoy emphasizing the negative shapes and space around the figure, which tends to bring my work away from a strictly classical method. I find that paying careful attention to the values and colors of the surrounding space can add a great deal of emotional atmosphere to a work.
If you are sculpting, your figure will already occupy space, but in a painting, I like to give emphasis to the space that the figure inhabits to create a mood. I think of it as "sculpting the space" out of the canvas. In terms of modeling form, my figure-painting technique was influenced by the Spanish Baroque artists, who began applying paint in a more direct way while still maintaining good draftsmanship. I use a hybrid of direct method and underpainting, and I continually revise the drawing as I go. Since I revise the drawing many times as I work, the paint surface builds up in certain areas as forms change. I feel that this aspect can give a convincing sense of form, something that you often see in Rembrandt's work. This feels "truer" for me, in the sense that the work is sculpted slowly into its final form in an organic process. This style is also a result of years of painting landscape on location in changing light conditions, as well as a lot of trial and error.
In general I think the word "classical" doesn't really apply to my work, but people will occasionally use that definition anyway. I am trying to integrate several styles that I love into something that is hopefully interesting to look at. I think that the look of oil paint complements accurate drawing well; not that I wouldn't love to be able to paint like Bouguereau, but I have a hard time resisting the urge to put on a few large marks of paint. I find the color and mark making of someone like Diebenkorn exciting, and I would have a difficult time restricting that influence while I paint. Large areas of color are pleasing to the eye. I enjoy finding similarities with work that might be considered different in style, and I think it's important to bridge the perceived "gap" between non-representational work and so-called traditional work.

Hollis Dunlap, "Study of Jake," 2006, oil, 24 x 30 in.

FAT: What do you look for in a model or subject for your paintings? What type of inner and outer characteristics and qualities catch your eye and inspire you to paint?
HD: I enjoy painting almost anyone, although having an interesting personality certainly helps. Some people can hold long poses easier than others, which helps a lot when working from life. I find it so difficult and exciting to portray the surface the way that I want, that sometimes the "inner being" of a person is less important to me when I am dealing with the physical challenges of painting. Once the drawing begins to take on some accuracy, I can then think a bit more about how to portray a person and how I feel about them. I love people who question things, who are not necessarily set in their beliefs. I love painting people who are older, or eccentric, as well as people who are conventionally beautiful. I especially love people who are beautiful, but have certain eccentric characteristics in their features -- a big nose, etc. Portraits by Mannerist artists such as Bronzino come to mind, in their subtle exaggeration of forms. 
There is such an emphasis on being good-looking in our culture, that sometimes it's depressing, so I enjoy drawing people who are just average-looking, who work "regular" jobs, who would never consider themselves a model. I was walking on the street recently and someone who looked like Brad Pitt was passed out drunk in their car, and it made me think about how we all are similarly human in certain ways. Once I am painting someone, I often try to relate him or her to famous paintings that I love. For example my friend Jake reminded me of a Ribera painting, so I tried to portray him in a Baroque style.
FAT: You were quoted as saying that "money is a terrible thing," and that "if I didn't need money, I'd paint anything." Say hypothetically you had a gallerist who told you to spend the next year traveling, exploring, and experimenting artistically and at the end of that time you would have a solo show that could be any subject, style, or media you wanted -- and it wouldn't matter if the paintings were saleable. Would that interest you? What do you think that show would look like, and do you think it would be similar to or totally different from your current work?

