Interview with Kevin Swallow

Neoteric Art: You are a self taught artist. Give us some history on yourself and also discuss when and why you decided to be an artist.

Kevin Swallow: I grew up in the south suburbs of Chicago and went to Northern Illinois University, graduating with a BA in Media Communications in 1993. I created drawings regularly from an early age and have been shooting photos since my late teens. While at NIU, I designed flyers promoting the campus radio station where I worked as a DJ and station manager. My creative pursuits during that time mostly revolved around music – DJ-ing and promoting indie/punk bands. I think the DIY approach of college radio and indie/punk music influenced me later as a self-taught artist.

I’ve been a practicing artist for 15 years. I’m self-taught in that I didn’t go to art school but have taken various classes in drawing, painting and screen printing. I began pursuing photography more seriously and started painting when I was laid off from job at a magazine in 1995. I had just moved to the city (Chicago) over the weekend – took the “L” to work Monday morning and was home by noon with no job. With a lot of free time on my hands, I started to explore my new home in the city by bike, train or just walking different neighborhoods – taking photos of architecture and street scenes. I also hit the art store and picked up some acrylic paints and canvas and started painting. I read books to learn about the materials and experimented with different techniques. Once I found another 9-5 job, I created art mostly at night and on weekends. I’ve also had two other times when I’ve been laid off and have been able to dedicate a lot of time to creating art.

For about 10 years, I painted out of my home studio in various Chicago apartments. Since 2006, I’ve worked out of the Cornelia Arts Building in Roscoe Village. I’m currently in a shared space with painters Eric Weinstein and Jeff Bryner. I liked having my studio at home and being able to work whenever I wanted, but it didn’t take long for me to adjust to having the separate studio. It’s great to have that dedicated creative space without other distractions. It’s also been inspiring for me to be in a building with other artists. Having that community has influenced my art and helped me take things to a more professional level. I enjoy talking with the other artists, giving and getting feedback and seeing what everyone is working on. The open studio events have given me exposure to collectors that I wouldn’t normally get by just working out of my home. Being in the Cornelia Arts Building has also helped to me focus a lot more on developing my art and to be more disciplined with my studio practice. Having the 9-5 day job forces me to better manage my time and gives me a “creative routine” so that I can be productive when I’m at the studio.

Since 2001, I’ve exhibited my work in many places in Chicago: galleries, alternative spaces, cafés, restaurants, coffee shops, apartments, art walks, offices, silent auctions, a hotel and a hospital. For a few years, I curated shows for Friends of the Arts ( at a café in Andersonville.

NA: You create paintings, drawings, photographs, screen prints and digital media…that’s a lot! Very briefly, describe each one.

KS: For me, all of these media are connected and they fuel each other. My palette — whether using paint, a camera or a computer is strongly influenced by the unlimited sights, sounds, and colors of the city.

Paintings: I consider painting to be my primary media. I enjoy experimenting with my art and painting especially allows me to experiment. I paint a variety of subject matter but mostly cityscapes, people and abstracts. I work to create a harmony and balance between the shapes and colors in the composition. If I don’t have those things, it doesn’t feel right or done. I enjoy mixing colors and building up the layers of a painting over time. It’s relaxing for me – I like to listen to music when I paint and it’s easy to get lost in the creative flow. I feel “off” when I go a week or two without painting.

Drawings: Drawing is the one artistic thing I’ve done consistently throughout my life. I don’t really do elaborate drawings – I mostly use drawing to work out ideas and sketch compositions for paintings. Sometimes I’ll sketch from life and from photos I’ve taken or images from the internet. I then transpose the smaller sketches onto canvas to use as a basis for a painting.

Photographs: I love the spontaneity and freedom that photography provides – living in the city creates unlimited opportunities for shooting photos. I used to shoot with film but now mostly use digital cameras or an iPhone. I enjoy shooting a variety of subjects but usually shoot mostly cityscapes and architecture. Taking photographs energizes my creativity and provides a lot of inspiration and ideas for my art.

Screen prints: I took a screen printing class at Lill Street Art Center in 2008. I wanted to learn something new but it also turned out to be something that allowed me to combine my photography and painting. I use either hand-drawn images or my photographs when creating a screen print image. I paint over old record album covers, and then print a series of images allowing some of the original album art or text to show through. I built a light box (with help of Scott Simons, another Cornelia artist) to “burn” the images to the screens before I print them. I like the multi-faceted process of screen printing and the experimental nature of the medium. I like to work quickly, and screen printing lets me create many images at once.

Digital: I taught myself web design after being laid off from a dot-com in 2000. I built my first website then to showcase my art and still design and maintain my website today. Around that same time, I began creating “music snapshots” captured from the visualizations setting on a music player. I’ve also created abstract digital paintings in Photoshop and more recently started experimenting with the iPhone “Brushes” digital painting application.

NA: Since we at Neoteric are fond of painting let’s discuss that. Describe your work/thought process when starting a new painting.

KS: For me, it’s easy to start a painting – it’s finishing with that last brushstroke that’s most difficult.

I used to just pick a color and start painting. Now my preliminary process is more planned when starting a new painting. I’ll create some sketches and/or write out ideas for a series or individual paintings in my sketchbook. I sometimes print photos I’ve taken to use as reference or do some large scale drawings with charcoal to get the composition down first.

