I have been following Stephen Magsig’s realist cityscape paintings for several years and was very pleased that agreed to an email interview and want to thank him for spending the time to share his thoughts with us.
I was first introduced to Stephen Magsig’s work during the beginnings of the “painting a day” phenomenon a few years ago. Stephen has a separate blog that he devotes to showing his small paintings that you can view here. Stephen, like Duane Keiser, is one of the most accomplished and successful pioneers of the “painting a day” phenomenon which started a few years ago. Stephen Magsig has an amazing output of his smaller daily paintings online while also showing larger work in a prestigious brick and mortar gallery, the George Billis Gallery in NYC and LA and the David Klein Gallery in Birmingham, MI. He has shown work nationally and is in prominent private, corporate and museum collections. Stephen was featured in Art and Antiques Magazine 2001 issue and has had articles about him in American Art Collector, and American Arts Quarterly. Another interview with him can be seen on the “Real Art World” blog
Most of Magsig’s work is based on photographs but there is often a feeling for the light and color that goes well beyond just rendering a photo into paint. In particular, I’m drawn to his masterful NYC storefronts and the architectural details from Detroit that engage the viewer with the play of the geometry of the big shapes and color notes that emphasis his underlying abstract composition.
Larry Groff: Can you tell us a bit about your background, what lead you to become a painter?
Stephen Magsig: I have always enjoyed drawing even as a child, I was in 3rd grade when I realized the joy of making artwork. I did a chalk mural on the blackboard and it made me aware that I had a special gift. I have been doing some kind of art ever since. As a painter I came to the career from a different angle than most . After serving in Vietnam I returned to school studying technical and commercial art. Next step was design and then illustration. All the while also working as a fine art painter. Finally taking the plunge to only doing fine art. I was very inspired by the great illustrators like Harvey Dunn and NC Wyeth
LG: Your work seems to share affinities with urban scene painters like Edward Hopper and perhaps precisionist painters such as Charles Sheeler, Charles Demuth and Ralston Crawford. What art and artists have been most influential to you.
SM: I have always looked at and learned from Hopper, Fairfield Porter, Bonnard, Matisse, Whistler, Diebenkorn, Sheeler, Demuth, Crawford, Eric Fischl, Robert Ryman, Edwin Dickenson, Rackstraw Downes, and Bob Thompson among others. But I also really like looking at the Abstract Expressionists like DeKooning and Kline. I like almost all good artwork and am inspired by it.
LG: In many of your paintings you seem to working from photographic sources. but you don’t appear to just copy the photos and have a more naturalistic color, space and light than what you often see with photorealism. Do you paint from life as well? Please tell us something about how you go about your process with your larger more complex paintings.
SM: I like the idea of documenting Detroit and I do work from photos of existing or once existing sites.
I work from my own photographs that are shot as subjects for paintings. I have been taking photos of Detroit since the early 80″s. I start composing in the viewfinder. I have painted en Plein Aire and enjoy it very much. Right now it is to time consuming for me.
Like many artists today I use the computer screen for reference. I like using the screen as it has so much information, I can enlarge the image for more detail, lighten the shadows to see what is there. I find it gives me more information to use as I want. I use the screen as if I was looking at the scene to simplify and adjust to my liking. I work in the Alla Prima method. To start a painting I pick the image I like and crop it in proportion to the panel or canvas. I print a color copy and rule a grid onto it. From this I do my drawing with paint onto the gridded canvas. This helps with the proportions and verticals as I have an astigmatism, and everything would lean to the left without vertical guide lines to help me. On larger works I will also underpaint the masses while drawing. I work from dark to light. The small painting are done in one setting, I like painting wet into wet. I can control the edges more that way. On the larger works I try to finish certain color sections in one setting just like the smaller works, so I can control the paint without having to overpaint. I like to mix a large range of colors, warm and cool in the values I am working in. This allows me to put more color into an area without having to mix. I can also intermix this palette and the colors stay harmonious. I also have more freedom to use warm and cool colors within a certain value to give an area more life or color perspective. Finishing the painting by making any color or perspective changes and adding the final highlights. I really am a realist painter and not a photorealist, even though I work from photographs. The photos are a reference point and I use them to fit how I feel at the time I pick the image and use it that way.
Detroit Stories Fort St II 2011
LG: You show at the George Billis Gallery, a distinguished Chelsea and LA gallery often showing the work of leading cityscape painters. However, you also sell many small alla prima paintings from your website and Ebay. I read where you made over 1300 small paintings since 2007. Many people must be thrilled to purchase such wonderful Detroit and urban themed paintings so affordably. I can imagine that even unemployed auto workers and normally non-art buying individuals of modest means can enjoy having one of your paintings hanging on their walls. I’m curious how this works out for you and your thoughts on making art affordable to the “masses” and not just and selling to prominent art collectors.
SM: One of the main reasons I started the smaller daily paintings was to reach an audience that had been priced out of the larger gallery paintings. It has connected me with artists and collectors from all over the World. I really enjoy doing the smaller daily paintings. I get more satisfaction from them and I try to keep the same quality level as the larger pieces. It still takes a commitment to purchase a painting even the small ones, people buy them because they really want them rather than just being able to afford them. I have had major collectors buying the small paintings and have had collectors introduced to my work from the small paintings buying larger works from my galleries. So it has worked both ways. I don’t think the galleries were very happy about the small paintings at first but it has taken the financial pressure off from them and me. The small works also are used as studies for the larger paintings. I also feel I have learned a lot about value, composition and simplifying with the small works and it has improved the larger work.
LG: There has been much written in the news about the current “renaissance of the arts in Detroit becoming a place many artists are moving to for the very affordable housing and growing artist community. Are there many of these newer artists painting the Detroit cityscape? Would Detroit be a good place to move for a perceptual painter?
SM: It is an incredible time to be an artist in Detroit. There is such a strong supportive art scene. There are artists moving into Detroit from all over the World and there are opportunities that did not exist before. The Kresge Foundation gives 12 fellowships of $25,000 to artists and one eminent artist fellow of $50,000 a year. There are all kinds of new venues such as pop up galleries, new galleries, new museums etc. We have some of the best schools and grad schools in the country. There is a very strong body of young artists making all kinds of artwork in Detroit from street art to conceptual installations.
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