IN THE STUDIO: Olga Krimon

"I want to leave a legacy.  I want to show my sons that they can succeed in what they love."

Ahead of Olga Krimon’s latest exhibition with us at Hancock Gallery, we sat down with the artist to learn more about her incredible process, practice and inspirations for the pieces in her newest collection. It’s truly amazing to be able to hear from an artist themself about their career development over the years, what started off their love for art and what keeps them going. 

Olga’s new collection will be released in a rare online preview hosted on our website. Our mailing list subscribers will be the first in the world to see the full collection before it goes on show at the gallery. 


Thank you for taking the time to speak with us today, Olga. What can you tell us about your studio?

I am based in Los Angeles (Hermosa Beach), and I live a mile from the ocean.  My house is my everything – my home, my studio.  I have a dedicated studio space, yet I find that I move around the whole house quite a bit, except for my sons’ rooms, those are off limits!  I feel like I need to change my painting location now and then, I get a bit stuck in one place.  I have beautiful north light upstairs and California provides plenty of perfect light year-round.  I can open the patio doors and paint outdoors too.  Yet one of my favourite working spaces is my drawing room, and that’s where I am at currently, working on my new pieces for Hancock Gallery.  It’s the most private space with the most natural light during the day.

You have an incredible resume, your artistic education alone is amazing. Can you tell us a little bit about your background?

I was born in Odessa, Ukraine, and I grew up in Kazan, Russia.  I started art schooling quite early, graduating from a formal 4-year atelier-like art school in Kazan.  I won a national competition in English and came to the US in 1991 as an exchange student.  I was fortunate to be offered a scholarship to be able to finish my studies here, while the Soviet Union collapsed back home, and my family decided to move to the US.  I received a BA in Art History from Davidson College and MBA (Business) from University of Southern California.  My life took quite a turn, during which I was fortunate to study drawing with Glen Orbik and painting with Jeremy Lipking.  National exhibitions and awards followed, and I owe it to the Portrait Society of America whose awards really opened the doors for me then and throughout the years.  I am very fortunate to have a career doing what I love, working with galleries and collectors who give me the freedom to create, and meeting so many talented inspiring artists and art lovers who share the same passion. 

How do you find motivation?

How do you not find motivation?  When you are a full time artist, you work.  It’s not about waiting when the inspiration hits.  That’s a false sense of what an artist is.  You go to the easel, you have ideas, and you work hard to materialise them.  Maybe that’s what it is – it’s the need to get them out of you, those thoughts you have, the visual images that you create in your head.  I have some themes that I keep thinking about.  Some of them do not stay, and you almost have to sketch them out or take a note of them, otherwise they vanish.  There are some that keep coming back, over and over, and you have to get them out of your system.  It’s almost a necessity to get them out.  Like right now I keep thinking of figures in water, hence my Weightless series that I keep working on.  Or when the peonies are in season, and it’s a very short season – I have a week or two when I have to drop all my projects and jump into that sea of flowers in my studio.  And then they are out of my system and I can go back to reality.  There are times when I have to switch from figures to landscapes, or to drawing altogether, to take a break.  

What drives your work?

I want to continue to grow.  I want to create paintings that are emotionally charged, that are honest and beautiful, that will connect with a viewer.  I want to leave a legacy.  I want to show my sons that they can succeed in what they love. 

You often draw inspiration from reality, but never fix yourself there, tell us about this process?

That’s a very good question.  I think about this a lot.  I am a realist.  I am originally trained in an academic tradition, and as a figurative artist I am very much concerned with human anatomy.  As a student and a starting artist years ago I was so concerned with making things look real.  I was in essence copying what I saw.  And that had its place.  It allowed me to build the skills I wanted to build.  Yet I found, even then, that when I didn’t overthink – when I was doodling with a pen, for example,  interesting things were happening on paper.  Beautiful distortions, elongated proportions that in a way elevated the subject to be something way more than merely a subject I saw.  They made me feel more deeply, they heightened my senses.  My paintings started to change over time.  Composing, designing became my primary focus.  Instead of copying reality, I started to simplify, to collect information that is necessary for my idea about the piece, and to design the space within the canvas to support that idea.  That’s when the strong diagonals started to become prevalent in my works.  The off-centre placement of the figure.  The calculated curves.  The design of how the viewer’s eye would travel through the painting.  The inclusion of abstraction that makes the human forms look more real in comparison.  The “Torso” paintings are good examples of that.  Now, in the Weightless series, I am fascinated with the way the water morphs into the figure and distorts it.  I am searching for the ways to design that interplay of real and abstract, and that abstraction is the reality, as without it there will be no sense of water.  Real, in a sense, has to be abstracted to be truly real.  

