A Studio Visit with Daniel Heidkamp
We love artist Daniel Heidkamp’s work for its vibrant tones and illuminated landscapes. Having just seen his recent first solo show at The Journal gallery, we visited him in his Brooklyn studio to talk about his new series of plein-air paintings, and his upcoming show at The Met.
What’s the title for the show?
“Jaws Dropping.” The theme of the show is live painting, keeping with what I've been doing the last few shows. I went to Montauk, Newport, Martha's Vineyard, Fisher's Island, and would rent, or have been staying at people's houses, getting rooms in all these pockets of eastern island towns. Each one has its own character. Newport's all about the mansions. Montauk's about the cliffs and rocky beaches. Fisher's Island is much more isolated. Then in Martha's Vineyard, there’s the Jaws Bridge. Once I came up with this theme, I went to all these towns and there's this great white shark myth: the “Jaws.” It's in the air. People talk about it.
It happened there?
In the movie, there’s a fictional island — Amity Island — but they filmed the movie in Martha's Vineyard, and the captain is based on a captain from Montauk. Wherever you go in this neck of the woods, there's always some story about either great-white shark sightings or just Jaws in general.
Tell us about your passion for live painting.
I think that all this stuff comes from me sitting in front of something and painting or drawing. For this group show, it was a lot of watercoloring. Now I can just open up my watercolor pad and just bang out something in an hour or two. I'm traveling around, just putting stuff in my backpack and keeping it really low-key. If I have a house to go to where I can really set up a little bit more, I'll do some oil painting. Once in the studio — because most of the stuff is studio paintings — I'm looking at all my source material and the memory of being there. What was the light like? How did it feel? All that's really important to how these things translate.
Then of course for detail, I'm bringing in photographs and looking back at some of the figuration, to get a pose, like the guy digging or the dude throwing a rope. I want the pose to feel like realism, so I'm looking at photos and using that.
You really try to witness, to document the moment right, rather than relying on your imagination.
So you’re trying to grasp from nature itself, rather than from your imagination?
Yes. I believe that all the secrets about how color works and the shape of leaves, it's all in nature already. If you wanted to make an abstract painting or just do something fully from your imagination, you have that jumping off point of how does the sky fade from one shade of blue to the other? How does the light look when it casts through leaves and then hits the ground? Why don't you just go out and look at them, if you can use that stuff in more imaginary painting? There were definitely elements in these paintings, where they veer off in the drawing and the gesture into abstraction or just more imaginary, more expressionist moments. I want that feeling of realism, the feeling that this is like how it looks or how it feels more. To get that tension happening… all that comes from nature.
How does your interest in old paintings figure into that?
You realize those guys were definitely looking at nature in the early days of impressionism and early American painting. They were looking at photographs too, but you could tell that they were also looking at the sunset and how stuff looks that had to be out there. I like that tradition. In some ways through the path of Picasso and into abstraction, it disappeared somewhat from painting.
Is the oil technique still improving today in term of pigments, in term of technique or process? I guess my question is, why use oil today?
That's a good question. Let's see, what were the old-school brands? I like Windsor Newton, Sennelier paints like Old Holland. Those are basically the only paints I'll use. There are other paints that people love, like Williamsburg and Gamblin, but I actually don't end up using a lot of that paint. I'll use Williamsburg sometimes for their white.
Do they age well?
Well, I don't know. I'm hoping for the best. It seems to hold up. As far as how you put them down, if you have your sap greens, your olive greens, those are your earth-tone greens, so right away you're in the world of what the paint was intended to paint. This paint was formulated over the years through tradition. So it’s like what trees or the sky look like in France, the cerulean blue of a Windsor and Newton, which is made in France. The sky, when you travel there, is much more like the color of the tube of paint. The sky looks a little bit different here.
Funny, how the landscape relates to a color tube somehow.
I think so. Some of it is even the actual material. I use a lot of metallic oil paints like the bronze and the silver.
Because if you want to make the side of a mound and a three-house landscape, you start mixing in some of this metallic. It starts to feel like dirt. It starts to feel like sand. [gesturing to name of painting] Then here, I'll take it to an extreme. If you see in the bottom of that, there is actual sand in that painting. It's a painting of the beach in Montauk with the three houses where Andy Warhol lived. It's now owned by an art collector. I was scooping sand off the beach. I have a cup full of sand from there and I'm mixing it into the paint, and then putting it on. Now it's like I'm painting sand.
You’re really encapsulating the landscape into your painting.
I do. If I'm painting out in the grass and little petals are falling, they land in there. Painting is my extension of what’s built into it. American paint companies are much more about pigment load.
That’s very interesting, the fact that you go back to the Old Masters' tubes. Do we know if these companies were getting feedback from the masters? Was there any conversation between artists and the industry at the time?
You get the sense that there’s probably some of that, when there’s a "Van Dyke Brown," and there are certain colors named for some of the painters. But, besides that, those specifics, it’s more like you just feel it, and it works. They were obviously involved in art; they were inventing this. It was the seminal moment. To get those things to start popping off like that, you want some nice colors, nice pigments, and to know that it will last. I like these in-between colors.
You mean between orange and pink?
Yes, like a coral red. I like a sort of cold green, like a Windsor. Or a Viridian Green, which is kind of between a blue and a green. I’ve been using less of the blue, more of a violet, because it is sort of between the red and the blue.
Picasso was obsessed with Matisse's colors. On his deathbed, he was like, “Where did you get this red?”
Maybe that is probably the wrong question, don't you think?
Aren’t painters obsessed with other Masters' recipes, or techniques? They had their own recipes, and painters will keep their secrets.
I don’t think it’s about the brand or anything, it’s the attitude. The way I use color, now that I have done it so much, I could apply this way of thinking to house paints or 99-cent store children's paints. But if I am going to do it, I want to do it with the best stuff.