Artist Interview: Mike Ryczek – Oil Painter

Oil painting by artist, Mike RyczekTell us about yourself, who are you, where are you from, and what do you do?
I’m Mike Ryczek and I grew up in Wallingford, CT. I studied at Montserrat College of Art in Beverly, MA and graduated in 2006 with a BFA in Illustration. I primarily use oils to create slightly abstracted realist paintings that often vary in terms of subject matter, and I use Photoshop to make digital collages that I then translate into paint. I also work as a freelance web designer to deal with the financial roller coaster that comes along with being a painter.

How did you get started doing what you do?
I would draw all the typical things a child of the 80’s would draw: Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Ghostbusters, various Nintendo inspired things and many, many Jaws’s eating people. I guess I always had an appreciation for art, but I don’t think I ever had that moment as a child where I simply knew that I wanted to be an artist as an adult. I can, however, remember going to an art show at Choate Rosemary Hall in Wallingford with my parents when I was really young. The show must have been for kids slightly older than I was at the time, maybe 5th or 6th graders, and I spotted some pencil drawing (that was probably terrible) of a gothic looking figure with long, flowing black hair perched on a gravestone, and I remember thinking “that’s the coolest thing I’ve ever seen and I want to be that good”. Around grade school I had a fascination with comic books. I would obsessively copy drawings of my favorite characters with Micron pen and sell them to relatives and other kids at school, for ten or fifteen cents each. I remember that being a great source of pride for me. I had very little painting experience by the time I got to Montserrat, and this is where I used oil paints for the first time. I jumped all over the place in terms of style and subject matter throughout school and around the middle of senior year I stumbled upon the work of the British painter, Phil Hale. I had never seen such beautiful, skillfully executed paintings done in a classical medium that dealt with surreal concepts in a contemporary way. If you haven’t seen Phil’s work before, imagine that after Vermeer finished “Girl with a Red Hat”, he decided to slap a sparkly unicorn sticker on her cheek and draw red X’s over her eyes with chalk ­ that’s essentially the effect. He was effortlessly matching the skill level of the greats and then pissing all over them. Phil was someone who I imagined to be almost bewildered and amused by his own talent, and this would show itself in a somber, expertly rendered, muted palette painting with a tiny pop of cadmium somewhere to draw your eye in or a precious, dreamy Constable­esque cloudscape painted over a filthy garage door in the background or contained in a sketchy speech bubble carved with an X­ Acto knife. Everything was a disposable masterpiece and a total contradiction. Occasionally it felt like he was just flexing his muscles and I wondered how sincere he actually was about his work, but in the end I didn’t really care. He was the first artist I felt a genuine kinship with. I was more passionate about painting than I ever had been and I think that was when I finally settled on a recognizable style. This led to a series of paintings that I’ve heard loosely described as “constructivist”, melding heavy symbolism and flat, out of place graphic elements with intense realism and then dividing it all into rigid sections (essentially aping Hale’s style but not very successfully). Looking back on these never fail to make me cringe a little, especially considering that many involved mixing oil paint with paper collage and spray adhesive (not the most archival combination of materials) and I also didn’t really know what I was doing construction­wise. They were, to my credit, certainly eye-catching and I can see a logical jump from my old style to what I do now.

