Interview by Das Bork


Das Bork: I wanted to ask you what's more important to you in the pictures you make: the abstract quality-- the shapes of colors-- or the full subject?

Scott Burdick: I think every single painting is a combination of both of those, but some paintings are more weighted to one or the other. Some paintings are about the textures-- the abstract design-- and the subject matter is more minimal. The last couple of weeks Iíve been taking a break from the studio and just going out and doing landscapes every day. And sometimes those can be more about that, because there is not as much of a literal drawing, not as much emotional content as in a person. Other paintings are much more about the actual expression on the person's face or the subject matter. You're more careful about the clothes they wear because you're trying to preserve a moment or culture. So, to me, they are both important. To me, a painting that is purely just a literal, photorealistic representation of something doesnít really go into the realm of being a work of art; something that is purely just about the design. Some pure abstract paintings donít move me emotionally. I tend to think, "Well, that's beautifully done. I can see beauty in it, just like I can see beauty in clouds or an abstract design on rocks. There's certainly beauty there, but I donít feel that emotional about it." So I think it's a bit of both. For me, that's the challenge: to see it on both levels of the abstract quality and the emotional content of it.

DB: When you get a subject ready to paint, how do you decide on how you're gonna approach it? Do things come to mind when you get to your blank canvas?

SB: What I usually do is, almost always for bigger paintings, I usually take a lot of time and think about it before starting. Iíll sit for a couple hours in the studio looking at various photos, and I'll try to picture it in my mind. I'll picture out what I want to go for. Do I want to do it thick? Do I want to do it thin? Then I usually get a plan going. With some, I think it would be better to go right into painting and not draw it out. With others, I think I should draw it out, because it needs to be really perfectly arranged, especially if there are a lot of figures in it. And sometimes I get that wrong. I did a painting of my wife once, and I got to the end and everything was correct, but it didnít have any good brushwork. It was just too worked over.

DB: I know what you mean. (laughs)

SB: Yeah, exactly. Weíve all had that happen. So I scraped it all down and turned it upside down so that I didnít start painting over the same painting again. So that time it worked out really well; it flowed really quickly. The first time I had drawn it out carefully in charcoal. That was what was keeping it from being good, because the brushwork was getting too careful and painting up to the lines. Then the next one I started with big shapes and then painted into those. There's no formula. I wish I could have it down to a formula, where I could say, "Well, I draw it out and it's this and then that." But it's all over the place.

Both: (laugh)

DB: That's cool, though.

SB: It's really about taking the time to picture it in your head and making a plan for that particular piece. It's almost like viewing a whole mountain and really visualizing the route you're going to take before you start your climb.

DB: So are you saying that having a clear vision in your head is more important than letting the process decide?

SB: Yeah. There are still things that happen in the process of it. But you need to definitely sit there and have a clear idea of what you want to go for, because for every painting you create there are a million ways you could paint it. During the process of it, things will change as you go. But it'
s good to have the idea set because those first strokes are really gonna set the tone. You really have to think about it beforehand. If you're gonna do it in a more limited value, a low or high key, contrasty or not contrasty-- you have to know all that before you start. And that's a big problem I see in workshops. They just start painting without any clear idea in their head, and they are trying to find their way as they go. And sometimes theyíll get it right once out of a hundred times. But most of the time theyíll make the wrong choice.

DB: So, let's talk about subject matter for a bit. With subjects that are considered overdone-- like flowers, for instance-- how do you avoid making something like that too sweet or sentimental?

SB: That's a good question. A lot of artists who are just starting out will email or call me and ask about that kind of thing. Like, "What should I paint?" And that goes against what I want to tell them, which is, "Well, galleries are gonna tell you that, but you should figure that out for yourself." With some artists... like, Morgan Weistling is a friend of ours. Do you know him?

DB: I know his work.

