MAKERS: Frank Oriti, Oil Painter
Cleveland painter Frank Oriti recently moved into a new studio in the Screw Factory. Much larger than his previous space, sunlight pours into the room through an immense wall of windows. His tools and easels are all carefully set and at the ready, and giant heaps of oil paint wait for his brushes. I have been an admirer of Oriti’s portrait paintings for years, having always felt a profound respect for his clearly meticulous technique.
As a realist painter in a post-post-modern world, Oriti does face some challenges (in particular the perception that making oil paintings in a realistic idiom is somehow less significant than work that breaks with tradition, and follows the perceived avant-garde tenets of Western modernism, which I have always thought ludicrous). A majority of Oriti’s process is indeed very traditional and most of the tools he uses haven’t changed much in hundreds of years. But Oriti isn’t afraid to use his laptop and a mahlstick at the same time.*
Oriti’s oil portraits have brought the artist widespread acclaim. He won the Cleveland Arts Prize for Emerging Artist back in 2013, and since his work has been in dozens of exhibitions, and can be found in many prestigious collections. Last year his portrait “Clarity” was one of only 55 chosen by jurors from roughly 2,800 for the prestigious BP Portrait Awards at the National Portrait Gallery, London. Painted with careful dexterity, his detailed portraits showcase Oriti’s technical prowess – and while they are nearly “photorealistic”, up-close you can see that his mark-making is rather gestural in places (see above).
When Oriti began painting portraits he had his subjects sit for a professionally shot photograph in a studio – then he would pick his favorite, and use it as a constant reference. But as he recently explained to me, he’s changed this part of his process:
“I’ve realized in the last year that I became entirely too attached to working from these high def photos, and it’s easy to get locked in to them. I think I lost a bit of my painterly intuition. Before I knew it, I was painting these images and spending a lot of time, and when it was ‘complete’ I would stand back and say, ‘well that doesn’t look right?!’ If I had approached the painting differently, and perhaps put the photo away and asked myself, ‘what needs to happen for this to be a successful painting?’ then i feel as if I’m truly engaged with the act of painting.”
Now he just takes a few quick shots on his iPhone to use for reference, but he’s using them far less than in the past: “I think in doing so, it’s allowed me to concentrate on the application and sort of just let the paint be paint.”
Oriti admits that the most important part of his process is teaching himself how best to paint things, textures, objects, etc.:
“I think before every painting is started I take a long look at the objects themselves and/or the photo reference and try to think about how these things will translate over in to a two dimensional form in paint. How will I be able to enhance the viewing experience of these ‘things’ with paint?”
And while Oriti has certainly taught himself the very best ways to paint flesh, tattoos, and denim in his portraits, he’s recently started painting items of clothing, isolated on the canvas, serving as a dedicated and intense study of a single item/texture. For example, “A Study in Black” is basically a “portrait” of Oriti’s well-worn leather biker jacket.
Hours and hours of work go into Oriti’s paintings, and much of it is spent problem solving. What’s the best way to paint leather/flesh/hair/denim? His process is largely working out what that “best way” is, and then dedicating the time until he has mastered it. You can see this process playing out in his paintings, as he varies his mark-making, in a sense “activating” areas of textural importance. As Oriti explains, “I think process is something that keeps me excited about painting – in that I’m still learning new ways/new techniques of paint application. How can I teach myself these and exploit them in my next piece/future piece?”
As we stood pondering one of his paintings I asked him – how do you know when a painting is finished? “When I’m making even more problems for myself,” he said without skipping a beat.
To get a insider’s look at Oriti’s process, watch Five and Dime Films’ short documentary profile on the artist, which shows him working on a painting in his studio last year.
*A stick used by painters to steady the hand they hold their paintbrush in – a favorite of 17th-century Dutch Golden Age painters, who often used tiny brushes to achieve stunningly impressive detail. The term comes from the Dutch maalstok ‘painter’s stick’ (malen is ‘to paint’).