I have been looking forward to seeing the new work of Emily Proud for her upcoming show Bathtub at Rare Device since I first heard she would have her solo show with us. In following Emily's progress I visited her home studio in the Mission District back in April to get a glimpse of her work in progress and talk about the new work.
Bathtub runs from June 2 to July 6 at Rare Device Divisadero (600 Divisadero Street). Please join us for the opening on Friday, June 5 from 6-9pm.
Derek Macario: When did you decide to fully commit to watercolor as your medium? What is it about watercolor that attracts you?
Emily Proud: I have been geeking out on watercolor since 2012 when I started painting full-time. In college I painted in acrylic and it was completely different. After art school I worked at the de Young for a few years (which was awesome). When I started painting again, I decided that I wanted to be a master of something and watercolor already felt natural, so that was a good place to start.
I admire watercolor for its immediacy. Once you make a mark you cannot erase or paint over it like you can with other media. Also, no matter how much I study watercolor, there will always be ways the paint behaves that I cannot control and those surprises keep it interesting. I use mostly tubes and a huge variety of brands because I am learning that each color varies so much from brand to brand. It’s crazy. I make a lot of charts to study the properties of each pigment and to mix my own unique colors. I would like to get into making my own paint too, but I haven’t yet.
I am open to my work evolving and working in other media someday if it calls for it, but I think giving myself some rules has really helped me stay focused.
DM: The first time I saw your work was part of the Rare Device group show, California Printed, back in January 2014 of the Poppies. Since then your work has become more abstract, when did that shift in your work happen?
EP: I would say the shift happened when I stopped doing illustration work. When I stopped illustrating for clients and concentrated on my painting practice my work became more about the medium and less about literal representation of something.
DM: Can you tell us about the work in your upcoming show, Bathtub? How did you initially begin this series and where did the idea come from?
EP: An image that I wanted to paint was the bathtub and things floating listlessly in its dreamy froth. I wanted to make a new iteration of the moon paintings by adding more shapes, but I still wanted it to reference something in the real world; so I thought about ways those shapes could behave in a space. You know those foam bathtub toys for children? I had this image in my mind of how they all float out to the edges of the water in clusters and replicated that in the composition…if that makes sense. Each painting in the show has a similar story given away by their titles and I would say they all reflect playful, feel-good experiences.
DM: In this work it seems you're really doing something new, but you said before that your painting process and techniques are still the same. Can you talk about the techniques you use?
EP: I consider carefully negative space, composition, and spend a lot of time studying the properties of watercolor itself. Overall, I would say my work is very effect driven, like, I want you to notice how one color behaves layered over another or how watercolor pigments react with varying degrees of water, etc. The gradient work sometimes people don’t realize is not one stripe of color painted next to another, but actually multiple layers of more or less the same color built up layer upon layer. That kind of transparency is very special to watercolor. I mostly do not use masking techniques (i.e. tape) in my work, except for the moons. If you look closely the lines are nowhere near perfect, I actually really like the slight waver. I also do not stretch my paper because my process involves a lot of turning and lifting of the paper itself. It’s very active. I also spend a lot of my life literally watching paint dry.
In terms of doing something new, yes, the paintings in this show are mostly iterations of previous work. I have only been painting full-time for three years. In the scheme of things that is not very long. I still feel that I have a lot of learnin’ to do and so I’m trying to stick to the few themes I’ve worked with so far and explore them as much as possible in order to perfect that craft before I move onto something else. That is really hard for me because I have a lot of ideas. It’s just a rule that I’ve created for myself so that I stay focused. Once I feel that I have exhausted them, I hope that new themes will come naturally.
DM: We've talked before that you are not so much making abstract work, but simplifying information, still referencing real images and objects from life. How do you decide what object you paint?
EP: This is probably a huge can of worms, but I believe I am making abstracted images. I would say they are not purely abstract because each one is a shorthand for something from real life i.e. a moon, but sometimes they are based on a memory or a feeling i.e. what grass feels like. I am not an expert on the philosophical discussions surrounding the definition of abstraction. This sounds pretty crunchy but I suppose I am trying to capture the atmosphere or the aura of something.
In talking about this it seems I have a lot of rules for myself about how I paint things, but in terms of what I paint it can be anything. I will be walking along and see something interesting and it immediately hits me – that is something I want to paint! Over time I’ve realized there are definitely patterns. My paintings are often influenced by landscape, scenes from domestic life, California culture, feel-good or nostalgic memories… Recently a friend told me that my paintings capture the “San Francisco light.” I was born and raised in San Francisco so it makes sense!
DM: Your moon paintings have been well received since you began doing them, but recently you said they are not always moons. How do you reflect on how people view your work and their own perceptions of what your work is about? It's always interesting to hear what people see in your work and how it's different for different people.
EP: Yeah I totally agree! The first moon painting that I made was of a moonrise that I saw while driving from San Francisco to Sonoma one evening. It was the most incredible sky of teal, pink and grey unlike one I had ever seen before and immediately made a loose version in my sketchbook from memory the next day. That spurred a whole series of them, but now the color schemes are largely imagined and the white circle has become more like the perfect device for painting. I don’t even care if it’s a moon anymore. I’ve more grown to love the simple composition, the play on negative space, and the contrast of the sharp white to the loose backdrop. The simple act of adding one circle delivers all the information you need and that’s really cool to me. Also, I’ve always had a slight aversion to the moon motif because shit with moons on it seems to be so trendy right now, but it came from a genuine place so, oh well!
DM: In your studio you have small sketches that are experiments before you make larger works. Can you tell us about some of your experiments with materials, like making surfaces paintable for watercolor and the semi-transparent paper?
EP: The small sketches are made before I commit to something larger – watercolor paper is expensive, man. Although I frequently find that the small ones don’t translate to a larger scale, which is super frustrating. I’ve also been using my small studies to experiment with new materials like tinted papers, Yupo paper, which has the look and feel of vellum, and I was using this primer for watercolor, meaning you could paint with watercolor on canvas or panel. I haven’t made anything with it that I am satisfied with yet. It is very absorbent and I need more practice. There is one piece in the show on Yupo paper, Cave, that I am super happy with. I asked my framer to frame it in a way that shows the tabs on the back (it’s transparent) because I think it’s pretty cool to add a sculptural element.
DM: Anything we should be on the look out from you in near future? You're showing work at FFDG in July?
EP: Yes! I am in a group show called On Silent Haunches with my friend Michelle Fleck, Nicholas Bohac and Jenny Sharaf. It opens July 10 at FFDG.
Thank you so much for having me at the Rare Device gallery. I can’t wait to see you and everyone at the opening for Bathtub on June 5.
Huge thanks to Emily for letting us check out her studio and spending some time with us. Mark your calendars to join Emily Proud for the reception of Bathtub, 6-9pm, June 5 at 600 Divisadero.
All photos by Derek Macario.