By Jeff Schaller
I sat down with Adrian Martinez, a classic oil painter, for lunch at Blue Café on a sunny but brisk day. We discussed food, art and how fortunate we both were. I chose a 1 p.m. mealtime to beat the lunch crowd at this little hidden gem in Downingtown, and it looks better when you crack open that bottle of wine and finish it by 3 p.m.
I have known Adrian for about two years. Over the past year, I had the pleasure of putting together a show with him at West Chester University. So if you think this is going to be a hard-hitting interview, you’re wrong. And if you think this is going to be an honest food review of Blue Café, you’re wrong. Adrian has a mural hanging in the back room, so — while the food is indeed delicious — this too is a bit biased.
How did you get started making art?
As a little kid, I loved going to art museums, and after years of admiring those wonderful works on the wall, I realized that I could do that. I couldn’t do it at that time, but I knew I would be able to. I knew it as sure as I knew my name.
Did you receive any formal art training?
I got a BFA at the Maryland Institute of Art in Baltimore, A CS at the St. Martin’s School of Art in London, and a masters at Purdue University.
Can you describe your work in general for the readers?
I paint many different subjects. You could say I paint all subjects. People often ask me if I do portraits, still lifes — and the answer is yes to all that. I paint my emotional response to the world around me, and that could be people, places and things, or all of the above.
What is your media?
Primarily it is oil paint. I also do sculpture, etching, engravings and silver point drawings. I love all those different mediums, but I am basically an oil painter.
How do you choose your subject matter?
On emotional response. I live, I get up in the morning, I walk around my house, walk around my neighborhood. It’s only a matter of time before I see something that affects me visually, and it’s a way of capturing the things that are important in my life. I had a sense when I was a very little kid that time and things that I loved were just slipping through my hands. It was an anxious moment for me and I had to stop that. I guess you can do it by being a poet, or dancer, a writer or an actor. The way I stop time and cherish my life was to make pictures.
You use a lot of amazing techniques in your work, and a lot of artists ask, “How the heck does he do that?” Tell me about some of your favorite techniques.
I think my technique has evolved over the decades. I started out being a very classically oriented alla prima painter. Historically speaking, that means a technique they used the last half of the 19th century. I have actually regressed. My painting technique has de-evolved from late 19th century classical realism back, and I am now somewhere between the 16th and 17th centuries. Titian would be the earliest and Velazquez would be the latest. So that means it is not all alla prima anymore. It’s many glazes, under drawings, under paintings, a lot of calculations having to do with transparencies. It’s a very different type of look than I had 30 years ago.
I hate when a viewer asks, “Is it done?” So I’m going to ask you, “How do you decide when a work of art is done?”
I know when it’s done when I realize that I am working on the next painting.
What was it like to paint murals for the White House?
I painted a number of murals for the White House. One of them I painted in Honey Brook, and then I traveled to the White House and spent a week painting it on site. I guess you would say that was the finishing touch. That was very intense. I am very sensitive to my surroundings when I am working, and my life is spent entirely alone. The last week of doing the final touches, surrounded by all the security people, promotion, the president and first lady — it took some adjusting on my part to be able to work under those conditions. The other mural I did was even larger. It was actually a pair of murals. Right now it is being installed in the Bush Library in Texas. They had to be painted off-site in a secret facility, which I can’t disclose, but every morning I was taken from the Hay—Adams, a very luxurious hotel directly across the park from the White House to this “facility,” and I did that for several weeks. It was one of the most dramatic and exciting times of my life, I must say.
Tell me about the mural in Blue Café. Rumor has it they feed you well.
They fed me very well, and it was such a delight. They stapled a large canvas on the wall. I asked Paul, the owner, what the hours were so I could come in after hours and work on it. He said, “Oh no, no you need to do it while we are working, business hours. People can come and watch you.” This was not as stressful as my situation at the White House, but it was almost. That actually turned out to be a delight. I got to know people. There was a group of people who would come in every day and sit and watch me work. I turned into performance art and I loved it. Paul and Patty would every so often bring me a new dessert or a new experiment with their meal. From the moment I got in there I got my latte and my scone. The whole time I was eating and painting, and eventually the mural got done. I had to go back to my studio and I was so lonely. There I was, all by myself, no eyes. So it was a delightful experience.
What inspires you? Really gets your creative juices pumping?
Passion, but I guess that’s obvious. Situations where I experience the generosity of life.
Do you have any habits or morning routines you do before going to the easel?
My studio is right behind my house. I start off with the most delicious part of my day. I have a cup of espresso. I walk into the studio and I spend at least 20 minutes, maybe more, mixing colors on my palette. That’s not necessary — I can do it in just a few minutes — but I need that 20 minutes to push around cadmium red, or make that smear of vermillion, and French ultramarine blue, and I am just looking at paint being smushed around on the surface. That is my meditative focus that gets me ready for the day.
In a portrait, Rembrandt reduces the modeling of clothes to the essentials, emphasizing the head and the hands. What tip do you have?
What are you eating right now?
Polenta, which is normally a bland thing, a side dish. But I must say what they did here is exquisite. I think they used a lot of stock instead of water. Very, very rich — and fish tacos, one of my favorites. It’s tilapia, a mild fish, wrapped in a sundried tomato tortilla.
What is your favorite food?
My favorite food is venison tenderloin, seared on the outside with such a ferocious hot heat that it is actually burnt and caramelized and the inside is still barely warm, with a Petruse 1964. That would be just fine, and a baguette.
What does home mean to you?
Your proudest moment?
Standing next to the president and the first lady with a bank of at least 200 or more photographers, snapping pictures. There were so many photographers and so many photographs it sounded like waves breaking on the shore. The crescendo, the rush of the snapping, would raise and lower like a tide and I realized every gesture that the president
or first lady would make — they would raise their hand, or turn, and they’d start snapping. I realized, “Oh my God, this is my one and only paparazzi moment,” and it was delicious.
What was your mother right about?
I was her favorite.
Money is OK, but it isn’t what life is about. What is it about?
It’s about waking up in the morning with this spectacular beauty beside you in bed. It’s about intimacy. It’s about people knowing who you are and about you knowing who they are.
We ended the casual conversation with each of us getting a crème brulee for dessert and I poured him the last bit of wine. That was to get him ready for the five videotaped speed round questions. If you want to know what law Adrian would change if he could or what animal describes him best, visit my blog: jeff-schaller.blogspot.com.