The Art of Subtraction with Steph Krawchuk

Steph Krawchuk is a painter based out of Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. Her work is largely autobiographical and documentary, painting the people and spaces that surround her. This is evident from her past work of portraiture, still life, and cityscapes. Krawchuk has an upcoming show at Art Placement May 30th-June 25th 2015. Along with her building paintings, new work focusing on lines and abstraction will be available for viewing. Reception is Saturday May 30th at 2pm in the gallery at Art Placement. I had the the opportunity to do an interview with her in May of 2015. The transcript and some of her work is below.

Artist Website

Art Placement Show Information

Amanda Leigh: What is happening with your upcoming show?

Steph Krawchuk: It’s going to be about half buildings, and half abstract paintings.

AL: Why half and half?

SK: I think that when I knew I was having a show, I was doing buildings, it’s mostly what I do, and it’s a lot of lines and shapes and colour. Then during that process I just wanted to see what I could do with forgetting about subject matter and just making those elements. Some of them are on canvas, and some of them are on paper being framed.

AL: What was the drive to strip it down more, to ‘lines and shapes and colour’?

SK: I was curious about what I could do, I had never really done that before and I’ve been painting for over 10 years. I’ve always been interested, and generally speaking when I look at art or art history what I love is a lot of abstract expressionist sort of stuff, so it seemed natural to try this.

Steph Krawchuk,

Steph Krawchuk, “Follow II”,
2014, Oil on canvas,

AL: Are there specific artists or time period that are influencing this new work?

SK: When I was looking at abstract stuff, I definitely went to Willem de Kooning, he’s like a feast of information, his whole career is pretty awesome; Brice Marden is another artist who did a lot of line work, which seems kind of easy but is not; and Stuart Davis, who has actually been called one of the first pop artists even before Warhol, he was doing these abstract shapes which are so cool and colourful. Those are three people I’ve been looking at, but also: Rothko, Pollock.

AL: With these abstracts, are you doing them freehand or basing them off of still life or the forms of buildings?

SK: It’s just the bare canvas and seeing what happens. I start by putting down lines quickly and not really thinking about it. With the buildings and the portraits it’s all about adding and subtracting until you are sort of at peace with what’s there. With these[abstracts], it’s almost another level of that process, it was very frustrating. I couldn’t have done the larger ones on canvas without doing smaller ones on paper. I’m really grateful to Art Placement, the gallery that I’m showing with, because they had a drawing show and they were totally open to looking through these sketchbooks, and I did these maybe nine years ago, I’m not even sure. The gallery took them and they framed them, and that was very encouraging for me. I mean I didn’t think these were awesome, but it was a start. I’m just very pleased to see I can do an abstract painting on canvas, because a year ago I couldn’t.

AL: What were your frustrations a year ago?

SK: It’s a different way of handling paint. It’s hard to describe. When I’m doing a building, I’ve been doing them for seven or eight years, so I have an idea of what I’m doing, where I’m going, what it might look like. The buildings also exist, they are downtown, and I know what they look like. These [points to abstract canvases] are completely made up, which maybe could be easier, but I don’t think that it actually is.

AL: Are you still trying to resolve these issues in your abstract practice, or have you become very comfortable?

SK: This is still really brand new. This show for me feels like the beginning. I think I want to start working on larger scale abstract paintings; it’s part of that process where I started doing smaller ones on paper, then moving onto bigger ones. With the differently handling of paint, it’s almost hard to tell when it’s starting to look “good” with abstract work, its tricky, it’s very bare.

Steph Krawchuk,

Steph Krawchuk, “Blues”,
2014, Oil on paper,

AL: Space plays a lot in your abstracts, compared to your building paintings that are full of the building itself, the street, the cars or trees.

SK: It takes some experience to get that space down. The original abstracts I did were very messy partly because of this, and I was kind of discouraged, but what for whatever reason I’ve talked to other artists who have said starting with paper is a more forgiving medium, and I’m not really sure why. So I started with paper and acrylic, which I think was a quicker and more forgiving process, rather than starting with oil. I then layered it with oil paint so I could have the finish that I’m used to. I feel like now I have a better grip on these paintings, but you still can’t be too confident, I’m still kind of slightly confused when I start. That [points to an abstract] took a while to do, and sometimes I still look at it and say “what the hell is that?”

AL: Depending on what type of mood you’re in?

SK: No I like it, and people that I’ve showed it to quite like it, but it’s very… different.

AL: Have you had any palette issues, with colour?

SK: Not exactly, but when you look at this [abstract painting with greys] it’s subdued in colour compared to a lot of stuff that I have done. I struggle with busyness. I’ve been wanting to refine my painting, which I think has happened in the past couple years. Sometimes my paintings are busy and colourful, but I’m also learning less is more.

Steph Krawchuk,

Steph Krawchuk, “Cambridge Court”
2015, Oil on canvas

AL: Why have you been so eager with bright colours?

SK: I’m attracted to it I guess, I think people are attracted to colours, it draws people in very quickly, but maybe people can be turned off by it too. I’ve always found colour to be a way of communicating, I don’t exactly know what, but maybe as a way for people to get engaged with my paintings. It’s very immediate, whether you like it or not it’s there, it makes you look at it.

AL: I think everyone, regardless of art training or background or anything like that, can talk about colour.

