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, nearly always the latter. I absorb images, I collect them, and ideas begin to form. Painting the figure will never disappear, not just 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.


About Peter Illig

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