Painter Tom Prinsell invokes natural history and medievalism alongside futuristic considerations

When New York-based artist Tom Prinsell first started making paintings, it was a device by which to render his experiences of the world around him according to his own particular perceptions – a way of discovering the interesting in the everyday. Tom has since shifted his focus away from his experience of his immediate surroundings; his current work draws on medieval and Renaissance art, as well as looking to architectural visual references, to construct dioramic scenes of fantastical architecture, landscapes and taxidermy animals. So, too, Tom’s initially graphic, illustrative style has developed to incorporate the techniques of depth, colour, framing and perspective he observes in the historical art that influences his own work, namely Hieronymus Bosch, Pieter Bruegel, Gustave Moreau and Albrecht Durer.

Most recently, Tom’s images have taken the form of constructed scenes within scenes – paintings with painted frames or borders that open onto jarringly artificial compositions of the natural world. These, he tells us, envisage a paradoxically “ancient future” in which the only evidence attesting to the existence of certain creatures lies in the contrived, dioramic displays presented in glass cabinets at New York’s Museum of Natural History. Tom’s own posed animals, with their painted backdrops and exhibit labels, comment on the human tendency to record, order, contain and classify that which is wild, uncontainable and uncultivated.

Here, Tom discusses the key ways in which his work has developed, the importance of symbolism in his images, and his conversations with dead artists via the act of painting.

AMM: What compelled you to pursue art in general and painting in particular?

TP: I have always enjoyed turning my imagination into something tangible. Painting is the medium I always had the most immediate and straightforward connection with. More so than with other mediums. I remember editing a short movie I made on Final Cut and the computer crashed when the footage rendering was at 99% and I was like, “well you know, this would not happen with a painting”. So, with painting I feel a sense of control and am able to most directly translate my ideas.

AMM: Your early work adheres to a more illustrative style and includes more human figures than your later work; how did this shift in your style and focus come about?

TP: My earlier work was more or less self-narrative. It was largely influenced by my surroundings and characters in my life at the time. It was cathartic to take things, people, experiences, both good and bad, and create my own image from that. I would paint things like my local bagel place, my local movie theatre, my local 7Eleven. It was a good way to look back on pretty mundane experiences and make them more interesting. Eventually though, I felt they became too specific and the human figures in the paintings restricted the ways these painting could progress. While I am a fan of figurative work, I felt that in my own work, the figure alienated the painting. It became too distracting. I wanted the viewer to have more freedom to instil their own narrative or experience within the work, so I started focusing more on atmosphere than on the figure.

In terms of style, the progression has more to do with natural process and growth. I wanted to give my narratives a visual sense of heightened significance so I thought referencing historically rich and weighted medieval and Renaissance art would be a good way to do so. It started off being somewhat ironic and playful – like, “oh, what if this character in a hot tub is actually placed in a hellish landscape from a Bosch painting?”. After that, it wasn’t long before I started painting burning fortresses and winged demons with spears. The more I searched for images of medieval and Renaissance art to pull from the more I became inspired by it, so much so that I started to pick up on the components of rendering my paintings in such a way, departing from my earlier flat and graphic approach.

AMM: Which mediums do you prefer to work in and why?

TP: I work multi-medium. It is determined by the project, time constraints, etc. I mainly work in acrylic, gouache, or oils; each has its pros and cons.

I think acrylic paint on wooden panel is the most practical medium for my practice. I’ve made a habit of constructing a painting in layers and taking advantage of the fast-drying time of acrylic paint. Gouache is a very fun and refreshing medium for me. The colour you get from gouache is true and consistent, but I find it to be a very delicate medium. I am always afraid of scratching the painting or leaving water marks if the brush is too wet, so I keep the gouache paintings small and intimate.

I think of oil paint as the ultimate medium for painting. There is an authenticity to the colours you get from oil paint that you can’t get anywhere else. The paint seems very much full and alive but it is a different approach to painting than the quick drying gouache and acrylic. If I have a lot of time and a set up with ventilation, oil paint is my favourite medium to use.

“Creatures at Night”, 33 x 23.5 in, acrylic on panel

AMM: Where does the imagery in your dioramic paintings come from?

TP: For these paintings, I am actually thinking of the dioramas in the Museum of Natural History. I also have a lot of illustrative books on the anatomy of plants and animals in my studio that I use imagery from and I reference sources like the National Geographic for the habitats. After that, it really comes down to mixing and matching which creatures go into what habitat.

AMM: What is the significance of the painted border or frame in your work?

