Nikki MaloofIndian Orchard, Springfield MA
It’s total magic really. You get seduced by these paints and these materials and you form this kind of bond to it. I’m not a super spiritual person and I don’t believe in a lot but there’s something about paint that I believe in. It’s really hard to put into words but with it I can learn and do things that were unknown to me until I started. You sort of lose yourself in it. You start an idea through seeing some beautiful color. You don’t really know what you’re going to do with it and you don’t know why you’re drawn to it but you’ll see it in your mind’s eye. You go to the art store and look at it and kind of feel its weight and take it home. You set it over there and put some on your palette and kind of do this dance and hope it works its way in. There’s something ever so slightly spiritual about that.
It took me a long time to get to that point though. There was a time after gradschool when I became crippled because I just didn’t know what my work was about or if this or that idea was important enough to even paint. It was something that a lot of people go through when they’ve left school. After having all of these opinions flying around my head and then at some point I just had to silence my thoughts and paint and not really think about it so critically all of the time. Once I allowed myself to have fun, to find the joy in it again, more interesting things happened than had ever happened before.
Now when I’m stuck I always start back at that point again. I think of some color, brushstroke or material thing that just sounds really enticing and fun. Sometimes that has to do with the subject but more often than not it’s about a paint thing that’s kind of physical and unknown to me until I start doing it.
I’ve been painting these animals for the past couple of years. I think that what I like about painting the animals is that it’s a very tactile thing. I realize as I’ve been painting them that the forms that they take, the different shapes of their bodies, the different textures, have drawn me in to the subject. I like that they’re kind of a proxy for human experience without having to paint the figure.
I got really tired of the burden of the history of painting the human form, the politicized aspects of it, especially being a woman, and I think painting female bodies all the time started to irk me. The animals are sort of neutral. Like a bat; I don’t know if I’ve ever seen that many paintings of a bat. It’s all about their face and their eyes and the tension that you can create. I like things that have multidimensional reads. Painting animals can feel lighthearted and yet there are qualities in their expression or types of symbolism that lead you in directions that are multifaceted.
These qualities represent the many ways it feels to be alive which is just a constant balancing of happy and sad, anxious and joyful. Right now I’m also really interested in the vanitas subject, reviving those conventions in a contemporary form that’s also sort of funny.
Animals are everywhere in our culture. It’s a challenge to take something that we see all the time and try to put feeling into it. That was one of the things that I shied away from at first. It seemed too sweet and not serious. But I wanted to try to give them the intensity that a figure painting can have and so that became a challenge and is something I think about a lot. I think it’s good to have something to fight against a little bit.
I use mostly canvas but I like making the small paintings on linen. Because you experience small paintings up close you can really get into the weave of the linen. There’s something about linen when it’s on the small scale that’s just really delightful. In the larger canvases I like the weave being less noticeable.
I was trained in undergrad by a very traditional school in Indiana that taught Old Masters techniques including how to prepare canvases. So for the longest time I just used rabbit skin glue and oil ground because that’s what I knew. Then when I started working in the city for artists I learned how to use acrylic gesso. Rabbit skin obviously holds up over centuries but at this day and age we have these modern materials that are just much more archival and it seems stupid not to use them. So I decided to use several coats of gesso and then I do oil ground on top because I like the slipperiness of oil ground. Gesso seems too absorbent; the reflected-ness of oil ground is really nice.
There’s something really romantic about the simplicity of oil paint. It’s relatively unchanged and that ability to connect with the past is also something that I find really mesmerizing. I like Williamsburg paints the most. The texture of it is just right for the way that I paint. It’s not too stiff. It’s almost like the texture of toothpaste. When I use other colors like old Holland, which are very beautiful and full of pigment, the texture is just wrong for me.
I’ve been in love with Williamsburg paint ever since I started working with it in undergrad. I had a teacher who loved paint and loved introducing new colors to us. He encouraged us to use really nice paint, which I find funny in retrospect because I definitely should not have been using nice paint at that time. It was all bad. And yet the good thing about him encouraging us to use quality supplies is that I did fall in love with the material. I wanted to find a reason to use them. They were like magic jewels. He encouraged us to take our materials seriously, probably in an effort to get us to take ourselves seriously and for me that really worked.
This is my favorite color right now: cadmium purple. It’s kind of a weird pigment to mix with but on its own it really is just so saturated with color. I gravitate towards a lot of the opaque colors. Red is a new color for me. I go through periods when I work with a couple of dominant colors. I definitely had a time when I was just painting with blue and for a few years it was yellows and greens and this year I feel like it’s black and reds. I was always afraid of red; I don’t know why but that becomes a challenge in itself. I have to find some reason to use it.
