An Interview with Paul Balmer

Paul Balmer on his South African roots, the influence of Manhattan on his work, political motivation in art, and more.


Tell me about your artistic training and your influences.

In college I studied fine art first then switched to graphic design (in Australia). I thought it best to work as a designer as I figured it would be difficult making money from painting. I enjoyed graphic design and industrial design very much but after college I took work as a freelance illustrator. Doing movie posters and magazine covers as well as logo design here and there (both design and illustration were a great way to learn the fundamentals and it has helped me with the paintings I do today). My influences in the early days were the “golden age” illustrators in America ( 60‘s and 70‘s). Then when I left commercial work to be a “painter." I gravitated towards the more "painterly" painters like John Singer Sergeant, Sorolla and Anders Zorn. Then later, the impressionists-Vuillard, Bonnard. Painters who were skilled colorists and who changed the scene from realism to impressionism and abstraction ( not total abstraction - but rather “abstraction” where you can still see where it was derived from.



How does living in Manhattan affect your work?

To live in NYC is to have a constant source of energy and inspiration right at my doorstep (my studio is on Prince and Broadway in the middle of SoHo). It’s great not just for the access to all kinds of great art in galleries but also for the stuff I see as I walk around. The textures, shapes and colors are so inspiring. Some walls look just like close-ups of my paintings. I take pictures of rusty containers and textured sidewalks and walls with graffiti on them. It is a city of inspiration everywhere. I have so many sketchbooks filled with drawings ( pencil and color studies in pastels) of mostly New York but also other cities, that I still want to work up as large paintings.   

How do your roots in South Africa affect your art?

I spent the first 17 years growing up in South Africa and one is always surrounded by African art. The huts are painted in bright colors and tribal patterns are part of the fabric of the place.  I certainly think the patterns, colors and grit have influenced my work as they show up in both my landscape and cityscape paintings. There is also something in the rugged African landscape that I love.  I am very much drawn to all things “primitive”and not just African art but also Aborigine and tribal art in general. 


What are the best sources of inspiration for you?

New York first, then traveling. Seeing new landscapes and places inspires me. And I travel a lot.  Last year I went to Paris and Brussels on my way to my opening in Holland then down through Italy. Starting at the Carrera marble quarries - the white marble mountains are an incredible sight and the place where great artist throughout history  including Michelangelo found their marble.  I then went to a  small renaissance town,  Pietrasanta then through Florence to Rome.  I take many pictures on my way and refer to them for landscape and color inspiration often.  

What do you aim to achieve when you set out to create artwork?

My paintings are not meant to be an exact depiction of a particular scene but rather an “impression” of a place.  I hope the viewer can get a “feeling” or a visceral sense of a city or landscape.   Perhaps even a subconscious connection to that scene. 

When you first started out in art your work was much more realistic, but as you have progressed it has turned much more abstract. Would you tell me about how and why that change was brought about?

I think that is the general progression for most artists.  When I reached the level of being able to replicate a scene or paint an object accurately and realistically then the next challenge was to convey the “feeling” of the scene or object.  A successful painting for me is one where I feel I have tapped into something subconscious and spontaneous. If that happens then the paintings become my own interpretation and a personal statement.

Moving to New York was the turning point because it was impossible to paint all that was happening out there in a realistic way. In order to capture all the “action” and “personality” of this place, I felt I had to flatten the perspective and curve straight lines and scratch surfaces. A slightly abstracted style grew out of this need to get all the energy of the city in the canvas.

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Do you feel that the artist has a social obligation to comment on current political events through her/his work, not necessarily in a way that is obviously cognizable or recognizable as “political,” but such that it expresses an opinion or presents a stance? Should artists be observers in the realm of the political in terms of their work, or should they be activists? Should they paint solely for the sake of beauty?

If an artist feels deeply about something it shows in the work.  Whether it’s beautiful or appalling you are moved by or a strong political opinion or cause - just be passionate about it and feel deeply about the subject and you will get the best results.  I do not paint from any political angst or conviction but rather from being moved by places - cities and landscape the colors and energy. I grew up in a very tumultuous place. We were so sheltered and I left before I was old enough to really comprehend and understand what was going on. I think what has always moved me most in my work is beauty and innovation. I have such an emotional visceral reaction when I see a striking landscape and incredible architecture. I always stop dead in my tracks and take many pictures or sketch it immediately.


If you had the opportunity to create a collaborative artwork with any artist of your choice, living or dead, who would you choose?

As cliched as it may be - I would like to paint and be around Picasso. He is spontaneous prolific and the most creative.  He would probably have some good stories to tell as well. 

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What is your advice for artists who attempt to imitate your artwork?

I would encourage it. It’s a good way to learn about technique and to learn a different approach. If you look closely at my paintings it may inspire you to try different unconventional approaches.  I use power tools on the surface. I sometimes mix sheetrock compound with acrylic to add texture, etc.  I do a lot of things they don’t teach at school. Copy me, and many artists as a way to learn but then spend as much time to work out your own style from all you have learned.  It takes some discipline to then experiment on your own but is so rewarding because you can then have your own signature style.  


Tell me about your upcoming exhibits.

I have just finished my first show in Korea. It was an introduction to a new audience and was well received - perhaps because the gallery has a magazine publication arm, they introduced me to the Korean public through a series of interviews (over 3 months); - which helped bring interest and people to the gallery. I have a show currently running until the end of the month at Caldwell Snyder Gallery in San Francisco - I included both cityscapes and landscapes. Then in November I will have 7 paintings in an Antique and Art fair in Holland - PAN AMSTERDAM.


See more of Paul Balmer's work on his website.