The Bold & The Beautiful: A Conversation with Shane Wolf
By Kim Azzarito
In the Third Quarter 2023 The Art of the Portrait Journal (Issue #99), Assistant Director Kim Azzarito interviewed Shane Wolf for a feature article. Shane gave us excellent answers, but we had to edit down his answers to fit the requirements for the journal. Here are Shane's full responses from his interview!
You received a bachelor’s degree in graphic design from the University of Cincinnati and then changed the trajectory of your career to pursue art. What led you to that decision?
After receiving my bachelor’s degree in graphic design, I was hired by a French ski company to work as a ski designer in their headquarters in Annecy, France. It was an awesome town, a fantastic place to begin an international living and working experience, and the local French people were quite welcoming despite their reputation otherwise. And the food!!!
After working as a designer for 4 years, I began to realize that—though I always drew and used manual techniques as often as possible for my designs—the vast majority of my day was spent sitting at a computer. I was still in my early 20s then, and I said to myself, “If I’m still behind a computer when I’m 30, I will have to kick my own ass.”
Also, my job was ultimately part of a much larger chain of mass production; every time a project wrapped up, tens of thousands of products (mostly made of plastic) would then be manufactured and shipped around the world. As time went by, I realized that this kind of work was not fulfilling for me, and I knew I had a passion I had yet to fully explore: that of being an artist.
After several years at the company, a huge fire ripped through the old town of Annecy, destroying many buildings, one of which was my apartment. Rather than feeling traumatized by the experience, I immediately felt very liberated. Oh, and the fat insurance check I received also was a nice boost. So, I decided to let go of my job, pack one backpack and a snowboard (all that I had left after the fire), and head westward around the globe.
During my crazy adventures, one of the most powerful aspects of my international roaming was getting back to the fun and purity of drawing… for myself. I battled with my inner voices and personal judgement, but bit by bit I was able to finally draw just for the fun of it, without worrying if my work was “good” or “bad.” Ultimately that was the key that freed me to the next steps.
My world travels ultimately led me to Florence, Italy, where I studied at the Angel Academy of Art from 2005 to 2009. This was where I dared find out if that secret dream I harbored for so long—learning to draw and paint the human figure—could indeed become my new reality. Was I going to suck? Would I just be mediocre? Or could I really excel at it and LOVE it like I hoped?
My four years there were phenomenal, and I left that remarkable city of Florence to begin painting professionally in Paris, France.
I had always loved the French culture and language ever since my first job in France 10 years prior, so returning to France felt right and seemed very natural to me. I knew Paris was a vibrant capital with not only a rich, illustrious artistic past but also a thriving contemporary culture as well. One cannot live in Paris and not be inspired by the multitude of cultural events, artistic currents, fashion, culinary arts, etc. It is a city that warrants its reputation as a cultural capital.
Once settled in Paris in a small, rented room and a spacious studio in the suburbs, I knew I would concentrate exclusively on what I was most passionate about: the nude, always from life.
You have shared that your biggest artistic influence is the models you work with. Can you tell us how you find harmony with your models to create such powerful and dynamic figure drawings?
Yes, absolutely, models are my greatest influence! Whether one-on-one, or in duos or trios, great models inspire great things, and this has been the case since antiquity.
When working from life, you become part of an ancient artistic and human-centric culture that I feel helps an artist tap into the current of timelessness and universality, of strength and beauty, of vulnerability and of truth. It links mankind, and it can be absolutely humbling and absolutely electric!
Finding harmony with my models is at times immediate, and at times an ongoing, building crescendo. Similar to conversation, sometimes you can hit it off with a total stranger and jump right into a great exchange, or sometimes it can take a while to find that fluid space. And sometimes you simply have nothing to say or share with someone for whatever reason. The models I choose to work with are those with whom I can have great artistic conversation, almost every single time we work together.
Models I have worked with in the past with whom there was not some kind of artistic chemistry are simply not models I ask back to studio. It is a complete normality that not everyone will connect, even with the so-called "good" models. Each artist's inspiration and connection to any given model will, thankfully, be totally personal and subjective.
Do you exclusively work from life? How has this helped or hindered you in your work?
Yes, absolutely, always from life!
Models offer infinite possibilities, constant variations, and often great conversation that allow me to make very personal decisions about my work as I move along. Their influence and inspiration are incessant, and I believe this is one of the key reasons why my work has a very strong identity.
