A talk with Karl Dempwolf
We are very excited to have Karl Dempwolf return once again, as one of our favorite artists and workshop instructors in October 2023. Karl will be taking the class to Point Lobos State Reserve among other favorite coastal locations, in what will likely be his final group workshop, because Karl plans to spend the rest of his life painting, not teaching.
I talked to Karl about what he was currently working on and what expectations students should have about painting with him in October 2023.
What’s on your easel?
Karl Dempwolf (KD)
I have been working on the CAC Gold Medal piece. I know it was done months ago and I’ve hung it on the wall, which is what I do. I look at it, and I look at it. After a while, while it’s hanging in the studio, I look at it and I’ve got to make changes to it. Changes—they don’t occur to me all the time. What am I going to do with this area? It just drove me nuts. I even worked on it last night. I think I finished it. I looked at it this morning and I said, “This is Point Lobos.” I love Point Lobos. It’s just my favorite area of the paint. But it’s also so tough because I don’t finish by finishing what the (reference) photograph looks like because I want to do it differently. I want to have an impact on it. And so the problem (in this painting) was that the large rock. It’s a large rock. I painted it for years. I named the painting, “I must be repeating myself” because every time I paint it, I struggle with it. I mean, every painting that I know I’ve painted of this in the past, I struggle with it. And I don’t repeat old versions. And I’ve got an old version that’s just wonderful. I look at it and I say, “It’s wonderful.”
Jessie Powell still paints out there at Point Lobos. He sent me directions on how to get to the rock. But anyway, the rock that Guy Rose did a couple of paintings of it’s the rock that stands by itself with a cliff over to the left. And this rock is just wonderful. And I wanted to paint. I love painting things that my heroes painted.
Rich Brimer, Director (CVA)
Well, Point Lobos is a never-ending inspiration.
It is so never-ending. It is just so wonderful. And I can go back there over and over.
What sets your work apart?
When someone sees a Dempwolf painting, I want people to ask, “What is that?” “What did you do here?” “I know the scene, I know that tree, and I know the vista. Why did you paint it like that?” Because! I feel like I’m stagnating if I don’t change things so they are different than the scene. Before I paint it, I know what the scene is supposed to look like. I’ve been doing this for a long time. I’m self-taught. I’m trying to come up with something that strikes me, and that’s why a painting can take so long. And it can’t ever be a copy of something. It’s got to be my version of it, MY version of it.
So when you’re referencing photographs to get the essence of the place, but you’re going to put Karl into it, how do you decide what it’s going to stay and what it’s not going to stay? And if there’s that historical part of it… or some iconic places that you like, for instance, there’s a place in Garapata State Park where there’s these two rocks standing in the ocean. Most painters just put these two rocks next to each other as they are — because there are these two rocks. Other artists might want to take one of those rocks and not even put it in or make it one rock instead of two separate ones.
Exactly. Let’s say there are a lot of cloudless days. But I love clouds. I love to have clouds in there. I just love clouds. And they just add part of the feel for the whole place. So adding clouds is almost a foregone conclusion — I’m going to add a cloud. And we do have nice clouds in the springtime here.
I’m looking at two paintings going to a show soon that I haven’t finished. I haven’t finished either one of them. I’ve got to do something with them. What is it? What it is—it’s the mass that represents the tree or a person or a thing. It’s the mass that represents, for instance, one of the trees. In fact, in both of the paintings, there’s an enormous, enormous oak tree off in the distance in one of the paintings. And close up in the other… It’s a close-up. These are the percolating pools at JPL. They’ve got water running down through the arroyo, and it was a roaring torrent when the rain was going on. They divert the water into numerous pools. A wonderful idea in the state of California could do things like that. That’s not building dams, and it’s not hurting the environment. This is wonderful. I mean, from the standpoint of ecology, this is good for the environment. And now there’s a reflecting pool that you can paint it too… It’s the mass, the shape I wanted just because it was given to me as a tree and stuff. I want to find out, “What is that shape that I like?” Not the detail.
I get that. Doing all the details and rendering things to the ‘nth degree, it’s just overkill to me.