Abstraction is an interesting thing.  Sargent’s girl in the foreground of the Boit Daughters is pure genius of abstraction, when viewed very closely.  Thick knife layering of the paint.  Bold strokes.  And then you step back and all of them merge into the real palpable figure of the girl.  She is alive.  If she were to be rendered in any other way she wouldn't have the vitality that she possesses.   That’s realism at its best, and it is achieved through abstraction.  Amazing.  

If you could choose one song from one album to reflect your work, what would it be, and why?

I don’t think it’s a song.  And maybe each painting needs its own piece.  But if I choose one, maybe I choose a classical piece.  A Rachmaninov piece, maybe Vocalise.  It has that sense of longing and it moves me so much.  And there are so many versions of it.  With and without the vocals.  So many interpretations.  It’s deceptively simple.  And it has that power to stay in your head and not let go.  I want my paintings to do that, to be that.  

How important is your sketchbook?

Not as important as it used to be.  I used to sketch people in the NY subway, exercising my eye to take a look and then remember the pose. I allowed myself 2-3 glances and I sketched from memory.  So that I didn’t have to look at my drawing subject too much, as to not attract the attention.  It was a great exercise in capturing only the essential.  I used to sketch out thumbnails for every piece, working through its composition.  I don’t do it as often, at least not for smaller pieces.  My sketchbook is something that is separate from my paintings these days.  My sketches are much more whimsical, the forms are much more elongated, I in a way have more freedom to distort there. In some I create curves and shapes that morph into each other.  And I let go of my hand much more freely in them.  I love to draw with a calligraphy pen and ink.  I have some examples of them on my website.  Sometimes these doodles become ideas for paintings, but most are just the way to free up the mind and let go.  I do work through my painting ideas but usually with paint (small sketches in oil).  

Would you say there is a sense of hope, or nostalgia in your work?

I hope that my paintings elicit emotions and connect with the viewer.  I can’t put in words a specific feeling – and I think it’s for the viewer to decide what feeling that is.  I paint because that’s the best way I can communicate.  I can’t verbalise it, I can only express it visually.  Nostalgia – that’s interesting, maybe you are right.  Maybe it’s a sense of a memory, of something that passed.  Of a moment that is familiar, of the way the light travels through the folds that I’ve seen before, of the certain turn of the neck.  

The dynamism in your work is fascinating, tell us about curves and diagonals...

The movement within the painting is what I focus on. It’s what portrays that emotion I am aiming to convey.   And I utilise the diagonals and the curves to create it.  A diagonal alone would shift the weight one way, then it should be counterbalanced by the opposing force, an opposing diagonal as an example.  It may be repeated, if not explicitly through a compositional element, then in the mere direction of a stroke.  It may be sharpened and then let go, creating the variation of the edges.  So that the line pulsates.  The curves are the means to keep the viewer within the painting, to bring them back into it.  Let’s say a diagonal line continues and pushes the eye through it – don’t let it just leave the canvas.  Bring the eye back through that curve.  It is much easier to illustrate on a specific painting, I don’t know if I am able to explain it the right way here.  I am always very aware of the movement I am creating.  

Other than White, which three colours could you not do without?

I’d say my cadmiums.  Cadmium Orange for one.  It’s an important one for my warm shadows.  I could’ve mixed it, but I am used to it on my palette.  Cadmium Red, although lately I find I use a lot of Alizarin Crimson.  My Viridian, for sure, although of course I can mix it.  

However, it’s really the colour relationships rather than the absolute matching colour that I am after.  We can work with a very limited palette, but as long as the relationships are correct (i.e. cooler/warmer temperature) we can experiment with other colours.  

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?

