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Interview with Calvin Lai

artist photo

Could you tell us a bit about yourself, your history and your experience with art before arriving at the Academy?

Art for me is an addiction that helps me stay sane and happy. It is the one thing that has been my constant companion throughout the years. Growing up in the suburbs of LA, I was often faced with situations where I felt out of place and withdrawn. It's a common story among artists, and not surprisingly I found myself always drawing. I would copy pictures and photos that were compelling to me, and through trial and error I gained an understanding of light and perspective at an early age. Eventually, I received a BA from San Francisco State, and afterwards I spent a long time traveling and studying music. It wasn't until 2008 when I decided to go to the Academy for a master's degree in illustration, but gravitated towards fine art painting instead.

Where do you see yourself in five years time?

There's no turning back now from my path of painting. I'm too old to do anything else career-wise with any great amount of vigor. So in five years I see myself in a large studio with an abundance of natural light, honing my skills as a painter, and getting my artistic vision out into the world. I also see this happening in or around the Bay Area as I've found a thriving musical community here which is hard to find in other cities. Being a realistic painter, I'll be making a living off of commissions and gallery sales.

Are you having any upcoming group or individual shows that you would like to share with us?

I have a solo show at 625 Sutter Gallery that will be up throughout the month of November.

Any reason why you are drawn to figurative painting?

The human form is the most fascinating subject to paint in my opinion. No two bodies are the same, and each face is unique. Even within a person's body or face there are countless shades and colors that can only be noticed through careful observation. A lot of people do not see that a person's mood and emotions can be read through how they sit, how they hold their hands, and of course the subtlemovements within their expressions. People are fascinating, because there is an endless amount of variety, and each individual has endless amounts of variations within themselves. It is, thankfully, anever ending act of discovery.

Who are your 3 favorite artists? Why?

1) John Singer Sargent – I never understood why he was so revered until I actually saw his

paintings. Not only was he a great realist that could render in fine detail, but when you look up close to his paintings you can see that some marks were done with quick precision. Only a master can do that.

2) Mian Situ – He is possibly one of the greatest realist painters that can still tell whole stories on the canvas. His paintings are epic and his style is impeccable.

3) Richard Schmid – Because he's Richard Schmid.

What inspired your path to art?

I feel that when I'm really absorbed within a painting I get into this place I call the Zone. Not a very unique name, in fact it's kind of dorky, but appropriate in the sense that it evokes this nebulous state of creation. Many artists I've talked to also experience this type of sensation while painting. This “Zone” is my inspiration to art. I guess you can just call it the creative impulse, but whatever an artist names it, it is an addictive state of being which I consistently search for.

What subjects are you drawn to?

Beauty that has an edge to it, things that are off the beaten path, and forms that break convention.

When do you challenge yourself and how?

I find that I'm naturally a slow painter. Not a good thing for the style I'm going for or for making a living. I often force myself to do something within a short amount of time in order to produce faster. This can lead to problems, but often it helps me loosen up and key into an instinctual process.

What was the hardest lesson you learned?

When I first started painting I approached it the way I would approach a drawing. The results were disastrous. I quickly learned that the precision one can get with a pencil is much more difficult with a brush. In my opinion, painting is not like drawing. As time went on I discovered that I had to change my approach, and actually think differently while creating a piece. I eventually learned how build a painting and render fine detail. But when I learned that one could simply imply information within a painting; that was when I shifted form being an illustrator to being a painter.

What advice would you give to students?

School and teachers are helpful. I've had a couple of teachers that really changed my artistic style. But no matter how good the teacher is don't let anyone tell you that your art is “wrong”. I don't feel that there are any artistic rules that are sacred. If you can find a way of saying what you want outside of the prescribed norms than you're art will be that much stronger.

What is your favorite quote?

“The difference between Art and Life is that Art is more bearable.” -- Charles Bukowski.

To see more of Calvin's work check out his website.