HD: That's a funny quote. Not exactly the American way. I should have said, "Money is great, especially when you have a lot of it." Money is also a good motivator. As far as how making sales relates to subject matter, I have never felt that I can't paint what I want. In fact, I feel lucky that I can paint what I want, and occasionally sell a painting. If I didn't like a subject, it would be very difficult for me to even start the painting. As far as the hypothetical show that you mentioned, I feel like I always show what I want, whether it is saleable or not. I think occasionally it can be hard not to think about money when you don't have a lot of it, but that has never affected what or how I painted in any significant way. I definitely notice when people like certain paintings of mine that I myself am not particularly happy with -- certainly some subjects resonate with greater numbers of people. My goal eventually would be to have people consider each work as a design of form and color regardless of their conception of beauty. 
I often tell a story to my class about a painting I did of a young man, just a small head study in profile. He looked rather un-idealized, scruffy, and generally unattractive. The gallery thought it would be a hard sell, but we showed it anyway since I was short on paintings, and it was the first painting that sold. So you never know. The first four paintings that sold in that particular show were my four least favorite; two of them almost weren't even included in the show, that's how much I hated them. One of them was in my closet for a year waiting to get painted over or given away -- good thing I didn't do that.
I do sometimes have vague visions of what I wish my paintings looked like, but actually executing it is a bit different. It takes work. When things become real, you tend to focus more on the actual task of applying paint to a canvas. Maybe at some point I will be able to better paint what I see in my head. I once had a dream where I had a show of figure paintings that I felt were very good, that really summed up what I wanted to do. They were hung strangely, sideways in doorways, etc. But like most dreams I have, the idea makes perfect sense in the dream but is actually against the laws of physics in day-to-day life.

Hollis Dunlap, “White Dress,” 2008, oil, 18 x 24 in. 
FAT: Do you agree or disagree that the definitions and connotations associated with "contemporary" art are changing? What traits and qualities do you most admire about traditional art, and what traits and qualities of conceptual art do you admire?
HD: What I admire about realism is the time and devotion that it takes to reproduce a single object beautifully -- that commitment. To me it is more reflective of a true love of what one is doing; it feels more real to me. When I look at a painting by Caravaggio, sometimes I feel overwhelmed when I realize the work and devotion required to paint that way. It's almost as if I feel like someone outside of someone else's house, who gets a glimpse inside a window and into their life, but only for a brief moment. In terms of nonrepresentational work, I enjoy anything that is thought-provoking, although, being a visual person, I have to admit that I would much rather just look at something than read long artist statements about it. If a painting were a book, would you want to read it? I can tell within about five seconds if I want to give a particular work another look or not. I will always love Old Master, traditional painting, especially early Renaissance and Baroque work.
I appreciate that today you can do almost anything as an artist -- however, that's also the danger. It's very important to look at as much art as you can, so you truly know what you like. As far as I am concerned, contemporary refers to a time, not a style. So if you did your painting yesterday, you are contemporary to me. I also don't consider 500 years all that long of a time, strange as that may sound. Vermeer still feels modern to me. We may have Internet now and mass surveillance, but people never really change. The definitions of what is "modern" or not may be changing slowly, and maybe soon more figurative work will be shown in major galleries, but I would rather paint than worry about what some critic somewhere will write.
FAT: How important is the viewer's perspective to you in terms of conceiving an artwork? When a concept, vision, or idea comes into your mind for your next painting, what and whom are the focus?
HD: I generally don't think about the viewer too much, although of course I hope that people like what I do. It's always great to get feedback from other artists whose work you admire. Generally, as far as a thought or vision for a painting, it's usually a figure in a certain position that I find interesting. Or a pattern of light or compositional arrangement. I will think of someone I want to paint, and how to best portray him or her. Sometimes it's as simple as whether to have them sit or stand. A profile or three-quarter view. Often if I am painting a figure, the head is the focus at the start, because I enjoy painting heads so much. Although I would like to say that I consider the entire painting equally, that's usually not the case. Often I focus on the area of the subject that has the most contrast, an area that will create a sense of light and form relatively quickly.

