(originally published in Bootleg issue 43, February 2009)
By Brian Tucker
Jason Pena lives in Arizona where by day he works at a library, a job he enjoys and is fruitful when it comes to creating beautiful paintings. At night he creates works of art, beautiful images brimming with warmth, bright colors, and poignant features.
The faces in his paintings feel as though they are in your face or in the act of pulling you in. Inviting and alive, Pena’s work graced the cover of issue 43 and below he discusses his thoughts on the highs and lows of creating, sharing, and the joy of art.
You have a signature style – gently chiseled features, bright colors, hair that comes to exquisite curls.
Pena: I found my signature style early on. Learning to perfect and refine that signature style is a life long progression for me. It doesn’t matter how good I get at painting, I can always get better. The curves in the figure and curls in the hair help enhance the elegance of the subject. The bright colors give the portrait movement, brings it to life.
Are you self taught?
Being self taught has definitely been a curse. I get denied by a lot of art shows and residencies due to my lack of a formal education. I couldn’t afford real art school so I took it upon myself to read as much as I can about painting techniques at the local library. I also watched Bob Ross religiously. I picked up a lot of speed from practicing his techniques. I realized it was something I was good at when I sold my first five paintings. That meant I had an audience truly interested in my work.
Do you work full time as a painter or do you work elsewhere?
I’m a full time painter and I’m also a part time Library Clerk. I got career advice from watching an Andy Kaufman documentary. It’s important to have something to fall back on if things don’t work out on Taxi. I love working at the library. It definitely helps me out creatively. I’m surrounded by a huge collection of art books, fashion magazines, and DVDs, so I’m always reading and getting ideas for new work. I still can’t believe I get paid to hang out in a library. I use to do that before I got hired. That’s where I got most of my art education.
You like to give out painting tips on your site. How about teaching?
Yes. I love teaching. I have taught drawing and painting at a charter school before. I resigned from the position because my employers expected me to commute across the county for very little money and no benefits. I would love to have a teaching position but unfortunately teachers in this country do not get the respect they deserve. Especially music and art teachers. It’s important for the little kiddies to have music and art programs in their schools. It helps them to exercise their brains and focus on school work. Most importantly it keeps them out of trouble.
How much time during a typical week is devoted to painting?
It depends on my personal life. Some weeks I’ll have only two hours of painting, but on a good week when I have no personal life, I can pull off sixty hours of painting time. Even when I have a two-hour painting week, I value that time because I can work fast. My magic hours are 9 p.m. to 5 a.m. When you live in the southwest, the sun really slows you down. The nights are cool and quiet, and I feel as if I’m the only person on the planet at that time.
What colors resonate for you? Are there colors you avoid?
My favorite colors are always changing. One year it was pthalo blue. Another year it was diox purple. Last year I was liking greenish aqua colors. This year I’m starting to like cool grays. I think subconsciously I like to avoid diarrhea type colors. I think that’s why I never use black paint. Black paint can easily turn any bright color into a diarrhea color.
Where do you begin with a piece – facial shape, eyes?
I always start with a background. The background is your foundation and it helps you figure out your composition, your mood, and the direction you will be heading with your portrait.
What’s the largest piece you’ve created? Has anyone asked you to paint a wall inside their house?
The largest piece I’ve ever done was an eight by eight foot painting. I get asked all the time to paint murals inside houses and such. I always say no. A mural is only temporary in a home. I always try to convince the homeowners to let me just paint a large piece for them that they can hang on their walls because that way they can remove the painting if they decide to remodel or move. Real estate agents hate murals and it’s guaranteed they will paint over it to keep the property looking new for a fast sell.
What is the go-to medium to paint on for you?
I love to paint on wood. Wood has warmth to it. It’s so natural and beautiful. I also love painting on found objects. I started my career painting on found objects. A found object had a life before you found it, and that life comes through and adds soul to your piece. Nothing feels better for me than turning junk into refined art.
Your paintings of women are like heightened reality. What comments do you get afterwards?
