Eric G. Thompson’s paintings are like visual poems – spare but poignant images of the world. Here Eric talks about why he’s resisted formal art instruction and his thoughts on his work.
LM: I understand that you are a self taught painter. Did you start drawing when you were a child?
EGT: I always loved drawing and I was good at it but I didn’t think I would be a professional artist, making a living at it.
LM: Did you read about art?
EGT: Yes, I looked at a lot of art books and read about artists. For some reason all the artists I loved were American realists. The first time I saw Andrew Wyeth’s work it really affected me. I was a surrealist at the time. I had done hundreds of surrealist paintings and I had really been into Dali but when I saw Wyeth’s work I thought it was so beautiful. I saw one he did of a wall and an oar leaning against it and that changed my life.
LM: I can understand your interest in surrealism. The best surrealist painters were also skilled at painting realistic images. So I can understand the transition in your work.
EGT: Whatever I paint has to be perfect, whether it’s a glove or a chair.
LM: From a technical standpoint, the technique of applying paint to a surface, how did you work that out?
EGT: Trial and error. An artist friend showed me the basics of how to paint with oils. Then I figured out the rest.
LM: Did you resist the idea of formal instruction?
EGT: Yes, I am like that with everything. I love making mistakes. I don’t want to learn from someone, it’s really strange. People say you can learn a lot of shortcuts if you have formal training but I feel it can also ruin you. I am really hardheaded in that area. I want to do things myself.
LM: There’s an old saying that “there are no mistakes in art, only happy accidents”. In other words, mistakes are just situations that tell you what the right direction is.
EG: I think you learn the most from mistakes. Then you just don’t want to repeat them.
LM: So did you also go to galleries and museums to educate yourself about artists?
EGT: Yes, but mostly I read art books. Learning about artists lifestyles and what it takes to make it fruitful. Taking risks. I didn’t have a family at the time I began, so I could take those risks. It might have been different if I had a family, I might have said no way.
LM: Many of your most powerful pieces are very spare. It’s paradoxical because there may not be a lot of objects in the paintings but there’s still a lot going on. Do you want the viewer to focus on a single, specific object or more on the total composition?
EGT: I see objects as little characters, beings, almost like spirits. I love the patina on things and how things age. Zen practice has taught me to create a space people can just be in. There’s nothing worse than feeling claustrophobic in a painting. After a long day I want to come home to something that gives me space, not something chaotic. So you can just let go. Its a meditative type of focus on one thing and I want the viewer to just see it fully.
LM: That reminds me of the Zen principle of just “resting in the moment” – not trying to impose yourself onto the thing you are seeing, just truly seeing it .
EGT: If you really see the essence of something you almost “become it” in a way because there is nothing between you and the object.
LM: The whole idea of viewing art is that the viewer completes the process that the artist begins by painting the picture. A painting is not really completed until a viewer takes it inside themselves.
EGT: Yes, and they see it differently each time depending on what they are feeling at the moment and their past influences.
LM: There’s a connection between the artist and the viewer – a form of silent communication. But there doesn’t seem to be specific message in your work.
EGT: There doesn’t seem to be?
LM: Well maybe, but the messages are subtle. For me, your paintings are simply saying “look at how beautiful a simple coffee cup on a table top can be”.
EGT: I do like to think that someone just left the room and they’re right outside of your view. That’s huge for me. Is that cup of coffee still hot, or did someone forget it and it’s now cold. Will someone wander back into the room and get it? The viewer can fill that in for themselves. Who do they picture coming back into the painting.
I remember a painting I did with a clothesline in it. I can see someone just left the clothes on the line. Any second she’ll come back and work her way across the line, hanging up clothes and picking up her basket.
LM: So even in your paintings that don’t have figures in them there is always the idea of human presence?
EGT: Yes, I think there’s more mystery when you don’t tell the whole story. It can limit the imagination.
LM: Do you like painting one genre of work more than another?
EGT: Definitely the objects. I guess they’re considered still lifes. They have a life of their own.
LM: I think of your still lifes as interior landscapes. Is that accurate?
EGT: That’s perfect, I love that description. It explains a lot.
To see Eric’s work click here.