On Teaching: Sharon Sprung

sharon sprung interview
Sharon Sprung, Callas, oil on panel, 40 x 40 in.

Stephanie Cassidy
You have described your work as an artist as “pushing around puddles of an almost living substance.” What about your experience with oil paint makes you describe it that way?

Sharon Sprung
Oil paint is a very sensual medium; I use Vasari, which is a fabulous handmade paint. Most of the store bought ones are milled by machine and sometimes wax is added as a way of tubing. But Vasari is just so beautiful. It’s like little jewels of paint. The colors are very saturated and work beautifully together. There are times during the day when I am mixing paint that I have to remind myself to stop. Moving the paint around with a palette knife and seeing the subtle gradations of the colors as I mix, it is often hard for me to stop and get to putting it on the canvas.

SC
You have described your intellect as “visual.” What is a “visual intellect?” Is that something you were born with, which led you to become an artist, or is it something that you cultivated?

SS
I think I was born an observer. Even as a child I remember being quiet and just looking around at my world. I knew things from looking, not from listening. When you grow up in a family that has a lot of disruption, you learn to not always believe what people are saying. Sometimes you can feel that discrepancy as a child. I think most children feel this anyway.

Observation was my way of navigating the world. When I do a painting, I do my best to know that person. I’m not sure how I know that person, but by working on the eye, or the nose, or the lip, or the shape of the head, or the gesture, or any movement, I get to know that person. Could I tell you about them? No, not in words, but I know them, and that’s what comes across in the paintings—at least I hope it does. They are individuals, and they have their own particularity.

sharon sprung interview
Sharon Sprung, Folding Chairs, oil on panel, 36 x 47 in

SC
How long does it take you to get to that point?

SS
It happens while working on the painting, during the observational part of having a model; or if you are doing a portrait commission, a photograph; or just living with the painting. One of the other things I do is move a lot of paint around to get to the drawing, and moving the paint to give me that just right expression. I know it when I have it. You learn to trust your intuition. But it can take a long time.

SC
So you wouldn’t necessarily have to know a lot about someone beforehand to get a sense of who they are, since you gain that knowledge of them through painting.

SS
What I need to know, I gain by observation. What I need to know about who a person is, at least on an intuitive and textural level, is not necessarily on a verbal level. What I do when I have a model is ask to keep their clothes for a while. I make sure that the person sits for me while I’m mixing all the paint. I take a piece of their hair. If it is somebody who’s wearing makeup, I get a makeup chart. I try to get as much visual information as I can. This approach applies to portrait painting; for my own painting I work from the model as much as I can.

sharon sprung interview
Sharon Sprung, Caitlin, oil on panel, 30 x 30 in.

SC
Is this something that you relay to students in your classroom?

SS
I think I do. My students seem to trust me, even those who might be new and a little reluctant to give me their brush. But the only way to teach is to show. I really believe that.

SC
To show on their canvas?

SS
Yes, on their canvas. I don’t want them to be precious about it. I want it to be much more of a learning experience and process. I’m not so concerned about the finishing. What I care about is their learning to see, which is a much more difficult achievement than one would suspect.

SC
Is it possible to look too much at the work of artists of the past? Do you think that students can get too caught up in what’s already been done?

SS
I think the study of historical art is extremely important, not only for what it teaches about how to paint,
but also about the recurring themes and the difficulty of being a painter. Students should resist getting caught up in a style, in any style. The best way to go to a museum is to be open to the experience of the world of another artist. I’ll send students to look at backgrounds, or notice how the artist turned this form or painted an eye. You want to find your own world in painting, and you want who you are to come to the surface with all that integrated knowledge.

sharon sprung interview
Sharon Sprung, Portrait of “L,” oil on panel, 22 x 22 in.

SC
How long did it take you to develop the basic skills of a painter, and from there develop the singular voice that is Sharon Sprung?

SS
I feel that the Sharon Sprung voice is still getting stronger, so the development is not over. And it changes as you change. People really do change—though often not in big ways. The things that life throws at you sometimes define your capabilities or your weaknesses. That is one thing a painter is more conscious of—the movement and the fluidity of time. I think this is a gift that painting gives you, as well as a subtle knowledge of yourself.

SC
How do you help students develop their individual sensibilities as realistic painters when they are painting the same model for three weeks at a time? How are you helping them understand the technical requirements of rendering the human figure, but also encouraging independence for when they eventually launch from the classroom?