I use mostly acrylic paint and typically use pre-stretched canvas or wood panels already primed with gesso. I usually start with a wash of color on the blank canvas, mixing a few colors to create a warm earth tone. I’ll either build up the wash with more paint or sketch out the composition on the canvas with charcoal after the wash dries. Sometimes I just start drawing the composition or large shapes with a thinned dark paint.

My paintings usually take anywhere from a week to a couple of months in total. I work on a few paintings at the same time, so there may always be one that I’m just starting. I like to use some of the same colors on multiple paintings to create a cohesiveness and to help develop a series. While building up the composition, I add layers of color and create textures with different sized palette knives, ends of broken paint brushes and random tools. I do this by scraping paint or drawing with the tools as each layer is drying. This brings some color through from earlier layers and provides texture for future layers. With my abstract aerial landscape paintings, I rotate the canvas throughout the process until I find the orientation that feels best. Other times, I just paint over areas of the composition until I get it how I want it.

NA: Even within your paintings you have different genres such as landscapes, still lives, people, abstracts, mixed media, etc. Please elaborate.

KS: I started out as mostly an abstract painter my first few years but then that moved to painting faces, cityscapes and mixed media. The still lifes came out of taking drawing and painting classes.

I’ve always sketched faces – mostly imaginary but sometimes based on people I know. I use an illustrative sketch-like style with dark outlines and bright colors which I probably got from copying cartoons as a kid. About 8 years ago, I sketched faces everyday at lunch for an hour. Some of them I really liked and started creating paintings from them. I haven’t finished too many people paintings lately, but have several that I’ve been painting on-and-off over the last year.

Since 2005, I’ve been developing my “City by the Lake” series which is inspired by two great things about Chicago – the architecture and the lakefront. This is an ongoing series of work where I paint using sketches and photographs I’ve taken as reference, but also add in different elements from my imagination. I try to give the cityscapes, the buildings, water tanks, and lakefront scenes a more abstract quality and use different color palates than you’d see in real life.

Most recently, I’ve been working on a series of abstract aerial landscapes inspired by travel, maps and the natural landscape. The Chicago and New York series is based on Google maps and the Michigan series is based on photos I took from an airplane. My latest set of aerial landscape paintings is loosely based on maps and sketching shapes of different cities where I’ve traveled. I like painting abstractly because it helps me loosen up my brushwork and expand my color palate. I’ve also used abstracts as a way to experiment and move toward something new.

NA: Your water tank paintings are very interesting. Please elaborate.

KS: Rooftop water tanks are a unique architectural feature in cities – especially Chicago and New York. Due to difficulties maintaining and being removed during condo conversions of industrial buildings, they are now a disappearing element of the cityscape. Chicago used to have over 1,200 water tanks but now has less than 200. They became prominent after the Chicago Fire in 1871 and are a link to our industrial past.

The water tanks have figured prominently in my both my photographs and paintings for a while now. Due to the decline of these structures, I’ve been making it a point to photograph them when I see them before they become another cell phone tower. Some of these photos are then used for reference in my cityscape paintings or as the main focal point.

Rooftop water tanks have a great graphical element to them which makes them fun – but challenging – to paint. They are usually a dull gray/brown since many are made of wood and weathered over time, so I change up the colors in my paintings. I like painting the variety and different types of water tanks from different angles and perspectives. I paint directly using reference photos or I create a composition sketch first, then transpose that to the canvas.

Out my studio window, I can see the water tank on top of the old pencil factory loft building which is on the next block. This view has definitely inspired me – I’ve painted a lot more water tanks since moving into my studio, including one based on the pencil factory water tank. I continue to paint water tanks and photograph them. I’ve also used images of them in my screen prints and iPhone digital paintings.

NA: Who have been some of your artistic influences?

KS: My two all-time favorite artists are Picasso and van Gogh. I learned a lot by studying their work at the Art Institute when I first started painting and from reading books about their painting styles and artistic process. They were very prolific too which has influenced the way I like to work. In the last several years, I’ve been inspired by David Hockney, Philip Guston and Richard Diebenkorn as well as contemporary painters Amy Sillman and Dana Schutz.

I love street photography, so Henri Cartier-Bresson, Harry Callahan and Richard Nickel always top the list of my favorite photographers. The newly discovered photos by Vivian Maier that have surfaced recently are also very compelling. All of these photographers have an experimental nature to their work which pulls me in.

When it comes to screen printing, artists like Jay Ryan (who’s also a painter) give me inspiration.?

I’m also influenced by ideas I get from reading books, listening to music, street art I see when traveling, observing people and surfing internet art websites.

NA: Pertaining to your art career where would you like to see yourself 5 years from now?

KS: Five years from now I hope to still have a studio space and to be painting a lot. I’ve shown my work in galleries before – but I’ve never had gallery representation. So, I’d like to be represented by one or more galleries and to develop a larger collector base. Ideally, one of those galleries would be in my hometown of Chicago. A few years ago, I licensed one of my colored cityscape photos for a hotel redesign project. I worked with an art consultant from Atlanta which was a good experience for me. If I can, I’d like to explore the area of art licensing with some more of my photographs.

The internet has leveled the playing field for artists and there’s a lot of opportunities for artists to get exposure for their work. The internet has definitely helped me. Ultimately though, I enjoy creating art for myself – I feel that I need to. But, finding more and different ways to have others enjoy it too is also one of my goals. It’s always gratifying when someone I don’t know wants to buy an artwork of mine and live with it in their home or office. If these things work out, I’d eventually like to turn my art making into my main job and then have something else part-time to supplement the income. If not, that’s fine too – I consider myself lucky to be able to create art.