Gregory, welcome to RepDigest. Tell the audience a little about yourself – your background, where you're from, what you specialize in as an artist.
Thank you Aaron! I've enjoyed your RepDigest interviews for quite some time now, and I'm just thrilled to be the focus this time. Thank you for giving me the opportunity to reveal a bit more about my work and about myself. I'm a French artist. As far as I know, my closest ancestors were Polish, Latvian, and French. I've been told that my second name "Aïvars" was Viking, and my name "Proch" means "cannon powder" and "dust" in Polish. Sounds like an invasion plan!
But of course, my cultural background doesn't stop at the boundaries of my nationality and closest origins. I've grown up, constantly fed by the influences of all the different cultures I've managed to connect with. I've explored many different art disciplines, but the ones I really need to practice in my daily life are composing music and oil painting, which I've done for more than three decades now. I've also been a press illustrator for many years, mainly in the U.S. and France. I love to write. I also love to sculpt – always revisiting human morphology for some reason. I've even created a board game, although this project has never been finalized. I also make my own hats and I'm a pretty decent cook, according to my kids and friends.
How long have you been an artist and how did you get your start?
As far as I can remember – and from what I can see on the elementary school notebooks I've managed to keep – I've always taken great pleasure in drawing things. My parents divorced when I was three, so this gap provided me a wide margin to construct myself without too much parental guidance. I've always been touched and moved by beautiful things. The first huge turning point in my life was when I discovered the Beatles at eight years old. It opened my mind, nurtured it with beauty, excellence, humor, and with some sort of detachment... some happy levity. It gave me a satisfying answer to the question, "What the heck can I do down here?" It gave me a clear path that I'm still following today.
At 13, I was determined to become a film maker… from script writing, directing, composing musical scores, realizing the special effects. My role models back then were Lucas and Spielberg. At 17, I quit school right before the baccalauréat (French graduation) and joined my mother to live in Italy. There, at 18, I had my painting epiphany with the first important work of art I ever created (see Odo's Zimmer below). By 21 I had my first child, Laurelin. I was determined to earn money and decided that I'd make it with… painting! A year later I got my very first computer, an old Atari STE. That's when I really started to get committed with music composition. Since then I've had my second chiId, Johann-Christoph, but divorced a second time and have moved a lot across France. I experienced some low years in my art creation, but I finally got back to it.
What is the art scene like in France? How have things changed during the age of Covid?
I must confess that I have absolutely no idea about the art scene in France. I quit long ago after trying for many years to get galleries interested. I exhibited maybe 50 times or so – once in the Paris "Académie des beaux-arts" and at the Paris "Salon d'Automne." I won a few prizes and a sold a few works back then, but I never properly worked with any art gallery so far. I eventually get bored in spending so much energy, time and money trying to find my place in the industry. It felt that too many galleries were more interested in taking money from all the aspiring artists willing to show their works – asking them for high fees for just a few days of exhibition – rather than finding a public market of buyers for the artists. It demotivated me greatly, and my personal issues forced me to give up this fight.
I completely stopped painting and composing music for many years, working exclusively on press illustration and struggling for my second kid. Thankfully painting and music slowly made their way back in my life. I resumed my practices a few years back with a renewed energy. Weirdly, Covid didn't really change my personal daily life, as I was already a self-confined artist in the studio. It felt like everyone around me adopted my life style... as if the world from which I separated decided to pay me a visit – through the internet – now that our cruiser speeds are even. Paradoxically, this horrific Covid ordeal connected me with many different people globally like you, and many projects spawned from there. Fortunately, I haven't been affected by this virus so far. I feel a lot for the numerous people who have suffered, both directly and indirectly. It's the thing that really affects me most in this age of Covid.
Greg, the quality and tenor of your work reflects a much more classical and distant era. Were you trained in classical standards or is this merely your own personal taste shining through?
That's a good question. First of all, I never recieved any training, nor did I attend any kind of school or class. I just went where my heart brought me and worked my way from there… watching, listening, reading… then trying by myself and learning that way. I was always building a new step from the previous one, slowly progressing towards the greatest models I could aim at. Thus, the classical quality of some of my paintings – and all of my music – is a clear reflection of my own taste and my own ideas of what perfection is. Da Vinci, Bosch, Rembrandt, Friedrich, Klimt, Le Lorrain, Brueghel, van Gogh, and so many more have been major sources of influence. Their examples made me paint. Because their creations were absolute magic to me, I wanted to figure it out by myself. There is nothing more moving as Mozart's music, to which I include Bach and Beethoven's works. I naturally decided to aim at the high level of these masters in creating my own music – not to copy their work – but rather to use their art as the highest point at which to set my aim.