Thank you. I get a lot of really great comments from my models. They agree with you in thinking I enhance their beauty, but I don’t think that’s the case. I believe their inner soul is coming through, and it’s something they constantly exude but it’s something they never see when they look in the mirror. Many of my subjects are overcome with emotion after seeing their portrait. That is always a rewarding feeling for me. I know I’ve painted something special when my real life subject is smiling with tears in their eyes.
How many celebrities have seen your creations of them?
There has been a handful that has seen my portraits and been pleased – Patton Oswalt, Zach Galifianakis, Meredith Salenger, Esthero. Esthero always loves what I do, even though she is my toughest critic. She had me paint portraits of her celebrity friends whom I’ve never talked to or met – Sean Lennon, Cree Summer, Pharoahe Monch, and Saul Williams.
I emailed a jpeg of Saul Williams’ portrait to Esthero and she showed him. I believe he liked it because he posted it as a profile picture on his Friendster profile. This was quite a few years ago before MySpace reigned supreme. I decided to send him a message introducing myself as the friend of Esthero who painted his portrait and I mentioned that I was a fan of his work. Later that day he deleted the portrait off his profile and never replied to my message. I never had the minerals to ask Esthero why he was offended.
After that weird online encounter I decided to go to the local record exchange and sell my Saul Williams CDs. If I had ever heard back from him I was going to give him the portrait to maybe keep for himself or to give it to someone he cares about. Instead I sold the painting for forty dollars to a fellow artist who was a huge fan of his.
Meredith Salenger made a film here in the late eighties, Dream a Little Dream. Your portrait captured her very well. Can you explain what you look for when you set about to paint them?
Thank you. With my subjects I’m always on the look out for three virtues – grace, femininity, and elegance. Meredith Salenger has that. Before I painted her portrait, I watched Dream a Little Dream. With most artists the obvious choice for a portrait would be Corey Haim and Corey Feldman. Sometimes you have to avoid the obvious choice to keep your artsy fartsy integrity in tact. With Meredith’s portrait, there was no doubt that I was going to paint her. In my little universe, her visage is more recognized and appreciated than the two Coreys. I might even paint Jason Robards before them.
Didn’t you meet Audrey Tautou a few years ago? Was she a favorite?
Yes. I met her by random chance in Los Angeles. She is my favorite actress. A living legend in my eyes. I place her up there with Audrey Hepburn and Natalie Wood. So much grace, so much femininity, and so much talent. She has eyes that penetrate deep into your soul. Of anyone I’ve ever met, I was most star-struck by her. I was in awe and she couldn’t have been nicer to me. She will always be a favorite.
The Breakfast Club cast series stands out. What are the reactions to paintings of things in the zeitgeist?
People flip out in a good way. They get really excited. Through a simple pop-culture reference you’re taking the viewer back to a time that was special for them. With The Breakfast Club, you’re reminding many viewers of a movie that meant something during an awkward time in their lives, letting them know that they weren’t alone. We all can relate to at least one character from that movie, and that’s the something special that people take away from those types of paintings. It’s a tribute to a fond memory.
How often do you perform live paintings?
I use to paint live once a week. A lot of my live paintings were done in night clubs which I really hate doing now. Night clubs have no respect for art. The promoters never pay, they always stick you in a dark corner where no one can see you, and they never promote your art. Also, no one really goes out to a club to look at art. They go out to get laid. So to save money on gas, I decided to stop painting at clubs and stick exclusively to art openings. That’s the only place where I can paint live and get the respect I hunger for.
Is the compression of time become a problem with satisfaction with the final result?
I don’t know. It varies. Sometimes I’ll spend days on a piece and everyone will ignore it and gravitate towards a piece I whipped out in one hour. So compression of time can be a good thing sometimes.
Explain collaborating on a piece. Does this allow for more energy in a piece?
I collaborate with none other than Glen Allen. I think Glen has some of the most incredible modern pop art on the planet. He is way ahead of his time. What makes Glen’s artwork so amazing is that he uses old school techniques. He doesn’t know how to use a computer, so anything he creates is all by hand and straight from his mind. There is no computer program assisting his ideas or his work. That’s why I love collaborating with Glen.
