Big Deal alert for me. Alison Van Pelt is a contemporary artist of exceptional everything. Her skill, her eye, her signature magic blur, her paintings feel 3-dimensional and alive. She’s a treasured American painter who was always drawing as a child but never thought it could be a profession. Her story is such a good one. She shares how, first, Francis Bacon’s works then a quote by him, led her to her lightbulb moment. The moment was when she found her process, which she describes so generously with me. I could gaze at her work, especially the horses, all day. She’s featured in many museums and serious private collections. I’m still counting my lucky stars she came and spoke with me…and then was the sweetest person ever, to top it off Unicorn status.
Listen to the podcast here:
Alison Van Pelt: The Magic Blur
Alison Van Pelt came and spoke with me. She is an incredible painter. She’s somebody that I admire so much and I pore over her work and dream about getting one. She came and spoke to me about how she got started, what her process is and she’s such a lovely and insanely talented human being. I hope you enjoy my talk with Alison Van Pelt.
I’m excited. I can’t believe that you’re here. I’m in awe of you and I feel like a major superstar is in the room with me.
Thank you. You are so sweet.
Alison Van Pelt is an amazing painter. Are you from Los Angeles?
I am, born and bred.
You’re very quintessential LA cool. I met Alison in a Bar Method class. Alison took my class when she was first starting out and I feel like you could teach a class every day. You are obsessed and you look phenomenal. You have the best form. You’re my inspiration because I don’t even go as much as you do and I teach.
No one goes as much as I do.
You’re painting. I am a terrible artist and I say this because my older son wants to be a painter. He’s like, “Can you help me draw?” I can never do any of it. More and more, I wish I could do even basic things.
You can learn.
I do want to take classes and learn to do the basics.
You can. There’s a misconception that you’re either talented or you’re not. I had an art teacher who showed us master drawings on the first day and he had included his own with Pontormo and da Vinci. He showed us his drawings when he entered art school and they were stick figures. He did that to show us that if you want to learn, you can. I love him so much because I’ve never had a teacher like that. They always had such an ego.
I’ve read about Pablo Picasso’s paintings when he was five.
His father never painted again because he was intimidated.
If that’s the bar, I’m going to stop. Did you always know that that’s what you wanted to do?
I always thought I would do it, but I didn’t know it would be a profession. I went to college right out of high school. I went to UCLA and I was unhappy, so I dropped out. I moved to Hawaii and fell in love. My boyfriend’s father was an artist. We would go to a studio and fool around and painting. I decided to come back and go to art school because that was my first example of somebody living that life. I never knew anyone.
When you were at UCLA, are you going to get a BA?
My family is very academic. I thought I would be a doctor or lawyer and I would paint as a hobby.
You are in Hawaii, your boyfriend’s father and studio life. That must’ve been exhilarating to see that somebody can live that life.
He would travel the world with his shows, then come back and he had a beautiful studio, overlooking the ocean and it was the dream. I realized that I was reflecting on this. I looked out of the window of my studio and there was the ocean. I realized that I had done it.
He was an expander for you. He is somebody who sets the scene.
It was always something in books.
When you were younger, before you met him, you loved art. Did you paint as a hobby?
My parents used to say, “Don’t you want to go outside and play?” I want to sit there, draw and paint all day.
Did you take lessons?
Not really, just in school. When I came back to LA, I enrolled at the Art Center, but before that started, I went to the Brentwood Art Center.
That’s where my son takes a class.
I love the Brentwood Art Center.
I’m not an artist, but the vibe in that place feels like the real deal. When you go in there, everything smells like paint. Everything has paint on it, the concrete, the oils and pastels.
I love it there. I did my first oil painting and they put it in their annual show. They asked me if I wanted to sell it. It was funny because they said, “How much would you like to price it?” I said, “$500.” They said, “It’s either $40 or $50, that range.” I said, “I’d rather keep it, but if someone will pay $500, then I’ll let it go.” They were a little miffed and they called me after the weekend and said, “Norton Simon came in with his grandson and they bought the painting.”
There are many layers of the story that I love because you knew the value of your work, your very first oil painting. From there, you went to the Art Center.
[bctt tweet=”Things happen. Just be in there and know that good things are on the other side of that.” username=””]
I went to the Art Center and I went to Otis. It was Otis-Parsons back then.
Did you do a full program?
No, I went to UCLA, then I dropped out. I went to the Art Center. I went to Otis. I would go and I would learn. I would get techniques and then I wanted to be alone to work on it. I was a little fragile. It was hard for me to take a critique.
I don’t like critique at all.
I can take it now and it has a huge value in it. It’s good to be strong. It’s everything, but at that stage of my life, I couldn’t.
We always say we had a process that worked because look at you. Is oil the medium for you from then on?
