Red is a color that bears its own brilliance and oil paint captures the depth of that brilliance perhaps better than any other medium. The power of the color red was the first thing that jumped out at me when looking at Kristen Margiotta’s body of work, but there was much more beyond that. A fabulous painter who balances the realistic and painterly qualities of her work with elegance. Margiotta’s work is dim and dictated heavily by the color red, it sets the tone for every painting and the vibrance it brings gives light to every element. Her subject matter ranges from simple portraits, to flowing red curtains, to hearts amidst flames, all of which are flush with her signature color and touch.
Margiotta’s work is exciting because it blends hints of the old masters with contemporary flare. She’s got a stroke and overall touch that really plays to the strenghts of oil paint as a medium and there’s so much she can do with it. I was thrilled to get to hear more about her work and her answers did not disappoint. She went into amazing depth and gave a lot of information that makes her work even more awesome. Enjoy!
1. I always open with background, so what got you started in art? Any schooling? Big inspirations? What shaped you into the artist that you are today?
I've been making art since I was a kid, early memories of coloring and really enjoying the act of creating art from preschool/kindergarten. I remember taking oil painting classes in the summertime up in the Poconos. One day classes, but they were fun. I was always the only kid (prob age 7/8 when I started) in a class of adults doing Bob Ross style oil paintings. And my parents were supportive enough to let me oil paint at home at a young age, as well as doing any kind of art at home. Teachers would always ask me in grade school/middle school to make displays or anything creative that was needed for classes. I continued in high school where I started to get some formal training. During my middle school and high school years I sort of abandoned painting and fell into drawing. Pencil , pen and ink, specifically the technique of stippling-making drawings out of tiny little dots!-what kid decides to do that for fun?! I did! I was really into comics too, drawing X-Men, and stealing my brothers metal album covers to draw from. Stuff like that. After high school, I decided to continue on to college and focus on illustration. I wasn't into painting yet, so I fell into illustration because I drew, I could be an illustrator and not have to worry about painting. Now, I'm an oil painter for a living. Who also illustrated books, all in oil paint too. Go figure. Sometimes I think back on what I've done, and even now and I ask myself, "who decides to do this for fun?!". It's kind of a crazy lifestyle when you think about it, but I love it.
In terms of inspirations, definitely lots. Big fan of the old masters, Caravaggio is one of my favorites, and love the Baroque era. I still remember the first time I opened up my social studies textbook in 5th grade to the chapter on the Renaissance. It was the photo of Michelangelo's paintings in the Sistine Chapel, pre restoration. It was so dark and had such a presence, even just seeing it in a text book. My mind was blown. Loved Stephen Gammell's illustrations in Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, which made a lasting impact on me. Marshall Arisman is a big favorite of mine. His presentation when I was in college at University of Delaware, around 2002, changed my life. What a force that man is. Sargent is another favorite, master of simplification, color, and beautiful shapes in his paintings. Carlo Dolci, well known painter during the Baroque era, painter to the Medici family. You won't learn about him in school, but I'll tell you, his paintings are celestial. Nothing like seeing his work in person. I'm always telling my students about him. Old horror movies, childhood cartoons, anything old world and spooky I was into. I was raised Catholic, so every week being exposed to the visuals and stories in church and school, all of that imagery, the blood, suffering, I'm sure played a role. All that stuff impacts you whether you plan for it or not.
2. What drew you towards oil paints? How did this manipulate and develop your painting style?
So I started taking formal oil painting classes at University of Delaware, I believe sophomore year. Foundation painting, so mostly still life. Man I wish I could go back and be a student again, just spending all that time trying to understand paint, working from life, how to color mix etc. . .It was a bit overwhelming and to be honest I hated painting when I got back into it. I always tell my students if you hate something, come back to it later. Might not be the right time. But I think I just needed more time with painting. Continued with painting in my illustration classes, figure painting, etc. . . all through the rest of my college years. I was still a realistic painter at this time but also worked slightly with distorting the human figure, elongation, fantasy elements, that kinda of thing. Really dark palette, warm hues, similar to my palette now. I was really into the tradition of it all, from stretching and priming my own canvases, doing the drawings for the paintings, underpainting, and then eventually working on the final oil painting. There's nothing like oil paints. They're buttery, and rich, and way they reflect light can't be compared to other paint mediums. Plus, there's the traditional aspect of it, the greatest artists that lived, the old masters, painters from Renaissance, Baroque, used oils. So there's that connection to that part of history using oils too.
I believe it was Junior year of college where we had to complete this project that was based on ourselves. I don't remember the title of the project exactly, but that's when I shifted from realism, into my big eyed works, and my little red hair girl Cherry was developed. I continued exploring my big eyed characters and more childlike illustrations, while still painting realistically. I was looking at a lot of Boris Vallejo, Julie Bell, Brom, Frazetta, the old masters, lots of Caravaggio during these years too. After college, I just continued with my more childlike big eyed fine art / illustration style and abandoned realism. Almost 10 years after college graduation I fell into painting realistically again, painting portraits, and working with symbolism. I saw Michael Hussar's work, especially his alla prima portraits, and my mind was blown open again. I said to myself, "I'm going to go paint with him", and have for years, starting around 2014. He was the force that inspired me to return back to portrait painting and realism. I can't believe I had stopped for so many years once I got back into it again.
