Juan Ruiz is a fine artist in the representational and figurative tradition.
Tell us how you got into art.
I always hate this question because the usual answer is so clichéd; “Ever since I was little…blah blah blah” Almost every artist has this same back-story. But it has become a cliché precisely because it is so true. Almost every artist had some spark of expressive creativity or artistic talent from a very young age. In my case, I remember being 4 or 5 yrs old and my mother sitting down with me and my sister to draw little scenes of stick figures next to houses, trees, cars, etc. I was the one that took an interest right away. Then she discovered I had a talent for working with clay so she would get me non-hardening clay and I’d take it with me everywhere. I made scenes on a piece of Masonite with animals, dinosaurs, and cartoon characters. My mother also always talked to me about the Renaissance, especially artists like da Vinci and Michelangelo. So I grew up with Renaissance art as my model of what high art should be. A model that has been hard to shake.
What are you thinking about when you’re creating art?
I try to think of an engaging image, something that will catch the viewer’s attention. I used to think that I was making art for “other” viewers, now the viewer is increasingly myself. I think of what will catch MY eye as the viewer because in the end my paintings are questions that I am asking myself. Since being at Pafa (Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts) I have had the opportunity to attend several workshops with Vincent Desiderio, as well as having a couple of private critiques with him in my studio. He is one of the most interesting and intelligent painters working today. Among the many things that comprise his artistic philosophy is the idea that the “technical narrative” is of utmost importance in a painting – perhaps more so than the “dramatic narrative.” The dramatic narrative is the story being acted out inside the picture frame but the technical narrative is made up of all the technical choices that the artist has made in order to arrive at the painting you have in front of you: composition, handling of paint and other media (whether paint is brushed on, smeared on, scraped, glazed) the tools used, etc. The technical narrative is of supreme importance because it allows a glimpse into the artist’s mind and thought-process more so than the story he or she is portraying on the canvas. I’ve always had a poor knowledge and engagement with art history so I’ve also tried to look at more art since being at Pafa, both historical and contemporary in order to learn how other artists have dealt with similar technical and conceptual issues.
Tell us about your educational/personal training?
Sometimes I think of myself as a self-taught artist. My undergraduate art department was very small and although they were very supportive and allowed us freedom to explore our own approaches to art, they did not have a significant emphasis on skills training. I often found myself asking questions about glazing and other traditional painting methods and finding very few answers among the faculty. So I constantly turned to Google for questions about painting materials and techniques and then learned through trial-and-error as I experimented on the canvas. I still go through a process of trial-and error but one that is not so blind anymore and which is more confident. I also studied History and a little bit of Political Philosophy so my paintings are the creations of a worldview shaped by these disciplines.
Where do you find inspiration?
From different sources…Sometimes other art, especially master paintings; but always from the world we live in. My paintings are also always influenced by my interest in history, philosophy and politics. Although I hate being called a political artist. Over time I’ve discovered that I always deal with some aspect of humanity. My favorite paintings of all time deal with the human condition: How humans deal with being human – religious experience, moral questions, great events, everyday life, our own biology. People sometimes ask me why I always paint negative things: injustice, violence, etc. I think it is easy to paint puppies and kittens and rainbows, everybody loves these things, but great art challenges us. Great art dares us to ask difficult questions and doesn’t always have a happy ending. Along with the pleasant and beautiful the human world also has many things that are hard to think about in their ugliness and sadness. I think it is important to keep this in mind so that we don’t ignore it just because it isn’t happening in our own backyard.
What is your favorite medium to work with?
Drawing has always come naturally to me and painting is something that I’ve always struggled with. Recently I’ve started to try to combine the two by working monochromatically with oil paint more as a drawing tool than as a painterly one. I now find that I am better at drawing this way than with the traditional pencil or charcoal stick. I usually prepare the canvas with a translucent burnt umber ground, let it dry completely and then draw with thinned raw umber. I use a bristle brush, usually round, and scrub the paint into the canvas, almost sculpting with it as I move it around. The result is similar to Mark Tansey’s monochromatic paintings – “Triumph of the New York School” being a well-known example. I use this approach for studies and underpainting. But I’m also slowly trying to teach myself how to apply the paint in different ways, with a palette knife, wet into wet as opposed to indirectly, impasto, etc. And to make better use of color, which I’ve always struggled with. In the end I hope to arrive at a technique that merges thick and thin, translucent with opaque, and rough with smooth. Similar to the way paint was applied during the Baroque.