Steven Volpe describes his work as mixing realism and the contemporary. In his technique, he hails from a realist painting tradition, yet his subjects and approach to making art are very much of the now.

Let’s look at Meeting of the Gravity Cult for example. In it, a hand tips back a paper cup of coffee as if the viewer is about to take a sip. Hand and coffee take up the foreground, obscuring the thing the three figures consider. The composition seems throwaway, since who would purposefully place the elements this way, where the viewer can’t see the subject? But look at the painting again: it carefully plays with the rule of thirds, a centuries-old composition technique for creating dynamic balance. And by never revealing what lies behind the paper cup, the composition forces the viewer to look for clues in the elements that surround the empty centre. Viewing the painting becomes about contemplating a mystery.

Many of his works carry this snapshot quality but reveal themselves, on further reflection, to be works of careful study, often making self-reference to the act of painting within the painting itself.

In this interview, Volpe reveals his extensive, 21st-century approach to painting, which mixes candid photos, Google and Photoshop with classical painting of models (models which just so happen to be himself and his wife).


Where do you do your artwork?

My studio is in my home in Orangeville, Ontario. Although it is quite functional for me, it’s a room that looks like someone attempted to put together a nice office, then gave up and decided to start an oil painting. I move an easel and trolley into the centre of the room in the morning, then back against the wall when the day is over.

Lighting is always an issue. On an overcast day, the room gets pretty dark, so I’m forced to flick on the light switch, resulting in an unevenly, unnaturally lit canvas, particularly if I’m working on one of the large ones. I’ve managed to make it work, although I’ve caught myself stubbornly committed to natural light and painting in near darkness late in the day. I’ll have to rethink my artificial lighting setup as I’ve discovered that the “daylight” LED bulbs leave me with a headache.

Because my workspace is on the same floor as where I eat and sleep, I need to have the painting turned away and out of my sight when I’m not painting. It really is crucial to my sanity and the painting’s safety that my “studio” be turned back into an office in the evenings without being confronted with a constant reminder of the day’s progress and trials.

In 2010, I shared studio space with two other artists at the Alton Mill. It was a public studio, so you had to be adept at alternating between immersing yourself in the painting and then, at any given moment, being a sociable host and salesperson. It was a useful experience, but I prefer to keep those two roles separate.

What is your process?

I paint in oils on canvas. I order my stretcher frames from Upper Canada Stretcher and they typically measure anywhere from 18" × 24" to a larger 36" × 48" size. I take pictures of people when I’m out and about, unbeknownst to them; or I should say “usually unbeknownst to them” since every once in a while a photo will reveal that the subject was not too pleased about having his or her picture taken (I once had to explain myself to an outdoor yoga class).

I use the office part of my workspace (desk and computer) for the preparatory work, much of which is poring over my photos and Google image searches for raw material. I give form to my ideas using Photoshop as a cut-and-paste tool for coming up with many—and I mean many—possible compositions. I usually do thumbnail sketches, too, in a small black sketchbook and dream journal that I keep in my nightstand by the bed.

After I choose a design I like best, I start with a very loose underpainting in a brown tone and introduce colours in subsequent layers. Aside from an occasional loaded brush flying out of my hands for no apparent reason, I’m a fairly neat painter. I also supplement the candid photos of people with staged ones, which I use for specific reference: hands, facial features, clothing, objects, etc. My wife and I are the models when anatomy is in question. I have posed with a bathtub scrubber; I have posed wearing my wife’s scarf; I have been in some odd positions on my driveway, much to the bewilderment of passersby—whatever is needed to get the job done.

When I am painting, I always have a mirror on hand to look at the inverted image of my painting. It helps to see things in a fresh way, exposing flaws in my work like an unbalanced design or a wonky nose. If I’m really unsure, I’ll ask for my wife’s opinion; sometimes another pair of eyes—particularly that of a registered massage therapist who knows anatomy—is all that’s needed to point out the obvious. I spend as much time looking at the painting as I do actually painting.

I’ve spent far too much time researching special mediums and additives hoping to impart a magical “something” to my work. If I’m using a handmade copal walnut gel medium or a bargain brand linseed oil or no medium at all, my paintings always turn out looking like my paintings. Granted, materials do have unique properties and it’s the artist’s obligation to explore and discover how to achieve specific effects, but it can be taken to an obsessive extreme, diverting energy in the wrong direction. I have quite an archive of email responses from conservators and from artists, ranging from retired Sunday painters to Eric Fischl, sharing their personal preferences concerning materials. My conclusion: The more successful the artist, the less they seem to get fixated on stuff like that.

How do you work?

I used to listen to music during my painting sessions, but for the last few years, I’ve chosen to listen to classic TV episodes on either YouTube or from my own DVD collection. Right now, I’m watching—listening to, rather—The Bob Newhart Show and before that it was Leave it to Beaver. The retro sitcom format provides me with a comfortable nostalgia and familiarity that makes me more productive somehow. They remedy the solitude and give me a chuckle now and then throughout the day. I tried classical music, classic rock, jazz, CBC radio, silence, but the old sitcoms work best for me. I’m wondering if I used to watch those very shows when I was drawing hockey goalies in my youth, and maybe it brings me back to a time when art was done for the pure sake of enjoyment.

My day of painting begins at 10:00 am and usually ends at 5:00 pm with a half-hour break for lunch. I occasionally spend time in the evenings looking at photos of the painting in process to resolve issues to set myself up for the next day. Looking at images from other painters (mostly old masters) online serves as ongoing reference. I try to reserve my Fridays for the promotional side of the job: updating my website; filling out applications; responding to emails, etc., so it’s usually a four-day week at the easel.

What is your favourite thing about your studio or workspace?

While I do enjoy the ritual of listening to old TV shows as I paint, every once in a while I’ll open the window to hear the sounds of the day: the kids playing in the park just beyond my backyard, the excited voices, the dogs barking, the birds singing, and the breeze through the trees. Of course, if the painting is not going well, I’m much less romantic about those ambient sounds, which can really be a bleepin’ nuisance.

Is there a significant highlight in your art career to this point you can share?

Receiving my first of three Ontario Arts Council Grants in 2008 was a real boost and validation to keep going. Also, winning a first prize at the Visual Arts Mississauga Juried Exhibition was exciting too. But most recently I received the Ontario Arts Foundation Laura Ciruls Award for a mid-career artist. That came right out of the blue and is the most satisfying of my awards to this point. The fact that a fellow artist set up this award prior to her passing away at the same age I am now really gives it a much deeper significance.

What are you working on now?

At the moment, I am dividing my time between preparing for an upcoming art fair and developing ideas for the next painting. I just completed a painting that isn’t quite up to my usual standard—that happens every once in a while. It probably won’t be seen by anyone except my wife. So now I am mulling over new ideas, sifting through my photos, and getting ready to tackle another canvas; I learn from past mistakes and hope for a better result.

Do you offer studio tours?

Unfortunately, the space doesn’t lend itself to tours, however it is suitable for meeting with clients and prospective buyers.


See more of Volpe’s work here.