Talk given at Walker Fine Art, Denver – Idea to Images.


I am going to talk about how artists might use the figure to express ideas in paintings, and how some artists move from IDEA to Images. Art ideas come from inside, in your mind, or outside, through your eyes. For me, always the latter. I absorb images, I collect them, and ideas begin to form. Painting the figure will never disappear, not because it’s historically important, but because it’s always about human experience. I’m not so interested in accurate psychological portraits; the figures that populate my paintings are metaphors or analogies, like actors playing a role. 1journey Historically, artists often painted what they were commissioned to paint, such as saints or nobility, but always managed to include their own ideas and personal stamp. Art historians have discovered a lot of the personal backstory found in great renaissance paintings that were ostensibly painted for religious reasons. This example, a painting from after the renaissance in the North entitled “Bathsheba”, is of Rembrandt’s common-law 2nd wife: 2rembrandtbathsheba

Painting the human figure got its start in Western art from paintings of saints in the Middle Ages. In my paintings, the saints are replaced with secular, everyday people.

Artists tend to get an urge to say something in their paintings, either a commentary on society or vivid personal response to the world. I am speaking of representational figure painting here since delving into pure abstraction is outside the purview of this talk. I envy abstract artists, who may often start a painting directly on a blank canvas. I depend on photographic reference a lot and it can slow me down considerably. Much research and hunting for the right images is involved. I work out compositions in small pencil drawings. I write down phrases that suggest art ideas. Frequently I take pictures of models and objects and use those. But lots of artists respond to or borrow images from other artists; I’ve done that as well. Here’s an example of an artist no less than Picasso who borrowed from several artists of the canon: Delacroix,Velasquez, and here Edouard Manet:


Picasso is using the Manet painting as raw material for his own experiments, but he’s still starting from Manet’s painting.

For me, reading literature, philosophical works, and books about psychology generates ideas. If I read something I feel strongly about, there are images that come to mind that seem to “illustrate” the idea. Words become visual for me. I don’t think I’m unique in this. For example, I was fascinated for a long time by the films of German director Wim Wenders, who would frequently make reference to windows, screens, TVs, lenses, optical devices — in other words things that influenced or framed our vision. That’s important to artists as well. After the advent of the internet, the ‘screen’ became a much larger topic of conversation. The screen was the window into cyberspace. Cyberspace became the new film space, but much more complex, with a hugely diverse source of images.

When I was in school I was completely immersed in the study of Art History. So much so that I felt compelled to include art historical examples in my paintings.10passageFinally I had to push aside the past to find my own images. 11cleaning_house

This painting  shows an artist sweeping out her studio but what she’s sweeping out are examples of art history. Here’s a far more extreme example of an artist obsessed with art history: the incredible and epic painting ‘Cockaigne’ by Vincent Desiderio is 13 x 9 feet and working sporadically, took Desiderio 10 years to complete –12cockaigne_desiderio  But there’s more – apparently Desiderio started with a sketch that borrowed from Willem DeKooning’s painting ‘Excavation’ (one of my favorites by the Ab-Ex painter).13willem-de-kooning-excavation_sm  Desiderio filled the canvas with layered squares, then slowly turned the shapes into art history books opened to some of his favorite paintings of the past.  This process supports a theory of mine, that abstract painters frequently do have a real subject in mind (we know DeKooning did this with his abstract Women series). Abstraction and realism are two sides of the same coin. Here’s an older painting of mine that places a copied B&W Franz Kline abstract painting next to a realistically depicted female figure.  In a painting like this I’m asking the viewer to consider the possibility that abstract art is never far from the observable world. 14lavender

I still use art historical references in paintings.  For example, Winslow Homer: 15-illig_transitionteamrev

Here’s another local artist that venerates the past using Northern Renaissance styles and figures similar to Pieter Breughel or Bosch, mixed in with images borrowed from Japanese art, Ravi Zupa: 15aravizupa

I have borrowed heavily from popular culture and I was influenced by James Rosenquist. Like him I juxtapose images to reveal new meanings. This is the crudely assembled collage, made of pictures from magazines that became his masterwork, House of Fire: 16houseoffirecollage

