“You finally didn’t give a shit anymore, and then you can be like, ‘alright, I’m going to start making marks and I’m just going to plow through this thing until it looks fucking good. And then I’m going to stop.'”
Most people go to art school for years and years, draw the same still lifes over and over, and suffer through countless critiques in order to hone their skills as an artist. And then there are people like Wes Israel. Wes has no formal training as an artist, but looking at his beautifully classical style and extensive knowledge of art history, you would never even know.
How did this amazing man bypass the traditional art school route and still turn out so well? We were wondering, too, so we sat down with him to discuss his education, growth, and views on his place in the local Charleston art scene.
Hey, My name is Wes Israel. I’m a mechanic by trade who happens to be very interested in the mental battle that is creating something interesting to both myself and others. My education is predominantly in automotive, either in fabrication or just general automotive stuff, basically in how things work.
A lot of things are monotonous in a blue collar job so you end up having a lot of time to mindlessly perform a task. At the same time you can kind of wander and that’s when I end up thinking about whatever painting I’m going to be working on next.
You are self taught, walk us through the tried & true Wes Israel faux art school syllabus. How did you teach yourself to paint the way you do?
So the greatest thing about living right now is probably the amount of information that’s available for free, as long as you’re willing to work for it. Apart from just looking at a lot of paintings, like A LOT of paintings, I read a lot, either through books or obviously the internet. If I saw something that intrigued me for whatever reason, maybe not even necessarily a concept or composition but like an approach or whatever, I would figure out who did it and then learn everything I could about them. I would learned how to manipulate something, manipulate the tools to look the way I want it to look. That’s when I started researching Caravaggio and Rembrandt and all those old fuckers that everybody knows. Like I basically tried to figure out how they did stuff and then try to make acrylic paint do stuff like that without really knowing anything.
My maturation process was basically failing for a long time and then getting the confidence to fail, as opposed to expecting something to come out great, you know? You finally didn’t give a shit anymore, and then you can be like: alright, I’m going to start making marks and I’m just going to plow through this thing until it looks fucking good. And then I’m going to stop.
When and why did you make the switch to primarily working with paint rather than charcoal or pencil?
Well I did a couple of paintings for art classes when I was in high school, but they were primarily line based, stippling or something like that and I don’t really count those. Then there was this huge break from pretty much anything creative when I was married for a lot of reasons (that no one really cares about). Once I got separated I had a lot more time on my hands, a lot more time to reflect; it was a pretty shitty situation to be honest. And that’s when I started [painting] again.
I knew I could draw somewhat okay so I went out and bought some of the shittiest paints and the shittiest brushes, like Liquitex. Acrylic is very difficult to manipulate, in my opinion. It dries so fast that it’s almost like an anxious exercise. You’re flying everywhere with your hands, you’re stressed out to be honest. That’s basically when I started and I was 26? 27, around that time.
What is your process and media choice?
[My first paintings] came out okay, but I think I did better stuff in high school to be honest. I just wasn’t super happy with what I used to do. So then I started with the concept of layering, and to me, that was just mind blowing. You layer stuff in drawing, especially, but you’re not aware of it because there’s no color involved, so there’s no weird light play there; it basically just mashes into values.
I used house paint and this faux finish stuff which is kind of where Karl comes in, a muralist [who I sometimes work with and assist], because that’s his primary job. He creates murals or faux finishes; he’ll make this thing look like marble or this thing look like wood or whatever. And so I was talking to him about painting and he was like ‘try to go to Lowe’s and get this glaze’. It was super cheap, like $15 for a pint, which is a ridiculous amount. If you go to an art store that’d be like at least $100.
It thins out in a sense that there’s less pigment per amount of paint, so it ends up laying thin but it doesn’t thin out the same way the way that water thins it out.
You’ve previously discussed multiple old masters that you’ve learned from and been influenced by. What is it about them that inspired you to specifically paint realism?
I was never really intrigued by anything that wasn’t representative which kinda directed who I was interested in learning from and why. Caravaggio tackled subjects which had been painted a billion times before, but then he made them real. Like where he’s shoving Thomas’s finger into Christ’s side, that’s fucking brilliant, that was real. Then you have Jesus pouring across the table from a bunch of drunks to represent another bible story, and that’s awesome because that is exactly how life is.
Everything else before that, especially like Florentine times with all the halos and the orbs, was interesting and decorative. At the same time it was so far away from anything that you would experience, it almost kind of makes it useless. That was another big thing I learned.
What’s your definition of a “successful artist”?
He [Caravaggio] painted something that he had to paint because it was money, and then he made it more real than anyone else had ever made it, and he did it in the way that he wanted to, and there’s a lot of controversy behind that; he’s kind of a crazy person. He just didn’t back down, he knew what he wanted to do, and he did it.
Pretty much anyone who has ever been amazing, even if they’re not famous, […] alway just didn’t give a shit about what anyone else thought. If you do something well enough, it forces people to give it credence that they wouldn’t normally give it.
What bothers me most now about artists in general is that you look at one painting and then you’ve pretty much seen every other painting, and that really bothers me. What is the point of expressing yourself if you’re saying the same thing over and over?
Is like you’re basically pandering to people to be famous or to be considered good, when in all honesty I don’t give two shits about what anyone thinks about any of my paintings. Like if it wasn’t successful in my eyes or whatever, I don’t want anybody to see it. It’s almost not worth doing.
So I think that depends on what you want and what your goals are. So if your goals are to push some mud around all day, more power to you, that’s awesome, but if your goal is more personal, I feel like that’s almost impossible to do.
People always seem to have a romanticized view on the life of an artist. What do you have to add to this?
There are a lot of famous artists, even now there’s a lot more that’s known about them that isn’t actually true. And then if you actually meet them in person they’re completely different. Or people just make up stories, like I’m a nobody, but people still assume I have naked chicks around all the time and I haven’t painted anybody naked in a long time People just assume this lifestyle for you because of god knows what weird shit they’ve been reading. And if you’re really known that just gets blown up a million times more, and it’s just really not glamorous.
Let’s close it out with a little commentary on the contemporary art world in the words of Wes:
The art world is its own little weird high schoolish subculture that i don’t understand. Let’s be honest it’s a who’s who and it’s pretty crazy. Even this city, i don’t know how to navigate it very well. It has a Mean Girl’s vibe for sure.