This interview with watercolor artist Gregory Halili, conducted by Sarah A. Strickley, first appeared in the December 2007 issue of Watercolor Artist.
In the artistic tradition, horror vacui (pronounced vack’wee) is the compulsion to make marks in any and all available space, filling the entire surface with shapes, lines, figures and ornamental details. Though often categorized as outsider art, some argue that the principles of horror vacui are those now shaping contemporary taste and, by extension, the contemporary urban landscape. Think of the billboards and advertisements filling every available inch of space in many of the world’s great cities.
Often, art created in this tradition is expressive of obsession or anxiety—after all, in its literal Latin translation, it’s the fear of empty space or emptiness—and yet Gregory Halili’s Constellation paintings, which the artist describes as emerging from the horror vacui compulsion, carry none of the unease or angst you might expect of work so tightly rendered. Instead, they possess a steadied intensity, a rich and celebratory air. They honor the space in which they emerge, luxuriating over it with the precision of an embroidery needle.
Gregory Halili’s work is expressive of a desire to invoke worlds present and worlds past, to remember what was and to imagine what may be—an interesting and refreshing variation on the disquiet and anxiety many ascribe to the backcloth of modern-day life. Given the level—and the layers—of detail present in his lush and verdant watercolor paintings, you may be amazed to discover that he’s working on a miniature scale: Most of his paintings are between 1×1 inch and 10×12 inches. In order to appreciate them fully, you must near them, bring your nose to the paper. Go ahead. The closer you get to the worlds inside these paintings, the more you’re certain to discover: a surprising flutter of color, or a line moving with the languid fluidity of the unhurried bee. Halili’s work invites an intimate exchange with his viewers, one furthered by the full-bodied sense of nostalgia about them. We can’t help but feel as though we’re witnessing something we’ve always known existed, but have never quite been lucky enough to see.
I had the pleasure of talking with the artist recently about his life and his life’s work. The following is a transcript of our conversation:
Sarah Strickley: I’ve read that you were born and raised in the Philippines. I’d like to talk a bit about the ways in which the landscape of your childhood might inform some of your work and I can imagine a few ways into this conversation. Perhaps we should start with the straightforward stuff. Were you always an artist, even as a child? Were other family members involved in the arts? What inspired you to begin painting?
Gregory Halili: Art, or the idea of art, came at an early age for me. I still have my first surviving drawing of a helicopter, completed at the age of two. Drawing became my pastime. As a child, I would often join art contests in school, competing alongside my friends, who encouraged me to work harder because they were much more talented. Art materials were not cheap, so colored pencils and student-grade watercolors were my only option as a kid. It wasn’t until my family and I immigrated to the United States in June of 1988 that I was exposed to various mediums. Of course, art materials are not cheap here either, but the United States school system provided some great materials for art classes. I was fortunate to have wonderful art teachers and blessed to have a family, who encouraged and guided me to continue painting. No one in my family is involved in the arts.
Sarah Strickley: I know that you studied at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia. How did your time at the university affect or shape your work, if at all?
Gregory Halili: My family lived a modest life in the Philippines. We immigrated here to the United States because my parents wanted to give my siblings and me a better education and opportunities. I’ve always loved the arts and painting, so even before going to college, during high school, I often replicated and reproduced masterpieces from books and sometimes I worked from particular styles and periods in the museum. I had my fair share of artistic passages through art movements and “isms.” Those periods of experimentation and admiration were a great time in my artistic development. Not only was I learning about painting techniques and art history, but at the same time I was discovering who I was as an individual artist. By the time I entered the University of the Arts, I was already painting miniatures. My time at college was a rewarding experience. I tried to learn and absorb as much as I could, not only from my teachers, but also my classmates. What I learned was not how to paint and create miniatures, but rather simply how to paint. I was taught that the more I solved problems in painting in large and traditional formats, the easier it would become when painting on a small scale.
Sarah Strickley: When did you begin painting miniatures that evoke the landscape of your childhood? What brought you to this place in your work?
Gregory Halili: Born half the world away, I can’t help but remember my old home and its memories. My childhood recollections play an important role in the development of my art. Painting the landscape of my childhood has been a very slow creative process. The idea of nostalgia occurred to me in 1997 during a brief trip back to my old home in the Philippines. My return sparked the inspiration to create the hidden memories that had been incubating in my mind. I feel that my manifestation of the Philippine landscape is still evolving.
Sarah Strickley: Do you paint from the space of memory and imagination? If so, what effect do you sense that this has on the tonal qualities of your paintings?
Gregory Halili: I’ve always struggled with how to portray what’s in my heart and mind, and what manifests sometimes isn’t what I have in my imagination. I’m in search of the nostalgic quality that involves my inner reflection, through monochromatic or minimal choices of paint. I’m much more interested in the symbolic quality a certain subject can portray, rather than the actual representation of an object.
Sarah Strickley: For your other work—your cityscapes, for example—you’re using an entirely different palette. Could you talk a bit about your approach to these pieces?
