Alan Carroll is best known to most of us for his blog Surface Fragments. A self-taught painter, he thrives on pushing his own envelope. His foray into digital imaging as a decorative painting tool generated national attention for his Kips Bay Showhouse digital faux bois and trompe l’oeil plaster entryway. Alan’s versatile style (he paints everything very, very well), his out-of-the-box use of digital technology, plus his thoughtful blogging make him an artist we should look to for the future of our industry.
Who taught you?
As a painter, I’m totally self taught. I have a degree in Graphic Design from National College of Art & Design (NCAD), Dublin, Ireland, but I’ve never really used it, except maybe that it gave me a background in computers which has come in handy with my decorative painting. Although, when I was studying Graphics there was only one computer the size of a fridge for the whole department. I wanted to be an illustrator at the time, but there was no illustration program, so I just holed up in a back room and painted weird stuff for a few years. The faculty pretty much left me alone, but I think they got a shock when I showed my work at the Degree show. At least, I know my Grandpa did.
I’m always learning, though, and always from different sources. That sounds trite, but it’s true. I know a lot of people say they’ve always been an artist, but I know that in my case it’s true. I really think it’s simply a matter of observing the World intently and with deep curiosity, and that’s something that you’re either born with or you’re not. Drawing was just a way of recording what I observed in Nature.
The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and the New York Public Library are a constant source of learning for me. And of course the Web. There seems to be no end of people willing to share their learning for free online. It’s amazing really how much is out there.
Who inspires you?
My Mum and Dad taught me what hard work is. Of course, I didn’t see that at the time. I’d just turn my back and go out drinking with my friends. They are both insanely creative in their own way, but neither of them are artists in the traditional sense. It’s kind of odd that my two brothers have also taken up the torch. My poor folks must’ve thought, “great; now we can never retire.”
Working for Pierre Finkelstein for four plus years was an inspiration. That guy is a machine. On top of being an incredible decorative painter, he’s an amazing businessman.
My old business partner, Mark Kusek, really opened my eyes to the digital world. Without him I never would have embraced computers as a tool for decorative artists in the same way. More importantly, he taught me that you can be true to the same creative spirit that flowed through the old guys while at the same time embracing new technology.
You don’t have to be mired in the past, trying to copy stuff that was done way better hundreds of years ago. Those guys were cool to work with.
Inspiration never ends. Whether I’m alone in Nature, or I’m in the city watching some homeless guy squat behind a dumpster…Well okay, maybe not that, but the city’s an incredibly inspiring place. Great, now I have to get that image out of my head.
How did you get into this business?
I was squatting behind a dumpster one day, and… Eh, no. There wasn’t a lot of work in Ireland when I left college. Despite the Graphics Degree, I was always more of a painter than a desk guy, so I ended up working with my brother painting murals in bars and restaurants around Dublin before moving to the States. We painted these really tacky things like dead rock-stars on the moon, a bunch of cheesy Irish bar stuff mostly. I was pretty glad to get out of Ireland finally. I just don’t think I was very happy there in the long run. Ever since reading Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee as a kid, I fantasized about coming to the States and living off the grid in some cabin, hunting trout with a pointy stick and fashioning clogs out of driftwood. So naturally I moved to New York City.
My very first job in the States was as a garbage man in New Jersey. My uncle introduced me to this Irish mafioso in a Social Club somewhere, and told me not to look at him. “If he shakes your hand, you’ve got the job”. He shook my hand. How could I refuse?
I ended up straight-painting houses for a real cowboy outfit. Those guys were nuts: if a job went badly, they’d just rip the magnetic signs off the side of the van, chuck them in the back with the tools and speed off to the nearest pub. One time we used dynamite to blow a tree-stump out of a driveway, and blew out every window in the house. I heard later that the boss ended up driving his car into a lake.
My first job in the decorative painting industry was with Pierre. I remember I brought along a photocopy of this ‘mural’ I was painting in the bedroom of my tiny apartment in the East Village. It was supposed to be based on a Pietro Annigoni fresco, but it looked like a horrible tangle of bodies. I guess he liked it well enough, because he hired me.
What was your lucky break?
