The Vitality of Becoming
Interview by Emily Jaeger, Features Editor
Daniel Ketelhut is an emerging painter who currently resides in San Diego, California. Ketelhut received a B.A. in Studio Art from San Diego State University. He has participated in the Art Pulse Mentor Program in San Diego, under the mentorship of McLean Emenegger and Peter Frank. Ketelhut’s work has been seen in several solo exhibitions as well as numerous group shows both locally and nationally. His work is included in both national and international private collections.
Jaeger: Your paintings, which appear in this month’s issue, Vol. IV #9, explore the strange and unfamiliar underlying daily life through abstract forms and bright colors. How does this sense of the foreign affect the composition of each piece?
Ketelhut: Most of my pieces depict clusters of abstract shapes and forms inhabiting an uncertain, loosely defined space. The space they inhabit usually consists of a foreground, a middle ground, and a background. The forms usually reside in the middle ground section of the picture plane. I like to think of the composition as a tableau or vignette of otherworldly activity which the viewer experiences as though looking through a window into another world or dimension of reality. I think that the way I compose my paintings adds to the sense that the viewer is seeing something strange but is not directly part of it, that is, that they maintain a “safe distance” from the action of the piece.
Jaeger: You have described yourself as an “expressive surrealist painter.” Why did you choose this phrase and how does it describe your artistic process?
Ketelhut: I choose to use the phrase “expressive surrealism” because I think it best encapsulates the general look and feel of my my work. The term expressive denotes the paint handling part of my process. I layer my pieces with thin veils of paint and drippy applications, along with loose brushwork and even finger painting at times. The term surreal refers to the subject matter of my work, that is, otherworldly, dreamlike imagery.
Jaeger: In your artist statement, you say that the imagery in your art comes from a “combination of free association and conscious control.” What is your artistic process and how does it balance these two elements? (See more on Ketelhut’s process here.)
Ketelhut: All of the images in my paintings are born in the sketchbook. I begin by literally scribbling on the page with a ballpoint pen. Once the page is filled, I take a few moments and simply stare at the resulting tangle of lines. Soon, my mind sees images in the “mess,” which I begin to hone and emphasize with darker lines. During this process, I’ll add my own consciously created lines to further develop the images.
Once I have a few well-defined shapes and forms on the page, I usually give some indication of the foreground, middle ground, and background. This process requires a fine balance between free association (the scribbling) and conscious control (the honing and developing of the forms and composition). If the free association aspect is not kept in check, chaos can easily ensue. On the other hand, if too much conscious control is employed, the piece can look hokey and contrived.
Jaeger: Could you talk about your evolution in style and how you reached this specific artistic process?
Ketelhut: With respect to my current process, I can say that its seeds were sown roughly seven years ago, when I began doing paintings of otherworldly creatures. Like my current body of imagery, these creatures began as scribbles on the page, which I would very consciously develop toward a particular end. At first, I was very pleased with the results, creating unique entities conveying subtle emotive power. Eventually however, they began to look a bit too hokey and cartoonish for my liking. At this point, the creatures took on less and less distinct forms, and are now quite abstract and only resemble living things in very general ways and in relationship to one another.
Jaeger: You participated in the Art Pulse Mentor program in San Diego. How did this program shape you as an artist?
Ketelhut: The Art Pulse Mentor Program was a six-month professional artist development course, the goal of which was to hone both the artistic vision as well as the business acumen of the participants. It was made up of a program director, a mentor, and about a dozen participating artists. I found to program to be very beneficial, so much so that I went through it twice. It challenged me to ask myself why I do what I do and why it is important to me. I became comfortable with articulating my artistic vision and purpose to others as well as to myself. Furthermore, it made me one of a group of artists who were accountable to one another for completing goals and challenges. I still keep in touch with many of these artists and we continue to support each other.
Jaeger: In your artist statement, you mention a close connection with Mclean Emenegger and Peter Frank. How do you see the influence of these artists in the pieces featured in The Woven Tale Press?