SB: When he was starting to paint, he was quitting illustration, and before he got into galleries he had written us a note. We didnít know him then, and I had called him up. His problem was that the thing he was most excited about painting was little girls-- like you're saying, very "sweet" subjects. And he had a lot of people tell him that he wouldn't be considered a serious artist if he painted subjects like that. And my advice is you just have to be honest with yourself. If that's what you're attracted to most, then you're gonna paint it in a unique way. You're gonna see it differently. It's just like if I were to be doing cowboy paintings I would feel like I would be selling out, because Iím not that attracted to the subject matter. I feel like I wouldnít be saying anything differently than anybody else has said in the past. I donít see anything unique. When I see something that I am really attracted to... like when we go to Tibet or Peru. We go to those places because they have really cool cultures. Everything is drawing us in and we are truly interested in it, so I feel like Iíve got something of myself to put into it and to say about it. So I guess the answer is, while you donít choose subject matters just because they are "sweet" and "sellable", you also donít shy away from it if you feel you have something original to say about it. If you are being honest with yourself, even if you are painting something that everybody has painted before, if you are really attracted to it, then you're probably gonna paint something completely different.

DB: Good point. [Nicolai] Fechinís work is coming to mind. His Indian paintings are so unique.

SB: Oh, yeah! There are some really good Western painters, and there will be many more good Western painters coming now. I donít mean that it's dead and that no people should do it. They should do it if they are honestly drawn to it. Too many artists are doing it because it is such a sellable subject. Anything you paint in it will sell. But the ones that are truly attracted to it, and it's their subject, they are gonna do great things. It doesnít really matter what one's subject matter is. You also canít shy away from things just because they are considered very sellable. If it's your subject, then you just have to do it. It was interesting going to Tibet. Four artists went, and we all rented a Range Rover and went to all these different places. It's funny now to see our show, because even though we were all in the same place and painting the same things, theyíre all completely different. It's amazing how my wife has such a different view. Her people look happier, for instance. My subjects have a different sort of look that I was attracted to. Then Weizhen [Liang], her people look very dark and moody. Even though everyone was painting the same things we were all painting a different side of it, because the way they perceive it is different.


DB: So how was Tibet?

SB: Oh, Tibet. It was very neat. It was a very grueling trip. It was the most grueling weíve ever been on, but it was spectacular and beautiful. We were kind of racing to get there before it is completely changed, because they have a railroad that's being built in from China. It's being built along the whole length of it, all at once. It's just this gigantic construction coming in from China. Once that's done-- in a year and a half or two years-- then the country's gonna... well, it's changed a lot already. But you can still go into remote areas away from the cities and see people living their traditional culture. But one sad thing is that they are moving in all this equipment and theyíll have roads built everywhere. So it's gonna be modernized and changed very quickly. It's the same thing that happened in our West, where the herders are being rounded up and moved to villages, and they are not allowed to use their own language, and they're forced to wear Western clothes. All the school children are already doing that. Theyíre not allowed to speak their own language. They have to speak Han Chinese. Theyíre not allowed to travel from place to place. They have to get official permission to leave their village-- to travel anywhere: a monastery, a town. We were in Lhasa, and that's their big pilgrimage. Everyone is supposed to go there once in their lifetime for religious reasons. But they have to get official permission to go there, and they donít give permission to everybody. The police are constantly checking. We have all these photos of the police constantly checking everybody's papers-- all the mountain people coming in. If they donít have the right papers they are yanked off the streets and arrested. But it's a lot better than it was, I guess. They are letting some of the monasteries open up and letting monks come back to them now. Before, they had them all closed, and had most of the monks and nuns arrested. So they are opening it up a little bit, but it's still very sad to see it happen. But you canít be too morally high-minded, because the land we are living in was taken the same way.

DB: Yeah, I guess so.

SB: But it's still sad to see, you know? Going into the remote areas was really neat-- seeing all the herders in their tents. It was very interesting.

DB: How did people receive you there?

SB: Everywhere we went people were extremely nice and excited to see us. America has done so much to try and champion their cause: America has given them money and supported them in the United Nations. So when you say that you're an American they're happy to see you and are thankful. It was really amazing to see. That was one of the reasons our friends Huihan [Liu] and Weizhen wanted to go with us on this trip. They could go to Tibet and go into the cities on their own, but it would be a lot more dangerous to go into the remote areas by themselves. Even though they are American citizens now, they're from China originally and would be seen as Chinese. So it would be very dangerous for them. The cities are controlled by the Chinese, but in the remote areas there are uprisings. There are people who are rebels, and theyíll be driving down the road and just run you over, you know? In fact, Huihan and I went out taking pictures one time in one of those remote areas, and he kind of wandered off. Now, when they see Huihan and Weizhen with us, they immediately assume they are Chinese-American tourists, so they treat them very nicely. But when we were taking pictures by this lake in a somewhat remote area he wandered off by himself, and some kids saw him coming and just started throwing rocks at him.