Yes. I knew at that point that I wanted to paint, but I didn’t have a style. I didn’t know what I wanted to paint or how I wanted to paint. I went on an exploration and I ended up in Paris in the Beaubourg at the Pompidou Centre. I walked into a tiny room with three Francis Bacon’s. It was the first time I was struck with envy or jealousy like, “I wish I painted that.” I love the way he swept the paint and the faces looked like they were expanding, stretching and creamy. It was amazing. I got a book on Bacon and went home. That was the day before I left. I also got a postcard of Champs-Élysées at night with light streaking.
I read the Bacon book on the plane and he said, “I move the paint around until it takes on a life of its own.” That’s exactly what I needed to hear. That was the light bulb moment. I went home, did these little paintings and I started streaking the paint waiting for it to take on the light of its own. They didn’t look anything like Francis Bacon’s and I was crushed. I put them aside and whenever anyone would come over, I show them my work and people wanted to see those. I’m like, “Don’t look at that. Those didn’t work.” “No.” Because I had an expectation and I couldn’t see them for what they were, which is a great life lesson.
That’s the life lesson for everything that’s in retrospect, when you see things clearly.
When you can get past your own expectations, you can see things for what they are and you can see their value. I decided to take a second look at them. They were small. They were 5×7 inches. It starts slowly getting bigger and bigger.
Is that intimidating to move to a bigger canvas?
I didn’t think I could at first because you have to do the whole painting and then blur it while it’s still wet. I didn’t think I had time to do it bigger. I learned to paint pretty fast and the nine-foot paintings, I paint the whole thing in 24 hours and then blur for the next maybe twelve hours.
You paint for 24 hours and you’re up the whole time. Do you feel that you go into the zone or into an altered state? I love to hear the process, especially with artists because you must go into an altered state.
This happens every time. I finally realized that at 2:00 or 3:00 in the morning, I get angry and I want to go to bed and I’m done with it. For about an hour, I’m pissed. I keep painting. I push through it and after an hour, something happens and it is as if I’d been going up a hill. I go over the hump and then I’m gliding because then I’m in the zone and you couldn’t stop me. I couldn’t stop myself. I almost feel like a machine. I could go forever and then it’s hard to wind down. I can go for a whole day and I don’t feel it. It’s about a day and a half later that it hit me. When I finally can wind down and go to sleep, then when I wake up from that, it’s when I’m wrecked. It takes a day and then I’m fine.
I like that life lesson to get to the gliding place is hard.
I have to go through that door, that one hour. It was many years ago that I realized that that happens every time. I know it’s coming and I’ll get past it.
That’s good so you can recognize it. Be in there and know that good things are on the other side of that. From the three paintings that you did and then you were sad that they didn’t look like Francis Bacons’. Everybody wanted to see those, then you re-approached and you went to bigger canvases. When did you feel that you really hit your stride and finding your voice?
I felt it right then. When I went back into it and realized that there was something valuable there, then it was magical to me. I do the painting and I do as detailed painting as I possibly could within the time constraint. I’m almost photorealistic if I can. I blur it and destroy it. It is rough to do that, but whatever comes through, whatever bit of detail remains after that process is magic to me.
When you are doing the painstaking drawing part, you do that all from your head?
I’m referencing images. I look at photographs. I draw and paint it all by hand.
That part is technical and detail-oriented. I love your horse pictures. Those giant white horses get me, but also with the nudes. There’s something in the blurring that you do. It gives them a real-life, a movement that they come alive in that blurring.
I think a few things happened. With the horses, you’re getting motion with the blurring. There are two things that happen with the blurring. You get motion or you get depth and sometimes both. When you blur across and you get that motion and then when you have a still image and you blur, it goes in and it creates depth. Those are both very primal images that you’ve chosen.
You’re right, movement and depth. There’s something about that horse for me that it looks like you’ve caught some wild majestic horse in the middle of running through a field or a night.
I like to think that when I’m wiping away all the surface distractions and all that information, the essence comes through.
It does. Do you live in your studio or is it separate?
I do. I’ve tried living separately and it doesn’t work because of the nature of my process. It’s too hard to be away from it. I have to be comfortable in those 24 to 48 hours. I don’t like having to go to space when I want to work.
You’re right there all the time. That’s cool. The studio that you have, do you love it?
I love it, but it’s not as big as I’m used to.
Is the light wonderful?
It’s beautiful. I’m across from the beach. I can see the ocean and it’s gorgeous. I moved into that space after being in New York. I wanted to be near the beach. In New York, I had almost 3,000 square feet.
When was New York? After you took the trip to Paris, then you came to Los Angeles.
I came back to LA and I lived a bunch of different places. I would leave LA and come back, but I always end up back here in LA where everything seems so much easier.
I agree with that because I’ve lived in a lot of places too and LA is easier.