I had a college professor, a sculptor, who asked the “So what?” question once when he visited my college studio and reviewed my works.  Meaning – so what are you trying to say?  I didn’t think about that at all then.  I was so consumed with trying to show the skill.  I wanted to get the anatomy right.  I wasn’t thinking about why I am painting what I am painting.  He came in with the “So what?” question and that stuck with me since 1994.  I ask that question all the time.  What is the idea?  What am I trying to say?  Why am I painting this?  What emotion am I trying to express?  How does my composition align with that idea?  Everything has to have purpose, everything needs to function to express that idea.  The “So What” of the piece.  Sometimes I overthink it too.  

Who inspires you?

Oh that’s a question I’d like to have a lot of time to answer, and a lot of space to think it through.  I list some of my favourite artists below in the answer to the question about the artworks that I would want to have.  

If you could own one piece of artwork what would it be?

Can I ask for a list of artworks instead? 

I’d love to have a drawing by Repin.  Or ideally his painting of Ivan the Terrible with his son.  It’s a powerful experience to be near it.  If you ever saw it at the Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow you would agree with me.  The strokes are palpable.  The drama that unfolds in it is real.  I probably would be too scared to even display it, that’s how strong the emotion is that it elicits from the viewer.  The paint handling in it is pure genius.  And the way he composed the piece, the way you are led to the scene and you the viewer become part of the tragedy.  I’d love to have Sargent’s Boit Daughters, another genius composition.  Fechin’s drawings.  Zorn’s etchings.  Vrubel’s Demon Seated.  I know, wishful thinking.  Sorolla water scenes.  Of the contemporaries – oh there is a huge list, as these paintings literally changed my way of seeing way back when.  I saw most of these in person in various exhibitions and I spent a lot of time thinking through them.  Lipking’s earlier pieces such as Skylar in Blue or that beautiful interior of a bathroom, quite a few of the works from that period actually, they influenced me greatly.  Jordan Sokol’s Woman with Black Fabric, or Undertow.  Julio Reyes’ Moonlight Moth.  Ron Hicks’ “When Abigail Comes”, because that piece really influenced me at one of his exhibits).  But there are quite a few of his works that I would love to have.   I am only barely scratching the surface here as there are many more artists and works to mention.  And I have not even mentioned photographers – and many of them inspire me greatly too.

Alongside yourself, who would be in your ideal group exhibition (from any period of time)... and what’s the title? 

That’s a hard one.  The first thing that comes to mind – since I am on the Weightless series – what a great thing it would be to have the whole exhibition related to paintings of figures and water.  With Sorolla.  Because the way he painted the water and the sun-drenches figures – there is nothing like it.  Oh and Zorn’s bodies by the water.  And Waterhouse.   

Actually, here is an idea.  An exhibition with both Sorolla and Klimt.  It’s an exhibition on composing, on brilliant curves that both of them utilise. They are very different artists, with very different paint handling, subject matter, and textural elements.  They are masters of composition and I see some similarities in how they approach the pictorial space.  Their bold curves manipulate the viewer (in a good sense of this word), they bring your eye into their pieces and don’t let go..   I am not saying I would fit in with them, but I think that I relate to the way they compose and at least in my head I feel like my work follows some of their teachings.  And their curves, curves, curves, in oh so many of their works!  Except Sorolla’s are bold, saturated, juicy, vibrant, and thick.  Klimt’s are softer, thinner, more decorative, leading to distortions, figures morphing with fabrics and decorative elements.  And talking about decorative – we would need to add Mucha to this exhibit.  I would’ve loved to get to know them in person, too – I assume a group exhibition would enable that connection.   As for the title of the group exhibit – that’s where I am failing, sorry.   

What are you currently working on, and what’s next? 

I am creating a series of paintings in my Water/Weightless series.  And I know that I will continue to come back to this series over and over again, as I continue to think through ideas of the figure in the water and I feel like I am only at the start of this exploration.  My work will evolve.  I already see much more risk taking and abstraction in these, and they give me a refuge, a breakaway from the more realistic figurative pieces.  I explore composition, texture, colour harmony, really everything that I find fascinating.  I concentrate on the feeling I am trying to convey.   I already see how more abstract shapes start to take place in these pieces, as the water allows for this exploration.  Who knows how far I can push these in the future pieces but they keep evolving and with them my ideas for future paintings start to take shape.  The more I am working on this series the more ideas I am trying to develop.  

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