Olga Krimon: “Have something to say. It’s only because you have a lot to say that you want to become an artist.“
Do you remember the first time you understood you wanted your life to be that of a painter? Do you remember what evoked it?
That took multiple stages, I would say. I grew up going to the academic art school in Russia, but I didn’t think of an art career. At least not in fine art. I thought of a career in illustration or animation, but I didn’t consider them for long. Once, around the same time, I read an article about Sotheby’s, and the thought of working there grew into a serious dream. I then got a BA from Davidson College in Art History, and finally realized my dream to be at Sotheby’s New York. Although it was an experience of a lifetime, it was not what I wanted after all. And I had to survive financially, in a foreign country – so my life took a different turn, eventually an MBA and a corporate IT management route. But through that I kept painting, drawing, learning. I knew I had to, I couldn’t be without it, but I couldn’t imagine having it as a career. The lucky few, I thought, who did it professionally, had to be the luckiest people alive.
And one day I realized that if I don’t, I would literally not function. I had to. That hit me. And I realized that I was coming to this through all those years. I finally got to the point where I needed it so much, and I had so much in my head that had to get out on canvas, that everything else had to become second to this desire. And there was no going back. I am glad it happened this way. I was able to experience other paths, get on my feet, and became an artist because of the calling. The more you experience, the more you have to say in your art. And the more I cherish every day of being an artist. It really is a dream come true.
You were born in Ukraine and you openly say you have been influenced by a number of Russian titanic artists. What artistic elements and characteristics are those you were most influenced by? In what factors are they traceable in your own work?
That’s a great question. First, it’s their sense of form that they conveyed through the carefully orchestrated values. Their paintings were mostly value based, look at Repin as an example. But Serov took it even further, introducing much more vibrancy and thick juicy brushstrokes. Even Levitan’s landscapes to me are value-based first, although the color harmony there is magnificent. They made figures and faces palpable, so real. And it was not by meticulously rendering them. Rather, by simplifying them. Compositionally, their works are also exceptional. They arranged the values in such a way that the light traveled in a specific pattern. Once you see those patterns, you realize how simple this actually becomes. They best things are so simple, not overworked. That’s what I am trying to master. Massing the lights, having a very clear idea of the movement within the composition. One of the paintings that influenced me greatly is Repin’s Ivan The Terrible, where Ivan is holding his dying son (who he just murdered. A horrific story, I know). Look at how perfect that composition is. And that red – red of the blood, red of that carpet – that red is spectacular, and yet it’s rarely pure red. And once you see it up close, you realize how brilliant the strokes are, how he used textures to create this reality. It’s a striking piece of art. It’s at the Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow, and it’s worth a trip to Moscow just to see it.
And then there was Fechin, who broke the color into so many lines, strokes, touches, it’s almost as if he attacked his canvases with such force that it now projects back and we feel that pulsing energy. I actually lived and went to the art school in Kazan. Fechin lived and taught in Kazan for years, so our local art museum had a really good collection of his works. I love those works more than his later works in the US.
My art school used traditional principles of art education, so I feel like I am connected to these painters through schooling as well.
A lot of female figures in your paintings. If it is a conscious choice- why? If not, where do you think it comes from?
I never thought of it. I do paint my kids sometimes, too. And commissioned pieces don’t fall into this category either. But I think that most of the figurative art through the centuries had a female figure. The beauty of the skin tones, the grace of the movement. (When I say it I always think of Ingres’ “Bathers” or “Odalisque”… rather than Reubens, for example). But maybe it’s more of an unconscious representation of my inner feelings, and it’s only natural that they are visualized through a female. And there is also a practical aspect – it was easier for me to get a female model (for example, I painted my sons’ young nanny many times). It may be odd to think this way, but when I have a composition in my head, it’s an idea of curves, diagonals, masses on the canvas. I know how I want to fit the figure. But that figure to use could be a female, could be male, could be a child. I know what kind of silhouette I want, where on the canvas I want it. Then I find someone to be that model.
A painting to which you are particularly attached to? Why?
Of the recent ones, I am particularly drawn to the “Birthday Cake”. That composition was completely imagined, and appeared organically, sort of one thing led to another. It’s as if the painting itself dictated what I had to incorporate. It demanded that the table and the cake on it – again, for compositional reasons, but still, the content of the painting shifted with the inclusion of these elements. It started to tell a story. It led me to it.
There are several paintings that I feel particularly fond of, for different reasons. I am thankful for “Ania” because it made me the finalist of the Portrait Society of America and really started my professional career. But there was another one, a small painting of my son of 2010, titled “Blue”, that I really wish I didn’t sell. It’s one of those paintings where everything felt right, there was no rework, it painted itself. And it captures his character in the pose and facial expression. This is a personal favorite. Even though I see mistakes in it, and I feel I would’ve painted it differently now, that painting shows the emotion that I tried to capture.
Between the two virtual extremes of realism vs abstraction where do you place yourself?
Oh, it’s somewhat of a moving target for me, especially lately. If I drew a line between these extremes, then I would position myself really close to the realism through my schooling and up until at least a couple of years ago. And then that dot would slowly start shifting towards the other extreme, in particular in the backgrounds. And then the dot would stop, as if it went too far, and start shifting back towards realism. I experimented quite a bit with abstraction last year, with splashes and knife work and you name it. Primarily in the handling of backgrounds. I really liked when this made the figure or the face even more real in comparison. And then I realized I was losing me in this experimentation. Was I trying to be someone else? Maybe it’s a question we will always struggle with. And my recent paintings have much less of that bravura. So I think maybe I was closer to the center between these 2 extremes last year, and now I am probably 2/3 of the way (back to realism).