Oil painting by artist, Mike RyczekWhat is art to you?
My very broad definition of art is anything created by someone with the intent of communicating or provoking a thought or an emotional response. However, my definition changes drastically depending on the mood I’m in when you ask me. Somedays, everything that wants to be art has a place under the big art umbrella, and on other days art has a very narrow definition and I hold everything up to a very high standard. Just as easily as I can look at something and say “This doesn’t make me think or feel anything, but it doesn’t mean it’s not art it just means it’s not for me”, I can find myself filing through paintings and asking: “Why is there so much bad art in the world and why are so many people content with it?” I’ll get irritated when I see a new artist being championed by the art world simply because they did something novel that I see as requiring little skill, thought or emotional depth, and instead of “I don’t like this” my first thought is “this is not art”. I climb up onto my little throne and rail against it all. I guess my point is that I can’t definitively tell you what art is to me, and also that I’m a total hypocrite. On the bright side, I think there are plenty of kind, encouraging and humble artists / interpreters of art out there who want to support one another and try not to degrade other people’s work because it’s not what they think it should be. When I left school, I had a pretty bleak outlook on what it was to get along with other artists in the real world. Now I realize that we were all still kids and that most people in their late teens / early twenties are self­centered dicks whether they’re an artist or not (I’m not excluding myself). Ultimately, I want to be someone who can find at least one thing in every piece of art that I appreciate, regardless of whether or not I would own it or make it, and try to rid myself of the black and white “this is or is not art” mentality. That doesn’t mean lying to people’s faces and holding back all of my criticism, but it means not letting the criticism turn unnecessarily cruel. One of the biggest turnoffs for me is to find out that an artist I admire is full of themselves and totally dismissive of other people’s work. Most artists are already insecure enough about their stuff , they don’t need someone else twisting the knife just for kicks.

Oil painting by artist, Mike RyczekWhat does your typical day look like?
Although I strive for a typical day where I have specific amounts of time blocked off for different types of work, each day has it’s own schedule. Being a web designer in my spare time, I have to dedicate certain days to work on design projects and others to nothing but painting, which can be difficult. Occasionally, I’ll find myself stuck on some design related hurdle and I’ll have to work multiple days in a row in order to finish a project by a specific deadline. Suddenly, I’ll realize that I’ve gone a week without painting and I’ll start to get anxious and depressed. So, I’m still trying to get the balance right and make sure that one doesn’t overtake the other.

How long does it typically take for you to finish a piece?
It can take anywhere between 2 weeks and a year, depending on the size and scope of the piece and on how smoothly it goes. My collage inspired pieces definitely take more time to execute than something like a portrait or still life because I’m trying to find ways to translate ideas into visual symbols and tie them together as well as get something to look the way I want. I’m a perfectionist and not an impulsive person by nature, so it’s difficult for me to execute a painting without having planned ahead of time and firmly decided that it’s worth painting. There have been times where I’ve seen something and thought “that’s so simple and ordinary  – I wonder if I could turnit into a really beautiful and interesting painting”, started the painting on a whim, and then it just crashed and burned because there was never enough there to work with, visually or conceptually. Each time this has happened, I’ve become more skeptical of my own decision­making when it comes to choosing a subject, which leads to apprehension and ultimately can slow things down. I have a really difficult time stopping a painting if it’s not going well and putting it aside, but I’ve forced myself to do it because I know it will lead to the best outcome. The minute something starts to feel stale, I know I have to move on to something else to keep the enthusiasm going and come back to it later with a fresh perspective. So some pieces will take a year to complete, but it’s usually due to there being two or three month long gaps in between. My painting “Adaptation” started out as a 4 1/2 ft. tall, almost life­size figure painting and I probably invested a little under a year into it, but I just had to eventually admit to myself that it wasn’t working and I scrapped it (Actually I handed it off to my parents, which backfired because now I have to see it glaring back at me from my childhood bedroom whenever I go visit them). I started a half­sized version of the same painting soon after, and it actually turned out to be pretty close to what I had hoped for, so for that particular piece it all felt worthwhile.

Oil painting by artist, Mike RyczekHow do you keep motivated?
After a painting session, I’ll usually take a time­lapse picture and study what I’ve done. I inevitably find a handful of things that I’d like to change, but it’s the end of the day and I’m totally exhausted, so I’m helpless to change them. This tends to frustrate me, which leads to me wanting to fix the mistakes, and I wake up with an incredible sense of urgency the next morning to make the changes I wanted to make the night before. This practice also keeps me from wasting precious time in the morning analyzing things so that I can jump right into painting. So in a way I’m mildly tormenting myself, but it has a constructive outcome. I’ve also found this book called “Daily Rituals” by Mason Currey, which I recommend to any creative person who obsesses over different ways to structure their time. It’s a very compact book that devotes one or two pages each to describing the daily habits and schedules of various successful artists. I think the attraction for me is that it’s not a preachy book written by some sagacious success story bestowing their wisdom upon you. It’s simply documenting what others have tried and revealing how all these people were successful not because they followed some universal set of rules, but because they found what worked for them and repeated it daily. Aside from being fascinated to hear about what Francis Bacon’s typical day looked like (it usually looked like copious amounts of food and alcohol, by the way), I find myself inspired to create just by reading about other people creating. Their work ethic seems to rub off on me.