Ketelhut: Mclean Emenegger and Peter Frank were actually mentors in my second go-around in the Art Pulse Mentor Program. Mclean was the actual mentor – her business and marketing advice was second to none. She is very familiar with the art world and with what it takes to put yourself out there as an artist. She gave me valuable insight on such topics as how to approach galleries, how to develop a professional portfolio, as well as with how to be selective with respect to both where and with whom you show.
Peter curated the program’s closing exhibition. At the time of our acquaintance, he was the senior curator at the Riverside Art Museum as well as a frequent contributor the the Huffington Post. He had very complimentary things to say both about my subject matter as well as my process. He challenged me to do a series of drawings based on completed paintings, as well as explore variations on a theme (using the same images in multiple paintings). His insight gave me a huge boost of confidence going into subsequent bodies of work.
Jaeger: One of the striking elements in each of the paintings is the interplay between bright colors and bold strokes of black. Could you talk more about your color choices and use of black in your work?
Ketelhut: My color choices are usually made quite intuitively. One of the drawings I usually do during the pre-painting stage is done in colored pastels, and it is at this point that most of the major color choices are made.
While executing the gray scale drawing (the one just before the color drawing), I can usually “see” the piece having a certain color scheme, be it warm, cool, neutral, or otherwise. Once I decide this, I start with a single color that covers a large part of the foreground or background. From here, I intuitively choose other colors that I feel go with the piece. During the painting process, I sometimes end up using colors that I hadn’t even considered while the piece was in the drawing stage.
I actually rarely use pure black. A mixture of ultramarine blue and burnt sienna or burnt umber gives me a deep, rich color that visually reads as black without having the deadness of black. I am most satisfied with a piece when it has a complete value range, which for my sensibilities means areas of bright color contrasted with sections of deep darks.
Jaeger: In many ways, your artistic process seems very methodical, but still allows for experimentation, if within specific constraints. When have you departed from your process and how has it influenced your art?
Ketelhut: I will sometimes depart from my usual process by bypassing the drawing stages altogether and scribble on the painting surface directly. I develop the imagery and value range simultaneously, usually with charcoal. I then begin painting without having determined what colors to use – I simply let intuition flow.
In these cases, it’s almost always surprising how the piece turns out. Sometimes I’m satisfied with it, but usually I’m not. When this happens, I allow myself to have a nothing-to-lose attitude. This makes it easier to really throw caution to the wind and make more radical design choices, such as using a color or technique I would not consider when working in my usual process, or completely changing up the imagery by over-painting parts of the surface. It is through these experiments that true insights and revelations come about, which can then be incorporated into my usual process.
Jaeger: You write that you never consider a painting done, but rather, you decide “the time has come to stop working on it and allow it to be what it is.” How did you come to this realization in your work? How did you decide it was time to stop working on the paintings in this month’s issue?
Ketelhut: I first heard this idea while researching the artist Arshile Gorky, whom I consider to be one of the great modern painters. He felt that when something is finished, it is dead, and has lost its vitality. Conversely, if something is unfinished, it has the potential for further life and growth, at least in the mind of the viewer. I like to think of this as “the vitality of becoming.”
I later heard a similar idea from none other than Leonardo da Vinci, who said that “art is never finished, only abandoned.” I like the idea that my paintings depict a state of flux and indeterminacy. I want this flux to be communicated to the viewer, preferably on an intuitive, subconscious level. I want my art to be alive for all time to those who come into contact with it.
With respect to the pieces in this month’s issue (and all of my work for that matter), I know it is time to stop working on them when I no longer feel uneasy while looking at them. I simply know when it’s time to stop. I know that up to this point, I’ve given the painting a richness and vitality beyond the bare bones. I also know that if I go much further, I run the risk of overworking the piece to the point where it becomes either ossified and dead or a chaotic mess.
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