TP: This goes back to my experience in the Museum of Natural History. Last time I was in the museum, I was most interested in the dioramas and it wasn’t necessarily the taxidermy animals, fake plants and painted backdrops that got me; it was the whole idea of recreating and staging exotic scenes of nature in a museum in the middle of Manhattan. I was caught up on how these carefully curated little window displays were representing vast, uncontrollable and uninhabitable places in nature. It made me think of the whole ‘the winner writes history’ motif in a humanity vs nature sort of way and how that idea could be explored my own paintings. The border started as a way for me to introduce a scene within a scene. I wanted to give the viewer a sense that they were in one environment looking onto another, and that the juxtaposition of these two spaces would spark up some more curiosity by giving the subjects in the painting an added layer of depth. I was interested in how notions of something like a landscape painting can change by contextualising the image within a frame, or in this case, a stone window, to give the viewer a ‘wait, whats really going on here?’ moment. I think the border or frame adds another dimension to be explored while also opening up a larger dialogue within my work. It also gives me more flexibility to paint things I want to paint while still maintaining the same narrative. However, after I made a few of these paintings, I started to rely on the border in the composition of my work. I was interested in the idea of making an image that was conscious of its own boundaries. This is something I still can’t shake and I am conscious of it even in paintings without borders. If I am not painting a border, I am tightly cropping the scene into the rectangle of the panel or cutting the panel with a jigsaw and shaping the image itself.

AMM: Do you employ a lot of symbolism in your pictures?

TP: I do yes! Because my work is heavily influenced by medieval and religious art, I work symbolism into my paintings and reinterpret these symbols through the narratives I’ve constructed. I like to think that if my paintings are in a dialogue with the historical art I am engaged with, the symbols would be like buzzwords in the conversation.

“Night Time Exterior”, 11 x 14 inches, acrylic on panel

AMM: There is often a lot of architectural complexity in your work; what kind of techniques do you employ when creating this kind of scenery? Does it come purely from your imagination or from observation?

TP: A lot of the architecture in my paintings is a collage of photographs that I have taken or images I have found in books and magazines. The go-to books in my studio are titles like Dream Palaces, Gardens in Time and The Glory of the Metropolitan Opera. When constructing the architecture in my paintings, I think of how the structure can hold the composition of the painting, and then I fill in the scene from there. I find it helpful to think of my paintings as little stages. I look to images of theatre and set design when I’m really trying to create drama.

AMM: Are there any other artists, current or historical, whose work inspires your own?

TP: I feel like I am using a different visual language than my favourite current artists, but I still find their work and practice inspiring. The imagery I use and am inspired by is mostly historical. I go through periods of intense interest in an artist, and their influence is apparent in my work. I maybe just got out of a Bruegel phase, before that I was in a Gustave Moreau phase, and before that I was looking at a lot of Albrecht Durer. My influences overlap a lot but I do riff off specific things in the paintings I am encouraged by at the time.

AMM: Can you tell me more about the concepts behind some of the more recent animal images?

TP: The narrative I have in mind when making these paintings is this: there is an ancient future where the apocalypse may or may not have happened, and these are depictions of what the creatures from the “natural” world used to look like. Again, this comes from my time in the diorama section of the Museum of Natural History and me asking, “what if my paintings had their own Museum of Natural History?”. Also, I felt animals leave a lot of room for interpretation and they are easy to project emotion onto without being too explicit, something I don’t think that can be as well-achieved with a portrait of a person.

“The Anteater”, 8 x 10 inches, acrylic on panel

“The Wallachain Sheep”, 12 x 16 inches, oil on panel

AMM: What role does colour play in your work?

TP: Colour really is a device I use to evoke a certain mood. I have become more and more conscious of colour in my painting. In the past, sometimes it felt like I tried to jam as many bright and poppy colours as I could into a painting without really thinking of how they would interact. Now, I am interested in limiting my palate and investigating the depth and interaction of fewer colours. It is now the element in my paintings I give the most attention to.

AMM: I’d love to know more about the folkloric, mystical element in your work!

TP: Most of these elements come from a narrative I developed following a character called “The Necromancer”. This narrative follows the journey of a romanticised wizard who can communicate with the dead as he roams around a desolate, medieval landscape looking for spirits to talk to. However, the spirits aren’t really showing up, so the wizard is just trying to kill time while bored and eventually dissolves into a lonely shadow consuming swimsuit magazines. I am intrigued by the ordinary side of the extraordinary. I found that this narrative was a good way for me to navigate the historical and folkloric art I became influenced by. Also, since I am mostly referencing work by dead artists, it is fun for me to think of it as having a conversation with the dead in real time!

AMM: Is your practice often collaborative?

TP: Not really. I do send my friends pictures of my works in progress or invite them to my studio when I am overthinking or caught up on something. They usually give me good advice, and I think it is helpful to have a pair of fresh eyes look at what I am working on. It can be so easy to sail away into the dark abyss in my studio and their feedback keeps me grounded. Besides that, I am the only one working on my paintings.

AMM: What do you do when you’re not painting?

TP: Nervously pace around my apartment.

AMM: What’s next for your practice? Are you continuing with the animal theme?

TP: I am thinking of expanding on the animal theme and fusing it with landscape painting. I am wondering what it would look like if you zoomed out on these little animal dioramas – in the way you would zoom out on a computer game like the Sims – and look onto a larger environment. I am interested in capturing multiple perspectives and contorting your traditional landscape viewpoint, while still making it a believable space.

Find out more about the artist: www.tomprinsell.com

Interview by Rebecca Irvin for ArtMaze Magazine.

“Skyscraper”, 36 x 24 inches, acrylic on panel