DB: Wow.

SB: It was interesting because you wouldnít have thought of it that way. You would have thought they would have been our guide, keeping us safe. But it was... (laughs) more the other way around. We went and visited the herders in the Range Rover. They are just out on the plains with maybe a hundred tents-- a hundred families-- and they all have yaks. Some have sheep that they herd. They move every couple of days over this really vast plain. So we drove up in the Range Rover and got out, and pretty much everybody hid. They ran into their tents because theyíve never seen a foreigner. They donít know what's up, whether or not we are the police or the Chinese. That was another thing we learned when we went there, that everyone has a picture of the Dalai Lama in their house or tent. But that's illegal! They can be arrested!

DB: That's illegal?!?

SB: Yeah. It's illegal to have a photograph of the Dalai Lama, who they see as being the reincarnation of Buddha. Heís their leader, and he had to flee to India when the Chinese took over the country during the Fifties. So it's illegal for anybody to have a photograph of the Dalai Lama. If they find it, youíll be arrested immediately. So that's probably what they were doing when we drove up: running in to hide their picture. When we would go into people's houses or tents, if they had their picture out they would always say to us, "Please donít tell anybody that you saw this picture here." So we would drive up and people would be shy. But then I would take my sketchbook out, and somebody would become a little less shy. Someone would pose, and I would do a drawing of them. That happens in all the countries. When you do a drawing of somebody, people just want to see it! The kids would usually be the first to come out and look. Theyíll laugh and yell for their parents to come out, so more and more people come out. Before you know it, everybody's watching you do a drawing of somebody. That just breaks the ice. With all the sketches I did there, I gave all of them back to the person I drew. It was just a great way to communicate with people. When I would give them the sketches they would be so thankful and would want to give us a meal, so we would eat with them. After you spend the afternoon there, soon everybody is relaxed, so you can go around and take pictures of people. There is a painting on my website called "Festival Dress".
That scene was at that camp with all the tents. The mother had said, "You have to take a photo of my daughter in her festival dress." You could tell the mother kept thinking, "Why are you taking photos now when sheís not dressed yet? Wait until sheís all dressed." But for an artist, the most interesting part was her putting it all together.

DB: Right on.


SB: So that's the neat thing about being an artist on those trips. There's just this connection that happens. It gives you an excuse to stay at a place for long periods of time to do a sketch or a painting. The longer you're there, the more relaxed people get around you. It's the same thing in the United States. Iíve been going out these last couple weeks and painting. I'll just find a neat place and paint, and inevitably the farmer who owns the land next door comes up and wants to see the painting and tell you about things. Then they always say you're welcome to come on the farm and paint it. You end up hearing a lot of interesting stories from people. They tell you all kinds of things. When we were in Maine painting, the lobster fishermen would be painting their boats-- they just love their boats-- and they would ask us to go out with them. So I would go out from four in the morning to four in the afternoon and take pictures of them out on the boat while they are setting all their traps. As an artist, you get a different experience than if you were just a tourist or something like that. I think that's the greatest part about being a painter: the connection that you make with people, and the excuse to stay there for three hours. You get to see the ebb and flow of the town or the place you're at. And when you're painting somebody's boat or house or yak or whatever, they have so much pride in it, and they are so excited that you're painting it! Even in Spain, when I painted men with their horse and carriages, they were so excited that I was painting their horse and carriage that they would hold them there for me until I was finished, even though they were giving up a fare.

DB: Okay, there's one last question I wanted to ask you. It's a question we ask everybody we interview. In your opinion, do dogs have lips?

SB: Do I think dogs have lips? Let's see... Iíve been kissed by dogs, but I canít remember if it was a big-lip kiss or if it was just a lick. I guess Iíd have to say they do.

DB: Okay.

Both: (laugh)

SB: Just out of personal experience.