It doesn't really matter if the goal you choose is deemed unreachable. The furthest and highest you can aim should be your goal, because even if your arrow misses this unreachable target, you will still score the best possible hit while aiming at this furthest point. If it's the aim, then perfection isn't the real goal. The real goal is using every trick possible – like aiming at perfection – to get the best out of you. If many of the works I show online reflect my classical side, I have other kinds of completely different works that reflect different inspirational sources. Just like I said about cultural boundaries above, I didn't really care about eras. It feels like art totally transcends space and time. Maybe that's why I ended up as an artist, because you're simply not restricted to anything. The older I get, the less I feel the effects of chronocentric illusion – separating us from the past and the future. The most excellent art will always be from the present, because it belongs to the place and time where it makes the heart pound and souls feel alive. That's why any artist from any era creates. People from 250 years ago don't feel anything now. We do. This human art – all of it – is intended for us, the living...
Which medium do you prefer working in – oil or acrylic?
Oil, definitely… All I know about painting, I learned it with oil. I'm in love with the matter, the smell, the characteristics of this colorful, slightly translucent and creamy paste. Years after having touched it for the last time (painting figurines), I recently tried acrylic to see if it was Intra-Materia compatible – and of course it is. Yet, it's too fast to dry for me. I like to work over days and weeks on a painting, to have a long time of development to achieve my works.
I like to work using something I call the reiteration effect: each new day, with my refreshed mind and look, I improve the work I did the day before… and so on, until the work is finished. If you respect a few rules with oil, this matter is particularly adapted to work that way. Using this reiteration trick feels a bit like collaborating with several versions of myself throughout the development of a huge work. Additioning over so many days of work is like amplifying my capabilities to realize something that overcomes my actual skills. Using time this way is essential to achieving great works, and oil painting is the perfect medium for this process.
For our Intra-Materia masterclasses, we can't use oil within a 4-hour span, so we have to make it work with acrylic. I've been told there are some acrylic mediums which slow down the drying process, but I haven't tested it yet. Oil is also the way to realize the most beautiful glaze, which is the queen technique of the medium, in my opinion. Ask my painter friends Marina Syntelis and Sef Berkers what Xavier de l'Anglais thinks about it...
Based on the high level of detail in your work, would you consider yourself a perfectionist?
I'd rather formulate this otherwise: my philosophy affects my work, for sure. So more than affecting me, I'd say that my work finalizes me, accomplishes me, completes me. I could live without it, but I'd be a less complete version of myself. My tendency to go deep into the process of creating art may look like perfectionism. As long as I feel uncomfortable in watching a painting or listening to music I've composed, I know something is wrong. I spot the problem and re-work until I get rid of this feeling of discomfort. Refining plays a key role in my process.
I consider a work done when I don't get this itchy feeling anymore, but the work itself isn't necessarily perfect to me. I've just reached the point where I don't see how I could improve it anymore. I don't know if I could be labeled as a perfectionist, actually. I also like twisted things. There's beauty in seemingly unbalanced "ugly" things as well. I consider perfection as the polar opposite to what is imperfect. As a creator, I love to use perfection, but also imperfection – which can bring surprise, or contrast, to make "perfection" look even more perfect. I also love to use technique skills along with random accidents to find the perfect pitch. The more colors you have on your palette, the more painting potentialities you get.
You are also an avid musician – again, it seems classically trained. How did your passion for music evolve and how does it influence your perception as an artist?
Again, no specific training there. I just enjoyed great music and took interest in trying to combine the instruments together – their timbres, their colors, their voices – to write structured pieces with them. As I did, I learned from it, got better at it, and enjoyed it even more. Such a virtuous loop ends up with great results after years of spinning. Classical music composition is the most exciting thing I could find to wrap my head around. The real motivation behind it all is the pleasure we get playing with these toys for the mind. If not for the pleasure we get, what would we do this for?
Beyond your taste for classical music compositions, what are some of the more contemporary sounds that inspire you?
