Interview: Clare Grill in Sunnyside

Contributed by Rob Kaiser-Schatzlein / In late November, I rode my bike to Clare Grill‘s Sunnyside apartment-studio,
where we talked about her technique, the mental space required to paint,
and her new-found freedom from having to work a second job. A warm and serious painter, Clare makes abstract paintings that are filled edge to edge with variegated color. At first the color appears to be in a narrow spectrum, but closer inspection reveals an infinite range of hues. The variations within each color create the illusion of a veiled surface with a matte, dull lustre. The paint is thinly applied but the effect is more diaphanous than stingy. A distinction between line and shape is difficult to pin down, one often merging into the other.

[Image at top: Clare Grill, Paw, 2015, oil on linen, 53 x 42 inches]

Clare Grill, Powder, 2015, oil on linen, 63 x 50 inches.

Rob Kaiser-Schatzlein: Is this the most recent painting you’re done? [As I press record Clare gets up to touch up a spot on a Powder.]
Clare Grill: These two are going to get picked up in the morning to go to Miami.

RKS: Oh wow, they’re on their way out.
CG: I did a couple little touch-ups on the blue one over the weekend, but it’s ready for a while. And the burgundy one is in the final final stages.

RKS: So you have a really critical eye on that one right now.
CG: I feel like I just found words for it.

RKS: What do you mean by that?
CG: When I’m at this stage I look with eyes like it’s dark out.

RKS: Dilated pupils?
CG: Yes! Looking so hard. I feel like that sounds weird but it�s spot on. I’m staring at the thing and if there is stuff that bugs me, I bury it, and if there is stuff that I want to come forward, I help reveal it.

RKS: How do you do that? It looks like in this burgundy painting [Paw] you did a big wash of paint at one point and then brought some things forward from underneath.
CG: There must have been some stuff under there–I lose track. That horizontal texture is a scratchy brush with dark red paint. I made that painting, and all the others, flat on the table. I put it back and forth between the wall and the table. When I’m making it I like to get really involved with it on a surface level. I sit very close, and I paint with very low light in the daytime, in the morning mainly. That way I see the textures coming up�that guides the painting. So maybe I’ll start with some loose imagery that is based on a drawing or painting of mine or a part of a drawing or painting. But it’s loose and it’s just an entry. Say I do a wash over it, and when that’s not very wet any more and there is a little bit of drag to it I�ll start picking at it, pulling things out.

RKS: That’s the general process for these paintings?
CG: For some of them. They don’t all get a wash. It depends on the painting. This one in particular has an all over wash, but it has a thousand different reds and burgundies. And then if I put it up on the wall I’ll often start to see shapes or maybe there is a giant form that can tie the whole thing together.

RKS: You’ll see something else.
CG: I’ll see something else, and usually that something else is informed by whatever is underneath. I’ll let that new thing develop some nuance and let what’s underneath inform it.

RKS: Are they all linen?
CG: They’re all linen. On titanium stretchers.

 Clare Grill, Mold, 2015, oil on linen, 24 x 20 inches.

RKS: Do you stretch and gesso them all at once?
CG: I actually don’t gesso them, I use rabbit skin glue and oil ground. Two coats of rabbit skin glue, the second one has some titanium powder in it to give it more tooth and weight. And then I do one coat of the oil ground. Although this one is two coats of rabbit skin glue with titanium in it and I might put absorbent ground on it [she is referring to an unpainted canvas in her pile of stretched canvases, when she flicks it is so taught it sounds like flicking a thin aluminum panel]. I was going to start some small works like that.

RKS: So you have a lot of canvases ready to go.
CG: Right now I do. This is the absorbent ground [a paste she applies to the canvas] I was talking about, it’s pretty matte and super soft. Feel this one.

RKS: Wow, very velvety.
CG: You can use watercolor on this. I wanted to try to do some watercolor and gouache, but on fabric. Originally, I wanted to do it on plaster but I think I would need to stretch the linen over a hard surface because it just flakes off. I think this might be the solution. You can use oil on it too, it behaves a little like paper. It just soaks the paint in.

 Clare Grill, Diamond, 2015, oil on linen, 63 x 50 inches

RKS: You order a standard size stretcher?
CG: It’s not standard but in the past I have made a handful of fifty by sixty-three inch. I really like that size and it is kind of the biggest I can handle. I made a larger one that was a fifty-three by seventy inch painting. I managed, but it was really hard because I paint on the table and I couldn�t reach parts of it.

