Painter’s Palette: Interview with Jacob Ouillette

Interview with Jacob Ouillette who showed at Nancy Margolis Gallery from October 20th until November 26th, 2011 at 523 West 25th Street, New York, NY

Ouillette, Calliope, 2011, oil/canvas, 48"x60"

Megan M. Garwood (MMG):  What is a brushstroke to you?

Jacob Ouillette (JO): To me, it is many things.  In the first place, the brushstroke is the embodiment of an idea or feeling.  It is a voice.  The Brushstroke is also a note in a musical composition, preferably played on the harmonica.  I’ve been playing the harmonica longer than I’ve been painting, almost my whole life, and those sounds, rhythms and feelings are imprinted in me.  When the brushstroke bends, swoops, dips, swings, sings and vibrates, to me it could be blasting out of a harmonica, saxophone, or an electric guitar.  Each brushstroke is applied in one single motion, one pass, from left to right with no revisions allowed, or necessary, like the mark of a calligraphers brush.  The paintings are created almost as a live performance, one stroke, or note at a time, until the composition is complete, the song ends when the last note is played.  Unlike live music though, the painting holds that “live” moment frozen indefinitely.

Ouillette, Pico Blanco, 2010, oil/canvas, 45"x90"

MMG:  What kind of media do you prefer, i.e., paint? Do you mix your own color?

JO: Over the centuries there has been a debate about whether a painter is a craftsman or a poet.  I have come to believe, through my practice, that I must be both.  I realized that commercially prepared paints and canvases, could not give me the results I sought, therefore I began preparing my own materials from scratch, as the old masters did.  I prefer oil paint because the color is more saturated, you can pack a lot more pigment into the paint and I want to start off with colors that are as rich and as saturated as they can be.  I want to make paintings that have power and powerful colors are part of this.  My studio is almost like a workshop.  Today, a helper in the studio is called an assistant, but I call my helpers, apprentices, because that is what they are, and I do my best to pass on my knowledge about the craft of painting.  So far, I’ve avoided getting an MFA, and purposely so. I did a BFA at RISD and that was great, but I guess I would rather start my own school than join the academy.

Ouillette, Easter Painting, 2008, oil/canvas, 60"x72"

MMG:  There is an obvious reference to the grid as well as infamous color palettes. How do you choose your palette? How would you define your work as an “Ouillette?

JO: Considering the musical quality of my work, there is also a mathematical component and that translates as the grid.  I am interested in the proportions of colors used, how many times do they appear in the composition, are all the colors equal, or not? The grid is the meter of the work, keeping the rhythm and the strokes in line and carefully measuring each color in the composition.

I am not one of those painters that use a specific palette, nor do I ascribe to any color theories.  I try to use color differently in each painting and look to every experience for inspiration.  In the past, I’ve tried reading some books on color theory, but I always gave up halfway through.  My personal theory accepts and disregards all theories.  To me, any color, or combination of colors is as good as another, if you believe in it.

If you go through the titles of my paintings, you will notice three reoccurring themes, mythology, music and place (the landscape). Ellsworth Kelly is one of my favorite minimalist painters.  His paintings, as self referential as they seem, always have a source – often forms taken from nature.  Similarly, my paintings are self- contained but always have a source.  Music is a big inspiration and some paintings are titled and inspired by songs I enjoy or am moved by.  For example, I made a painting called Bold as Love, inspired by the Jimi Hendrix song, Axis: Bold as Love.  In the song, he describes certain colors as a way to explain his feelings to a lover.  I was sympathetic to this and felt moved to make a painting using colors similar to the ones Hendrix describes.  I also see a kinship with Hendrix, like him, my work is deeply rooted in a tradition, while at the same time, innovation, and personal expression remains at the forefront.

Whenever my eyes are open, I am studying the colors of the world, which provide an endless parade of inspiration.  The landscape is important to me as a theme – a place for inspiration.  Big Sur, California, is probably one of the most beautiful places on earth, and I’ve made a number of paintings inspired by trips there, including a painting titled, Pico Blanco, which is a mountain sacred to the indigenous people of that area.  I went on a hike there and I purposely studied and attempted to memorize the colors of the landscape for future use.  I made the painting about six months later, working from memory.

Vincent Van Gogh left Paris and moved to the south of France. He intended to use the quality of light there to invigorate his work with bright and exuberant colors, a world bathed in joyous light.  I have thought about his paintings often, and at the end of this last summer, I was painting out by the beach and there were some sunflowers in the house and it occurred to me to visit that theme – the sunflowers and the color yellow, both favorites of Van Gogh.  I had two canvases prepared at the time, and I went into the studio and chose every color that could be considered yellow.  This was the starting point for two paintings I titled, Sunflowers and Wit’s End.  In Sunflowers, I used only the yellow pigments I had selected, an all yellow painting in essence, but there is still quite a range, it’s not a monochrome painting at all.  In Wit’s End, I introduced small amounts of blue, red, violet and green in strategic places.  The painting has a real autumnal feel, and coincidentally, was painted on the first harvest moon.

