JEFFREY WATTS
Interview by Das Bork

JEFFREY WATTS IS A HIGHLY ENERGETIC PAINTER LIVING IN CALIFORNIA. WATTS' FATHER, AN ILLUSTRATOR, EXPOSED HIM EARLY ON TO THE CREATIVE WORLD, WHICH LED HIM TO STUDY AND TRAIN AT THE CALIFORNIA ART INSTITUTE FOUNDED BY FRED FIXLER, AND ALONGSIDE OTHER CONTEMPORARY ARTISTS SUCH AS JEREMY LIPKING AND MORGAN WEISTLING. ALONG WITH PAINTING, TRAINING AND TEACHING HAS BEEN AN EVER-PRESENT PASSION IN HIS LIFE. WATTS FOUNDED HIS SCHOOL-- WATTS ATELIER-- AS A WAY TO SPREAD THE KNOWLEDGE AND SKILLS TO NEW GENERATIONS OF ARTISTS.

Das Bork: What did you want to do with your school and art?

Jeffrey Watts: Well, we are trying unique things by starting the school and keeping it nurtured. We're teaching artists to keep integrity in their work, and not just paint subject matter that you think is going to be marketable. Just paint your subject and paint it as good as you possibly can. I see so many painters, even the ones now just getting popular, who paint like they're a bad [Richard] Schmid, or a mediocre so-and-so. If you are going to emulate somebody, make it somebody extremely difficult to copy and then make it your own. It is almost impossible to copy [Nicolai] Fechin, because he is just too random.

DB: Yeah, you really can't.

JW: But what you really want is to get the same soul and mood into your work that his has. You don't want to have a stroke-to-stroke copying technique.

DB: I think it's good to learn from different styles and techniques and then just combine what you've learned to make it your own.

JW: Sure. With an artist's ability to absorb visual information, itís a good way to learn. Especially if you're lucky enough to find a painting that's half finished, and maybe then you can see what they were thinking about. You know, they didn't do books or videos. It's kind of fun to do, I guess. That's what's so charming about it: it's such a unique language, and it's the one that most people know so little about. It's the only language where you might be proficient at six, such as charcoal, drafting pencil, watercolor, oil, or gouache. Each one of those is a language equally as complicated as any verbal language you can learn.

DB: Or more so.

JW: If someone comes up to you and says they can speak six different languages-- German, French, etc.-- everyone is so impressed. "Oh my God! I can't believe you speak six languages." But if you come up to somebody say you speak twelve visual languages, people go, "Huh? What does that mean? That doesn't mean anything. Aren't you just gifted with that and born with the ability to draw and paint like that?" No. You see, it takes thousands and thousands of hours to train and memorize. So it's getting people to understand that art language is an aptitude, like someone has an aptitude for math or English. It still has to be cultivated like someone was teaching you a language, and I think that's where a lot of the schools and the students go wrong. They think they can master right away. You know, I tell people when they come in for a ten-week course, "What would you learn in a French class in ten weeks other than it sounds really weird and that the conjugations are crazy?" I mean, you'd learn "bonjour" and that would be about it.

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Both: (laugh)

JW: So I tell people that when they come in. You've got to think of this as the most complicated language you'll ever learn. It's going to take lots of years to become fluent or proficient, to be able to execute large images with multiple figures with composition and color issues. All these concepts could be likened to writing a best-selling novel. So I keep going back to that because it is such a huge part of my life, and it's a huge part of what I think all artists have to continue doing throughout their lives. They have to continue training in the fundamentals and basics, and try to reconnect themselves to why they did it in the first place. They need to stay honest with their course of action and to what they're trying to accomplish, because it's easy to not do that. I think I learned that through watching illustrators. In illustration you become this morphed version of whatever is hot at the time. Occasionally, an illustrator will have a style that is significantly their own, but only for a short period of time before it gets played out. Then it becomes trite. For me, I just didn't really like that. For longevity it doesn't make a lot of sense. You just have to find a genre that allows you to grow.