Hollis Dunlap, “Black Rose,” 2013, oil, 24 x 30 in. 
FAT: What artists working today do you respect and admire?
HD: I'm sure I'll leave someone I love off the list by accident, and there are a lot more than I'm listing here, but here are a few: Antonio López García, Odd Nerdrum, Dan Gheno, Jerry Weiss, Scott Waddell, Adam Miller, Jack Montmeat, Sean Cheetham, Sadie Valeri, Evgeny Grouzdev, Nathan Lewis, Jenny Saville, John Currin, Brian Booth Craig, Kamille Corry, Graydon Parrish, Casey Baugh, Richard Schmid, Teresa Oaxaca, Jerome Witkin, Cesar Santos, Jacob Collins, Nelson Shanks, Susie Chism, Don Gale, Steven Assael, Neo Rauch, Daniel Sprick, et al. I'd like to mention my teacher Deane G. Keller -- although he passed away in 2005, he is the best draftsman I've ever known.
FAT: Do you have short- and long-term goals for yourself as an artist, or do you prefer to just follow a more organic process and progression in your art and career?
HD: I would like to become more ambitious in terms of finishing work more highly. It's very easy to start a painting, but the later stages are very difficult for me. Maintaining the initial energy when you paint direct and quickly can be a challenge. I'd like to plan out compositions more, using ideas to give the work more obvious content. Use more experimental color, and make the paint surface more interesting. Have less "small marks" in my work and have broader brushwork. Interpret what I am looking at to a greater degree -- just because something looks a certain way or color doesn't mean it has to be painted that way. I also want to create paintings based on some narrative ideas that I have.
As far as professional goals, I would like to have a bigger studio, travel more, and of course I want to sell more work. Hopefully I will get back to Italy within a year and do some more drawing there, rent a car, and drive around a bit. At some point I would like to go back to school as well, just to be challenged by others in ways that I might not expect. I have several shows next year, so my immediate goal is to finish eight to 10 more paintings.

Hollis Dunlap, “Natural Man,” 2010, oil, 24 x 30 in. 
FAT: Where do you see yourself 10 years from now as an artist in terms of what you want to say and how you want to say it? Going back to when you were 24, is where you are now where you envisioned or hoped you'd be in your career and art?
HD: That's a tough question. Maybe since the last 10 years seemed to fly by makes it more so. In 10 years I would like to think that my work will resemble some aspects of paintings I admire a bit more, both in technique and content. Certainly more work based on narratives and ideas. Looking at myself when I was 24  -- actually, that's 12 years ago, yikes -- is a scary thought. Some changes are positive, some are not. Without getting too personal, I am a better painter than I was then. When I was 24 I was just beginning to truly feel comfortable with most aspects of using paint. Up to that point I had done a lot of ambitious but flawed paintings.
As far as the future, it's difficult to think about, frankly. There are so many things that I haven't accomplished yet that have nothing to do with painting. It's so important to stay physically and mentally healthy in order to produce the best work you can, and sometimes things can get overwhelming these days. We are constantly bombarded with art, information, news, etc. You really have to wade through it all and see what's of value. So hopefully in 10 years I am still as excited about painting as I am now, and am in the right frame of mind to push farther. It seems contradictory to making art, but I don't believe in "progress" in any kind of traditional sense. I'm not sure if I'll ever do art that was truer in spirit than what I did when I was in my teens, although the work was very awkward. I think it's very important to be aware of how one's work mirrors one's personality, both in good and bad ways. The mental aspect of making any type of art, keeping the right frame of mind, not to get too high or too low, is so important, at least for me.
Sometimes it's a struggle for me to even get started with a work; it takes me three hours to get the canvas on the easel. Then I stare at it for a day. Other days I feel like I can't make a single mark the right way, and I feel like I know nothing -- painting can be very humbling, and you have to be able to brush that feeling off and move on. Thankfully those times are fewer now than they were when I was 24, and the sense of satisfaction after a good five- to six-hour painting session still feels great. I don't think that will change. 


Hollis Dunlap is represented by Axelle Galerie, in Boston and New York City, and Gallery 1261, in Denver. He is currently exhibiting in Gallery 1261’s “Group Exhibition” (on view until September 14) and in Axelle Galerie’s’ “Summer Group Show” in New York City (on view until September 22). Dunlap will be showing several paintings at The California Museum of Fine Art’s fall 2013 exhibition, and he also has an upcoming solo exhibition at Axelle Galerie in New York City scheduled for March of 2014. For more information, visit

This article was featured in Fine Art Today, a new weekly e-newsletter from Fine Art Connoisseur magazine. To start receiving Fine Art Today for free, click here.

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