No, it just drives me nuts. But even my paintings, like the one that I just finished for the CAC Gold Medal Show, “What was it about?” It was not so much the left-hand side of the painting or the bottom-right-hand side. It was the distance, the distant rock, and the trees in the background. It was a foggy day, and I saw something going on when we were in Cambria with the Grandkids—I saw something. I said, “Well, maybe I can try that!” It’s one of those fog banks where it’s clear above, or somewhat clear above. But the fog bank is not onshore (in the painting.) It’s further back. It’s quite a ways back. I had it relatively close when I started. And the rock itself, I painted it back. I mean, everything was back because it’s far away, it’s foggy, and I don’t want it to compete with the main subject, which is this tree and the tangled shrubs and what have you. I struggled with that, and I finally think I got the color I like for the rock and the trees. And it’s all back.
So, of course, the fog has some of your favorite violets in it.
Right. I like fog. I mean, it can just kind of eliminates things that I don’t want to paint. Yeah, that’s right.
It can be a great shape, and you can make it anything you want, and it’s organic. Same thing with waves and clouds.
So, I have this fog bank, and I’ve had fog on this painting all along, but for some reason, I hadn’t thought of putting it way back and making it way back. Meaning, in other words, I can see the ocean now, which I didn’t see before. It was always so really close to the front, which is how it was. And that’s what the reference photograph is like. I’ve got that thing in front, but I saw a far bank that’s far further back, and it’s very simple. It’s almost like a wall with a little cloud above it. And I said, oh, I like that. And I took a picture of it so I wouldn’t forget, and I painted something similar to it. It’s a kind of light in the center where it catches the light. It’s kind of round and it catches the light. I liked it so much better, and I like the color of the rock. That was the thing that I had painted it a million times. Different colors and more visible. And less visible. Holy crap. It drove me fucking nuts. I’m telling you. It drove me nuts. But I think I finally did it.
I was up here till midnight. I’m using alkyd white, so it dries relatively fast, and I didn’t put a lot of thick paint on it, but I think it was okay. I think I was finally happy with it. I was… “happy” isn’t the word. I’m never “happy.” But I’m finally pleased enough where I said, I’m not embarrassed to take this to show.
So I have a question about the upcoming workshop—Knowing you like to ruminate on a painting in your studio, would you say that workshop students should be OK with not walking out of there with finished works of art? I think setting expectations is important.
This is a class to learn how to paint — to mix color and to put the paint on and to start off with a good design that you think is going to work as a painting because sometimes they don’t work out. And I say this all the time, and people appreciate it … I mean, when I do a demonstration and say, “This is just not working out!”…and I think that happens like this oftentimes. Often. What percentage of my paintings? There’s a good 20% of my paintings that I paint over because I just think it’s not going where I want it to go. And for me to sit with it for a long time…and these paintings have to kind of get gone. Anyway, it’s a painting class, not an art class.
Does the medium matter?
If somebody comes with a medium other than oil—let’s say watercolor, or they come with acrylic or something else. Are you going to be okay with that?
That’s not the problem (the medium.) The problem then is the design. It doesn’t matter whether you do a watercolor, you do an oil, and then you apply the paint until your subject matter is what you’re featuring, and everything else kind of becomes second nature. I did gouache, and I tried to make them look like my paintings but nobody would recognize them as my paintings, so that became the issue for me. But it’s the design first.
And you’ve definitely got your own style.
I got my own style. You’re damn right. And people look for it, and the last thing I want is to start throwing a curve into this.
I think it’s the shapes that you create — that’s the essence of it. You end up with… I may end up… I have a shape here, but then something else doesn’t work, and so I’ve got to start over, or I’ve got to start over in parts of it. The only part I really needed to work on was that rock in the background and the foggy bank that was there. That was it. That was it. Just couldn’t get the color right. I made it warmer. I made it cooler. I made it—oh, man. Drove—me—nuts!
Painting Point Lobos has become the means of judging the progress of my work. Am I trying to paint it the way I painted it last year or the year prior? For reasons I won’t explain, I want to grow as a painter, I want to paint the sky in a new way, using colors not used prior, to show me I’ve grown. – Karl Dempwolf
Karl Dempwolf’s Final Workshop is Oct 6–8, 2023