It depends on what I am working on. Music helps to configure my brain. When I need to be very smart, I listen to Bach. I don't know if it's actually true, but it's the feeling I get. When I work an Intra-Materia painting, the music I listen to puts you in a particular state of mind, from electro music to ritual and meditative music: Ambient, Trip-Hop, Tibetan bowls, Tantric Puja. I'd recommend David Hykes, the Cryo Chamber YouTube channel, Robert Rich... This kind of music – sometimes just sounds or even noise – acts as a wave upon which my mind surfs for hours, calm and meditative. My family gets mad after hours of Tibetan bowl humming coming from my studio. Our dog Jack barks when some bell rings in the music – he thinks there's someone at the door. The artists I listen to more at the moment are electro: Cabaret Nocturne, Tronik Youth, Moderat...
During our Intra-Materia Art Collective painting sessions, we listen a lot to Alt-J (one of the best rocks band of this time), Super-parquet (a French group mixing traditional folk music with electronic), Kap Bambino and Sexy Sushi (French electro-punk groups), dubstep, classic new wave. Of course, I grew up listening to all the rock artists you can think of. They are too numerous to mention there, but I love Lorde's Pure Heroin, Subrosa. I also love to revisit classics like Rage Against the Machine or Frank Black's first solo album. To get energized, I listen to funk music. I've recently discovered a Japanese funk band I never heard before: Sadistic Mika Band. I also enjoyed Vulfpeck at Madison Square Garden a few days ago.
How long does a given painting take from start to finish? Provide a glimpse into your creative process and explain what subjects motivate you.
It can vary a lot. I've realized the main part of The Cosmic Serpent in one afternoon, while it took me years to achieve Eroica (image below). They're both big-size paintings. I started working on Mozart's portrait a couple of years back (there was a lot of pre-production work). But the last Intra I've recently posted on social media was made in three days or so. I also developed Intra-Materia techniques to set me free from the long-time scale of process, to be able to enjoy the creation of a painting in a much shorter span. The subjects I like to explore in my classical style are also very classical… still life, portrait, scenic, landscape. There's always a little tint of spirituality as well, even in the landscapes, a dreamlike quality which invites contemplation.
With Intra-Materia painting, the notion of "subject" itself becomes questionable. I'd say that the subject here is you, and what you'll come up with, just staring at the painting. Intra-Materia paintings are conceived to be like a visual stimulus to the brain, forcing it to interpret random color stains, and to get visions into them. It can be compared to some magical ritual of divination, like coffee reading or even a Rorschach psychology test, even though our pretensions are only artistic here. In conclusion, I'd say the subjects that really motivate me are myself, you, and all our living fellow human beings… all this weird thing of being alive!
Your portraits have a depth of human quality often lacking with modern artists. How much training and discipline is required to reach the level of detail and realism you achieve?
Regarding portrait, I always start with the eyes. It seems to me that life pours out from there. Work on the eyes until they're perfect. It will set the tone for the rest. Again, it's all about the time you put in. I've always worked the eyes until I was satisfied. It could have taken days sometimes. For example, I'm still reworking Mozart's eyes and face at the moment, but it isn't as if I'm starting all over again. I'm rather improving what's already there, making a better version of it. The day I won't see anything to improve anymore, I'll be done with it. I've read somewhere that Mona Lisa had 16 layers of glaze! Relentlessly reworking that way is something oil technique allows. Unlike many artists we can admire online, I'm the kind of artist who always corrects and improves upon his work.
The difference in quality between my first study and the final art is always huge. I learned how to refine my works throughout days and weeks so it looks good at the end. I explain this process in greater detail in my final reply... I'm not afraid to spend weeks or months on one single painting. I started to work on Mozart's portrait more than a year ago. I don't save my time – I use it to perfect the work. I think that is the real trick here. Johann-Sebastian Bach said it all: "I was obliged to be industrious. Whoever is equally industrious will succeed equally well." Of course, if you don't believe it, you'll never try it, never verify it. It's a lifetime process, actually. We'll certainly never get to the point where Bach was, but we'll definitely push our boundaries further, to discover that our skills are limitless...
What are some of your most noteworthy achievements as an artist and why are they important?
From November 2018 until November 2020, I composed a piano concerto which I consider to be the best thing I ever did (so far). It opens a wide road before me, new artistic territories to explore, maybe even new professional opportunities to seize upon. It reassures me that, despite all the difficulty I've endured as a fully committed artist with poor commercial skills, I still feel rich and lucky. This feeling of accomplishment you get once you've achieved a big goal – it is something money cannot buy.
Regarding the creation of my painting Odo's Zimmer, it is probably a fundamental moment in my artistic course. I'd also mention Uraniborg, because this painting reflects upon a progression throughout an initiatory journey. It displays my former classical figurative manner with premises of the Intra-Materia – much like a symbolic turning point in my course. La Machine Infernale (French accent) is also a piece I'm very proud of. It was purchased long ago by someone who doesn't care about it, but I created a new version called La Machina Infernale (Italian accent).
