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Home FEATURES Shawn Barber Interview

Shawn Barber Interview

Written by Trippe   
Wednesday, 11 February 2009 05:30
He answers your questions and we visit his studio for a video interview.

A very skilled oil painter and illustrator, Shawn Barber has taught at many universities, illustrated for everything from The Rolling Stone to the Wall Street Journal, and he's shown his paintings in galleries around the world. This extremely motivated talent, that's pushing a somewhat yet undefined movement (low brow?), is also a somewhat recent tattoo artist as well. He's had multiple books come out featuring his work. He's also one hell of a nice guy who answers some of your questions involving schooling, technique, to his daily regiment. We also stopped through his studio for a video interview which you'll find towards the bottom of the page. Say hi to this beloved San Francisco based artist.

Shawn in his SF studio

A lot of artists' art out there today looks like a lot of other artists' art. Did you ever feel that another artist was stealing your ideas and ripping off your work or has any other artist accused you of stealing their ideas and ripping off their work? -submitted by BRENDAN

Hi Brendan- I have strong opinions on artistic plagiarism- but have mellowed out quite a bit in the last couple of years. I've had former students state that they don't look at 'anyone's' art ever (which is bullshit) because they don't want to be influenced by 'anyone'. 'Art' doesn't exist in a vacuum- we are all influenced by the world we live in and unless you're a blind person who actually doesn't have the physical ability to see- you can't deny this obvious fact. Influence and inspiration keeps anyones' 'art' fresh, new, exciting and invigorating. We've all done 'Master copies' or pieces 'in the style of' another artist to learn process, technique, drawing, color theory, etc. This is how you progress faster. The problem that I have with it all is not the influence but the outright emulation of someone's imagery, personal icons, mark making, content and style through a distinct body of work. You are never going to be an 'original' if you emulate one person's 'art'. You are just being lazy and inconsiderate; and you might just be trying to get rich quick or be part of the 'cool kids club'. If you can't respect yourself, why would anyone else? Unfortunately, many galleries can't get or show the artists works that they want to and show second rate rip-offs- just to make a buck. I've personally called a few people out on it in the past, but finally realized that it's a waste of energy on people that are probably never going to get it anyway.

Do you ever go back to old paintings that you considered done to "improve" them with new found ideas or effects? At what point did you decide that painting pictures could be a noble and lucrative career for you to pursue? And at what point and how did you turn your art from hobby to profession? -submitted by Stefan Bicego

More recently I've tried to keep certain pieces after a show, or after they are finished to continue exploring and rendering the image or re-assessing where I could go with it and move it into different directions.

I don't think that painting is noble or even necessarily lucrative. I've been doing my thing for 10 years solid, every day. It's been a slow road with a ton of road bumps and learning experiences along the way. Like most people that have gone to art school- I have a tremendous amount of financial debt from this experience and that just doesn't go away. My feeling is I keep working my tail off and do the best I can every day, it will all work out someday...

I'm a fairly happy person, I'm my own boss and control my life schedule to do what I please. I have complete creative freedom to make art at any waking moment. To me, that's wealth. There's no other option other than to be creative and work hard. It's a way of life and I have too many friends that are amazing examples to stay motivated.

What is your daily routine entail as a Painter? Do you paint 8 hours straight on a painting if you are feeling the groove after breakfeast? Do you have a your subjects sit in and model for you or do you take a picture and paint from a photograph? How long does it take to finish a painting? -submitted by Paolo Salazar

My daily routine is always changing, but there are a lot of common, 'everyday' things that I do...

I'm a multitasking mother fucker.

I usually wake up from 10am-1pm- take a shower- get a cup of coffee, walk into the studio and look at the work from the previous night. clean up from the night before and re-organize the studio. Paint for an hour or two, step back, get on the internet, check email, myspace, google alerts, various art news websites and other unnecessary internet BS.

Maybe paint for another 30 minutes- 2 hours. go for a walk- deal with outside the house shit- food, hardware store, redbull refills, art supply shopping, etc. back to the studio and paint for another hour or 2. go out to eat or get take out. back to the studio, get on the internet, check email, myspace, google alerts, various art news websites and other unnecessary internet BS. Start painting again, add some elixir's to the mix, turn the music up and work until 3am-8am. In between all of this, I'll clean up after here and there, organize paper work, bills, etc- get on the internet, check email, myspace, google alerts, various art news websites and other unnecessary internet BS....

