Portrait of the Artist

Artist Ward Saunders transcends portraiture with a new show at Glave Kocen gallery in Richmond.

Earlier this month, Richmond-based artist Ward Saunders opened his solo exhibition Mystery of the Valley at the Glave Kocen gallery on Main Street.

Integrating watercolors with mixable oils, Saunders captures his subjects—which range from people to animals to a single glass vase—with a rare fluidity of talent that is simultaneously detail-oriented and yet leaves space for the viewers’ imagination. We were happy for the opportunity to sit down with the artist, who has contributed illustrations to previous issues of Virginia Living, to discuss his show, the life of the artist and what inspires him.

How long have you been painting?

I’ve been painting to some extent for 34 years. I received some basic instruction in high school, which led me to VCU’s art program and eventually to the Art Students League in NYC. I’ve been pursuing art professionally since 2011.

What are your primary mediums?

I use watercolor and water mixable oil paint in a mixed media process. I primarily apply the watercolor with a drybrush method which creates a very compatible surface for the engineered water mixable oil paints to build on. I begin by laying out my drawing on a gesso panel and building my paintings on top of it with several layers. I create a complete underpainting with transparent watercolor applications transitioning into drybrush applications. After the watercolor surface is completely dry, I continue to develop the illusion of form and add details with water mixable oil paint. 

Do you have a specific process for choosing the color palette for a particular painting?

Yes and no. I am always thinking about a specific color theory, such as complementary, split-complementary or analogous color schemes, for example. But I often let my intuition take over and end up moving away from my original intention.

I also like to mix neutrals into my paintings. Something I call “mixing with mud. This neutralizes the richness of some colors and gives my paintings a little bit of a washed-out look, creating contrast with the more saturated colors. While working on Mystery of the Valley, I looked at the collection as a whole and made some color choices that helped visually tie the paintings together.

You do a lot of portrait work. What draws you to your subjects and how do you select them?

While living in New York City in the mid to late 1990’s, I often worked in my sketchbooks while riding the subway. My objective was to draw some of the many interesting people sitting around me without them noticing. I did this as practice for the drawing and painting classes that I took at the Art Students League during that time. I would create quick sketches of a person’s head and shoulders that would usually capture a reasonably accurate likeness. A decade and a half later I began doing the same thing with friends, family members and people I worked with. I became interested in noticing iconic moments and capturing them with a camera. I would find images that stood out to me from my never ending collection of shots that could be developed into paintings. At first, I did this for fun and eventually for clients. These paintings, while more involved, were completely inspired by those subway drawings I did years earlier.

Currently, I still paint portrait commissions of people and pets. When I take a commission, I look for the subject’s unique expression or emotion. This is usually found through their eyes. After I have identified a feeling to connect with, I use my camera to take hundreds of pictures while studying my subject. From this collection, I will select two to three pictures to paint from, and I go to work creating a finished painting that feels both soulful and iconic.

Can you speak a little bit about the paradox of emptiness, a pervasive theme in your current show?

This is a dualistic Taoist concept where form relies on space and space relies on form to create usefulness. So you can create a simple container like a bowl to eat out of or a more complex form like a house to live in, but it’s only the intangible “empty” space that exists within the form that makes the bowl or house useful. That’s to say, you eat food out of the empty space within the bowl, not the bowl itself, and you live in the empty space within the house, not within the actual structure of the house. 

Of course, you can also look at this concept in reverse and determine that empty space only becomes useful in the material world when it is divided up and contained by  forms with physical boundaries.

How many solo exhibitions have you done previously?

The current exhibition at Glave Kocen is my first Richmond solo exhibition, and the first body of work that I created as a specific collection. I also had a one-man show in 2016, at the Purcell Gallery in Louisa, Virginia.

What has it been like, getting ready for the show?

I have been working on this show for two years. It has been both exhilarating and overwhelming. During that time, I have really learned a lot about painting as a process and not just an outcome.

The first year consisted of refining a continuously developing theme, and the ups and downs of developing a daily painting practice. I ended up with several failed paintings, some material challenges and stayed busy with research. I really gained traction in the second year and painted daily, mostly without disruption. There were many long days, and after editing the finished work, a few paintings still ended up not making it into the final collection. Also, in the month before the show I worked quite a bit with a framer and the gallery to finalize many details outside of the studio.

You’ve shown your work at Glave Kocen before. What’s it like coming back?

I owe Jennifer and BJ many thanks for inviting me to show at Glave Kocen in 2013 for their Size Doesn’t Matter exhibition. Since then, I have participated in that group show several times. It has been really exciting to come back to the gallery with a fresh collection of paintings and to have Jennifer’s and BJ’s support in my first solo exhibition in Richmond.

Save the date:  Saunders will give an Artist’s Talk at Glave Kocen gallery in Richmond, Saturday May 26 at 11:30 a.m. GlaveKocenGallery.com, WardSaunders.com

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