RKS: You reached your limit.
CG: Yeah, but I like working on the large paintings. There is something about the head space that I get in that I try to achieve with the small ones where I’m not thinking so much. I’m looking really really closely and I’m very involved on a visual level with the painting. But I’m not putting an image on it, I’m not controlling it. With the small ones I work very close and hold it in my lap�-in order to see, but also to lose myself. The only reason I attempted the bigger size was because I had a show in a large space. I went for it and the transition wasn’t a strain. I felt like I understood immediately what I was after. It’s funny, because now I’m struggling with the small ones. This scale that is roughly fifty by sixty feels good. It’s fun to paint that size. And I use all different types of linens.

RKS: Just to switch it up?
CG: I feel like it’s to keep myself honest. To make sure that I keep paying attention, to keep responding to what is happening, not knowing what is going to happen. If the surface is doing something a little bit different than the next painting, then that’s an interesting thing, that’s a different process, that’s going to be a different painting with a its own personality. That’s interesting to me.

RKS: You want some of the variables to change but not so many that would cause you to be thinking all the time?
CG: It would depend on when it would happen and why it would happen. I certainly think that I have found new ways to enter and make a painting over the years. But I guess I’m not interested in throwing everything up in the air–I like what I’m doing, I’m invested with these things.

What I do as a painter is to paint a lot. It’s part of what we all do as artists, doing a lot of work over and over again. In a way being an artist is growing your gut muscle and that tells you when you have made art. It�s finding your voice. You have some control over it, but it’s also a result of working. It’s not about deciding to change, it’s about getting really involved with your material�whatever that is– and finding what you can make out of the material.

Also it�s about figuring out what kind of touch you have. There are paintings that will change color, because the color is not my color. I’m not excited or surprised by it. Or it might not feel like I made the painting. I will wipe out a whole painting if that’s the case. Because my gut says it’s wrong.

 Detail of Diamond

RKS: How do you know when you’re done?
CG: It’s an intuitive feeling.

RKS: Does that mean that some take a long time and others not?
CG: Definitely, because there is always something that bugs me about a painting. I have to get involved with a painting to start seeing those things. By looking. Often times I’ll sit in here, in the morning, and just look at these paintings. And really just try to see it, and if it’s not a painting yet, it will bug me. Something about it isn’t right.

RKS: Do all the paintings go through that period of bugging you?
CG: Yes, but I can tell some are going to be a smoother ride. Maybe if the overall color or form is working for me. Most of them go through lots of stages.

RKS: That’s your impetus for work?
CG: Sitting with it, finding the weakness and entering it at that breach.

RKS: Is it a one hundred percent resolution once they’re done? Does the amount that bugs you fall to an acceptable level?
CG: I paint the thing until it’s a painting, quite simply. I’ll keep working on it. If it’s bugging me at all it doesn’t leave. I want to make excellent paintings, and I only want to show people excellent paintings. This one in the studio now that’s not done [not one of the two in the beginning, a smaller one on the wall behind her], for many people that’s a painting. And that may be good for them. Part of what I have learned in this practice is that it doesn’t matter what other people think, it matters if I think it’s a painting. If you let this thing you do be guided by other people’s� response, it won’t sustain you. That goes away, and it doesn’t have much to do with you or this thing you are making. Other people’s response is about something in your head, it’s not about the physical experience of making the painting. Which I can’t even know what that’s going to be like. If you control the painting based on someone else’s experience, outside of your own, that won’t help you know when the painting is done. I have learned how I make a painting, and when I have accomplished that, I feel it. And that is exciting and thrilling. Someone said to me once: a painting is a painting when it has a face and it looks back at you. That’s a mantra for me, looking for when the painting has a presence. I suppose you could always keep working on a painting, or change it. But then it wouldn’t be mine, or it would be a different painting.

The choice to stop or leave certain things is a choice that is all over these paintings. There is this lightness that is showing under the red brushy wash that I left, and some places where I brought it through. That complicated the space and that’s exciting. That’s painting. Or I decided to remove something entirely. Painting is making decisions constantly. For me it is making decisions based on what I see, right at the moment when I am pressing the paint into the linen. As opposed to making decisions based on an intellectual choice like “I make paintings of this thing” or “I make paintings in this way.” Maybe that happens in the end, but I try not be conscious of that while I’m making the piece.

RKS: Are the marks referring to anything?
CG: The marks are put on and also removed, and whatever drawing happens is inspired by other paintings or drawings. I have a series of paintings that are based on embroidery samplers, and a lot of paintings start by looking at these things. I typically sit with a stack of them on my lap, flip through, and find a part that looks like it would be fun to paint. Maybe that part gets completely eliminated in the end, but it has informed the final painting. The color might have affected the final painting too. But it doesn’t matter, I try to be wide open to wherever the painting is going to go. I need something to look at, a starting point or reference. That process of looking at these drawings might happen multiple times in a painting. I want the process to be wide open to anything.