It’s convenient and comfortable and my family’s here.
Were you in New York for years?
I was in New York for 5 or 6 years. I moved there a year before 9/11.
I saw your Instagram post. Is that where you met and befriended Louise Bourgeois? How did you meet? She’s an amazing artist and painter.
She was incredible. I urge your readers to look into her.
I read about her because I didn’t know very much about her before your posts. I had heard her name and I know her history. She came from a family that was very artistic too.
She worked into her 90s.
I love those stories.
There was a Helmut Lang ad that ran in magazines for years of an old woman holding a big bronze sculpture of a cock and balls.
Is that her?
That’s her. That’s one of her sculptures.
I wish I was friends with her.
It is hilarious. Somebody took me to her studio and she had a salon as I wrote about.
That is very special.
It was smart of her because here she was in her 80s and 90s, keeping in touch with all these young artists, students and working artists. Every Sunday, she would hold a salon and anyone could come. You had to sign up for it. You had to reserve a spot and there would be maybe 5 to 10 people. You had to bring something for her to critique. It could be a poem, story, drawing, painting, film or song, anything. She was recording music at that point. She was rapping in French. I brought her a photo of the painting I did because it was a nine-foot painting.
At this point, you’re working with your canvas?
I brought the picture of my portrait of her for her to critique. She yelled at me.
What did she say?
She said, “This is very good.” It was terrifying and relieving at the same time.
When people like that give a compliment, you know it’s real. You believe them and that makes you feel like, “Wow.”
That was gold. That was amazing. Then she said, “Bring it here.” I said, “I can’t, it was already gone.”
You got her seal of approval.
That was incredible. I did a portrait of Agnes Martin. I did a study for them when I had a smaller painting and I drove out to the house to give it to her and I got to spend the day with her.
That’s unbelievable. Does she love it?
She gave me a great compliment. She said, “This looks more like me than anything I’ve ever seen, any photograph or anything.”
That’s the highest compliment from the portraits that you can ever receive.
I was like, “I’m done.”
[bctt tweet=”Once you find your voice, your style, or your groove, things start to happen.” username=””]
Once you started working on the bigger canvases, did you start to have shows right away?
I was already showing at that point.
Once you have found your voice, style and groove, did things started to happen quickly?
It’s gone up and down. I’ve made a lot of bad choices. I made a lot of ignorant and stupid mistakes. I didn’t know. If I had to do it over, I would do things a lot differently. I do appreciate things so much more than I did.
Were you showing in galleries already?
I started showing in galleries the first year I was painting. I made some choices that were out of loyalty to people. I was offered some great opportunities. I thought I had to be loyal to someone.
You have to be the CEO of your own business. I have a friend who’s an actor and she’s doing well, but also feels like she made some bad choices in the beginning. She says, “You know at first that you have to be the CEO, the financial, the CFO, the everything of your own business and you’re also trying to do your work.”
It seemed like things were coming easily. I took a lot of things for granted. I’m very grateful to be healthy and strong and still have a lot of opportunities ahead of me.
I read on Wikipedia that you trained in Florence. When was Italy?
I went back to school. Through a friend, I rented a house in the Fiesole outside of Florence. I thought I would go and spend a year painting in the countryside. I went and there was a miscommunication. They had rented the house to someone else. I called a friend and she said, “Go to the Florence Academy of Art. My friends run it. They’ll take you to lunch and they’ll help you figure out another house. They’ll help you.” I went to the Florence Academy of Art. I walked in and I said, “This is where I want to be.” I went back to school for a year.
How was that?
It was incredibly hard. I remember sitting there doing the painstaking techniques of the masters with tears streaming down my eyes. We are painting for ten hours and trying to get it perfect. It was the best.
It’s great that you went back to school after ten years of already painting in the art world.
I would recommend it to any artists.
Besides Francis Bacon, are there artists that are your inspiration?
I’m looking at Marilyn Minter. Some of her work is photography and some of these are paintings. You can’t tell what’s what. She’s incredible. I have that same feeling, that jealousy of, “Why is that not my work?” I love her.
In your process, let’s say you’ve finished your work, do you take a break between starting your next one?
When the process is that intense, it’s very easy to procrastinate. When you know that as soon as you start, you’re locked in for two days with no break.
Do you know when you’re ready to start the new one or do you just go in and set up and see if something comes?
I have this idea that I want to be 100% and have 100% of my energy. I have to do it.
Do you paint every day?
I could never with the way that I work. I do something every day. I draw or I’m going through my images, getting ideas. There’s always something but I can’t paint all the time unless I’m painting small, then I can paint every day, which is fun.
Do you like that?
I’ve been doing that lately and it’s felt like a vacation. That is so much fun.
Is there a moment where you know what you want to paint next?