And there are some colors that I just always use like Cinnabar Green, a really weird transparent green. And Egyptian violet is amazing. I almost never use it as purple. I use it as an almost metallic black. When I was an undergrad you were never allowed to use black and so I still sometimes feel like I’m cheating if I use black.
I basically just use linseed oil. Sometimes I’ll add a tiny bit of poppy oil to slow the drying time. If I want something to be slightly more matte I’ll mix cold wax medium into my paint.
For example, this background has cold wax in it because I wanted it to be kind of velvety. I usually know what I’m going to use it for ahead of time. That’s the kind of decision that I’ve thought about through making the small painting.
At this point I mostly use natural hairs, basically sable and badger. The badger is great because it has a brushy mark as opposed to a bristle brush which is a stiff mark. It has the softness of the sable brush but with this unique ‘brushiness’. There’s something about that particular type of mark. It’s got to be like the way a musician feels about a certain type of sound, something that feels really akin to who they are as an artist. This type of brushmark feels really important to the surface of my work. The fibers of the brush leave kind of a scratchy surface. If you try to do that with a hogshair brush it’s too stiff and won’t feather.
If I want to do something more detailed I’ll use a sable brush because I don’t want to see the marks. I don’t wash my brushes every time because that degrades them slightly. If I’m in between painting I’ll leave them in safflower oil so they don’t dry out.
I also end up using a lot of really funny brushes that shouldn’t be used at all like a type of sumi brush to do different fades. Sometimes you need to just go to the store and buy something you’ve never seen before. You don’t know what you’re going to do with it. It could be a paper I’ve never used before or some special pencils but I have so much belief that if you clock some hours with this stuff, something will have to happen. Sometimes it doesn’t but then it leads to something else. None of it is in vain, even if it’s a failure you learn something.
I often don’t know what the painting is until I’ve gone through the process of making it. When you’re starting out you think “I’ll think of this idea and I’ll make a painting of it and the fully formed idea will come out because I’ve already thought of it”. At some point when I really started to paint by myself, and it mostly happened when I moved to New York and separated myself from any feedback, I realized this fundamental and simple thing that I probably should have realized and trusted long ago: making something without knowing what it is, is enough. When you’re making something and you’re in that zone, just dealing with these materials, you can lose track of time. That is when you can really learn things, subconscious things, that you didn’t even know were possible until you kind of lost time and lost the world and focused on this weird thing that we do which is taking pigments that are suspended in oil and just mushing them around. It seems like such an absurd and simple thing when you think about it: that it can just be this act of making. It took me being alone in the world to give myself permission to trust my hands and to know that the process is as important as thinking up some really important idea.
The big paintings are pretty planned out for the most part. I just want to be in the moment making it and to know what I’m doing. One of the things that I’ve started to do with the larger paintings is to mask off areas with this big sticky paper. I used to start by making a full scale drawing on big paper just to get the shapes right because when you blow things up they can really look different. But afterwards I would end up redrawing and taping off areas. Then I got this big paper that’s actually used for printing, it’s like a sticky vinyl and it has kind of a nice surface. I draw a full-scale version of the image and cut out big areas which I can then move around. They’re big stickers basically. There’s something very one-to-one about it.
I work from the back to the front. The thing that’s most on the surface will be the last thing I paint. This system allows the edges to feel like they’re wet into wet. One of the things I like about making the big ones is that I can just kind of crank up the music, spend time mixing paint and I get to just enjoy making it.
I don’t rework at the large scale but I will rework small paintings and that’s really fun because for the longest time I wouldn’t rework anything. When you’re starting off and you’re a little younger you have this impatience to get to the good stuff. If it doesn’t work, you just scrap it and start again (at least that’s how I was). It was always a race to get a good painting done but now that I’m not as insecure as I was back then I can revisit something that I started months ago and repaint it or paint on top of it. Before I would never do that. With the small ones I enjoy having this little space in front of a rectangle and being lost in it. It’s two different versions of the same thing.
For the most part I don’t varnish. Because of the brushwork and the oiliness of the paint, it doesn’t seem necessary. The irregularity of the surface is part of the work itself. I’ll varnish if there is a section that’s dried funny using GamVar, which is pretty foolproof stuff.
These are collages that are made from cut paper that I paint and glue and draw on. Sometimes I need to take a break from brushes and make something that is not messy and that’s slightly methodical. There’s something kind of childlike about building with glue and paper, it’s just a different mode and it’s fun to slow down.
It’s kind of like doing Photoshop which is so silly to think. The materials like gouache and colored pencils are just so beautiful. I’ve always been someone who was fully captivated by the materials in an artist’s life. One of the reasons I wanted to be an artist was to be around that stuff all the time. It feels like a huge privilege to get to do that, to have a studio, your own little space in the world.
Artist Website: www.nikkimaloof.com