by Phil Vance

Inspirations and Discussions

Weekend Thoughts on Process and Evolution

I set up this blog quite a while ago and have struggled to find both the time to write and subjects to write about. I guess the ultimate question is, “What’s the point?”

I’m not the type who wants to put empty words into the world and I work two jobs to support my art addiction. I have a girlfriend who has a kid. My paintings these days are taking me hundreds of hours so where do I find the time to write about art?

And really, what is the point?

I think the reality is that every artist should be writing about art. Not just their own work, but about art in general. It takes practice to articulate thoughts on something as elusive and subjective as art. And at the end of the day, does anyone really need to hear my opinions?

Probably not, but at the same time, I am trying to think of it like director’s commentary for my favorite movies. Totally unnecessary but supremely enjoyable for those of us who want to understand the process of making films.

For starters I thought it would be interesting if people could actually see my work space. I don’t have a studio yet. That is in the works and hinging on finishing up my current commission.

This is where the magic happens

This is where the magic happens

I have come to a point in my career where I am actually making some money on my art and I would like to grow this art business into something that can support me and my family. Its been a long road, I have been painting for twenty plus years and it is only in the last two that I made any real money.

So naturally I am thinking about where I go next? Not just with my working space but with my art itself.

I started off doing portraits very early on where I would write on top of the paintings. They were done in watercolor and I would write a personal message to the person the painting was for… Or in the case that it wasn’t for a specific person I would write to a general audience.

I called the series, “Confessionalism.” At the time I thought my work could have the power to change the world. In many ways I still do. Art is powerful. I like to say that, “You can’t change people, but people can change.”

Change requires a catalyst of some sort and for me personally, art has behaved as a catalyst for much of my growth as a person.

When I graduated from U.C. Davis with my art degree in 2003 I was determined to become a famous abstract painter. I grew up thinking abstract art was a bit of a joke but in studying art history I connected with modern art in a very profound way.

Modern art was a response to the invention of the camera. Suddenly a machine could record history faster than any artist. It was cheaper. And frankly, for those who just needed to remember a moment in time, it was better.

But artists are never content with just sitting around doing the same thing and the camera forced a massive shift in what art could be. It wasn’t about recording history anymore, it was about making history!

I wanted to be a part of that idea. I wanted to make art that opened eyes and touched people. I wanted people to stand in front of my and experience the things that I experienced standing in front of a Rothko. I wanted to use art to expose lies and reveal truth. I wanted to share my love with the world.

I didn’t have a voice though… I didn’t really know what I was doing. I had ideas but I was at a place in my life where I struggled to figure out what to paint. I had not embraced the process of making art so each painting was disconnected from everything I’d done. I tried hundreds of experiments trying to figure out something that would keep me excited.

My parents kept urging me to make more portraits. They said I was good at it. I didn’t really trust any sort of positive criticism at that point in my life, especially that coming from my parents.

I kept working my paintings, struggling to find something that interested me. My teachers always talked about making art being like asking a question. The best questions were those that created more questions. Answers were killers and I knew it all back then. And so I struggled.

A decade later I am at the Getty and I see this Rembrandt portrait. “An Old Man in Military Costume” 1630


Now keep in mind, I’m a snotty ass at this point in my life, I have no respect for portraits but this painting catches my eye from across the room. I feel like I’m being sucked towards it and I have no idea why. I get close up and it takes my breath away. I lean in to examine it closely and I am just floored. It is a masterpiece, I can’t believe the contrast of the skin, translucent, frail versus the armor, so solid and perfect.

His eyes are watered, this is a man past his prime. His armor is polished like it was made yesterday. I start crying. I don’t know why. I still to this day cannot for the life of me understand why I had such an emotional response but I had to leave the room or I was going to openly weep. The harder I tried to hold back the tears the more I felt myself becoming overwhelmed.

It was right there that I decided that I wanted to make portraits. I could do portraits my way. I had been told I was good at capturing people and I wanted in that moment so desperately to start painting portraits.

