Warren Criswell, narratives in paint & print
I was a loner as a kid, an only child, the kind that grow up to be serial killers, bank robbers or artists. I wasn’t interested in killing but tried robbery, stole a watch in the 3rd grade but got caught and took up art. They haven’t caught me at that yet.
In my oil paintings I use the materials and styles of the Old Masters to express images and ideas of the present, or timeless archetypes and myths set in our present day environments. But I have no formula or rules except to express the truth as I see it. Each of my paintings is a discovery, each with its own formula and rules. I never know what’s coming next, I only hope it’s something. I approach each painting with fear and trembling, pretending it’s my first and hoping it’s not my last.
I try to get the same high contrast, dramatic chiaroscuro effects in my watercolors as in my oil paintings. When I returned to representational art in the late ’70s, watercolor was my first love – probably because it was so different in technique from the abstract oils I had done back in Florida eight years earlier. I became a transparent watercolor purist, working from light to dark, no opaque paint, ever. I used masking fluid in all kinds devious ways to achieve intricate highlights I couldn’t get by painting around them. I got over the purism eventually, and sumi dishes from Japan became my preferred watercolors. Some of the lighter colors are more translucent than transparent and can be almost opaque if dry-brushed, allowing me to use them on black paper a few times – something unheard of in the watercolor world! But mostly I use white paper for light, and I still use the masking fluid when necessary.
I am also a sculptor, animator and printmaker. I’ve made all kinds of prints, but since I began experimenting with linoleum back in 1999, the linocut has been my principal medium. Although these prints may resemble etchings, drypoints, lithographs or some strange hybrid, they are true relief prints, printed in two or more colors from linoleum blocks. I didn’t invent this technique – Picasso and his printer Arnera did – but I’ve adapted it to my own purposes and, since nobody else in the world is doing it as far as I know, I’m calling it “The Criswell Linocut.” The two most important things about this technique are (1) that I cut the designs mostly with a drypoint needle and (2) that I print the dark color first and the light color second. This enables me to draw my image directly on the key block, just as I would draw with a pen on paper, rather than cut away everything BUT the image as in traditional relief printmaking.
Obviously, I’m a narrative artist. But since I work from images, not ideas in the intellectual sense, I don’t always know what the narrative is. I am ambushed by things I see in the world, sometimes by music, by something I see in a movie or read in a book. I have no script or program. But looking back over my work as a whole, as a viewer, it seems to be a dialog – or confrontation – between two extremes. We humans have all the animal drives for pleasure and survival, but we’re the only animal that knows it was born and is going to die. In everyday life we hide our desires and ignore our mortality, but the artist holed up in his or her studio, in search of that monster Truth, doesn’t have this luxury. We have to try to find that door to what is either too much fun or too scary – or, as in my case sometimes, both at once.