Our traditional styles and techniques come together for a fusion that almost can’t be explained. Imagine Robert Rauschenberg, Roy Lichtenstein, Ray Johnson, and Frida Kahlo were put into a blender with 70s and 80s era pop culture. It’s a collaborative smoothie from Glen Alien and JRPeezy. We never really plan out what we paint; we just like to work on the fly. We choose a color scheme and a basic composition then we just freestyle. We describe our collaborations as organized accidents.
What mediums influence your work? Film and pop culture seems to be large.
Film is a huge influence for me. Fashion magazines influence a lot of what I do. I’m not ashamed to read Cosmo at the book store. I get stares, but who cares, I’m getting ideas. Classic television is a definite influence – Alfred Hitchcock Presents, The Twilight Zone, and The Loretta Young Show. Thank heavens for DVD collections.
What are the tough aspects getting recognized in such a heavily saturated field?
It’s really hard, especially for a portrait artist with no formal education. No one really wants to buy a portrait of someone who isn’t a family member. I get ignored and denied by galleries all the time. You just have to exercise your patience and hope that someone takes the time to notice all the hard work you do.
T-shirts are utilized more as self-expression and showcasing art. Is this part of the process, or cheapens the nature of art?
I like shirts. It’s a great way to get your ideas and work seen by the public eye. Unfortunately it’s a cutthroat market that’s extremely saturated. I get approached all the time by up and coming t-shirt businesses and I’ve noticed that they don’t care about your rights as an artist. I’ve yet to meet a t-shirt company with a reputable background and business sense for manufacturing art ethically.
Do you plan to produce a collection of artwork in book form?
I think about it all the time. I have a long journey ahead of me and I believe I will cross paths with a publisher at the right time. If that opportunity never comes, I would like to pass on my collected works to my children…when I have children…which I hope is someday.
How did the body painting begin?
I started body painting in Las Vegas. It was for a body painting calendar. After that I did it for a while at different events until I realized it was just an excuse for people to see naked women. Painting naked bodies makes you look kind of pervy, so I was more than happy to quit. I have young fans, so I have to make sure my work and art activities have a PG rating.
Are buyers of your art varied or do you attract specific types?
My clients come from all walks of life. Young, old, short, tall. Tattoo artists love my work. Young adults really love my work. They think my portraits are manga and anime inspired. Of everyone though, my biggest support has been from the lesbian community. I have a lot of lesbian collectors. When The L Word has a new season coming up, I always find myself invited to a season premier party.
Would you describe your style as exaggerated, or hyper-stylized?
I think it’s hyper-stylized. If I were exaggerating my work I think the ugliness would seep through.
The portraits of people are not caricature, more in the vein of Hirschfield, but with copious amounts of color.
I haven’t really pin pointed my thought process. I usually fall into a hypnotic state and I become unaware of what I’m doing and I just let my heart lead me. I’m usually feeling something while I paint – anger, love, sadness, loneliness, happiness. I’m a rock in a running river of emotions when I paint.
Do you enjoy art shows? What is most stressful and enjoyable about them?
I love art shows. If I ever go out, it’s to an art show. I don’t like to do anything else. Night club? Boring. Concert? Boring. Strip club? Gross! If you want to entertain me, take me to an art gallery or museum. That’s an experience I will remember forever.
The most stressful thing about an art show depends on a gallery’s involvement. An experienced gallery will say, “You don’t have to worry about a thing. All you need to do is create artwork, we’ll handle everything else.” A not so experienced gallery will say, “Can you make flyers? Can you pass out flyers? Can you email people to come to the show? Can you put together a press release? Can you hang the artwork? Can you get a DJ? Can you find someone to cater the opening?”
That’s when it gets stressful. It’s that inexperienced gallery making you do all sorts of tasks other than creating artwork. That’s painfully stressful. The most enjoyable thing about art shows is seeing people’s positive reactions to your work. That kind of love never gets old.