The artist Mark Tansey is brilliant as far as making illustrations of ideas.  Here’s two older paintings of his that I love:

Clearly, he sets up scenes and uses photos for his paintings.   Likewise, a painting by the American master Alfred Leslie, seen below.  The painting is one of several he did that addresses the unfortunate freak accident that killed the avant-garde poet Frank O’Hara in 1966. 22leslie

I was fortunate to attend a school that also had the Creative Studies Institute on the campus and I was able to take courses in creativity. We learned a 5 step process for creative problem-solving, but before you think it was only a series of structured steps, it had a lot of allowance and emphasis on deeply mystical processes, sort of Jungian inward-looking creative connections.  One was making ‘forced associations’ of widely differing things.  This becomes visual in ‘juxtaposition’, a huge part of my art work.


Other times, I see images that I like and want to somehow use in a painting. I don’t always know why, but I decide to trust my intuition.  Later as the painting is in progress, the meaning begins to reveal itself.  By the time the painting is complete, the unconscious reason that the picture was selected and not others is usually clear.  An unconscious choice.  It’s almost like how the Tarot works. In the hands of a really good Tarot reader, the cards reveal the desires and inclinations of the subject.

I think a lot about dreams and dream interpretation.  We know that all technology is an extension of a natural aspect of humanity.  Like a hammer or a pair of pliers is an extension of our hand’s power, a machine does what people do, only amplified.  As technology,  a computer is an extension of the human mind. So what technology is an extension of the human capacity to dream?   It is film and video.  Images moving in time. While I don’t make films I do use stills from films and digital sources.  In 1991, Wim  Wenders made a film 26until-the-end-poster

about a man who invents a camera that can record images so a blind person could see images in their brain.  As it turns out, in the story the camera can also record images of dreams from a sleeping person. Seeing their own dreams drives people to obsession and madness. I have never forgotten about that movie and I imagine many of my paintings as being illustrations of dreamlike situations.  The paintings can have the same psychological meaning as dreams from the unconscious.

I also think a lot about the conflict between the rational mind and the emotions.  In part because this battle has often been won by emotion, to the detriment of various aspects of my life.  How does one ‘illustrate’ this struggle?    Literally dividing the painting into sections is one way:  29asabove_sobelow_lrg-copy   or in this case, in a painting that I am just now completing, and has never been seen: 30immersionptng

If I were to summarize here, I would have to say that making paintings, for me, passing from Idea to Image, would be like dumping all the ingredients, the processes I’ve mentioned, into a big pot and stirring it til a painting comes about. It’s not that random, of course, but the analogy isn’t far off.

Peter Illig



The Gang, Eric Fischl.

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The Logic of Dreams – Peter ILLIG


Logic of Dreams (detail)Logic of Dreams

Logic of Dreams 1

The drawing is a narrative of an implicit dream, a pastiche of images of emotional turmoil and crisis, creating a two-way dialog between past and present, order and chaos, art and everyday life.  Like changing channels on a TV, or surfing the web, images move like a sliding puzzle, the drawing presents a series of cultural meanings  —  elusive, oblique references, innuendo, erotic symbolism, implications, metaphors, unclear boundaries, non sequiturs, incongruities, romantic ideas.

The Logic of Dreams may be seen as a metaphor for the outward appearance of the rational, observed world that surrounds us. Is the world operating only on scientific principles, or is it more like a dream, drifting from image to symbol….an illusion of “cause and effect”?  Physicists find matter and the cosmos hard to measure and explain. The Uncertainty Principle, quantum mechanics and Chaos Theory point to a world where matter cannot be proven to exist, where subject and object cannot be separated, and (pay attention here)  consciousness may be determining reality.

We participate in the creation of our world by the act of observing. This has important implications for artists. But we can seek the spiritual, not by avoiding matter, but by immersing ourselves in it. The charcoal I’m drawing with was once a living thing. Everything is related to everything else. Thoughts are things. And so are dreams.

The drawings are the incomplete narrative of love and existence, metaphors for sensations and thoughts.

The “sleep of reason” leads to another plane.

It’s not machinery, but magic.

– Peter Illig, 2010

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“Reading Between the Lines”, review of the show “Drawing Never Dies” at Redline, Denver CO


above: “Ruin”,  by Peter Illig.