After 15 years of working full-time uniquely from life, I have observed that those who do work uniquely from life tend to have a unique vision and interpretation of humanity in their art. I believe this to be largely thanks to the undeniable exchange of energies between the artist and the model, the artist and the work, and the work and the model: it is a very palpable triad.
In times when I have been unable to either find models (lack of network) or hire models (lack of funds), I have used this "constraint" to feed my process. For example, when I first moved to Paris, it took me a full nine months to find a few male models with whom I had a solid artistic connection (finding great female models always seems to be more apparent, partly because they typically out number male models 10 to 1). Though I was working well with several great women, I was going nuts not having good men to draw and paint. So, I started posing for myself using a simple double mirror setup, and voilà! This practice not only filled my need to continue to study the male anatomy, but saved me loads of money, and has over these many years become an integral part of my creative (and back-breaking!) process.
I have never accepted the typical excuse that it is too costly to work from models. My perspective was always that I cannot afford to NOT work from life. This is how we improve our skills, how we learn about people, about our community, our world, and our place in it. The idea of crunching away in a studio with computer screens, tablets, and photos instead of models is utterly appalling. Give me the guillotine instead!
Also, let's not forget that models are people who earn their living posing for us artists. When we cut them out of the process, that is a real person who is no longer making money via their own form of art.
In some of your art, it appears as if the models are floating, not quite grounded. How do you achieve this placement of bodies?
Thank you for that observation. I have always loved good perspective and strong foreshortening, and those amazing ceiling frescoes and paintings throughout Europe with those dramatic upshots. As soon as I left the Angel Academy in Florence and set up my own studio in Paris, I practically said good-bye to the model stand and started posing models on high tables, on mezzanines, on ladders, and even used mirrors in all kinds of ways to help me see the model at different angles.
All of this playing around got my brain ticking and I finally dreamt of some kind of glass platform on which models could pose, thereby allowing me to get any perspective I could ever want, without any obstruction or forced perspective. That thing finally became a reality several years ago when I was able to have a steel company in Paris custom build my platform. That thing is AWESOME! And it allows me to either be completely below the models and draw upwards, or over top of the models and drawing downwards. And everything in between. It was a real game changer and will always be an important tool in my studio.
Earlier this year, you were awarded First Place Drawing in the International Portrait Competition with your piece, Distanciation. You noted that without exception all individuals possess some quality, some characteristic, some essence that is worth studying and capturing artistically. Can you speak a little more about this idea?
Yes, that was an immense honor for which I am very grateful.
I have had the great fortune of drawing and painting a huge variety of people in my career thus far, and I genuinely feel very privileged and honored every time a model poses for me. Outside the figure drawing world, there seems to be the rather predictable stereotype that a nude model should be "attractive" or "fit" or whatever popular culture attempts to define as those traits. Even within the figure drawing world, it is not uncommon to run into this idea.
I have always participated in open studios wherever I live and travel, as not only do I enjoy meeting new people with a shared interest, but the rich variety of models that pose in different cities and countries has developed in me this very principle: that yes, we all have something worth studying and capturing artistically.
I have been struck by such a wide variety of forms of Beauty that it seems impossible to me today to imagine a model session where I could not find something about him/her worth my artistic skill and energy. Granted, it would be illusory for me to say that a deluge of inspiration hits me every single time, but when I think of the sessions I have had where I had to "dig deeper" to find my inspiration, there has ALWAYS been something there, even if it just a very small part of the figure (a graceful hand, some kind of regard, a projected emotion, a scar, a color note, an anatomical anomaly, a funky ear, an arthritic foot, etc.).
The drawing Distanciation was a great example of someone who would likely not be widely regarded as "beautiful," but for me he was, and very profoundly so.
In 2022, you had an incredible exhibition at the MEAM which brought together nearly 200 pieces of your work including your new monumental drawings and paintings. What inspired you to create the large paintings of Carmina Burana, and can you share a little more about your process?
There are several ways I will answer this question.
In the broadest scope of things, I painted my monumental Carmina Burana cycle (the full painting measures 3 x 33 meters, or roughly 10 x 110 feet; European Museum of Modern Art-MEAM only had enough wall space for a little more than one-third of the work) to address a serious issue we figurative painters face in the art community: that almost all of our work, when purchased, disappears into private collections around the world only to be seen by small groups of people. I am not criticizing this reality, but just observing it.
