Q&A With Daniel Ketelhut
Abstract painter Daniel Ketlehut’s first solo exhibition at Sparks, Figmented Reality, debuted early this January as the first of our 2023 shows centered around the theme of “Imagination”. Along with Ketelhut’s description of what he sees in his work, viewers can find themselves creating entire narratives and scenes based on their own interpretations of a painting. Ripe with hidden imagery composed of biomorphic shapes, Ketelhut’s work embodies a highly individual technique honed over years of experimentation. The artist shares his process and inspirations below.
Sparks: What inspires your work?
Ketelhut: All my life I have been fascinated with bizarre, strange, otherworldly things. When I was a kid I loved mythology and monsters and I’ve been an avid reader of science fiction, fantasy, and horror all my life. Those are the kind of subjects and themes I’m inclined to see in these scribbles.
If you’re into fruit and flowers, then that’s probably what you’re going to see in the scribbles…but I tend to think about weird stuff, so that’s what comes up [for me]. All the imagery in my paintings I see as living things—some sort of animal-like, human-like, plant-like, fungus-like, whatever the case may be— but they’re all some sort of living thing, obviously very different from life as we know it, and that’s what develops from this process.
Sparks: Were you always an abstract painter? How did you arrive at your current style?
Ketelhut: I have primarily been an abstract painter since college. At that time, I was exposed to the work of the great 20th Century painters. Those that really grabbed me included the German Expressionists, the Surrealists, and the Abstract Expressionists. Their work inspired me to push myself further than I had up to that time and try my hand at more abstract compositions, which I’ve continued exploring ever since. My present style is one that was arrived at via automatism, which I’ve employed as a creative technique for the past dozen years or so.
Sparks: Can you explain that process for creating each of your pieces?
Ketelhut: My process of creation heavily involves the technique of automatism. It starts by scribbling on the surface of the paper until it is covered with a mass of interconnected lines. From this I pull shapes and forms, the outlines of which are darkened. To these I add additional shapes and forms of my own until I’m satisfied with the overall image. This process is very much a balancing act between unconscious play and conscious control. The resulting sketch becomes the basis for a larger drawing, usually done in graphite, in which the image is “cleaned up” and the value range is established. Using pastels, I will often do an additional drawing to get a working idea of the colors I want to use. Finally, using the sketch and drawings as a starting point, the painting is done. Often, due to the loose paint handling of the initial layers, unexpected things can occur, leading to design decisions I never would have thought of otherwise – this keeps the painting fresh and alive.
Sparks: Regarding the titles and concepts of each of your paintings, do the colors and compositions of the piece inspire the concepts, or vice versa? Which comes first?
Ketelhut: Usually, the concepts and titles are arrived at in the midst of the painting process. Given that the paintings develop rather organically, what they are conveying, and consequently what they are titled, often doesn’t reveal itself until well into their development.
Sparks: Is there a message you are trying to share through your subject matter?
Ketelhut: The closest thing to a message I’m trying to convey is the fertility of the human imagination. This stuff does not exist in reality, and that’s what fascinates me about it. How can you come up with something that doesn’t exist in reality? You use imagination. And at the same time I don’t want it to be super concrete…everybody is going to have a different process, mindset, and life experience. They’re going to bring that and look at a piece and they may see something that I may never have remotely thought of. And so that’s the magic and the power of art to do something like that.
Sparks: What would you consider the self-taught aspects of your art practice as opposed to formal education? What did you teach yourself?
Ketelhut: My formal education taught me how to look at the world around me with an “artist’s eye”. It taught me how to look at art, how to think like an artist, and how to make good design decisions. What I taught myself are the more nuts-and-bolts aspects of painting. I familiarized myself with the properties of oil paint and mediums. I became adept at the techniques of indirect painting, i.e. glazing. Furthermore, I practiced the development of imagery through the process of automatism. With all this, I have learned to approach painting with an innovative and daring spirit, with a confidence which only comes with experience.