DB: For the rest of your life.

JW: Thatís exactly right. Because it's long-term. You're never going to retire. You're always going to be doing something unique. I just feel really strongly about all of that. I feel that there has to be a natural continuity of vision, and it can simply be finding the extraordinary in the ordinary.

DB: In your subject matter, a lot of your models have an almost Gypsy feel to them.

JW: Well, when I look at how people dress nowadays I say to myself, "Does anybody really want to paint kids in jeans?" I guess you can say that maybe someday they'll look back at our attire as being fashionable, but to me it's a bit boring. It doesn't have any of the charm of the past. There's a lot of times in history where clothing and the way people dressed had a lot of individuality. There is something about it that really moved me deeply.

DB: So why that type of look?

JW: I try to maintain my vision and focus, but I don't want to be the painter of Gypsies, or the painter of kids on the beach. So I prefer to create whatever moves me. I like [Scott] Burdick for that reason. He paints what he wants, what moves him, and what he has a sincere interest in.

DB: Exactly. He just does whatever inspires him.

JW: The galleries really don't want to promote that kind of freedom of thought with their artists because it's hard to market it. It's hard to market someone that doesn't do one thing. It is a difficult way to go because itís going to mean less sales and less money. But in the long run it's going to mean more longevity and happiness in your career. For me, Scott is a nice role model. I like his philosophy. But I still like a lot of the other artists that are specialty-type painters. There's nothing wrong with that. It's just that I don't want to do that. If you find something that you absolutely love to paint for another fifty years, then by all means, go for it.

DB: Like there are plein air painters that only do plein air.

JW: Yeah. That's a genre that is so strong that you could spend your whole life doing it. But it doesn't mean that you're any less of a painter. Just for me personally, I like to paint everything, and I don't want to be limited in a range that is dictated by the public or by a gallery.

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DB: Have you ever had that problem with galleries?

JW: Yeah, I have in the past. When I first started painting with galleries I was probably 23 or 24 years old. I was really good technically, but I didn't have a voice. I loved to travel, so I'd go to Morocco and come back and do thirty-seven paintings for a one-man show. People would ask me who would want to buy paintings of Morocco, and I'd say, "Well, I don't know. But someone might want to buy one."

Both: (laugh)

JW: I always thought it would be fun to go travel. I love traveling. I was trying to go to Nepal this year. I don't know if I'll be able to make it out there. I just like to go out and observe people's lifestyles that are maybe mundane to them, but really unique to us. Because we get so caught up in the abundance in this country, where you don't really get to see everyday simplistic stuff, like someone just getting by. You know? Or someone going to the store on a donkey or something. It's just a different thing. There's this charm to it that we'll never experience and never have again because we're too modern. I think it's fun to step back and see through the eyes of other people. It lifts compassion, and you can share that with people here, to show that the world is a big place. So one thing that I like to do is travel and paint what I see when I travel. I don't really have a goal in mind when I go-- I just paint what truly inspires me when I go. Like I said before, finding the extraordinary in the ordinary. It's funny-- I had an article in [magazine] Art Of The West, and the title of the article was "I'm Just A Guy Who Likes To Paint." That was pretty funny. This year I ended up getting features in Art Of The West, American Artist, and Southwest Art all within a three-month period. I have no idea how that even happened.

DB: (laughs) And now in TLC.

Both: (laugh)

JW: I wasn't too crazy about the title-- "I'm Just A Guy Who Likes To Paint"-- but it is somewhat apropos. I got a bit of a kick out of it.

DB: It's honest.

JW: Yes, itís very honest. I don't think I have to broadcast that I have depth. I think subtlety is good. The work and its execution should carry its own depth.

DB: I agree.

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JW: I just like edges, value, shapes of color, composition, and anatomy. I study anatomy like a doctor.

DB: Really?