As for Mozart, I've inaugurated a three-portrait series, which I'm very excited about. I have worked to reconstitute the faces of Bach, Mozart and Beethoven from the best and the most reliable resources I could find regarding their real appearances. From these references, I now have to realize a realistic oil portrait for each of them. Another special moment was when we had our first painting workshop with some friends. Once we realized that the Intra-Materia techniques were perfectly transmissible, they started taking their own initiatives and achieving their own particular results. It was then that the idea of creating an art collective together became evident.
With all of your years of experience, do you still feel there is room to grow as an artist. Are there any subjects you would still love to explore?
Absolutely! The more I get to know, the more I measure my ignorance, ha-ha… The more I grow in experience, the further I can see. And how wide is that field I've been exploring for years? It's limitless! Regarding music, I feel my skills are constantly improving. It maintains my curiosity to see what comes next. I suppose this curiosity feeds the creation itself, which again sounds like a virtuous circle.
Since I began sharing my Intra-Materia techniques, I could see how easily my buddies seized upon them to create their own particular styles. To everyone's astonishment, their works totally matched the Intra-Materia painting style. Some who follow us are now able to recognize our specific manners. Friends who never thought about painting have become painters in their own right from our workshops.
Watching them has taught me so much. For example, I've even learned from my own son Laurelin's manner, whose colors are so much more vivid and popping than mine. Sharing my painting techniques has provided me with new insights to my own practice in return. That's why I'm so eager to share our techniques, because unlike the usual chocolate cake, the more you share this cake, the bigger it gets – a bit like love does…
Any other fascinating tidbits you'd like to share about the artist known as Greg Proch?
I'd like to share the notion of "self-mind tricks" – which I use in my daily life. I'm sure most of you know what I'm talking about, but for those who don't, it may be helpful... The brain is a fine little dude – a bit lazy, but always trying to save energy – even if it makes us look stupid sometimes. It likes to use shortcuts as much as possible. I have a few tricks to make it reconsider and analyze something it already knows, as if it were a new thing, without using shortcuts. Thus, you can keep a refreshed mind upon a long-running work; keep your focus sharp during the tedious creation process.
When you've spent days on a painting, you can't really see it anymore. It's the same with music, or with some text you're writing. At a certain point, the brain just replays what it already knows instead of really seeing, reading, or listening to it anymore. You can trick your brain simply by changing something – look at your painting in a mirror. While you're perfectly aware that you're watching a reflection of your painting, a certain part of your brain will consider it as new information. It will see it as if it were the very first time. If your brain gets used to the reflection and recognizes it, then create a new shortcut and flip the painting over. If your work isn't finished, then refresh your gaze again. Take a picture of your work and view it on the computer. It always makes me rediscover my own current painting.
Another example: When I've read some text to correct dozens of typos, I don't really read it anymore. My brain just repeats the text it has learned by heart, while my eyes just run over the words without really reading them. I then copy the text and paste it in different software. This simple change in the look of my text is enough to make my brain think "Oh! What's this new thing I've never seen? Let's check it out." My brain really absorbs the text then, as if it were new. I can clearly see all the typos I missed.
Starting a new work beside the previous one will also be an efficient trick to replenish the mind. These mind tricks allow me to constantly refresh my gaze upon a huge work. I can then practice what I call the re-iteration trick. This is basically about improving upon the work I did the previous day. After several days of practicing re-iteration, you end up with a sophisticated and impressive working mind. It makes you look like some sort of genius while you've accumulated simple moments of cleverness throughout the past few weeks worth of work. It looks as if the Greg of Monday passed on his work to the brand-new Greg of Tuesday, who then passed on his improved work to the Greg of Wednesday, and so on...
After months of this regime, your work ends up as a rich composition, as if a whole team had worked on it collectively. I can't take all the credit for myself, rather you should thank all these "past Gregs" which I call Avatars. Yes, I have a name for everything. This isn't just a mind trick for creators, it actually works in any field of the mind. I've changed my perception of our place in space, just in stopping to name the Sun the "Sun" – but rather the "Star." It's just a little star among her sisters that we can watch by the thousands surrounding us. Star is female in French, but just changing the name and gender of this familiar object broke my regular and lifelong perception of it. That's the characteristic of our mind I use to improve my own brain capacities.