But the question of realism and abstraction is an interesting one. The best realist art is just that, abstract. Take any of the Russian artists I named above. Or take Sargent or Zorn. You step back, and the paintings give an illusion of a living and breathing person in it. Come close, and it’s the abstraction of strokes, lines, knife applications, variety of edges, and so on. Those are purely abstract elements. Look at Sargent’s girl on the foreground of Boit daughters (if you can see it in person) – if you look at it closely it’s a pure abstraction, the paint is incredibly thick. How is that not an abstraction? That’s the highest level of abstraction – when it’s this way up close, and it actually forms reality when you step away. So if I think in these terms then these two extremes we are talking about meet, right
What would you describe as the key features and attitudes of contemporary painting? Are there some elements you would trade off for past ones?
Contemporary realist painting, or contemporary painting in general? Because I think my answers would be different. There are so many approaches, so many unique ways of seeing. I love to see this variety. I love the will to experiment. We have so many materials these days. And we have the technology. It’s ironic that in the days when I was a student, even using a photo reference was frowned upon. And look at us now – with our Macs, iPhones, and whatever else. It took me a long time to be ok with it, and now I can’t live without it (or my models would cost me a fortune, considering how many hours I need them for).
But the fundamentals of contemporary figurative painting should be the same as it’s always been. The artist needs to understand anatomy. The artist needs to go through the schooling years to master the medium, and most of all, the ways of seeing and capturing the form. And not through careful copies of photos. Then, they can choose to break from this, to distort anatomy, or to create pure abstraction. But it would be not because of the lack of skill, but a conscious decision that is based on his/her way of seeing or relating to the world. I do not feel that it can be done in any other way. I may be old-fashioned thinking this way, but I really believe this. To clarify – I don’t mean that every artist needs to necessarily go through the art academy training (although if you can, do that). With discipline and dedication, an artist can definitely be self-taught, as there are so many resources these days. So I don’t mean schooling in a literal sense, it can be achieved in multiple ways.
I think today there are so many people who want to be artists but who want to bypass these steps. With a few exceptions, I think that they really limit themselves.
You have also an MBA, which makes you perceptive of the business side of an artistic career. What are the best advice you want to give young painters out there trying to transform their passion in their source of living?
When I got my MBA, my corporate career really took off. With all that experience, I entered the world of art and realized that I know little. Life of a fine artist is not as predictable and doesn’t quite fit into any traditional business plan. So I can’t say that an MBA helped me in that regard. But that schooling and the years of office work cemented my work discipline, made me confident in building relationships with galleries, gave me a strong work ethic, and so on.
As for the advice – I don’t know if I should give any advice, as we are all taking different paths. And mine is not a typical artist path. I think there are many others who would be more qualified to advise artists. But I think that so many times in life you would rethink what you are doing and why. I would say enter this field only because you can’t possibly be whole if you don’t. It’s a very hard road, it’s harder in many ways than many others. Don’t take this road because you don’t think you will succeed at something else, you may be too young to know that. Have something to fall back on. Have education and experience that would then give you courage, and hopefully a financial base, to pursue art. I know, it sounds discouraging, but it’s not. And also – have something to say. It’s only because you have a lot to say that you want to become an artist. If you have that drive, and that will to pursue, and ideas that are competing for attention in your head – then dive in, because your life will not be complete if you don’t.
Do you think social media have any negative collateral effects on the artistic world?
I want to start with the positives. One of the best things that happened to me was Instagram. I find new talent almost daily. I stumble upon interesting compositions of artists and photographers, and I feel that they enriched my life through their work. And they are just one message away from me – it’s so easy to get hold of them. I like artists and collectors responding to my posts, messaging me, asking for advice. Sure, if we had no Instagram, we would find other ways to communicate, but what a great visual and social tool it has become. (I can’t tell the same about Facebook, I barely use it now).
I can name 2 possible negative effects, but I sure try to not be affected by them. One is “addiction” to social networking. It does take time, and we browse IG way more than we should throughout the day. Maybe so. And the 2nd one may be a false sense of value based on likes. I sure do like likes and comments on my paintings, everyone does. But I also found many examples of amazing pieces by other artists, and those had a small number of likes. And I’ve seen so many pieces that I wouldn’t consider fine art, and those got a ton of likes. So don’t think of a piece of art being good or bad based on the likes it receives. There is so much more to that. That said – we all love likes on our pieces. And I always support the works of others with likes and comments if they moved me.
Next and upcoming projects?
I currently have 12 WIPs and am restraining myself from starting more. A couple of years ago I painted one or two paintings at one time, until those were done, and moved to the next. But ideas come much quicker than I spend on a painting. So I start another one, while continuing to work on previous pieces. Too many times I may abandon some started pieces that I spent days and days on because my thoughts are on a new one. There are pluses and minuses to this approach.
I am working on a new portfolio of works. And I am seriously thinking of teaching again, on a more regular basis. I honestly love doing it, and I periodically do workshops and demos. But there is only so much you can give to students during a short workshop. They really need a more consistent instructor-led education. I am trying to figure out how I can fit teaching into my weekly schedule.
My next group exhibition is Virtuosos of Oil Painters of America (OPA) at Cutter&Cutter, St Augustine, FL. It will run through March. And I owe new pieces to Reinert Fine Art Gallery, Charleston, SC – they have been the most supportive and generous collaborators for several years in this exciting but oh not such an easy business.
But my main goal for this year is the same as I try to set every year – to strive to be a better artist, to have stronger works, to continue to develop as a serious artist. This is a life-long goal.
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