SK: Everybody has a relationship with colour. I think I kind of use that in a way. I once saw a Van Gogh painting in New York, and that’s when I feel I really learned about colour, because it was a portrait, and I really didn’t even like the painting to be honest, but the colour in the background was this lime green, and you were fixated on it. That sold me on the impact that colour can deliver. You don’t even have to like the painting.

AL: I think that speaks to space again, the painting was of the figure, but that background played such a large roll for you, larger than the “focus” the painting.

SK: I mean if you look at my portraits, it’s always a flat colour behind. It’s almost in all my paintings actually, people say that my buildings are almost portrait-like.

AL: Why are you so interested in painting Saskatoon, or cityscapes?

SK: I’m interested in documenting what’s around me. I don’t think too much about it, I don’t want to paint a picture from a photo of some other city I’m not living in. I live downtown, I walk around a lot downtown, I work downtown, and so it seems like an obvious subject matter. There is so much information in a scene; there are so many lines, there’s so much opportunity for me to paint.

AL: Are you interested in architecture?

SK: I’m interested yes. I love travelling and see different cities and buildings, and making paintings of it. What interests me the most, and maybe you can tell from these paintings, are buildings with character. Stuff like that is just waiting for me to do a painting of it. I could just take the scenes of Saskatoon for granted so I have to look a bit into… what I’m looking at. Through these paintings I feel like I’ve gotten to know so many little details that people probably don’t notice. I look around a lot, I kind of love that.

Steph Krawchuk,

Steph Krawchuk, “Parkview Facing the Street”,
2014, Oil on canvas,

AL: Do you find that people connect to you because of the city paintings?

SK: Sometimes I’m commissioned to do a painting, but there no doubt some people do like to see Saskatoon like this.

AL: In the buildings in real life, these facade colours are so neutral these small details almost disappear into each other. You’ve been able to achieve really picking and choosing your small detail to focus on, while kind of blocking everything else with colour.

SK: That’s exactly it it, I was thinking about a write up Lorenzo Dupuis, a painter I did a show with, and what he said is I don’t get overly detailed with these buildings, but like you said, what I’m interested in I highlight. I paint a door, a window, a sign, as a focus and that’s how I pare it down.

AL: Do these little details relate to your influences we talked about earlier?

SK: Before this show along with getting interested in these abstract painters which I’ve always cared about, but looking more at those three I mentioned in particular, I also briefly got interested in pop art, and that’s the point in art history I usually start to get disinterested. I realized though, that I like painting signs, and restaurants, and I just figured whatever. I sort of embraced that I maybe had some pop in me too.

AL: It’s not something that you have to dislike

SK: No no, but the pop artists were doing these almost meaningless paintings, almost with no emotion because they didn’t like the abstract painters and that their paintings were full of emotion.

AL: Are you using your paintings as a vehicle for emotion?

SK: Not really. When I’m painting it’s more about the process, about refining the painting, and the use of colour. I never really thought of colour as being a subject matter. You know, you go to school, they set up a still life, and we’re all thinking we need to reproduce this thing like it is, and you can do so much more. I think that’s why painting is so frustrating the first year, because what we think what we need to be painting is so limiting. I was taught to never use black lines, so a lot of my earlier work is really colourful… with no black lines. I am still using colour, but you can see the old work is a lot ‘louder’ with it.

AL: You’ve really taken colour and run with it, while being able to break some rules and add in black lines.

SK: Yeah, and maybe colour has been my first endeavour, and still is, but now I’m really interested in focusing on how much I enjoy and am interested in lines, and where that can go. Along with colour, lines are the process of these abstract paintings, and with lines come shapes.

Steph Krawchuk,

Steph Krawchuk, “Follow”,
2014, Oil on canvas

AL: In this new work it’s evident colour is playing less of an obvious role, when looking back at your contrast work, especially the red/green paintings.

SK: I use to love the old red/green combo, it was a good one [laughs]. The German expressionist movement, in the 30s, learning about that just left a big impression on me. And we grow up knowing what about art? And then you take art history and you see that people made naive looking paintings, people made paintings that kind of looked like kids did them, but they were experienced painters, there is so much you can do. Seeing the German expressionists was really inspiring to me; they were slightly messier, and angrier, which these [points at abstracts] are not. I’m realizing I’m kind of a clean painter, I don’t really paint out of the lines, it’s kind of contained. In university I realized that I was an expressive painter, but I’m not an emotional painter. I think its up to the viewer if they connect some sort of emotion to it, its up to the audience.

AL: I think that’s what a lot of people like. Maybe it’s not ‘the job of an artist’, but the by product of an art work is that you’re making something apparent, you’re showing something in a new way that is everyday to a lot of people.

SK: I really want my work to get people who don’t even know they like art excited about art, someone who maybe wouldn’t necessarily go to a gallery, or know anything about art history, I don’t think that you need to. I think it’s possible to connect with these paintings. I don’t think they’re overly challenging to the viewer, and they weren’t easy to just make at all, but I think for the viewer my art is maybe more accessible. Four kids own my paintings [laughs]. For anybody to get excited about my work is cool.

AL: It’s really important to be exposed to different kinds of painting, or art, at a young age. If they see them, maybe they can make them.

SK: And it’s nice to own original art. They grow up around these paintings, so they grow up with the idea that they can have original paintings too.