D McGarren Flack was preparing to be a medical doctor. But life seemed to have other ideas for him. A chance visit to the National Gallery of Art, Washington DC in 1999 to see a travelling art show of John Singer Sargent’s paintings opened a Pandora’s Box in front of him.
The fluid language of Sargent’s painting revealed, for the first time, the possibilities in the world of art to Douglas McGarren Flack. And, he submitted to its charm. After graduating from Brigham Young University in 2002 he joined the University of Utah and completed MFA from there in 2008.
Like Diego Velázquez, whose work Sargent took a great care in studying, Douglas likes the spontaneous burst of energy that alla prima provides. He masterfully utilises this technique in his visual diary capturing emotions and stories from everyday life.
Take us through your childhood and how the influences you were exposed to contributed in the shaping of the man you have grown up to be? Were there signs of your artistic talent early on?
I did some drawing as a child but not any more than the next. I liked collecting graphic novels as a young teen but never thought doing art was a possibility. I had always thought that people just did art on the side of whatever they were doing for a living. I took a drawing and painting class in high school because I sucked with music. But that is as far as it went. After high school I lived in Washington DC for almost 3 years and while I was there I saw an exhibit of an artist I had never heard of before (not that I knew of many before this time). The John Singer Sargent travelling exhibition was in DC and I went to it. I was amazed on how someone could paint life so well but still make it look like a painting. That was my first interest with doing art, my desire to do it professionally hadn’t changed. The change came when I was fulfilling my associates (I wanted to become a surgeon and had to get my generals out of the way); I had to take some type of art class so I picked drawing. I hated the teacher but I loved drawing and that is when I made the decision that I was going to be an artist.
How the formal training received first in Brigham Young University and then at University of Utah helped in developing your skills? What were the scopes of progression of conceptual and technical elements along with personal expressions?
At BYU I earned my BFA in Illustration. I saw what the students were producing and said, that is where I want to be. All of the other schools were producing nonrepresentational work and modern art, I was only interested in representational and painting people. I was close to being a photo realist and decided that I didn’t want to copy photos. Why not just use the photo instead of paint it? This led me to getting my MFA at the U of U. I knew they would try to push me away from photo realism and they did. My technical skill didn’t increase much but my theory of art sure did. My MFA kind of killed my love for painting a pretty woman; I had to create pieces of art with conceptual elements to them. I don’t know if I can ever go back to just painting a picture, it needs to have some type of concept connected to it.
You did prepare for studying Medical Sciences but eventually you are dissecting characters on canvas. Does it feel ironical?
Haha, well I guess you could say that. I still had to fulfil my medical desire so I went back to school after earning my MFA and earned a paramedic certification. I work about 48 hrs a month as a medic just for fun. I have experienced some awesome things, some of which I am doing paintings on. When I build a concept it stews in my brain for a good solid year or two and if the idea is still interesting to me then I will strive to execute it. But yes, there is a bit of irony to my paintings of people and my desire to become a surgeon.
Oil painting is having a millennia old history, yet every artist creates his or her own niche every time the brush kisses the canvas. Define your relationship with the medium of your choice.
I work with two main mediums, Oil and Encaustic. The Encaustics are focused purely on medical art like a painting of a heart, or brains with transverse dissections etc. I love the fleshy feel and transparent look of the encaustic. Plus it is ultra archival (and I am into achievability). Oil just has such a dynamic feel to it. Depending on your pigment it responds different with the oil. I love how paint manufacturers try to get every pigment to feel the same which happens to be ultra wet, by adding more oil or additives to make it silky. I try to use the least amount of oil with the pigment (I make some of my own paints) and then add medium, if I need to, after it is on my palette. For example Ultramarine Blue has a sticky stringy feel to it when prepared right; Burnt and Raw Sienna and Umber have more of a grainy feel when mixed in the proper proportions. Titanium white feels too wet for my liking so that is why I use Lead White (I make my own because it is such a dynamic pigment). Anyways, I know my pigments so well I know the mark it will make when I place it down on the canvas. Oil allows me to change the feel and look of the medium depending on what I mix with it. I just love the options Oil provides.
You have developed an array of work based on tenebrism. Do you intensively study the works of past masters such as of Caravaggio who dramatised chiaroscuro?
No, I didn’t. I just wanted to create some images that had dynamic lighting and wanted to make the objects glow. It wasn’t until after I created some of the pieces that people referenced Caravaggio. I look at him now and am completely entertained with his execution and craftsmanship.
How do you train your mind in not only seeing through but also capturing human emotions on canvas as is evident in your figurative works?
Good question and I don’t think I can answer it. I love the personality and body language and I think Illustration helped me see how important a pose can be. I usually have an idea of what I want but when working with the model it doesn’t turn out the way I envisioned, it is usually better. I don’t think I would be able to capture the emotion if it wasn’t there with the model. How about we just blame the model for the emotion and I am just a camera capturing the moment.
Tell us about the genesis of your project, ‘Mugshots’?
I don’t know if I am done with the project. I have done 18 finished pieces and I am debating on making 50. It has been fun to work on but they are hard to sell. So I am debating on creating more. In short, the show is stating that we as humans are all criminal in one way or another, it is just that most of us are not caught. I interviewed each person (some have been arrested and some haven’t) and created a booking sheet based on of the stories they shared. The booking sheet is presented alongside the painting so people can see these ‘contemporary portraits’ and gain an understanding of who they are. Each painting is life-sized and the frames are carved out to show their height. Each mug shot is then hung according to the individual’s height so it looks like a line up when you walk into the gallery space. I was marrying contemporary and traditional art by making my traditionally painted portraits an installation.
You find the character in oft-ignored elements such as bricks. Tell us how small things play a big role in the art of storytelling.
A brick has every right to be painted as well as a portrait. I have sold almost all of my brick paintings (didn’t think that would happen). I take my craft very seriously and strive to effectively depict whatever I paint whether it is a background object or a button on a shirt. I also try not to paint too much detail so that it is all figured out for the viewer. The bricks were found in a large pile a couple of doors down from my house. The owners of the housing bulldozed 90% of the house and left the bricks in huge piles. When I walked by an image of the holocaust popped into my head. When I lived in DC I went to the Museum often and it looked just like the piles of shoes, and clothes in the museum. So I took about 12 bricks and painted them one by one.
You are also drawn to traditional landscape paintings and even the abstraction of night sky. How nature of all its bewitching beauty appeal to your artistic senses?
When I first started painting I worked for UPS as a data analyzer and then a supervisor. Work started at 3 or 4 am, so every time I went to work I saw the moon out and I noticed these amazing colours that existed around the moon. Most of the Moondog paintings were done from memory, but a couple were painted while outside in the moonlight. There is so much peace in the early mornings and that is what I was trying to capture.
If you are asked to depict your journey so far on canvas how would it look like?
A lost dog… I don’t think I will ever find a ‘process’, it changes every time I paint and it depends on what I paint. Right when I think I know how to paint I get lost again and have no idea what I am doing. Same thing with the subject matter, I pick what appeals to me and paint it.
My favourite holiday destination? Well, where ever I am, I love just enjoying what is around me and I have been all over the USA and love every part of it. I love fresh and raw food … mmmm so good. I love dancing while painting! I like movies that open my understanding, like ‘A Beautiful Mind’. As for books, I like self–help books, or books on art or the body. Love anatomy books … they have nice pictures.
Find more of his work at his website.