As far as style, I'm currently in the stages of evolving as an artist. Art imitates life, I'm a firm believer in that. Could I keep pumping out works in my big eyed series-I totally could. Will I return to that series, most likely someday. But I'm not there right now. Not where my heart is at. Circumstances in my personal life have forced a massive shift in me personally, which is purging itself through my painting. I'm really looking forward to seeing what work develops at the beginning of this new decade, and I have ideas, just need to get to work!
3. Based off of your feed, it looks like a lot of your work is painted from life so how does this dictate your process? What is your model/painter process like? Is it very collaborative? Or more rigid?
So this is where things get interesting. I do a lot of portrait studies from life, either in my home studio where a model comes over, or at events like Oddball Art Hall, which is a cool art event I help to host with my friend Pat Higgins at Oddity Bar in Wilmington, DE. The event combines art shows, usually 15 artists / month, with live figure drawing/painting, and a DJ who spins vinyl only. It's a fun event that's helped to forge many of the relationships amongst the local artists in the area, and I tend to do live painting from a model there too. When I invite models to my house, sometimes I ask them if I have an idea in mind, but usually I just ask them to do whatever. The importance of working from life is to keep your eyes in training. You lose a lot working from photos, your eyes can see so much more, the subtle shifts in color and value. Even shapes in general, so working from life is kind of like a guitarist practicing scales constantly. It's the preparation and practice for a finished painting.
Even though I abandoned painting realistically in my personal work for many years, I would still keep up with life drawing / painting with my students, stressing its importance to understanding what you see. How light falls/ reflects on objects, the importance of training your eyes to see from life etc. . . I think back on why I stopped, simply because I made a choice, but I feel like I abandoned part of myself. But now, I'm sort of back with a vengeance so I believed it served a purpose. No regrets.
4. You've also got a series of more whimsical and illustrative paintings, how does this process differ from your life paintings? Do you find you get to be a little looser and more organic with your process when working more illustratively?
So this body of work is actually what my career for the last 15 years was built on, the illustrative whimsical paintings, similar style that I used for book illustrations and also for fine art paintings sold in galleries. It's interesting talking to people, because many people know me from that body of work, and saw the evolution into my more recent work, which really feels like I'm picking up where I left off painting in my college years. There's many people who found me through my recent work and thought that's what I've always done. I think I'm just doing a damn good job of confusing everyone! But the big eyed / whimsical work is a very different process. I start with rough thumbnails to organize ideas and composition. Then I would get references, and sketch from them or photograph them and work them into a final drawing. Then I would do the final painting / illustration from this drawing and references.
The recent self portrait of me as "Medusa" that was displayed at Modern Eden Gallery, San Francisco, used this process. I worked from a photo reference of myself and snake references, which I compiled into a final drawing that I worked from. I actually painted my skin from life, looking in a mirror.
The alla prima portrait studies I do from life are much looser and emanate a very different energy because they are quick. They're like a test. How much information can I get done, while learning, and have it look like something when it's all over. And they're exhausting by the way. Constantly studying the model, color mixing, and maintaining the whole process of it all. Exhausting but so worth it. Try doing all of that under the red lights of Oddity Bar during Oddball Art Hall, with all of the noise and distractions-whoa! Talk about a test!
5. I've got to ask about the color red, it's across a massive portion of your body of work. So what does the color red mean to you and your work? What do you think it adds to the visual and narrative qualities of your work?
I love this, that people see that. Ya know, being an artist is the weirdest thing. We pour our heart out into what we do for the world to see which is a vulnerable thing to begin with. Especially with what I do because I'm not making art to be cool, or making cool art, if that makes sense. There's some deep emotional stuff that comes out in what I'm doing.
At the same time being vulnerable to the world through the act of creation, at least for me, trying to analyze why I do this. Where does it come from, the subjects, the colors, etc. . . I've always loved red. It's POWERFUL, so raw and real. You feel it. Each color emits a feeling, but Red is different. It can have negative and positive associations, love, and death for example. I'm a redhead too, and a fire sign, Sagittarius, so it makes sense to me, that that color is an extension of who I am, that naturally it would come out through my painting. I also love how rich red oil paint looks by the way. It's so juicy! I get artists, and also my students who come to me or message me about what reds am I using. I'm not using any special magical red, and I do think there is a challenge to manipulating that hue. Whether it's my fine art whimsical paintings, or my current realistic work, red has remained a constant.
6. Finally, PLUGS! Where can people find your work? Any shows/events coming up? Anything you'd like to share and anywhere people can find your work, fire away!
May 8th, this year, I'm doing a 3 person show with Rachael Bridge and Maria Teicher, badass artists at The Convent, in Philly. Stoked to get some new work prepared for that.
And you can find me at the Oddball Art Hall every 3rd Friday at Oddity Bar, Wilmington, DE.