That’s one of my biggest problems. There are so many things I want to paint. Picking the next thing sometimes is an agonizing choice. I try not to take it too seriously. I don’t make too big a deal about it. I just pick something and it’s a visceral feeling that something pops out at me. I had these images on my wall for a while and it was weird. It was one would pop out and I would know that was the next thing. Then the next thing, it was almost like it popped out of the wall.
You have a vision wall. I need to up my game.
I have the back of every door as a vision board in my studio.
Do you listen to music while you paint?
I do, but not always. I like to hear stories.
Is it like audiobooks or podcasts?
I should do that more. I like to have movies. I’d like to have dialogue. I think it occupies a certain part of my brain and it’s relaxing. Sometimes music makes me too emotional. It’s super connected with all feelings.
I like the story of Louise Bourgeois and her salon because that’s how people stay young, vibrant, connected and relevant. I feel like maybe in the coming years, in 20, 30 or 40 years, you can have your own salon.
I used to have once a week painting at my house, drawing, painting and figure drawing. I’d have a model sometimes too. People would bring food and wine and had drawing horses built. I had a bunch of easels and people would come and do what they wanted to do. I need a bigger studio. My new studio is not huge. It’s big enough for me to do these eight and nine-foot paintings, but it’s not big enough for that.
I know that you have nieces and nephews that you love. One of your nieces is an artist. Do you paint it together?
Yes, we draw more. I’ve been learning so much from her. She’s five years old and she’s incredibly prolific. She does drawing after drawing and she draws everything. She’ll draw from memory. She’ll draw from life. I didn’t teach her this. She’ll set something up. She’ll put a doll or a stuffed animal on the table and she’ll draw it. That is all her. Nobody’s even suggested it to her. She does it.
She’s lucky to have an auntie.
She’s got innate artistry. I’m learning from her. She does not judge for work. She did for one week when she started kindergarten. We sat down to draw and she said, “I messed that up. I made a mistake.” She got upset and I thought, “It’s over her lack of judgment and her freedom.” I admired that she had so much joy in drawing and she wasn’t judging it. That only lasted a week and she’s back at it. It’s pure joy.
Do you try not to judge your own work? I’m wondering.
That’s hard to do, but I try to stay light about it.
Another good life lesson.
If a painting doesn’t work, sometimes they don’t work. Over many years, I’ve learned all kinds of ways to bring a painting back.
You can resuscitate it. I feel that it would be even more fulfilling.
That’s exciting because I gave up on a lot of paintings over the years, not knowing how to bring it back. Now, I don’t give up so easily.
Do you do paintings with a commission or do you do shows still or is it always different?
I’ve been selling out of the studio a lot and doing a lot of commissions. It’s very hard to say no to a sale, but I need to put the brakes on and start showing more again. I’m in a lot of museum shows every year, group shows and from collections that I’m already in. I need to show more like I used to.
What would you say to a young artist to try to not judge their own work, find the joy in it?
Find the joy and do it. Keep doing it.
Do you feel that you get your inspiration from all over? All the different places?
I get a lot of inspiration from imagery and photography. The way the light hits something. I’m obsessed with the illusion that light and dark create. It is endlessly fascinating. You can feel that something is there and it’s light and dark.
Do you go to different galleries? Do you still go to museums?
I do, but not as much as I should. I would recommend that.
Do you still go to the Art Center? Maybe you should take or teach a class. That place is amazing.
Art Center is hardcore. It’s great for production design. I had a hard time being graded on my paintings. It’s an A-minus. The Brentwood Art Center is the opposite. You just go there and paint. It’s like, for the time you’re there, that’s your art studio and they help you do what you want to do.
It seems like the most nurturing and thrive-y juicy place too. They have all sorts of stuff going on for people of all different ages. Do you buy any works of art for yourself, for your home?
I do trades.
I like that even more.
It feels very old fashioned.
The barter system is a wonderful way to be. Living by the beach, does that give you peace?
I can breathe. I love to see the ocean. I think my blood pressure drops.
Your work to me is inspiring. Those horses, I could look at them all day long. They’re beautiful. Thank you so much for spending time with me.
I can talk to you all day.
If you start your salon again, I’ll be there trying to draw something.
The Hotel Figueroa, they have a painting of mine and they asked me if I wanted to do that. They heard about what I used to do and they asked if I want to do it down there. I might be doing that.
I am excited. Can you be a bad artist and go to your salon?
Yes. They have this great, beautiful ballroom and I could do it in there, they said.
This sounds like the most fun thing. I can’t wait. I’m going to come with friends. Alison Van Pelt, you’re so wonderful. If you don’t know her work, you should look her up. She’s special and amazing. Thank you, I can’t wait to see you in class and maybe I’ll take a class with you. Thank you so much.
- Alison Van Pelt – Instagram