Emilio Villalba is a modern San Francisco based artist with an iconic painting style. His new series, Talk to Me features experimental portraiture rich in texture and distinctly muted palettes. Below, we were able to learn more about his investigative approach and the motives behind the work that he creates.
Interview by Jessica Violetta
JV: Hi Emilio, we are honored to have you back in the gallery with new work on view. Your paintings are easily recognizable yet beginning to show signs of a slight shift in the way you have lightened things up for some and then highly reduced the imagery onto black in others. Can you talk more about this progression?
EV: These new high-key images started out as a way to “lighten” up the mood in my work, but I think I ended up with the opposite result, haha. These paintings felt more depressing and “emo” to me than my last series here at Modern Eden. I experimented by distorting the silhouettes more than usual, as well as the placement of the facial features which allowed the expressions to be pushed. For example, on Talk to Me and the The Lonely Painter Facing Death I thinned out the faces and ruined some of the definition to make them seem a bit longer. I felt that investigating a more “painterly” approach to this series would help out the visual concept a bit more. The movement of the paint would move the viewers eye around the piece easier as well giving the painting some weight by adding thicker, more textural brush application.
JV: Right, there feels to almost be a bit less specificity in the faces or people you are depicting in this series than in your previous work. So was this intentional?
EV: Yes, totally… since I was playing with a more painterly application, I felt that some of the features were getting in the way of the brush work as well as some features feeling unnecessary for a particular expression or composition. A lot of the paintings at one time had more features that have been painted over or scraped off. I really enjoyed this process, and I think will continue to explore it.
JV: That sounds like an interesting direction. When you are working, how exactly do you choose which features to fully render and which to fade away? Is this mostly an intuitive decision or something that you predetermine?
EV: I think a lot of it for me had to do with the mood or composition. I was really curious what features I could repeat and which features I could erase and convey a clearer statement of the expression, as well as relating those features back to the overall design. By pushing the brush work and color design I felt that I made up for the destruction or invisible features of the face, haha. Hopefully.
JV: I think you were successful in that attempt! As I mentioned, your work has become very recognizable. Would you say that you have landed upon a “style” or kind of painting that defines you as an artist and/or feels like one you would like to hold on to for a while?
EV: When I think of style, I think of design. Like, what kind of “look” am I going for, and then I adjust color and brushwork to fit that aesthetic. As far as landing or arriving upon a style to keep, I don’t know if the paintings will always look the same… the concepts however, or the idea behind the pieces have been pretty consistent for the last two years with this multiple feature body of work. When I first experimented with this look, my goal for that painting was to create a monster haha. I wanted to represent depression, and bi-polar disorder visually but in a calm sense. If anything, I would like to get to the point where my brushwork is more of the unique voice rather than the subject matter or having multiple features all over the faces haha. I would love to start exploring other subject matter, such as still life and landscape, and figure out a way to incorporate those into a show and still keep it cohesive. At this moment though, I’m still extremely addicted to painting portraits.
JV: I can completely understand that portrait addiction, it would be cool to see you do a landscape though. For Modern Eden's group show “A•Chroma” a few months ago, you contributed a few pencil drawings that were each so different from another and also quite different from your paintings. Of course, your life drawing technique is quite skilled. Can you tell us a bit about these pieces?
EV: Yeah, I love figure drawing and wish I could do it more often. For me, drawing and painting from life is the ultimate. I always tell people that drawing nudes from life is like training at the gym. It’s the best way to learn how to draw especially if you are interested in organic form. The poses range anywhere from 1 minute to 40 minutes, which to me is still really quick! I’ve learned how to make statements in that amount of time, but ideally I would like to get back to drawing longer poses and eventually painting from life. The figure drawings that were in the “A•Chroma” show are 5 minute to 20 or 30 minute poses. The one in color is from a “blind-contour” session where you draw without looking at your page haha. I always love the way those turn out. The final piece was one I did when I was a student actually, of my good friend and amazing painter, Kieran Collins. I was really into dynamic symmetry at the time, and limiting my lines to certain directions. Those were very tedious but fun experiments.
JV: Do you have a favorite piece in the current display?
EV: haha oh man, um I think my favorite piece might be She’s Gone because it’s the most emotional portrait I think I have done in terms of expression haha. Is that cheesy? I really liked the way it looked framed, almost as if the shoulder was resting on the bottom of the frame. Each painting though, I really enjoyed making. I can’t wait to make more pieces and continue to explore this look. The level of focus shifted a bit from the last series because now I’m painting a lot more from imagination rather than a photo reference. It makes me step back and really think about the design and movement more.
JV: I don't think that anything relating to emotional expression is cheesy, especially in the art world! I have found that many artists are unable to pinpoint their favorite work so it is great to learn why one is more compelling for you.
We are also excited to be offering limited edition prints of at least two of your paintings for this show! It is always fun to see how beautifully original art can propagate in the form of a print. Do you ever have this in mind when working?
EV: Thanks! Yeah I’m really excited about the prints. I never thought I would have prints of my work made. We never plan the prints until the pieces are done, so I’m not thinking about a reproduction of the work while I'm working on them. Once we have all the pieces photographed, the owners of Modern Eden (Bradley and Kim) and I look over them and we decide which ones to run test prints of and then decide from there. I think they do a way better job picking out which ones to print than I do haha. Bradley does an extremely beautiful job making sure the prints match the original.
JV: I agree! Bradley and Kim both have a great eye for presentation and they pay an important amount of attention to detail in print reproduction. What, if any, do you find to be your biggest struggles or challenges when approaching your work and what advice can you give for overcoming them?
EV: Hmm, well, I mess up all the time!! I have to constantly remind myself to be patient and take my time. I have a full time job with weird hours so there are days when I start a piece and I rush it because I know I won’t be able to paint for 2 or 3 days which absolutely frustrates me, because there are areas I need to finish while the paint is still wet. So if I don’t finish an area that needs that I would have to repaint it during the next sitting. There are other little things that throw me off sometimes like lighting in my work space not being consistent, but for the most part is just having a deadline for the amount of time I have to paint. The dream would be to have at least 4 days a week in a row to work without interruption etc.
Thanks to Emilio for the insightful glimpse into his process! You can come and take a look at his current work in person at the gallery anytime between October 14-29.
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