When I got home I started to work on my drawing tablet. I was a graphic designer at the time, I hadn’t really been painting a whole lot. So I did what I could, I started studying Rembrandt, observing the way he painted skin, the layering of color. The loose brushwork contrasted by tight controlled strokes. I was in heaven.

It was shortly after this I realized I had been lying to myself for the last 8 years. I wasn’t a graphic designer. I wasn’t a corporate worker. I was an artist and while I was living a comfortable life in Southern California I was not happy.

I quit my job. I moved in with my parents and I started doing portraits of my friends. I think I did about a hundred before I realized I couldn’t work on a computer anymore. I needed the tactile nature of real media. I started doing scribble portraits. I wanted to stay loose and wild. I liked the energy of Rembrandts strokes but I was out of practice when it came to paint so I stuck to pen. My first love.

I had been writing on paintings forever. Well, ten years. I got this idea for a friend to do a portrait of Einstein using his quotes. He loved it. So did my mom. So for her birthday I did a massive portrait of Einstein for her that still hangs proudly in her home.

I used a single quote, “Imagination is more important than knowledge.”

It was the most fun I had, had making art in years. I immediately took the lessons I had learned and started on Mark Twain. Soon after I did Nikola Tesla. Mark Twain ended up in a group art show and won an award. He was in the local paper and my friend who was starting a restaurant in Twain Harte wanted it hanging there. So he did… and holy crap the response was insane.

I was offered a solo art show because of it. I spent six months putting together a bunch of word portraits. In the process I started to play with the concept, I started to find ways to express each person with a different style. Picasso was loose and fun, Audrey Hepburn was meticulous and perfect. De Kooning was abstract and strange, Escher was a mind fuck. Not just for the audience but for me. I thought I broke my brain several times trying to figure that one out.

After the show I was exhausted and empty.

I didn’t really know what to do with myself so I started painting some abstracts again. I needed color. I needed art. I find whenever I feel drained I can visit a museum or gallery and get filled up again. So I went to the SF MoMa and checked out some art. It was Chuck Close’s portraits that really hit me though.

His use of optical mixing is just brilliant on so many levels. I started to think about how I could apply color to the word portraits. I did some experiments in pen but they didn’t work well. I tried some watercolor but where it worked great with abstract it was awful for my word portraits.

I finally decided I would use a medium I never really used. Acrylics. I used to hate acrylics because they dry too fast, the color is too bright a lot of times. Its bright without the richness of oil, almost plastic. But it was everything I needed to layer paint quickly enough to produce a portrait.

So I bought some acrylics and I started figuring out how to mix them, how to paint with them. I didn’t really know who I was going to paint first. I wanted to do a self portrait about my own anxieties as an artist but I wasn’t ready… My girlfriend saw an old painting I did of the Joker and suggested it might be fun. If I was going to spend a couple hundred hours I needed it to be fun.

I started work on the Joker and told my friends my plan.


To say it started rough is an understatement. I had a few people tell me they didn’t think it was going to work. I had a vision though, I knew that if I just kept working I could make something happen. It might not be great but most experiments are for learning more than anything so I just kept plugging away.

To say I was pleased with the result would be a gross understatement. It was the best thing I’d ever done. I was commissioned very quickly to do Churchill and took off on that… I wanted to experiment more but in the process felt that Churchill was such a strong personality. Not loose and easy. So I dialed things back, he is absolutely imposing in person. Again, I felt I had outdone myself.

My current commission came from Churchill and takes lessons from both the Joker and Winston.

I am preparing myself mentally for the series to evolve. I know where I want it to go. I wanted originally for the paint to layer in such a way that you felt you were looking into a person. So far that concept has not been achieved so I am still working towards answering that question.

One thing that I love about making art is the way an idea can change. I may be a portrait painter for the most part but I am learning how to add my love of abstraction to the process. Always learning and growing and loving that I get to have a life on my own terms. I am very excited about where things are going with this series and cannot wait to share more with you.

For future blog posts I plan to write a bit more about my favorite artists but I will also try to write about how I work through my own paintings. The important thing for me is just to keep writing about art so I can get better at expressing my thoughts on the subject.