Personal yet universal: In conversation with Esteban Ocampo Giraldo

Esteban Ocampo Giraldo creates paintings that not only offer us a window into a scene from his life, but also capture a memory, a feeling; a moment in time that acts as an imprint. These are the moments that remain within a person, even if it’s as simple as a day at the pool, or watching movies in bed with a friend. Giraldo skillfully paints scenes that are relatable and desirable, as he often depicts the beautiful landscape in his home country of Colombia. HIs work employs dynamic and often dramatic, first person perspectives that allow you to insert yourself into the frame, joining the artist in these moments of joy and kinship. The figure being a reoccurring subject in his work, Giraldo explains that he fell in love with painting the figure long ago and has been using it in his work ever since.

The artist claims: “I would just like to be able to do this for the rest of my life without ever losing the love for it.” This joy and care for the work seeps out of his highly stylized paintings and can be felt by the viewer. Join us in conversation as we discuss the inspiration and drive behind Giraldo’s practice.

AMM: Let’s start with where you are from. Does your upbringing influence your practice today? When did you begin creating artwork?

EOG: I was born in Manizales, a small city located right in the coffee-growing area of Colombia.

I would say my upbringing is what influences my practice the most. I grew up in the 90s, the decade where the whole cartel and drug war took place for the most part, or at least the most gruesome bit. I was lucky that none of it affected me or my family directly, even though my mom’s side of the family is from Medellin, one of the most dangerous cities to live at the time. So I grew up a very fortunate and happy middle class kid who got to play soccer pretty much every day – for which I’m very thankful. Because of that, I turned out to be a very positive and cheerful person, which is what I try to reflect in my paintings.

My first memory of being exposed to art was when my mom would draw for me any doodle I asked for. This happened when I was five years old or younger, and from there I just kept on drawing on my own whenever I was not outside running around. But I have to say I became truly interested in art when I started drawing the human figure from a model in my third semester of undergrad. It was then I realized I had a talent for it and that I could try and make a living through art.

AMM: Your artwork shows us a window into what seems like the intimate details of a person’s life. Where does this imagery come from? Are these scenes from your own life that you have experienced?

EOG: All of the imagery that I use in my work comes from the places and scenery of my past, and I’m trying to paint not only how they look, but how they feel. These are all locations I’ve inhabited at some point in my life, these are all people I know; but I don’t want to take photographs and paint them literally. I want my paintings to invoke the way it felt to be there when I was experiencing that particular memory, or the sum of repeated ones. Most of my paintings are recollections of stuff that has happened in my life, particular moments mixed with the greater feeling of the whole experience that I’m translating into paint on the canvas. In terms of outcomes, I do not want the images to feel specifically mine; rather, I want them to speak in a more universal language that spectators can relate to in their own ways, recognizing the humour, connection and loss in everyday life.

Viendo ‘The Notebook’ – Oil on Canvas, 35 x 60 inch.

La Ventana de la Subaru – Oil on Canvas, 66 x 72 inch.

AMM: Your paintings have such satisfying compositions and interesting perspectives that look similar to cropped photographs. Do you use photography in your work for reference imagery, or are you inspired by photography, perhaps? 

EOG: I started painting from photographs back in the day, but there was a point where I felt limited by what it offered and by how far away my paintings looked from what I wanted to express. So I would say I paint now 80% from imagination and 20% with visual references, which could be live models, objects, or photography.

I don’t plan my compositions based on a photograph, but I do use photographs for occasional reference. Photo images can help me figure out how light will react to texture or volume of specific objects. I think of photography as a complementary tool for my painting. To develop my compositions, I take into consideration the format and scale I want to work in, whether the canvas is big, medium or small, round or a square, etc. Then, I try and challenge myself to find new ways of expressing the feeling I’m looking to bring to life within that constraint.

I do watch a lot of movies and always have been a huge fan of cinematography in film, so I’m pretty sure a lot of that has stayed in my head and has influenced the way I think about how to translate an idea into the limits of my chosen surface.

AMM: Tell us about your time at university. Where did you study and how has the experience shaped your approach to painting?

