Still life artist Justin Wood time travels to the Dutch Republic’s Golden Age
Abstract art is on its way out. It had a good run the last hundred years or so. Today skilled atelier trained representational artists are rebelling against the current art world’s trending genres that seem to toggle between polarities of Shock & Disturb art and its friendlier teenage sister’s predilection for decorative Puppies & Bunnies art. This leads us to the new art rebels — for what would art history be without its rebels?
Armed with handmade Rosemary sable brushes and training from schools like the Florence Academy of Art and Grand Central Academy in New York, these artists have steadily made inroads into contemporary art galleries and private collections. One of the most recognized of these artists is Justin Wood.
When Justin travels — and when he paints — you can find him in Holland. More specifically, he’s fascinated by the long ago world of the 17th century Dutch Golden Age. As a celebrated contemporary still life painter, he has closely studied the artists of the period and their techniques for rendering food and drink. In case you’re wondering, he especially likes to paint citrus!
Never has world travel — formerly known as exploration – seemed more exotic than it did during the 17th century “Golden Age” of the Dutch Republic. Citizens of ports like Amsterdam and Haarlem watched in amazement as carpets from Persia and porcelain from China were unloaded from (laughably small to us) ships, fresh back from multi-year voyages to the far side of the planet. Many of the choicest of these luxury imports were edible: pepper, nutmeg, cloves, dates, cinnamon, ginger and saffron, grown in sweltering Asian heat, all displayed along the frozen docks in midwinter for gawking Dutch shoppers.
It’s no accident that history celebrates these Dutch travelers as the world’s champion exotic shoppers. Even though the Spanish plunderers of the Aztecs brought home equally miraculous-seeming foods (avocados, papaya, cacao), the conquistadores lacked the one decisive PR weapon that made Dutch history seem so captivating to us: the still life painters of the Dutch Golden Age. These consummate artists brought realism to new heights, and they took joy in depicting the fruits of the Dutch Empire. Food and drink, pleasures of the table and the senses – these have never been so well portrayed in art. Until now.
Your paintings are so lifelike. Why is representational art gaining popularity now?
I think representational art is a very natural and necessary thing. The need to represent the world we live in through pictures is part of being a human and we’ve always done it. There is a special undeniable feeling you get when standing in front of a picture that took some genius months or even years to create. It feels beyond what a human being can achieve, and it leaves us feeling inspired, stimulated and happy to be alive! I have never had that feeling when standing in front of “modern art” and I think it’s simply because those works didn’t require the best qualities in the best people to create them, so while it had a weirdly successful run, I think the spell is wearing off.
The Metropolitan Museum of Art [New York]. I always start in the Dutch still life section.
Art supplies you use?
Rosemary sable brushes, Natural Pigment and Michael Harding paints.
Who are your main influences in this field?
I love the 17th Century Dutch still life painters like Pieter Claesz, Willem Kalf and Simon Luttichuys. The way they transformed and elevated their subjects was incredible. From the small and simple ontbijtjes (breakfast pieces) to the large and ostentatious Pronkstillevens (banquet pieces), these artists painted with incredible precision and skill.
What first attracted you to still life painting?
Strangely enough it was a practical consideration. Figure painting and portraiture had always been my primary interest, but I knew I wouldn’t be able to afford a model in my studio everyday once I was on my own.
What have you learned from studying these 17th century Dutch painters?
The Dutch painters used various techniques and methods to express the “feeling” of things in addition to the light effect. One such method involved the rendering of lemons. The peels of lemons were often depicted using impastos of lead tin yellow and egg whites. They applied the paint in such a way that it literally mimicked the bumpy irregular surface of a lemon peel. The artist would literally “sculpt” the surface of the peel in low relief with paint. When dry, they would paint thin, transparent glazes of umber over the surface which would settle in the low spots in between the bumps to further the illusion. That in addition to painting the colored gradations associated with the light effect combined to form a stunning and tangible representation of the subject.
Favorite travel destinations?
Amsterdam, Florence and Rome.
What is it like to study in a classical atelier, and can you recommend a classical atelier school for artists who want to sharpen their skills?
The sort of training you find in the classical ateliers teaches the student why the world appears as it does and how to express or interpret that understanding with paint on canvas. Maybe I’m biased but I think the best is Grand Central Atelier, founded by my favorite contemporary still life painter and teacher, Jacob Collins. I can’t recommend it enough for the artist who wants to learn how to draw and paint.
What is the most difficult object to paint in a still life?
I think the most difficult thing to paint are the subjects that change the most. This is one of the reasons I don’t paint flowers!
Your carry-on bag and what’s always in it?
It’s an old high school blue soccer duffel bag with the date ’96 on it, and it’s the perfect size bag. I always bring my Pieter Claesz book. He’s one of my favorite artists.