Like any office worker, from 10:00 to 6:00, Monday through Friday, Alan Craig works with a lot of people. The difference here is that while he is working, unlike office workers, he creates anonymous masses of people that interact (recede, move forward, and move around) in the whiteness of the canvas while giving shape to some famous face.
Elvis Presley, Audrey Hepburn, Marilyn Monroe, Abraham Lincoln, John Kennedy and even Obama. They all have been painted by the California-born artist who uses a technique that consists of small silhouettes of people moving around (this can only be seen up close) all clustered together in what could be a public space, however it is the canvas. They seem like flies or birds moving around. They are small multitudes who come together to form a well-known face.
Ideas come to him day and night. He takes notes in several notebooks and, to him; anything can be used to give life to the stencils he uses to paint thousands of people. “Each stencil can be used in several paintings. That is why I work on three or more pieces at a time. This is an efficient method when there are so many people involved,” he says by e-mail from Atlanta. He is talking about the more than 12 thousand images that he has created so far for the figurative, conceptual and abstract versions of the Populus series.
What drew you to crowds of people and how many people can you paint on a canvas?
I am intrigued by their driving force. Also, I am intrigued by what influences how they are and their passage, as well as the idea of one individual being part of a symbiotic whole, such as a person in a crowd. In Populus, I explore these concepts and I act as the force that brings these people together and gives them shape. A painting can have between 1,400 to 5,000 people. But, there are some that only have 20 people and others that exceed 10,000.
Some magazines say that in Figurative, Populus, you drew real people who were placed in strategic positions and then photographed from high above; others say that you painted the tiny people. What technique did you really use?
Actually, it was a combination of both. I have models that come to my studio to be photographed. During the shoot, my assistants instructed them to do certain movements while I took pictures from the top of the building. Using each individual image, I create 2.5 cm stencils made on matte Dura-Lar film. So far, I have 12,863 stencils of different people. For the piece, I start by painting the group of people, by using one stencil at a time. After the people have been painted, I spray on shadows around each person’s legs. The last step, which I call “the face and front step”, is where I paint in the details of each person by hand. Depending on the complexity of the level of detail that I want to obtain, that step is the most demanding.
You have said that you like challenges and experimenting with techniques and materials. What drew you to stencils as a technique to paint the people onto the canvas?
While I was studying in New Orleans, I worked as a street artist doing portraits for between $15 and $35. I got to know other street artists, including graffiti artists, who showed me stencil art. It interested me since it wasn’t the decorative stencils that I had seen before. These, which are made by hand, simplified daily objects and adapted them in order to reflect dynamic and thought provoking issues. I learnt the technique and, as I advanced with the Populus series, I managed to combine the style of the street with traditional painting techniques.
There is a trend in contemporary art to look for new ways of drawing with unusual materials – Vik Muniz and the Mona Lisa drawn with peanut butter, for example. A few years back The Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) organized an exhibition of artists who had undermined the tradition of drawing by expanding the medium’s potential. Do you feel that your work is part of that trend?
To some extent, yes. However, I’m not sure that this trend can be seen as something new. After all, cavemen used mineral pigments and sap to make their paintings. I believe that us painters are reverting to instinct and using what we manually find, rather than closely adhering to what is accepted as traditional painting. There’s nothing wrong with the rules of traditional painting. I was trained with them. Now I am trying to break them, but you have to be very familiar with them to be able to do it and pull it off well.
How important is originality for you? Your work is reminiscent of Muniz’s portraits made with toy soldiers, or the crowds of Spanish artist Juan Genoves, where the people are painted with globs of oil paint on the canvas. On the other hand, there are commonalities between your work and Chuck Close’s. Who are the artists that inspired you to make the Populus series?
Originality is important, not only in regards to the idea, but also in regards to execution. The variations of the Populus series were inspired by the idea that everything, big or small, is part of something bigger and that all of those parts are symbiotic. Visually, I was influenced by Warhol, Rauschenberg, TL Lange, Lichtenstein, Haring, Segal and the hundreds of models that I built as a kid.
How many years have you been exploring and working with the different versions of the Populus series (Abstract, Conceptual, and Figurative)? What are the differences in terms of techniques that you used on them?
I made the first painting of the series in January of 2007. Including this year and half of 2006 (which I used to investigate the concept), I have spent 8 years exploring this series. I used a very similar technique to create the different Populus series. Basically, they are different perspectives of the same idea. The only real difference is seen in the conceptual pieces, where I paint three-dimensional looking forms as interactive objects, before I add the people.