JW: Yeah. We are doing an ecorche class right now. It's where you build a splayed figure from the interior up. First you have to sculpt an incredible skeleton. And then you have to lay every muscle on from the insertion and origin, all the way up from the deep to the surface. Then you leave in half of the body deep and the other half superficial, which has the deep underneath it. So you get a chance to figure out all the layering of the muscles and how they overlap and connect. And then you have to memorize the names and their functions. Itís a really thorough way of learning anatomy. It's the way it used to be trained. It's like doing a dissection, but in clay. Really great artists like [Jean-Antoine] Houdon used to do ecorche. So it's kind of like dissection, but you're studying all these insertions and origins of the muscles in a three-dimensional way so you can then paint and draw better. That's something that most painters don't take the time to stop and do, because it's just incredibly laboriously difficult and time-consuming. And there's plenty of book learning involved in it, which most artists are not usually all that fond of. Diving into the academics of their craft and trying to learn intellectually what is going on, as well as intuitively. I definitely am more on the intuitive side. The intellectual side is probably the more played-down aspect of mine, but I find it really fascinating and stimulating. I always did well in school, but studying for art is so taxing. What we are doing with the anatomy is more intellectual, but then you've got to turn it over to the other side and get it to work three-dimensionally. And then you have to funnel that back into your two-dimensional drawing to get that to look three-dimensional. You're constantly looking for new ways to study things that you're either getting slightly bored with, or slightly burnt out on. So sculpture is a fun way for a painter to go in and study things like anatomy. We emphasize this type of training at the school. You don't normally find classes like that because there's no one that wants to teach them. They're too difficult, and you just can't pay someone enough to teach something like that. And finding the students that will stick it out through a twenty- or thirty-week class is hard. We started with twenty people, but then we ended up with about eight this semester. Itís just too hard, but it sounds fun on paper.

DB: (laughs) It sounds neat.

JW: (laughs) Three-quarters of the way through it, it can get really taxing.

DB: What advice do you have for artists?

JW: Stay true to painting from the heart. A lot of painters gave me that advice-- John Asaro gave me that advice. I used to go over to see him when I was 22 years old. John's always been a great influence on me, and he's a really great guy. He would tell me to paint from the heart and everything would be fine. Paint what you love, and you'll be good. He knew I had the technical proficiency. I just needed to paint what moved me. It's such sound advice and so simple, but you never do it. You're always out chasing some rainbow, or the grass is always greener. "I've got to paint like so-and-so," or, "Look how cool that subject matter is. I should paint that also." No. Just go out and paint what you love, whatever moves you. So that's my advice. Get a good foundation and stick to the fundamentals. Fall in love with the fundamentals so that you can train for your whole life. Fall in love with painting and drawing from life just for that reason-- not to sell, but just for a sincere interest in going in and painting the model because it's fun to do and it's great practice for you. Get that foundation and paint what you love. Inject that kind of passion and you'll be fine. Find an audience, the audience could be small, but you don't need that many people to buy your work. You only need a small percentage of people that appreciate your work, and then you'll have a fine career.

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DB: Cool! Okay, just one last question. In your opinion, do dogs have lips?

JW: Do dogs have lips?

DB: (laughs) It's what we ask everyone we interview.

JW: (laughs) That's awesome!

DB: Well, you've done a lot of anatomy, so maybe....

JW: (laughs) But not dog anatomy. I've got no lips. I've got, like, chicken lips. But do dogs have lips? Boy... I honestly don't know. I don't have dogs. I have cats. I think our cats have little lips.

DB: Okay.

Both: (laugh)

JW: I don't know. I like dogs, but I never grew up with them. I'm not a dog person. I'm a cat person, so I don't know. I'd have to plead the Fifth on that one.

DB: Okay.

JW: It's a good question. I'll ponder it now. Now I'll be looking at all these dogs. But I don't know.

DB: Yeah, it's just a debate here.

Both: (laugh)

CHECK OUT THE WORKSHOP WE DID ON JEFFREY BY CLICKING HERE.