 Clare Grill, Chain, 2015, oil on linen, 40 x 33 inches

RKS: [I’m looking at one of the embroidery sampler paintings in my hands, pointing to a particular mark.] What is this thing? It look like sediment that you painted over?
CG: You know, it’s probably something with glass powder in it. I used different mediums for their different textures. I really like glass powder because it sucks all the oil out. It turns the paint into something like dirt or clay. It depends on the color though, some are more matte than others. Just the way these colors [pointing to the drawing I was holding], this pink and this gray-pink and the texture looks interesting and that could be the start of another painting. Maybe the scratch I made in the drawing will be drawn in when I sort of copy it on the canvas. Tiny little stuff like that really interests me. [She gets up to show me some paint she has mixed glass powder into.] See it’s really luscious.

RKS: Like those Ad Reinhardt paintings where he strained most of the oil out of the paint, very velvety.
CG: Those are gorgeous. Or I’ll put the paint on cardboard to leach the oil out.

RKS: So you are fiddling with the variables.
CG: I have learned that I don’t like the paint to be plastic-y looking. I don’t like a lot of shine, or if there is going to be a lot of shine it’s going to be a deliberate shine. I mean, I hope everything in my paintings looks deliberate. The choice to leave things a certain way, that’s a deliberate thing too, which is something you have to assume in everybody’s work. But yeah, I like the dirt-like consistency. From the beginning, from linen to the rabbit skin glue, I like to use all these natural things for their softness. Gesso has a more plastic-y look because it is acrylic.

RKS: Do you have any particular composition strategies?
CG: The one on the right, there are these scratch-like marks that are scratches that I painted over. That surprised me. I put some kind of color on, I use rags and sandpaper and brushes, just was touching it and messing with it. I like those scratch marks as another layer of information, so I left them and painted some of them in. I tend to make a mark and see what it does, and what it does to the thing next to it. And either paint the thing next to it or leave it. It’s all these millions of tiny little decisions, that, I hope, in the end, make the paintings vibrate, make them sing. Sometimes I’ll do something and think: I have never seen that before. I’m not really thinking about what I’m doing though.

RKS: You’re watching it happen. It’s like jazz, where the process is guided by a very rigid set of rules, and then, after a while, you have so many rules you’re messing with that you couldn’t possibly be processing at the moment, it just flows. And if you’re really good you make up new rules. So in fact you’re not really processing any of them consciously, you’re just painting. You know all the rules intuitively.
CG: It sounds corny but that’s real. I think that’s right.

RKS: You are more likely to appreciate the work too, because you can look at it like someone else could have made it–that’s how little you were thinking about the rules.
CG: That’s what is so exciting about when a painting comes together. You know it is a painting by looking at it, by believing in it.

RKS: How long did these two paintings take?
CG: I guess this size takes me a few weeks to several months. Sometimes there will be a painting in here that will have been here for nine months to a year. It depends on whether I have a deadline or a show. But I would sooner keep working on paintings, instead of taking them off to start over. I don’t like that. Another way I like to start a painting is to take dirty painting rags and rub them into the raw canvas.

RKS: Any other techniques for starting?
CG: Usually the rags or the drawings. I don’t even look at the canvas, I just look at the drawing. Kind of blind draw it. You get a sense of what is working and not working. Then I decide what looks like a fun problem to work with. So I’ll let that portion set and dry for a couple days and work somewhere else. Maybe if it is the right tackiness, it would be interesting to start removing that or something. Every painting has it’s own problems and process.

 Detail of Glass

RKS: What’s your working schedule?
CG: I get up early and I’m in here by seven. I work all day. I just quit my job, so I’m trying to limit myself and quit at three or four. Because taking breaks is important. I have been working a lot lately and it can be overwhelming. When you have time limits, you have plant your flag in the ground and make more decisions.

RKS: And you don’t realize it.
CG: You don’t. I’m glad to be in here so often right now, but limiting myself is interesting, too. I like to take a day off, and go look at art, or not, or clean the apartment. When your studio is connected to your apartment you could always be working. I have to be regimented about my hours. But I’m a morning painter.

RKS: You use the sun light?
CG: Yes. There isn’t very good light because I’m on the first floor and this is a courtyard out the window but there is some sky. I have a pretty normal schedule, Bill [Clare�s husband] comes home and we make dinner every night. Sometimes I work at night. I prefer to be in the studio without anything in my brain. I don’t check email, not until night time. I listen to music, the news, or podcasts. But sometimes the news is too stimulating. If I’m making decisions it’s hard to deal with both at once. I really like to listen to music on repeat. I like it when I’m in here, and the world isn’t.

Related posts:
Keeting and Grill: Timeless energy(2013)
IMAGES: Clare Grill (2011)

July 18: Panel discussion on Casualism (and other forms of abstraction)


Two Coats of Paint is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution – Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License. To use content beyond the scope of this license, permission is required.

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