The result is that the general public still seems bewilderingly unaware that we exist (exactly why this is, is a separate discussion). Thus, part of my motivation to go so insanely huge with this project was to—hopefully—short circuit the galleries all together and aim straight for the museums and foundations of the world where the public could see this work and all its preparatory and process work as well.
It was a big gamble on many levels, and fortunately with the MEAM and the wonderful success of the show, it all paid off; the show had one of the highest ticket sales in the museum's history (and this during a time when the Spanish government was still imposing curfews and other mandates)!
Another large motivation for this project was as a "call to arms" to my fellow painters around the globe. I feel that as we artists are ultimately creating 21st century art history, too few of us are taking serious chances to be epic, to take a risk with our skills and see where we go. I think some of this is due to the commercial circumstances of the markets (as just two examples, many galleries steer away from presenting and defending larger format works in favor of smaller works, and the frequency of "under XX dollars" kinds of shows is a real trap for artists); but some of it is also simply due to lack of courage and audacity on the artists' part. Perhaps that sounds a bit harsh, but sometimes we need a kick in the derrière to get us to jump off the ledge!
It seems that painters of the past could indeed spend years and years (even a lifetime) on very ambitious projects, and this is a key cultural element we need to keep alive in the 21st century, particularly when technology is pushing so many people in the opposite direction of speediness and superficiality. Depth and meaning come with time and investment. Our art needs this. Our society needs this. We all need this.
To speak briefly about the process, from the initial compositional sketches and model research all the way to the last brush strokes before the MEAM came to my studio to pick it all up, I worked on that project for about 6 years, not always full-time, but for a large majority of my time. I have estimated that I had around 4000 hours of model time for all of this research, creating my personal "pose encyclopedia" that has become one of my most personal and powerful tools in the studio.
This was the first time as an artist that I was translating an existing work into my own expression, and I thoroughly enjoyed that connection with another artist of a different medium. Still today when I listen to this opera, many more paintings come to mind, but hey, at some point you just have to say “Basta!” and move on to the next dream!
Do you have any words of wisdom or advice for a young person just embarking on a career in the arts?
Yes. Being a professional artist is an amazing career. But you have to be disciplined and clock in a lot of long hours doing mundane tasks; the glorified moments of inspiration only represent a minority of your time. You have good years and less good years; the financial roller coaster is part of the creative process you learn to accept and thrive within (hopefully). If you are sensitive to criticism, then don't listen to anyone. If you're not, then don't listen to anyone. Be sincere in what you pursue and love what you do; fakes don't make it. A great sense of humor is quite the asset, as is a nice smile. Take the long, hard, and often solitary road if that's what it takes. And ENJOY THE RIDE!!
Lastly, can you share any current or future projects you are working on? Aspirations for your career?
My Carmina Burana painting cycle was the first time I stepped up my game as a painter of monumental and multi-figure formats. Around the same time I was initially inspired by Carmina Burana, another major inspiration hit me, one that I knew I was not "mature" enough to attempt at that time. I knew that attacking Carmina was going to teach me a lot, that it was going to challenge me intensely and make me a smarter painter. And it did. Now that I am a bit older and have experienced some of life's most profound events (new life, death, betrayal, deepening love…), this new project is calling my name. And I will answer it head on, for as long as it takes.
In Trutina, 74 x 50”, charcoal, sanguine, chalk & pierre noire on SW paper
A Day in Chantereines, 20 x 20", oil on linen canvas
Fortune Plango Vulnera: All Consumed, 43 x 57", charcoal, sanguine, chalk & pierre noire on SW paper
Floret Silva Nobilis, 118 x 118", oil on linen canvas
O Fortuna, 118 x 157", oil on linen canvas
Sentry III, 79 x 39", charcoal, sanguine, chalk & pierre noire on SW paper
Shane with Carmina Burana at the MEAM, 118 x 472”
In Trutina, 74 x 50", charcoal, sanguine, chalk & pierre noire on SW paper
Ecce Gratum, 118 x 79”, oil on linen canvas
Fortune Plango Vulnera, 118 x 118”, oil on linen canvas
Titan, Prologue, 57 x 45”, charcoal, sanguine, chalk & pierre noire on SW paper