SS
Launching is their responsibility. Each person in my class is different—and I think everyone would know which artist is the creator of each painting. I don’t have a prescribed way to start, but I begin where the person starts and try to bring them as far as they can imagine, and then some.

sharon sprung interview
Sharon Sprung, Harlequin, oil on panel, 40 x 40 in.

SC
Can you describe how you transitioned from student to professional painter? You mentioned that you felt that you had an abridged beginning.

SS
Speaking poetically, one should always be a student, and I consider myself that. Every time I stand in front of a model, I am a student trying to figure out the puzzle. My abbreviated student years were dictated by financial circumstances. Fortunately, I received an Elizabeth Greenshields Foundation Grant and then a Stacey Foundation Grant. That was helpful and encouraging. Luck is an important factor in life. You meet kind and helpful people who are generous and supportive. When I was young, I met Charles Pfahl, and his experience and guidance were invaluable. The generosity and kindness of others cannot be underestimated.

SC
Did you ever experience angst, wondering, “Am I good enough?” Or, “Am I ready to leave the classroom, set up a studio, and work on my own?”

sharon sprung interview
Sharon Sprung, Square, Triangle, Circle, oil on panel, 36 x 36 in.

SS
I have had that angst all my life, so it is never a question of not being filled with doubt. Each day there is a new challenge, a new question. Will there be enough money? Am I good enough to do this? Will this painting work? Will what I see be communicated to others? These are some of the questions I ask myself. I feel a bit more secure now, having gotten older and experienced some success. But at the beginning, when I was nineteen, I had to make some difficult decisions because I would be isolated in my family if I chose to be a painter. Partially, I was driven by anger and sheer will, which is important, but that choice was the right one for me. It was something that, if you sat and thought about it, committing to be a painter would not be a great idea. But I knew it was right, with the instincts of youth understanding their truth.

SC
Is there a difference in your mindset, approach, and process of painting a commissioned portrait and a portrait that you do for yourself?

SS
I think of both as figurative work. And if there is a difference, it is that my personal work is inhabited by my feelings, whereas in a portrait I try to inhabit it with the client’s. I can see the challenge of students at work in the studio. A model will pose, and everyone is looking at them, a little wary. In the process of painting them, you’re expanding your world. You’re taking care of the model. You’re making them feel safe in the environment. You’re noticing things about them, and you find pleasure in this process. Students and artists tend to be very protective of the models.

sharon Sprung interview
Sharon Sprung, Dr. Vincent Price, Provost, oil on panel, 36 x 32 in. Commissioned by the Trustees of the University of Pennsylvania

SC
Congratulations on being recognized by BuzzFeed as “one of the top one-hundred realists working right now.”

SS
Well, if I didn’t make the list, I’d be concerned. But having made the list, I’m not sure how much it actually means.

SC
How would you describe your place within the realist resurgence?

SS
At this point, I’m an artist who has been painting and exhibiting for a while. With time there comes a certain amount of recognition. People come to you. They hear about you. They know you and your work. I’ve had ten one-person shows in New York City and have been exhibiting since the late ‘70s. 

SC
Do you follow contemporary realist painting?

SS
No, not so much. There are things that I will come across and think, “Wow, that is really good.” But I’ve gotten much more selective about what I like and what I don’t like. There are very few things that seem really good to me, that stand out. When they do, I appreciate seeing them, but I don’t go to many contemporary shows, maybe one or two a year, because I want to keep my vision separate and unique. I want to keep that extraneous influence out.

SC
It’s then a positive development that robust realist training has sprouted up in many places. Does that give you hope that this generation of contemporary artists will be acknowledged by institutions and by critics for the value they bring to the visual dialogue?

sharon sprung interview
Sharon Sprung, Z, oil on panel, 24 x 28 in.

SS
That would be really nice. There is now a little more of it. It comes in waves. I’ve been painting for forty-five years. Somebody will get some degree of recognition, and then, you know, people will think, “The galleries want this now.” You just really try not to pay attention to any of it. I don’t pay attention to any of it.

SC
Do you ever see yourself writing a book?

SS
No. Perhaps I would write a book if I could just talk and somebody else did all the work. Not yet anyway. I don’t really like writing. It is a difficult skill.

SC
It is not an easy skill, but you are quite an articulate speaker.

SS
I don’t think I’m articulate at all, but I know people do find me articulate at times. I don’t always have access to the words I want, so it can be frustrating. In writing you must take the time to search out the right words. But I don’t especially like that process. I’d rather be painting.


Sharon Sprung is represented by Portraits, Inc. and Gallery Henoch. To learn more about her work, go to www.sharonsprung.com or contact sharonsprung@aol.com.

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