Oil painting by artist, Mike RyczekWhat do you hope to accomplish with your work?
I want to stun people with my work. It’s always been difficult for me to let a painting through that feels lightweight or frivolous. I want each piece to stand on its own and feel dense with a variety of ideas and techniques. One of the most exciting things for me as a painter is to fall in love with someone else’s painting and not be able to figure out how they made it, so when I begin a piece, subtlety and complexity are foremost in my mind. I want to make something that’s painstakingly calculated but looks completely effortless and organic. The way I attempt to reach this is through a constant push and pull relationship with the painting. I’ve come to fully appreciate the role that the editing process plays in the end product of any artwork. Any painting of mine that you end up seeing is usually 25% actual painting and 75% analyzing what I’ve done; preserving the areas I want to see in the final piece and covering the ones that feel unnecessary. Many times, and I’ve heard other painters say this as well, it feels like I’m working on some insane mathematical equation that only makes sense to me ­ constantly adding and subtracting until the answer becomes clear and everything feels “balanced”. I build up layers until I feel that it’s as close to resembling my ideal as it can possibly be. Transparency in paint layers is extremely important to me and I love work that allows most stages of the process (even the missteps) to show through to the surface. It’s aesthetically appealing, but I also like the symbolism behind it: celebrating one’s mistakes and weaving them into something more beautiful and sincere than what might have come from masking them.

What’s the best advice you’ve been given?
I don’t know if this really counts as advice, but I distinctly remember showing my Illustration work during an end of semester critique at Montserrat, and one of the teachers saying “It’s not bad, but you know this isn’t you”. I remember feeling resentful because I interpreted it as “you’re trying to be something you’re not and no one’s buying it”. In hindsight, I realize that it was probably because I had already committed myself to an Illustration major by changing all my classes, but I knew she was right and I just didn’t want to have to change direction again. I probably would’ve ended up leaving Illustration behind anyway after graduating, but that comment always stuck in my mind and likely reinforced my decision.

Oil painting by artist, Mike RyczekAny words of wisdom to aspiring artists who want to pursue a similar career?
Try not to to constantly compare yourself to others and certainly don’t let the fear of “stealing” someone else’s style limit your own work. I can remember so many instances where I’ve scrapped ideas or stopped myself from painting a certain way out of fear that I was making trendy paintings. When I look at old sketches or photos of half finished paintings now 5 or 6 years later, I’m like “What was I thinking? Why did I think these were unoriginal? This stuff is way too fucking bizarre to be trendy!” (granted it wasn’t always in a good way). Or I shelved some idea I jotted down in my sketchbook that I at one point saw as being profound because I thought “this is actually really obvious and a billion people have probably already made this observation  – why make a painting about it?” or the other extreme: “it’s only you who thinks this, it doesn’t really make sense and other people won’t get anything from it”. There are definitely instances when you should reexamine what you’re trying to say, and to be honest there are some ideas I’m glad never saw the light of day. However, most of the time I’ve regretted not following an idea through to the end and I’ve often seen a similar concept executed by another artist somewhere down the line and regretted that I hadn’t given myself a chance. Make sure you’re only giving the hyper­critical voice in your head enough power to improve your work, not to destroy it before it even starts (which is easier said than done). There’s the old “nothing’s original” maxim, which I think is true and should be used during times when the fear of being derivative paralyzes you, but there’s also definitely a lot of work out there that’s (and I know it may sound hubristic of me to say this) not even remotely trying to be original. There’s a quote by Jean­-Luc Godard (which I found buried within a quote by Jim Jarmusch, which somebody else found and designed a poster around, which was then force­-fed to me by Facebook, so odds are it’s probably so obscure you’ve never heard it before): “It’s not where you take things from, it’s where you take them to”. I think this is a very important companion to “nothing’s original”. Yes, all art has been at least somewhat inspired by previously made art, but there’s a huge difference between someone who makes something relatively fresh with only slight traces of their influences and someone who worships the “old masters” and consciously strives to make carbon copies of what has come before them. I don’t want to sound like I’m condemning a group of artists here, and one could argue that some of my portraits have a classical feel to them. If something’s unoriginal but still beautiful, I can appreciate it for that, but I suppose in my own work I aim to make something beautiful as well as unique. I’m not interested in carrying on a tradition.

