Just this past summer, I had the lucky fortune to visit Randall David Tipton in his home studio while he participated in Portland Open Studio weekend. Tipton lives in woody Lake Oswego and after doing this interview a few years back, it was fun to see Tipton at work. His studio is brimming with his lovely watercolor and oils and he encourages you whole heartedly to look through his pieces.
In your bio you talk about how you walk a lot and when you do you carry a camera, notebook, or sketchbook to help you remember your response. How do you use those tools? How long do you spend considering a scene? What it is you hope to capture while on site that you'll be able to bring back and translate in the studio?
I don’t usually have all of them at the same time unfortunately, I’m not that organized and everything needs to go into a pocket, I don’t want to carry anything. Now that I have an I-phone, it`s usually with me and has become invaluable for referencing color and composition. The notebook, I use to write what appealed to meexactly. The sketchbook is best for editing and composing a design on site. I used to only work from drawings but that’s changed. Now I find that it`s a sense of a place that I want to paint, what it felt like. With just enough contour and detail to convey what the scene is. More often than not, it`s a configuration of elements in the landscape than have an unusually strong design or potent mood. When something really gets my attention, I’ll analyze it mentally, try note what my emotional reaction is, photograph it if possible and try to commit the experience to memory. If it`s complicated and the details essential, I’ll draw it if I can or return again soon. In the studio, I’ll have the photo or sketch nearby to help construct a scaffolding. There’s usually no preparatory marks before I begin, just the references nearby and soon those aren’t needed as my memory guides me. It`s kind of an ephemeral process. While I paint I’m doing lots of different little experiments trying to depict my subject in an interesting way. Letting the paint have it’s own identity as coax it into something recognizable.
What role does abstraction play in your landscape pieces? How do you take the elements of abstraction and use them to alter a landscape?
As I’ve learned to distill more of an essence of the landscape, abstraction has been the tool for doing so. For example, if it’s the color of grasses in the sunlight that moves me, my composition will have that front and center as the largest part of the painting. That emphasis alone will create a much more abstract design. All of the abstraction in my work is done in the service of conveying an emotional response to something visual. Sometimes my work will look more realistic, such as the Rio en Medio series I did last spring. I was on vacation and therefore relied on my photos when I returned home. The paintings came from a hike where there was an overload of sensory information. I tried to paint that frenzy. A group of recent paintings of wetlands near where I live are painted just from memory and are more abstract.
Some of the artists we've filmed talk about the importance of knowing your subject matter well. How does your approach change between a subject you know well and a subject you may not know well? How does the element of improvisation change between the two?
I definitely want to know my subject as well as I can. Most of my work is of the forests, bogs and creeks that are near me. I need to be in a place for a while and walk through it before I try to work from it. This doesn't have to take a long time, but I do want some understanding. If it’s a place I'm new to, I will feel more anxiety when I paint it but I don't think it shows in the work. I rarely paint something I don't know.
When painting from memory, what was most impressive guides me. If I remember old trees for instance, I`ll put some paint down and start manipulating it until I get an old tree. I'll recognize it when it comes. This can take many of those 'experiments' I mentioned, but it's worth it. The subject looks 'found' not so deliberate.
I saw a piece on your blog that you did in the 70s and it's so much more literal than your work now. Where did you start style wise and how did it move so much into the abstract? (Link here: http://randalldavidtipton.blogspot.com/2011/09/palm-canyon-inner-landscape-of-beauty.html) Was that process scary?
I'm not sure when or how that happened. I remember painting plein air with friends 15 years ago, and noticing that once I had a basic composition, I rarely looked up again. I didn't need to. The 'reality' of the landscape wasn't important, just my reaction was. And as I got older, I thought more about painting, what were my motives? What was I trying to do and how could I do it better? The abstraction grew from a deeper understanding of my own response to the landscape. I’ve never had enough success financially to be afraid to change. I also had a way to adequately support myself independent of selling through restaurant work.
Talk to us about your process. Do you have different goals for the type of work you create? What is the role of a study and what is the role of a finished painting? How are the goals different between the two?
Every painting begins with random marks or washes [I paint flat]. With the subject and design in mind, I start moving the paint around. Against the advice of many, I like to get something cool as soon as possible. This gives me the impetus to continue but I often have to destroy that part later. It's all a matter of pushing the paint, scrapping, pouring, tilting, blotting, and wiping as I try to build my idea. The studies are where I can try something out in a manageable space, but I take them seriously as paintings. My goals are the same for any size. I want a rich, painterly image which represents my view, my regard, my understanding of paint and nature. For myself. I`m trying to paint the paintings I want to see.
I read in a great interview that you keep thousands of images of your work. Talk about the role that digital photography plays in your process. How do you use these images to get better at painting? Can that level of scrutiny cause problems?
Yes, I have lots of images of my own work and nearly 10,000 of others. Looking through my own stuff is risky indeed. What`s most dismaying is to see things I thought were really good and they clearly are not. And I don't own them anymore, they're loose out in the world! I don't like that at all. The opposite can happen too. I`ve been working on an update for my website and only looking at my greatest hits. That`s been nice. It`s the work of other painters that really can inspire me. Guaranteed, if I look through those files I have, within minutes I'll be stimulated and have the heart to tackle whatever stage or dilemma my current painting is in.
What does your day look like? How do you divide your time between thinking and creating? Is it important is have a clear schedule each day or do you just see where the day takes you?
I'm very fortunate to have all of my time. It’s not gangbusters, but I’m selling better than I have in years, thanks to the internet, and I have a partner, gainfully employed, who believes in me. There is a flimsy structure to my day; errands and exercise in the morning, some studio time in the afternoon before cooking, then the night, which is when the important stuff happens. I think it was Tom Waits who said 'life is short, but by the grace of god, the night is long'.
Kelly Anne Powers is a freelance writer for Creative Catalyst Productions. When she's not interviewing amazing artists, she's playing with pattern and acrylic paint.
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