This routine is nearly my everyday- except tuesday- thursday when I go to the tattoo shop and work from noon until 7pm... I also travel quite a bit, but always bring my travel easel, paintings to work on and tattoo supplies...

When I start a new piece, I usually get about 3-6 hours straight in the beginning. The idea is fresh, the excitment is fresh, and I just have a stronger mental capacity to stay focused on making it look like something in that first sitting.

I do work on multiple projects, always, usually 8- 20 pieces at a time. Jumping back and forth from piece to piece allows me to get more accomplished and I can give each piece sincere focus if I spread the time out after the beginning stages.

Nearly every painting I do is from reference- from photos that I have taken, sometimes re-shooting the situation if it doesn't look or feel right. I'm creating my composition loosely from the photo scrap and then altering it in photoshop- then using those images as a starting point but not a be all, end all... throughout the process I might not like a certain part or aspect of the painting and totally paint, or sand it out- move an arm, change the direction of a head, etc. if it's just not working, I start over or keep picking at it and experiment with more drastic changes to see where I could possibly go with it... it's always something new and different. I usually have multiple photos of the subject in front of me to see different angles of the figure- to analyze from and structure and to help with the likeness. The camera has one eye, we have two.

I do some life study, but more for practice and fun than anything else.

All of the subjects that I paint are busy, productive individuals from all over the globe. to ask them to sit for me while I paint is rarely an option.

I am looking for an art school. What do you think is the best art school where the instructions focus is on theory and critique rather than on landing the next hot job? I would like to learn and have opportunities to make significant art (as you do), not learn to work for an ad agency in Manhattan. Any thoughts? -submitted by Quinn W. Gorbott

There is no perfect art school system. And any school's program is only as strong as it's instructor's sincerity in helping their students get better- and students in the classroom that sincerely want to be there and learn from somebody that has something instructive to offer. This is always a crap shoot and you can't define or package it up and sell it as fact. If you're interested in photography- I'd suggest looking at some of your favorite photographer's and where they went or teach, and go from there...

Do you use any liquin, or some kind of drying medium? Your oil colors are so rich, and you keep it looking fresh without getting muddy. Love your work so much!! Thanks. -submitted by Brian

I use a few different mediums for various reasons and effects. I use Galkyd for fast drying and building up paint. I will sometimes also add Zec to give the paint a little more body and texture. I use Galkyd Slow Dry as an overall painting medium and sometimes glazing. I use liquin for glazing and transparent paint application. I also clean my palette often and recycle my turpenoid frequently...

What do you think the purpose of an artist is in contemporary society? -submitted by Aaron Dubois

I think the purpose for any artist is to respond and reflect to the world that they live in, wherever that may be. To be considerate of the past, conscious of the present and open-minded to the future.

Quick, what's the first story from when you were a little boy that pops into your head? -submitted by Ea Bucholz

I wasn't that little, 12 at the time- but to this day, I still remember getting hit in the face with a baseball bat and almost losing my left eye.

What is your all time favorite art/painting book? and also: Can you recommend a good book on oil painting techniques? -submitted by stephen mcconnell

My all time favorite art book has no pictures in it- it's Robert Henri's 'The Art Spirit'- He gives you a wealth of information and ideas to stay inspired and be thoughtful and insightful.

Three amazing books on oil painting are: Velazquez 'The Technique of Genius'; 'Traditional Oil Painting' by Virgil Elliot; and 'Classical Painting Atelier' by Juliette Aristedes.

Fecal Face questions below

Your work at your last show in December "Anathema" at Last Rites in NYC (view photos) was a bit on the risque side featuring masturbating nuns and fingers up interesting places. The work is more raw than what we're used to see from you. How did the work from that show come about?

The 'Anathema' show at Last Rites Gallery in NYC was an exploration into the realm of 'dark art'. I am close friends with the founder of the gallery, and his vision for this space is for artist's who don't necessarily make 'dark art' to explore their own personal 'dark side'. It really was an opportunity for me to go in a direction that was completely different from what I've done in the past, and to tap into something that I thought would make a powerful statement.

The work is not for everyone, and surprisingly, a lot of people have commented positively on the series. It was a hard line to ride between being cliche and cheesy- but I chose to spend my energy on making these works and really learned quite a bit by stepping outside of the subjects I've focused on the past few years. I consider myself an artist and art to me is experimentation and the active pursuit of progression with a sincere focus on pursuing content driven works.

Your portrait of Obama was the cover of the Wall Street Journal. How did that come about?