That’s kind of a hard question to answer. I’m not a big believer in luck. I can think of a couple of opportunities that, had I been ready, could’ve been big deals for me way back when. But I just wasn’t prepared to take advantage at the time, so they went away. You make your own luck. If you’ve done your homework, and you’re mentally prepared, you can create and take advantage of your own opportunities. Like Sinatra said, “Luck is only important insofar as getting the chance to sell yourself at the right moment. After that, you’ve got to have talent and know how to use it.”.
The question also seems to imply that I’ve ‘made it’ somehow, which is nice but I don’t feel that way. I could be doing so much better, in terms of the quality of the work as well as how well I’m doing in business. For me I think it’s a question of commitment. But it’s nice of you to ask!
What is your “signature” project?
Kips Bay Show House was a quantum leap forward. We had the entrance foyer all to ourselves, and we went ballistic. Covered every square inch in ornament based on the British architect Robert Adam. I threw in a hand-painted replica of the Psyche wallpaper panels by Dufour et Cie, but other than that everything was digitally created and produced. We were winging it, as nobody had ever tried to do what we were doing. We created these ornate line drawings in Illustrator based on ceiling designs by Adam, then brought them into Photoshop and created the effect that they were raised plaster molding, colored them, and printed them out on big sheets of canvas. Instant trompe l’oeil. Well, I shouldn’t say instant; it took forever, but it was cool.
Then we did the same for the floor. Instead of coloring our line drawings to look like plaster, this time we ‘colored’ them using this huge library of scanned wood veneer. The whole thing looked liked ornate parquetry, but it was really just four large printed panels. That was our first experiment in printed flooring, and we did it in the basement using a 44″ Epson. That led us later to creating a company around the modular printed flooring concept.
The steel doors were treated similarly, but instead we printed onto self-adhesive wood veneer, which we stuck on the doors and then polished. Those doors looked fantastic when they were done. Nobody would believe us that they were metal doors, but we left the back side of one door blank so we could prove it.
What is your favorite project?
I’ve had a few good ones. The one where I was staying in a 26 room chateau in the Loire valley, with a live-in cook. That was a good one. Red wine and cheese in the 18th Century dining room for lunch every day. Mmmm cheese. I shouldn’t answer this questionnaire while hungry.
Or when I worked for Paul Simon. He was cool. He flew my brothers over from Ireland, and gave us his guest house and convertible. The first time I met him I was a little star-struck. I never thought I’d care. He answered the back door in his dressing gown. All I could think of jabbering was “you can call me Al.” He rolled his eyes and walked back into the house.
Woody Allen totally refused to shake my hand. I was introduced to him by the designer, and I put out my hand to shake his but he just planted them in his pockets. Not that surprising really when you think about it. That was a good job though. He wanted an American Folk Art blanket chest for the end of the bed that would house his TV that’d raise up by remote. He never said what he wanted me to paint, I showed him a ton of options, and the designer was too nervous about making suggestions so he just stayed out of it. I love Folk Art, so I went to town. I thought the thing looked totally awesome, he said he loved it and he paid me right away, but I heard that it was on ebay not long after.
As far as projects I’d like to work on; more murals please!
Who do you work for?
I try to work for designers mostly. Most of them get that you’re there to make them look good, so they show a little loyalty. That’s where the repeat business is, anyway. When I work directly for clients I don’t quite know how to steer them. I end up offering them way too many options, and when they ask me which one I’d choose I don’t know what to say. I know other decorative painters who are great at the sell. I find it a struggle, so I like to foster relationships with designers who come back to me over and over because I do good work.
What are the types of projects you do?
What gets me going is when I’m asked to do something different or unexpected. I like nothing more than trying to pull off some ridiculously skillful stuff that I’ve never even tried before. Maybe that’s why I’m broke; I’m always trouble-shooting and experimenting. I should just stick to one thing and maybe I’d do okay. Like the dude selling ice cream on the corner. No matter what, you he’s there every day with his chocolate vanilla twists. Me, I’m doing venetian plaster one day (NOT my signature) and painting gigantic canvases the next. I’m hungry for ice cream now.
How have your projects changed in the last 5 years?
For the last few years, I’ve been developing down a path that crosses over between traditional and digital work; finding ways of using the computer as just another tool in my arsenal, but in ways it’s never been used before. My old partner and I basically invented a system of digitally printed modular flooring, for example.
Imagine you have a piece of artwork on your computer. You’ve either painted and scanned it, or created it directly on the computer. Want to make fabric? Wallpaper? Flooring? ceiling murals? Area rugs? verre eglomisé? You can do all those and tons more from the same piece of artwork now by combining the power of digital printing with traditional skills. We are only beginning to touch on the possibilities.
