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Interview with Ray Salter

Photographs by Melanie Bernier and Gary Batty. Edited by Melanie Bernier. 

Ray Salter speaks with Gateway director Rae Edelson about the work in his current exhibition, Portraits, on display in the Gateway Gallery until August 31. To learn more about the exhibition, visit our website.

Salter sits with his work in the studio. 
Edelson: How did you happen to do a series of portraits of writers and painters? Is this a common theme in your work?
Salter: I really look for a spontaneous character in my paintings. I like working with well-known people, especially writers and artists, and try to capture their spontaneous character.
Do you sketch your paintings before committing them to paper? How do you work, what is your process?
I usually try to get a fast, transparent sketch, and then I go from that right into the painting alla prima. I’m thinking about working the way [Henri de Toulouse-] Lautrec worked by getting a spontaneous drawing and then working from that.
You work on a variety of papers.  What do you like to paint on?
I particularly like to work on cardboard because, like Lautrec, it gives you a basic tonal quality that you can work with. It adapts very well to painting alla prima, or all at once.

When I first knew you, you were concerned about some of the smudges that occurred in your painting. At this point it looks like they’ve added value to them. I’ve always loved your smudges, how do you feel about them?
As long as it works towards creating a total spontaneous effect, I think it can sometimes work to your advantage to have a smudge or a smear. I don’t set out to paint that way, but it sometimes happens, sometimes in the drawing itself.
What colors are used to execute your vision, and why?
I try to work with a limited palette because it works better for spontaneity and for creating a myriad number of effects, rather than jumping into a huge palette which can be confusing and disorienting. So I use color in a very interpretive way, maybe four or five colors at the most. It’s a discipline to work that way.

I know you have a great background in literature and philosophy as well as art. In this series you have Mark Twain, Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Poe, Wolfe, and Wharton – quite a wonderful bunch.  Do you have a favorite author in this group?
Probably F. Scott Fitzgerald. I really like his writing style and technique. He doesn’t necessarily have the most arresting face, but he’s a hell of a writer.
The age old dilemma of who is the best American author always seems to be between Melville and Fitzgerald. Would you pick Fitzgerald?
I’d pick Fitzgerald.
Have you had the fortune or misfortune of seeing the new Great Gatsby movie? What do you think?
The part of the movie that I did see, about half an hours’ worth, was pretentious and very transparent. [ Baz Luhrmann is] trying to create an effect that was not within the book but outside of it, and completely unnecessary as far as I’m concerned.

“Portraits” in the Gateway Gallery.

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