Drawing Never Dies, an interesting and somewhat provocative examination of contemporary drawings — at least that’s purportedly its subject — is nearing the end of its run at RedLine. The show was juried by Donald Fodness, a Denver artist, and Daisy McGowan, director of the Galleries of Contemporary Art at the University of Colorado Colorado Springs. They considered nearly 700 works submitted by artists from around the world, and ultimately decided to include just over eighty pieces, nearly all of them installed in the enormous main space at RedLine, with a handful in the library to underscore the intimacy of the drawing medium.

To come up with their picks, Fodness and McGowan employed an expanded meaning of “drawing,” which they say is arguably the oldest and most direct art form. In this show, the idea of “drawingness” has been stretched not just to its breaking point, but way, way beyond that: Sculptures, bas-reliefs, ceramics, digital prints and photos, video and even a video “drawing” game with a poetry soundtrack are included. While the preponderance of the material here falls easily within our common understanding of what constitutes a drawing, there are many things that don’t. Some of these pieces are just a degree or so from a conventional definition of drawing, but others go much further than that — and there are a few things that are hard to understand in this context at all. Still, the open-ended approach by the jurors has resulted in a fairly lively and engaging aesthetic experience, even if the underlying thematic narrative is not as tight as it could be.

The show certainly looks good as a whole, with several strong passages providing visual variety. Fodness and McGowan were able to organize groups of pieces with shared affinities so that different points about drawing are made in different places. This approach is especially successful at the start, but it falls apart somewhat as the exhibit proceeds.

As you might expect, some of the most compelling works are contemporary versions of traditional representational drawing. “Five Hundred Degrees Celsius,” by Anna Kaye, for example, is a stunningly beautiful and meticulously detailed depiction in charcoal on paper of a forest fire at twilight. Sharing the same fanatical sense for representation are Caroline Peters’s “Broke Down Palace,” in ink on paper, and Peter Illig’s “Ruin,” in charcoal on paper; both depict collapsing buildings. Shelby Shadwell’s “Comedie 2,” which shows a soiled diaper being set upon by roaches, looks like a photo, though it’s actually charcoal and mixed media on cloth…

-excerpted from an article by Michael Paglia, Westword, Denver CO  July 2016

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“Escorts,” Elizabeth Mahler Licence, at Kanon, Denver CO

Santa Fe Drive in Denver is chock-full of small art galleries and this month a show at Kanon Collective is full of surprises. New works by Elizabeth Mahler Licence fill the front of the small gallery space. Licence has been a photographer for years, showing small works there many times, as a member of this art cooperative. In this exhibit, entitled “Escorts,” she has appropriated others’ photographs and manipulated them to her own purposes.
Unless you grew up on another planet, you know that Las Vegas, Nevada is famous for gambling, but also for legal prostitution, and in downtown Las Vegas, you can often be handed photo cards as you pass on the street, to advertise the services of various ‘call girls’. The images they present are a kind of soft-porn, with stars or hearts or other shapes coyly placed over the women’s body parts. Licence has taken this presentation and artistically altered it to take on a kind of “women’s work” appearance. The photos are turned into soft-pastel digital color prints on fabric on embroidery hoops (about eight to ten inches diameter is typical size). Then she has sewn cute cutout cloth shapes to cover their delicate parts, with needle and thread, mimicking “ladies hand-work” decorative crafts.

The printing has the effect of multi-color screen printing, where each color is separated and layered. As a result these soft-porn images of sex workers become transformed into decorative designs, masking and disguising the original image’s promise of sex, with almost-innocent, sweetly-crafted alterations. Licence has made an interesting transformation here: the work recalls the championing and use of traditional “women’s craft” such as sewing, knitting, and crochet by second-generation feminists. And the works draw attention to the re-appropriation of “images of women,” intended for consumption by men, to artful purposes. If there’s irony, it’s partly because the art works are for sale (naturally), thereby doubling the intent of the original advertising card image.

The women in Licence’s art works retain their allure, but now as decorative “playmate” types, where the hard work and raunchy side of prostitution is easily forgotten. I’m not sure if that is the artist’s intent but the show is intriguing nonetheless, and draws attention to the possibilities of crossover in art and life. Life, at least in Sin City, USA.

