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  Howie Green Interviews

Interview by Kerrian White for graduate school art project

What made you choose the people whose portraits you did? (Were the commissions, personal work, etc?)

Most of the first portraits I did were of people I liked or folks with good faces. Someone (I can not remember who) said "I never grow tired of the landscape of the human face," and I wholeheartedly agree. Some artists are obsessed with the human figure or trees or whatever. For me I've always been drawn to the face, both human and non-human. One of my better early pieces was of an old friend that I painted in 1968. I keep finding portraits I did in the 70s that are decent. Much more low key than what I do now but not bad.

Then when people started to see my recent portraits I started getting commissions to do portraits in my style and it just sort of took on a life of its own. I started doing the album cover series because a lot of album covers are just big face images.

I really love your use of extreme color, do you set out a pallet based on the person you are painting or do you just let it develop as you go?

Sometimes I start with colors that fit the personality of the portrait and sometimes I just impose my own palette on them. If you were doing a painting of Tina Turner you wouldn't use a lot of gray or dark colors. She's such an electric performer that a portrait of her can use all the colors in the spectrum. Likewise for Carmen Miranda or Janis Joplin. Whereas my portrait of Bela Legosi is mostly dark browns and red which fits the whole Dracula and vampire scene.

There are thousands of artists who can capture a likeness and paint a reasonable portrait - Yawn! I'm always looking for artists who take the portrait into new territory and do something different with the genre. I try and sometimes I think I do something worthwhile.

Is there any process you go through to decide who you want to paint next when it comes to portraits?

Not really. If I get asked to paint someone then I usually ask for photos to be used as a reference or I go try to find my own. Let's face it everyone works from photos. I don't use actual photos the way Andy Warhol or Steve Kaufman or Peter Max do but I use them as a place to start. And I'm always on the lookout for a great photo that needs to be turned into a painting. I have a stack of them in my studio.

Are you generally a fan of the people you do portraits of? Or do you prefer to just pick visually appealing subjects?

Well I do enjoy doing portraits of people I admire. I have had a lot of the people I have painted actually see my paintings and send me remarks. I am always trying to do a painting that hopefully, if the celebrity ever sees it, will impress them. I have seen first-hand a number of reactions to my portraits which is fun. So far no one has been horrified by my version of them so I'll just keep going forward. I just got some nice feedback from Barbra Streisand and Biggie Smalls manager just bought one of paintings so I guess I'm doing something right.

Who have been some of your favorite people to paint?

Bob Dylan and John Lennon have been almost life-long fascinating subjects for me. Both guys had great faces. And Marilyn Monroe, Greta Garbo and Marlene Deitreich. All had amazing faces. Beyond beautiful. Madonna and Janis Joplin are always fun to paint because you can go way over the top and it fits both of their larger-than-life personalities.

I noticed in your bio that you had wanted to be a cartoonist when you started out, and now do a ton of portraits. What draws you to painting people?

Norman Rockwell used to just pick up a pencil and start drawing and he said he always would draw a drunken sailor leaning against a lamp post - for no particular reason. Whenever I pick up a pen and start drawing I always start with a face. I've been drawing constantly since I was about 11 years old. I carry little ACEO sized (2 1/2" x 3 1/2") blank pieces of card stock and watercolor paper in my pockets so I can sketch when the opportunity presents itself. Busy hands are happy hands.

There is a great line in the movie "Sunset Boulevard" when the aging wacky actress says "We had faces then!" referring to her generation of silent movie stars. And she was right. I don't see a lot of current celebrities that have memorable faces. Lots of boring pretty girls and mediocre looking guys but very few great faces. The only guy who comes to mind for me is Joseph Gordon Levitt who played the kid on "Third Rock from the Sun." He has a great face. I want to paint him.

I love watching old films because of the great looking casts of character actors and supporting players. They were characters and looked the parts. It's really fun to see all those peculiar folks who have pretty much disappeared from films as a "type". Everyone in the movies kind of looks the same now days.

Part of the reason I was inspired to paint Biggie Smalls was that he didn't look like anyone else. I could push my style to the max and everyone still knew that it's Biggie.

Who are some other artists working now or in the past that you really admire for their portrait work?

John Singer Sargent, Van Gogh, Harvey Dinnerstein, David Levine, Lucien Freud, Warhol, Al Hirshfeld, my old teacher Bob Conge and my friend Peter Berg. I was lucky to have Peter as a classmate and friend in art school and he was such an amazing artist that I picked up his enthusiasm for portraiture. We spent many an afternoon talking about the subject. He was just starting to get some major commissions when he died in 1990 so we never go to see what could have been. But the work he left behind is pretty incredible stuff.

Sargent's painting of the "Daughters of Edward Boit" in the MFA is my favorite portrait painting of all time. I've cant even count how many hours, days, and weeks I have spent at the MFA over the last 40 years studying that painting. It's just astounding and he did it when he was only 26.

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