I've been a professional illustrator for the past ten years, working with numerous major magazines, newspapers, record labels and advertising firms. I've actually slowed down doing commercial work more and more the past couple of years. This was a commission that I couldn't say no to. I've done over 500 pieces for commercial clients and this is another one for the books...

I have a handful of commercial pieces on my agent's website- http://www.magnetreps.com/portfolio/artist/11/type/a/

When did your interest in tattooing start? Are you now a working tattoo artist? You've been learning for a bit now right?

I received my first tattoo at 16 years old and have been gradually adding more work to my body over the years. The interest has always been there but it didn't really come into fruition until I moved to san francisco 5 years ago.

I started painting Tattooed Portraits in 2004 and the impact of the tattoo community in SF has undeniably influenced my excitement for the medium. I have shared a studio space with Henry Lewis, off and on since 2005- and he encouraged my pursuit of learning to tattoo. I started an apprenticeship with Mike Davis at Everlasting Tattoo in 2005, slowly learning more as I could dedicate more time to the medium (I was also teaching at the Academy of Art and CCA), until December of 2007 where I quit teaching altogether and focused much more on learning the craft. I've travelled quite a bit, as well; learning from and getting tattooed by some of the best tattoo artists in the world. Just recently I left Everlasting to pursue the medium on my own- I travel so much that I'm trying to figure out how to balance my passion for painting and tattooing. I have a solid year under my belt and trying to do the best I can every day... Anyone interested in getting work done can email me at: sdbarber@gmail.com

When you're not working (I know you work a lot) what do you like to get into in San Francisco? How does Shawn spend his off time?

I don't do too much other than work- but I try and spend time with friends as much as possible. San Francisco has such an amazing artist's community and the people that I spend time with are some of the most progressive young artists living here today. I see as many art shows as possible and definitely explore this city's fine dining experience.

I really do enjoy riding my bicycle and have been trying to take advantage of the streets of SF...

Do you teach at the Art Academy? If so, what do you teach and how long have you been there and did you plan on becoming an art instructor or did it just happen.... or am I just high thinking you used to teach?

I started teaching in 1997, as a teacher's assistant for the Precollege Program at the Ringling College of Art in Sarasota, Florida and moved to teaching and coordinating the program from 1999-2003. In 2000 I started teaching part time at Ringling and moved to full time, teaching most of their Illustration classes at least once while I was there. I taught Drawing 1, Illustration 1-4, Portrait Painting, Painting 1 and 2, Visual Commentary and Figure Painting. After moving to San Francisco in 2003, I taught at the Academy of Art's MFA Illustration Program and CCA's Illustration Department. Teaching always seemed like a natural extension and I've continued to teach privately. I have been traveling the past couple of years to tattoo conventions around the world, teaching painting seminars, as well. A group of friends from San Francisco run a little site called Conceptart.org, and I've been fortunate to teach with them at workshops in Prague, Seattle, San Francisco, Montreal and this March in Dallas.

It's a phenomenal experience that is completely unique and inspirational.

You do a lot of illustration work for magazines and the like. What do you think is the most important piece of advice you've given someone on illustrating professionally or have been taught?

No one is going to hand you anything. Period. You have to make your own way and consistently work towards getting new clients and commissions. You have to spend money to make money. Be honest and critical with your flaws and shortcomings- challenge yourself to acknowledge your weaknesses and work towards progression. Coming up with a gimmick or style only lasts so long. Don't copy your idols.

What are you working on now? What do you have coming down the line?

I just finished a piece for the Grammy Awards Art Show 'Worlds on Fire' and painted a gas tank for Harley Davidson's 'Art of Rebellion' show at the Robert Berman Gallery in Santa Monica. Upcoming art shows include a solo show at the Shooting Gallery in San Francisco in August; a two person show with Turf One at the Yves Laroche Gallery in Montreal in September; and a solo show at the Joshua Liner Gallery in NYC in April 2010.

I will be at a few upcoming tattoo conventions: The Philadelphia Tattoo Convention- Feb 27-29; Hellcity Tattoo convention in May in Columbus, Ohio; Seattle Tattoo Convention in August, Montreal Tattoo Convention in September; The Paradise Gathering in Massachusetts in September; The Miami Tattoo Convention in October...

I will also be teaching at the Conceptart.org workshop in Dallas in March.

On Jan 30, 2009 we stopped through his San Francisco studio and took some video and got a few photos.

Thanks to everyone who submitted their question and also to Shawn for taking the time for this interview. Visit his stie for more info: sdbarber.com {moscomment}

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