Kanon Collective, 766 Santa Fe Dr, Denver CO
May 2016
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On Clyfford Still’s painting “PH-235”

(A talk given by Peter Illig at the Clyfford Still Museum, Denver, Colorado)

The material leads to the spiritual.  Or another way of saying it, the spiritual is in the material. How is this possible?  Why would troweling paint pigment onto a thick cotton canvas lead to a spiritual revelation?  It depends on the approach, and the attitude the artist (such as Clyfford Still) has when he is working. He may start with a mental state, a predilection for a certain mood or an idea; some big question that has been on his mind that he feels compelled to say something about. That will inform his choices as he paints.   But also, he will likely abandon reason and conscious decisions and let “other forces” come into play:  intangible and hard-to-explain unconscious forces that will determine the painting’s form.   The psychologist Carl Jung believed these forces were at work in all humans, but only the focused energy of the experienced artist, could put them into some sort of visual form.  Still’s paintings aren’t “illustrations of ideas” but transcendent images that expressed universal ideas as they were created.

Still stated specifically that the color black was, for him, not a color of fear and terror, but one of warmth and energy.  So the black ground is not a frightening void or abyss but a mysterious generative space.  The red arc would seem obvious as a bolt of lightening but that’s perhaps too easy an interpretation.  More a filament of energy, a pathway through the dark ground.  It does not separate two sides, as an edge would, but travels in a jagged linear fashion. As it travels, left to right (our Western view) it passes 3 other phenomenon:  a white drip which advances outward, a jagged yellow shape, and an emerald green splash below.  It can also be seen as a crevice – a glimpse into a gap, pulsating with warm energy deep within.

One of Still’s predecessors, the German expressionist painter Max Beckmann, is known for this statement: “If you wish to grasp the invisible, penetrate as deeply as possible into the visible”.  He was speaking as a figurative artist, but this can apply to abstract artists as well.   The material, the paint, the support, etc, will, in the hands of the spiritually-minded and experienced artist, take on a sense of the transcendent.

P. Illig


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Art review in ‘Westword’ – May 2016

Figuratively Speaking finishes off with a group of five Peter Illig paintings. Illig’s style refers to mid-twentieth century book-cover art and advertising, giving them a post-pop sensibility. Assembling various disparate images combined in the same piece, Illig’s work is allegorical, but the meanings are often obscure. These recent Illig paintings struck me as very different from his earlier work, yet thoroughly consistent with it.

at Walker Fine Art, Denver CO

-Michael Paglia

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New Works – Peter Illig 2016


A red monochromatic reproduction of a painting by Italian Baroque artist Artemisia Gentileschi fills most of the space. In the original, which illustrates an apocryphal biblical tale, Jewish queen Judith and her assistant have beheaded Holofernes, an enemy of her people, but in this painting, a symbol for patriarchy. Inset pictures comment on the meaning in ambiguous ways.



Three images are metaphors that combine to comment on some of the “mechanisms” that make sexual politics function in our society. As in the other paintings, women are shown as a presence; men are only alluded to. Male and female energy turn the gears (a well-lubricated machine); take out one part and the machine stops turning.



A 19th century painting by French artist Jean-Auguste-Dominque Ingres provides a figure and setting, but the young aristocratic woman in the original (seen in reflection in mirror), is replaced or ‘cancelled’ by a modern young woman wearing the accoutrements of technology. The painting is “constructed,” as alluded to by the cranes at left. Past and present collide.



A woman attempts to hold back a “flood” of male sexual energy. To the right, stereotypes of men and their supposed power and independence are shown by the chess ‘king’ and motorcyclist.



ILLIG_Trajectory_Ptng _sm
A jet above and a pageant princess below, two metaphors for exaggerated male and female ideas. Both possess a certain energy and charisma.



Ways of Knowing

An astronomer peers through a large telescope, looking upward to the heavens.
A woman immersed in water finds her self in bodily experience. The buddha represents the inward, spiritual search for knowledge.


These paintings and more may be viewed at Walker Fine Art gallery in Denver, CO through May 14, 2016.

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