Ulrich Gleiter interview By Realism Without Borders
Realism Without Borders. The thing that first attracted me to your work was the strength in not only color but brushwork. Would you tell me about how this style developed for you? Also, do you think there is a close relationship between the way you use paint and your own personality and way of seeing life? Ulrich Gleiter: In my point of view, painting must not be a close description of what`s in front of us. To convey an atmosphere of, say, a landscape or a portrait is much more what I pursue. Before setting out to paint, I like to have a strong idea of my future painting first. During the process, working from nature mostly means selecting and merging with what I have in mind. What do we have available when we paint? Lines, color, values, brushwork, texture. All these can be used quite independently from nature, creating a world of it own on the canvas, guiding the viewer`s attention. One of the challenges is to realize when something begins to turn out in a painting, even more as we often find the unusual and unexpected more intriguing. Thinking about your question, I could say that my confidence in painting grew together with optimism about life. It takes the same qualities: to be able and notice areas on your canvas where an order begins to evolve is much easier when one`s attitude is optimistic and not stuck to conventions, just as in life itself.
What brought you, a German artist, to Russia?
UG: That was for the art. Back years ago, when I was looking for a school that could offer me instruction in painting the model every day, figure drawing etc, I visited the yearly exhibit of student work at the Repin Academy in St. Petersburg. At that time I was in my undergraduate studies at the Dresden Academy of Art (Germany). Although Dresden was a fair start, I felt this level was not sufficient. Ever since my interest in painting became serious, impressionist-realism was what excited me. I was looking intensively: Poland, Italy, France.. but understood that what`s offered in either St. Petersburg or Moscow is what will really get me ahead. My teachers in Dresden did not exactly encourage this decision, as for it was very unusual, too: at `peak` times, we were no more than three students from Germany at the Repin Academy.
In the beginning, I felt myself in `foreign land`, but soon began to appreciate that wealth of artists and painting in Russian history. No longer had the feeling of `homesick`.
RWB: You talk about the community of painters in Russia with whom you interact. How did that group come together and how had being a part of this group help support and advance your career. UG: Very natural: we all knew ourselves from school. During the week, we were painting in the studio, and on an extended weekend, we stayed on a `dacha` (a countryside-house) and painted together. That circle as become much smaller now, but not less important to me. It helps so much to see others at work and exchange ideas. These experiences still connect me to Saint Petersburg. Looking at the future, I will be glad to build friendships like this with painters in America.
RWB: We talked about a certain romantic notion of Russia, not so much of the communist way of life (I donâ€™t know any Americans who envy that) but of Russia being an exotic place with a deep history that other cultures donâ€™t really understand. Does that play into your work? UG: One of the nice things about Russia is that people can be easy-going. I remember one visit with a friend when I was invited first for a week - and ended up staying all of February. After the first week, every member of the family had left, except for the father of my friend. In the evenings, I helped keeping the house going with carrying firewood and heat the place. During the days, I was painting. You could call it easy-going or `down-to-earth` at the same time: people generally don`t make a lot of words about something. Westerners often mistake this for `Russians never smile`. At school, it took me years to get a positive reaction from teachers. Not because it was bad, but because they expected more. This was hard to live with at the beginning. But I feel this sobering view will always be helpful when looking at my work. In this case, I will owe a lot to this attitude. (Saint Petersburg has been a place for my student-years, with great memories of this time. On the other hand, I do not image my future in Russia: besides red tape, society is very different to what we are used to as Westerners. )
Your work has really caught on in America. Do you have the same reception in your own country? If not, why?
UG: I always saw my work being appreciated in Europe. However, for several reasons, realism tends to receive less attention in Germany than in America. That my work has found good reception in the States gives it more credibility, and that surely helps acceptance in Europe, too.
When you go out to paint, what attracts you to a scene?
UG: Often, I have visited my spot a few times before setting out to paint. And I like to begin with a `title` already in mind. Something that hints out to what`s happening and what I`ll be working towards to. A good way to get ideas for paintings is simply to be in the area for a while and observe at different times of the day.
RWB: Walk me through a typical painting in a timeline fashion: How many days to you work on a painting? Do you sketch outside then head indoors with photos or do you keep returning to the same local until you are done? UG: Finding a scene and thinking the painting through is already half the work. Commonly, I have many days on one painting. Also, I love to work on a few pieces simultaneously. That way, there`s one for every weather and every time of the day. One hour can be more effective than 6 hours for one session... in other words, the time needed varies. Every painting demands its own thoughts and takes time to get into it. A day of work without significant, obvious progress is not a lost day. I might have collected some ideas that will later appear in the finished painting, but the canvas was not yet at a stage when ready for these details. Not every stroke is done on location. At some point, I prefer to paint from memory, unify and scratch. Returning to location on a later day, these often are the most productive sessions. `Fixing` the uncertainties that result while painting from memory and combining them with the freshness that I get when observing nature once again, this raises paintings to a new level.
What are your favorite subjects?
UG: Probably I am without preferences here. However, landscapes do intrigue me. A lot of travelling in the last years (in Europe, Russia and America) exposed me to many new types of scenery. Most likely, I felt challenged and the desire to capture as much as I can.
I know you also paint figurative work but we mostly see your landscapesâ€”why is that?
UG: That desire to capture all these sceneries resulted painting mostly landscapes over the past two years. I feel ambitious to paint still-life again, as well as portraits that I had in mind long ago.
RWB: How does painting in America change your work, if at all? UG: Definitely! It`s got its own distinctive character, and that desires to get expressed in paintings of its landscapes, portraits etc. As well, there is subject matter which is unique to America. Some might call it ugly, I find it attractive: to paint the billboards, car-dealers, trucks etc is a big wish of mine. Especially true is this when I`ve just arrived from Europe and look out the window of my motel the next morning: bleak car parks, highways, shopping areas. In general, I`m somewhat unsatisfied with myself I haven`t yet really approached these subjects. I would be looking forward to spend more time in America and paint!