Ilya Lerner, Russian / American Fine Artist Interview
By Hall Groat Sr., President, New York Art Collection
To learn more about the work of contemporary painter, Ilya Lerner, please visit his web site at:
HG: Do you feel that creative art offers the best therapy for a working painter?
IL: I do not view art as therapy. I think art is so difficult that one sometimes might need therapy to overcome failures and disappointments. As for me, I just know that I need to paint to be myself. In order to overcome financial and other difficulties, I had to stop painting for a while twice in my life. I was as miserable as it gets.
HG: Which Russian artists do you feel have influenced your work and why?
IL: I was influenced by Isaac Levitan,Valentin Serov and Konstantin Korovin, all of whom lived at the end of XIX – beginning of XX century. Some people say my work reminds them of Korovin. They are considered the most Important Russian Impressionist painters. When I was growing up in Moscow in 1980s, their work represented a stark contrast to rigid official style of Socialist Realism which, for all practical purposes, was Mannerism derived from XIX century Academism.
IL: I was doing something artistic as long as I remember myself and never seriously considered another occupation. I was at the top of my class at high school. In order not to be drafted to Soviet Army, I went for undergrad school to Moscow Technical University majoring in Management Information Systems. Though I spent most of my time painting on my own, at graduation I was #6 out of 120.
HG: Do you think Europeans are more respectful to working artists than Americans?
IL: I do not know. I know artists receive much more public financial support in some European countries, like Holland and Denmark. That, probably, means that there is more respect, but, on another hand, these are very different countries in political and social sense.
HG: Which portrait/figure painters do you consider the best in recent history? name three of your favorites in order of preference.
IL: It depends on how recent the recent history is. After Cezanne, I believe that three most important painters of XX century were Matisse, Picasso and Soutine. I think if Soutine lived longer, painting would be different now. Kokoschca, who outlived them, was also a great painter. Out of more recent, I like Lucian Freud, George Nick, Edwin Dickinson and, though to a much lesser degree, Jerome Witkin.
HG: Do you listen to classical music while you paint? Sergio Rachmaninoff? Who? do you find inspiration in music or prefer silence? Prefer country music— or other styles of music? Name some you enjoy painting by.
IL: I prefer contemporary classic music. My favorites are Shostakovich, Schnittke, Part and Glass. I used to listen a lot to Rachmaninoff and Stravinsky, but not anymore. I also listen to some contemporary Russian singers, such as Grebenshchikov. Sometimes I listen to news. In the most important moments of work I need silence.
HG: You are both, an expressionist and impressionist. Your work shows you enjoy the challenge of painting to the edge. This takes courage when a work of art hangs on the edge of disaster. You have an uncanny ability to find exactly what is needed to make a picture work. Obviously most artists dread this approach. Much of your work holds together by your ability as a colorist and your compositional skills.
IL: Thank you. I like to knock myself out of comfort zone. I never intended to develop one ‘grand’ style. How I paint varies depending on what I want to say. I think painter must give his work all he can, and that’s what brings us to the edge of disaster, but otherwise there is no point to do it.
HG: Do you use sketches and/or photos based on your travels for subject matter or do you prefer plein air painting? Your still life painting displays a great attention to detail. Knowing your versatility, do you also work from total recall or imagination?
IL: For landscape painting, I prefer to and most often do work from life, but sometimes it is not possible, and I use any source of information available. I painted landscapes exclusively from life for decades. That allowed me to develop enough understanding of form and space to do good job from reference material. Still-lifes are painted only from life. I often paint a still-life to resolve theoretical, if that is the right word, fundamental issues of painting. For instance now I am painting a still-life on grey background researching very small nuances of color depending on changes of light. I prefer to paint portraits from life sittings, but most people do not have time to sit and I can use photograph as well. Narrative paintings are done from imagination, sketches and some reference photos for minor details. My two last narrative paintings, Moscow of Parallel World and Venice of Parallel World, are based on night dreams.
HG: Ever feel regrets for going into art as an occupation? In the business world, art is the last consideration for purchase? Many consumers are living to the edge already.
IL: As I had mentioned before, I stopped painting for a couple of years twice in my life – first, when I enrolled in Technical University in Moscow and second, when I just came to US and got a job as a computer programmer after understanding I could not support myself as an artist. On both occasions I returned to painting as soon as I could, though I understood very well that as a painter I probably would never make money close to what I was making as a programmer. I just need to paint. That is who I am. I have no choice.
It’s very difficult to make a living as a beginner artist, but it can be resolved. Some people get part-time jobs, others are supported by their families. From what I see, most of beginners have another main problem. They do not know what to do as artists. They go to school where they are told what to do. After they graduate, they most often have no serious skills and see a cacophony of different movements, styles and fashions – Realism, Abstraction, Conceptualism, you name it. They try this and that, fail everywhere and, considering that it is also very hard to make money, go to law school or somewhere else. But I never had this problem, and that’s what saved me.
It’s commonly known that art market is over-saturated and shrinking due to people losing interest in art and having less disposable income. Also teaching jobs are much harder to get, even part-time ones that pay very little. I still think one can make a modest living by selling and teaching everywhere they can. For instance, this year I have solo show in gallery, participate in group shows in other galleries and in couple of outdoor art festivals. I also sell on-line and privately as well as teach in two universities, local art center and privately. I know artists who are not affiliated with galleries and get a good income from private sales and commissions. I also know artists who have enough private students to live off that. And, obviously, internet has changed many things and some artists are quite successful with on-line marketing.
The real problem is to be a good artist. Otherwise the whole thing is not worth it. Many young people go into arts for vanity or bohemian life style. They make a big mistake. It’s not about having fun. Being an artist is enormous work and sacrifice. There is absolutely no reason to do it unless it is the only thing you can do with your life.
One of the problems I see is that it is very difficult to get good training today if one wants to learn how to paint or sculpt in the way which is most often referred to as “traditionally”, the way artists did it for centuries. Most of art schools are conceptual now. They let their students hang around for years feeling cool without giving them any skills. From what I know the only strong traditional undergraduate school is Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine arts where I received Master’s degree. But even good school gives just a foundation. I think a beginner must find one good teacher and hang on him/her like a bulldog. That person does not have to be from a big name school. It has to be an artist whose work speaks to you. Also one needs to copy masterpieces, go to museums, read books and travel to Europe when one can afford it. Every good artist is to a large extent self-taught.
My main advice would be: listen only to those who know what they are talking about. Look at your critic’s own paintings or sculptures, they will tell you how much his opinion is worth. Do not be afraid of negative comments. These are what will help you, compliments are mostly meaningless. And remember – nobody promised you anything. You might work very hard all your life and fail – creatively, financially, personally or all of the above. It’s up to you whether to play this game.
Paintings by Ilya Lerner
October Waterfall 24×30 in. Oil on linen by Ilya Lerner
Chinatown No. 2 24×18 in. Oil on canvas by Ilya Lerner
Chinatown No. 3 24×18 in. Oil on canvas by Ilya Lerner