EOG: I studied at the Pontificia Universidad Javeriana in Bogotá, Colombia.

Before I knew what to study, I was drawing sporadically until I decided to move to the capital and pursue a degree in visual arts. I was a good student, but no more than that. As I mentioned before, it wasn’t until my third semester of being there that I started drawing the human figure. That was when I fell in love with the craft of observational representation. After a while, I realized I had something that could be exploited with a lot of practice, and that I had found my passion and vocation in art. Within a few years, I started painting with Nicolas Uribe, a very influential teacher for me, and then painting became my total priority. With him I learned how to be unapologetic with what I do, as long as it is totally honest, which has shaped and influenced my painting ever since.

I also went to the New York Academy of Art in New York City, where I refined a lot of technical issues in my work. That helped me gain confidence in order to be able to start painting from my imagination; and the community I’ve built there over time has been the most amazing thing that has happened to me in recent years. Being around such talented peers can only make you work with your maximum potential.

AMM: In your artist statement, you discuss the importance of memory in your artistic practice. As many of your works focus on either the figure or an environment as their subject, which do you find most sparks your memory: an individual or a place? 

EOG: I would say places are the main elements that trigger my imagination. And by places I mean a car, a room, a pool, a city, a bed. Every time I think of a specific person or a multitude of people I want to paint, there’s always a place around them. This is because when I paint a feeling, I want to use everything to make it as personal yet universal as possible, and places are the best component to use—for my paintings—in order to give context to a situation I’m describing. 

Mi Primer Beso. Villa Beatriz – Oil on Canvas, 36 x 48 inch.

AMM: I understand you now live in New York City, although you are originally from Colombia. Does your work address this duality of place? How did this experience affect you and/or your work? 

EOG: I don’t think my work addresses this duality per se, but it was because I live in New York that I started painting all of those memories with scenery from my home country. I first came to NY to study in 2013 and it wasn’t until a year and a half later that I got to visit Colombia again, where we don’t have seasons. That first winter in NY really made an impact on me, so coming back was an eye opener. I realized I grew up living in the most beautiful paradise on earth without even noticing that everything that surrounded me was so precious. I then understood that all of that was what I had and needed to paint: my home, family, friends, ex-girlfriends, dogs, cats, all of it.

AMM: Are there any artists working in painting right now that you find motivating or influential? 

EOG: Oh my god yessss!!! I don’t know where to start! I obviously admire painters like David Hockney, Neo Rauch, Matthias Weischer, Allison Schulnik, Steven Shearer, Llyn Foulkes and so many more, but I truly believe the ones that make a difference on an everyday basis are the ones that I have the pleasure to interact with, the people that are close to me and the ones that I get the fortune to discuss art with in a non-formal way. These interactions are what affect my life and my practice in a very direct and concrete manner by providing a reality dose in which we all get to the conclusion that we love art because we just want to paint.

Artists like Nicolas Uribe, Patty Horing, Alonsa Guevara, James Razko, Scott Zieher, Mike Womack, Jean-Pierre Roy, Wade Schuman, Peter Drake, Tom Sanford, and many many more make NYC a very warm place.

AMM: Congratulations on your solo exhibition Fragmenticos at Gitler &_____ gallery in NYC last year! Can you tell us about the work featured in this exhibition? What does the title refer to specifically in regards to your practice?

EOG: Thank you so much!!! Those were a series of small-scale paintings depicting fragmented memories of seemingly small moments from my youth – none of them specific to a particular place and time, but rather, portraits and landscapes of random stuff from the mind. These memory portraits can be looked at as parts of experiences and feelings, vivid yet with a sparing use of detail; only so much, in fact, that context is rendered moot while using very elemental tools– color and form – to tell each story.

AMM: Where would you like to see your work go in the future? 

EOG: I would just like to be able to do this for the rest of my life without ever losing the love for it. I don’t think I see it in a specific place, like a museum or a way I want to paint; I really just want to see it happening.

Find more baout the artist:

Interview by Christina Nafziger for ArtMaze Magazine.

Chivatour en La Calidosa – Oil on canvas, 64 x 84 inch.

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