Gregory Halili: I can still vividly remember how I first saw New York City. How magnificent it was. My recollection of that moment has been the foundation of my New York City series and cityscapes. Each painting begins with a single photograph, selected from the hundreds of photographs I’ve taken over the years. I don’t reproduce the photographic image; I use it as a source of inspiration and reference. Like my landscapes, I keep my palette for the cityscapes warm and minimal, evoking my fondness and admiration for this amazing city.
Sarah Strickley: What drew you to watercolor and gouache? Have you always had affection for water-based media, or did you evolve into it?
Gregory Halili: Although I’m trained in other mediums, watercolor has always been my favorite, even as a child. My time with gouache was brief, lasting only a few years. When I started miniature painting—around 8th grade—I created very tiny insects, and even a zebra the size of a flea. I loved the technical aspects of watercolor. In time, I began to discover other technical properties and love it even more. Watercolor is a medium with great versatility. It can be controlled to create chaotic watery worlds or the highly rendered and ordered detail, which I often apply to my work.
Sarah Strickley: As you’ve mentioned before, you could paint on a larger scale if you chose. What attracts you to the miniature? In the past, miniatures have served as reminders of home for travelers. I wonder if that idea is one from which you draw.
Gregory Halili: I’m fascinated by how miniatures reveal different experiences as opposed to the experience of viewing some large-scale works. Works on a small scale have a physical, as well as psychological, intimacy that large formats cannot reveal. Its manifestation allows the viewer to scrutinize the work for technical process and ask questions associated with the scale in relation to the subject. If one creates a billboard-sized painting, it’s overpowering. But if one creates a painting in miniature, it’s on a scale of one-to-one and on a more intimate level. My miniatures serve as a window to my intimate world, a reminder of my past, and a glimpse of my memory.
Yes, miniatures served as pendants and lockets during the 16th and 17th century when travelers set out for the new world. It’s the same idea from which I create my art—to serve both as a reminder and a contained memory.
Sarah Strickley: I mentioned the dramatic shift in palette between your different collections of paintings earlier. What inspires your choices in that regard?
Gregory Halili: I work on my paintings as a cluster and as a series. Each series begins with one single painting or an idea from which the whole branches out. The choices for my palette depend on the emotion and the translation of what I want to evoke. My New York City paintings started from a single photograph, which I took years before actually creating the artwork. The period of incubation required to start the series was an essential mental process. I can now see—and more importantly, feel and translate—the image of the photograph as an old, antique piece. Limiting the colors on my palette for each painting is a conscious decision. For my new Constellation paintings (see paintings at top), I’m consumed by the horror vacui and the creation of wonderful details, resembling a miniature universe. The palette choice is in opposite extremes—light and dark, just like the light of the stars and darkness of space. The viewer may be surprised to find hints of colors in my miniatures. The closer one looks, the more one finds.
Sarah Strickly: Where do paintings begin for you?
Gregory Halili: The ideas for my art are inspired mainly from inner reflection and experiences based on old photographs, travels and sketches. Creating a miniature is a short technical process. It’s the creative process that takes longer, much of the time studying, drawing and contemplating the work.
I feel very blessed and fortunate and humble to be in a situation where I can be creative and produce work on a daily basis. I deeply feel that artists in general are in a position where they can enrich the world and share the beauty that’s created. Each day, I see my work as an opportunity to be passionate and creative. Each miniature is created with patience and quiet reflection.
Sarah Strickley: You’re able to render an extraordinary level of detail on a very small scale. At the risk of sounding silly, I’ll go ahead and ask you: How do you do it?
Gregory Halili: On the technical side of painting miniatures, I use a hand-held magnifying lens, and kolinsky sable watercolor brushes, ranging from 5×0 through No. 4. My watercolor papers are mainly hot-pressed Arches. Every painting and subject is different, so each is tackled differently. For the more biomorphic forms like portraits and butterflies, the underlying drawing is created in fine ochre or yellow lines, using a 3×0 brush. For the architectural details of New York City cityscapes, I start by accurately drawing the foundation of the subject with a very sharp pencil. The first washes are mostly on the first stages, when I create the underpainting. The rest are stages of controlled detailing and layering of colors. I determine the right consistency of paint and water by testing the brushstrokes on another paper before putting it on the actual artwork.
Controlling watercolor on a very small scale is almost like meditation. One has to be very calm. Even a small jitter can have an affect in creating precise lines.
I mainly create watercolors in layers—often four or more layers. And I often almost entirely rework a painting three to five times before I feel it’s finished and as is far as it can become without being excessive. Each miniature is finished differently, not by time, but by how I feel when it’s done. Like many artists, I feel a painting can never truly be completed. One can work and rework a piece continually, for a very long time, and change it completely. An artist has to know when a work is done.
- See a free watercolor demonstration by Gregory Halili.
- Read about Gregory Halili’s butterfly watercolors in the July/August 2015 issue of The Artist’s Magazine.
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