We even developed a way to print gold size. You could get a sheet of ebony veneer for example, and literally print from any design you have on your computer screen in gold size right onto the wood – no masking/stencilling necessary – then gild it. The computer is used just to expedite the hand-done finish, not to supplant it. It’s still a hand-gilded product.
Or forget about printing the size. What about printing the ‘painted’ image on the reverse of glass before you gild it? Mark is now in the middle of printing verre eglomisé polychrome designs right onto glass from ornamental panels that I painted using a Wacom tablet and some computer software. This is groundbreaking stuff. Print the image onto the reverse of the glass, and then gild it. He even printed the patina onto the sheet of glass before gilding it. Time savings are huge, and that’s just with this one thing!
I think that’ll be my theme for the future: exploring how to expand and truly incorporate digital technology into the decorative artist’s toolkit. I don’t mean simply painting something by hand, then selling prints. But how about this other experiment we did with the Glass department of OSU in Ohio: We printed our gold size directly onto paper in super-detailed ornate designs. then we simply applied leaf, and dusted off the design. The gold only sticks to the areas we printed. Then we took these gold leaf designs on paper to the glass furnace. The guy blows a vase out of molten glass, then rolls it carefully across our design. The paper burns off completely, and the gold design is instantly transferred to the glass. Never been done before, but we just came up with it by experimenting.
It’s not just about coming up with ways that save time over traditional methods. It’s also about creating new hybrid techniques that could not be conceived of any other way. That’s the future.
How has your web site and/or blog impacted your business?
I rejected the idea of blogging for ages. I just didn’t want to do it. Once I started it was like someone turned on a faucet. I love sharing the things that inspire me, and there are a billion I haven’t gotten to, but it’s also a way for me to learn. It’s not like the posts just pour out of me; I have to research and do drawings etc. It’s a real pain, but it’s also a way for me to gather my own inspiration for myself. Hats off to the other bloggers out there, coz it’s not easy. My blogging is inversely proportional to how busy I am. I started it while I had some down time, but soon got hooked to those darn Stats!
Blog articles usually arise from my own research into a project, or just a personal interest of mine. I’ll go to the New York research library and spend an afternoon looking at etchings from their archive. It’s one of my favorite things to do.
I’ve only ever gotten two jobs through blogging. One day I was shocked to receive a phone-call from Pascal Amblard. Of course, I knew all about him, but we’d never spoken. He had a really nice job for me, and I was thrilled to work for him. I love his style of painting ornament, so that was cool.
Anything else you think is important or interesting about your business?
“The powerful motivator in our lives isn’t money; it’s the opportunity to learn,
grow in responsibilities, contribute to others, and be recognized for achievements.”
I guess I’ve always tried to compare my work to the best. That usually means I’m looking through books and shaking my head at how amazing decorative artisans were in the past. I don’t feel that you have to have had a strict atelier training, mixing toxic pigments at age nine and all that, or being part of a Classical Guild, in order to reach that standard. That kind of training is not readily available to most people. Besides, I feel that techniques, materials, and most importantly, modern taste, has changed a lot since then.
The likes of Rubens and the Dutch in general traveled to Rome and Madrid and copied all the paintings in the collections. There’s a long history of copying the masters as a learning tool. The trick is not to feel ham-strung into merely mimicking what was done before. I tried copying a small Van Dyck portrait once, just for laughs. He probably tossed that thing off in a day. It took me two weeks, but I learned a ton about painting fleshtones, particularly in the shadows, that I couldn’t have gotten any other way. I just try not to get lazy and think “that’s good enough”, and move on. You have to be ruthless with your own work, and not be afraid to start over on an area that isn’t working. I know my one weakness is to get out the tiny brushes before I’m done with the big ones. It’s laziness. I get 70% done, and I just want to be finished, but you can’t do that.
How has teaching impacted you as an artist and what do you get out of it?
For the moment I can only say that I have really enjoyed the feedback I get from sharing. I haven’t started teaching classes, but I can’t wait. I’ve been looking for a suitable space in the New York City area, and think I may have found somewhere.
Visit http://www.fauxcalendar.com .
The most comprehensive source of decorative painting classes.
And, let the schools know that’s where you found them.