I love the paintings of Valazquez, especially his mythology paintings, and mythology is also a special interest of mine.  Two paintings in particular, Apollo in Vulcan’s Forge and The Triumph of Bacchus, have intrigued me for years.  I made two paintings based on Vulcan’s Forge, Vulcan and Apollo.  Well, Vulcan, the blacksmith, he’s a craftsman isn’t he?  Apollo, the sun god, is also the god of logic and mathematics as well as the patron of all the arts, god of the muses. Bacchus, he wants to unravel all that logic and order and let things loose.  I was interested in capturing a glimmer of the palette Valazquez used, but I was also interested in channeling concepts of Apollo, Vulcan and Bacchus.

The paintings of mine I’ve just discussed have little or no resemblance to the source material. For me, the process of painting is almost alchemical, starting with specific materials and ending up with something entirely new.  I’ve been told many times that I have my own way of using color, and I believe that sets me apart from many other abstract painters.  I think it is my lack of prejudice against any color and my indifference towards what may or may not be considered tasteful.  I’m much more interested in how the colors feel and what kind of energy they contribute to the painting.

Ouillette, Vulcan, 2010, oil/canvas, 60"x120"

MMG:  How did you “invent” your style? How have you evolved as a painter?

JO: The brushstroke paintings came about as a solution to a problem. Throughout the development of my work, color has remained my main obsession.  In 2008, I set out to reinvent my paintings.  I wanted color to be the main focus, and I knew the work had to be abstract.  I knew I did not want to make hard-edged paintings and I did not want drawing to be an issue that distracted from the color.

Coincidentally, as I considered my next move, there was an exhibition at MoMA, which was extremely influential for me.  Anne Temkin curated, Color Chart:  Reinventing Color 1950 to Today.  The show examined color as a readymade material and its use as such in painting.  I enjoyed the show very much and thought: this is a conversation I could get into.  One problem: I was already making my own paint from scratch, not really a readymade material.

It suddenly occurred to me that the color needed a delivery system, the brushstroke, and that the brushes would be the readymade element of the painting.  The shape of each area of color would be dictated by the width of the brush used.  The brushstroke paintings were born at that moment.  I made the first brushstroke painting on Easter Sunday in 2008.  It was a coincidence to start a new series on that particular day so I titled the piece Easter Painting to mark the rebirth of myself as an artist and the reinvention of my art.

Ouillette, Bold as Love, 2011, oil/canvas, 96"x144"

MMG:  Have you faced an obstacle due to your style? If so, how did you overcome it?

JO: I don’t really spend a lot of time thinking about obstacles.  I just work from day-to-day, moment-to-moment, dealing with things as they happen.  If I have to go left, I go left, if I have to go right, I go right.  I see obstacles as an opportunity to approach something in a new way. Adapting to new and unexpected circumstances is an ideal way to work out the muscles of creativity and keep the inspirational juices flowing.

Ouillette, Parnassus, 2011, oil/canvas, 90" x 150"

MMG:  What does color mean to you?

JO: Color is amazing.  First of all, it is very specific – color can be measured scientifically.  On the other hand, it is completely subjective in the eye of the viewer.  Color means something because people choose to give it meaning and I find this very interesting.  Ad Reinhardt found the subjective interpretation of color troublesome, while I completely embrace it.  One thing that my paintings make plain is that color means something and that is a lot.

Ouillette, Triumph of Bacchus, 2011, oil/canvas, 45"x60"

MMG:  What is next? What would you like to accomplish in your next series?

JO: I don’t like to make too many statements about the future, especially my own future.  I really dislike fortune-tellers, not because I think they are fraudulent, but because I don’t see any value in knowing one’s own fate.  There is no adventure in a journey if you know how it ends. It is the not knowing that keeps me going.  When I first moved to New York, I was fortunate enough to meet Robert Rauschenberg.  He stressed how important it was to always surprise himself with his own work and I completely agree.

Fortune-tellers aside, I do have lots of ideas.  Of course, I don’t give ideas much weight until they are put into practice.  I will definitely be working with the brushstroke theme, which is open to an infinite world of color combinations.  I have been considering what greater role the grid can play in these paintings.  I also have a few ideas for some monochrome paintings and possibly some shaped canvases too. There has to be a real intention behind the motivation though, otherwise it is just a meaningless action.  I need to know why I am doing it, much more than what it will be.  Whatever I do, color will rule the day.

Ouillette, Orpheus, 2011, oil/canvas, 45"x60"

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About Megan M. Garwood

Megan M. Garwood is a New York City-based editor, art critic, commentator and aesthetician, as well as the Associate Director at Leslie Feely Gallery on 68th and Madison. Her guilty pleasures include metaethics, morality, conceptual art, and Coney Island side shows. Feel free to contact her via email at
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