“Each painting expresses the colorful, emotional swirl that is often present in my head.”
Paul Zimmerman in conversation with Austin Van Allen
Paul Zimmerman: How did you get interested in art?
Austin Van Allen: I have always made art a part of my life. My parents will tell you that I was the quiet boy who sat in the corner and drew dragons for hours on end. To me, art is like breathing, it feels natural. It relaxes me, and allows me to center myself. I try to incorporate it into as many aspects of my life as possible: from the way that I design my classroom or studio space to the artwork I create, I believe it is important to approach each situation in an artful way.
PZ: Your works are combining representation and abstraction. How would you define your style?
AA: I would define my style as a contemporary branch of neo expressionism. Much of my work starts in the abstract realm and then slowly ends up being representational; it is the result of a physical representation of internal emotions and thoughts. The painting process of each artwork can be visceral at times. I paint quickly with large brush strokes, throw liquid watercolor paint, and throw water with my hands as much as with my brush. Each painting expresses the colorful, emotional swirl that is often present in my head.
PZ: What is your artistic process? How do you create your paintings?
AA: I start each work by painting with liquid watercolors first. I have an idea in mind of what I would generally like, but I try not to plan too much. I usually use a wet-on-wet technique – laying down a layer of water and then applying the liquid watercolor on top. I like using liquid watercolor because of the bright, brilliant, and beautiful colors. Many artists water down liquid watercolors to achieve the typically used, muted look of watercolor, but I like my colors to be startlingly vivid. Then, I throw liquid watercolor on top with a brush and sometimes with my hands. Finally, I throw water on top of the paint. This causes the watercolor to bloom, puddle, and run. I love the way that the colors swirl together and create unique combinations, shapes, and patterns. I let the painting dry for 24 hours, and then I take an ink pen to draw on top of the work. When I draw with the ink pen, I am only looking for the separation of colors, brushstrokes, and shapes which highlight the beauty of the watercolor, as well as provide texture and depth. I accept the work for the way that it is, and celebrate it for its uniqueness.
PZ: Do you have any particular goal in mind when you start a new piece?
AA: My goal is always to create something sensational in the sense that it catches the eye and holds the viewer’s attention. Sometimes I have a subject in mind: a phoenix, a vase of flowers, dragons, fish; and sometimes I let the explosion and swirl of color dictate the subject.
PZ: How do you know when the painting is finished?
AA: I know when a work is finished by the way that I feel when I look at it. I have a rather particular aesthetic and when I can look at a piece and feel joy and wonder, the type of joy and wonder that satisfies my aesthetic tastes, I know that it is complete.
PZ: Has your practice changed over time?
AA: This watercolor and ink artistic style is relatively new for me. I used to be a more realistic painter – creating landscapes and portraits. However, during the pandemic of 2020, the degree of control we needed to assert over ourselves along with the control that I needed to have in my teaching job made creating realistic paintings feel overwhelming. Instead, I started throwing liquid watercolor onto paper and watching the way that the colors bleed together. I took an ink pen to the dried work to highlight the beauty of the watercolor paint.
PZ: Which artists are you most influenced by?
AA: I have always been a big fan of the movement and colors of Van Gogh’s work. His work captivates my senses – I could gaze at them for hours. I am also a huge fan of the color and painting styles of Leonid Afremov and Dale Chihuly (who most people know as a glass blower). Most recently, I find that I am influenced by the work of Ashvin Harrison, Iris Scott, and Vexx. All of these artists use color, line, and often movement to captivate the senses.
PZ: What message would you like to send to the world?
AA: Art is creation, and it is for everyone. Art doesn’t need to be controlled, it doesn’t need to be representational, and it doesn’t need to match the sofa. I have this conversation with students in my art classes all the time. In the 21st century, there are so many ways to create: classical artistic methods, virtual technologies, crafting, new methods of exploring artistic elements, cartooning, comic book art, sculpting, ceramic work, doodles, and more. And it is okay to try new things and to not like them, you’ll find your niche. It is important to find a way to create, especially in a culture that spends so much time consuming.
PZ: What are you working on now?
AA: I am trying to make my art exhibits more interactive. In addition to publishing a coloring book, I used the same process to make big, colorless prints of my work so that I can set up painting stations in my gallery shows. I want patrons to become a part of my painting process, to experience what it feels like to see how liquid watercolors react on paper together, and to watch the beauty unfurl at the end of a paint brush. I am also working on animating my paintings and using Adobe Aero to create augmented reality gallery spaces to showcase my animated paintings.
PZ: How did the pandemic influence your work and sensibility?
AA: The pandemic and its effect on my artistic process has allowed me to realize that not everything has to be controlled to be beautiful. Sometimes it is better to let things be the way they are and to recognize and celebrate the beauty that already exists. This is what my artistic style is about: surrendering control, and celebrating the resulting beauty.