Oil painting by artist, Mike RyczekWhat are your thoughts on art school?
I have mixed feelings about art school. I was lucky enough to have my tuition paid for so I’ve never had to deal with the crippling student loan debts that Ive seen many other students inherit. I think, and I’m guessing this is the general consensus among most of the American population, that the average tuition cost in this country is insanely exorbitant. It’s hard to see the reasoning behind attending an institution for four years if you know you’re going to graduate with such bleak prospects in terms of getting a steady, well­paying job and be chained to debt for the rest of your life.

On the other hand, I don’t regret my time spent in art school because it gave me the chance to develop along with other artists who were also still in their formative years, and it all ended up leading to something. You inevitably evolve as an artist by constantly being exposed to the work of other students, having the ability to try new mediums and methods, and just by having most of your day revolve around art. My biggest regret is that I didn’t take full advantage of the resources I had available to me: the museum trips, free workshops, exhibition opportunities, etc. In all fairness to myself, I don’t think that many people between the ages of 18 and 22 are able to fully realize these opportunities or care about them (which I suppose is why graduate school exists for those who are lucky enough to attend). They’re far too busy dealing with their personal dramas and social lives to focus on their future careers. But, as with any school you attend, it’s up to the student to take advantage of these things while they can and make the most out of their experience. I remember this being a mantra among the faculty at Montserrat whenever we had to go out of our way and voluntarily sign up for something, but I always tuned it out.

Oil painting by artist, Mike RyczekWhat art supplies do you use?
Mostly sable, mongoose, and nylon long handled brushes that I’ve been buying exclusively from Rosemary & Co., a small brush seller from England. I’ve found that good brush selection has nothing to do with price and everything to do with the manufacturer. I’ve purchased $60 brushes that started shedding within weeks, whereas everything I’ve ordered from R & Co. has cost a fraction of the price and lasted for 9-­10 months on average. As for paint, I buy the biggest, cheapest Blick brand student grade tubes of oil paint available and a lot of Liquin medium. In my experience, brush quality has proven to be far more important than paint quality. I can’t recall using a particular brand of paint and thinking “I just can’t work with this”. I have, however, dealt with plenty of frustration over bristles coming out in the painting or not being able to create the stroke that I want to because the brush is already frayed. I’d like to eventually experiment more with higher quality oil paints, but during the few instances I’ve splurged on a tube of Williamsburg or the equivalent, I haven’t noticed any major differences. I think the push you get from a lot of artists and paint manufacturers to buy expensive, top shelf supplies in order to be a professional artist is a bit of a racket. I also occasionally use oil pencil and acrylic with matte medium for transparency.

Any other artists that you would like to recommend for others to check out as well?
Yes, please check out: Sangram Majumdar, Phil Hale, Nicola Samori, Judy Chung, Edwin Dickinson, Diarmuid Kelley, Alexander Tinei, Andrew Fish, Simon Shawn Andrews, Nicole Duennebier, Susan Jane Walp, and Catherine Mulligan.

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1 Comment

  1. Great interview! I liked what you said about art school opportunities not being appreciated by young students. Sometimes I think I should have done a junior year out West somewhere. It might have literally given me a different perspective especially since I was mainly interested in landscape painting at the time. My favorite Jean Luc Godard quote, and I paraphrase, is “The journey begins when you buy the ticket”. Unca Mikie



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