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Elaine Navas

Selected interview excerpts from Artinformal’s ALT 2024 Publication–“Materials of the Artist”

by Stephanie Frondoso

When did you start using paint as a medium?
When I was eight years old, my parents gave me a Paint-by-Numbers kit. I enjoyed it so much. I remember the moment I first smelled linseed oil—something I never smelled before, yet it seemed familiar. I went to school in the US for five years, until the 4th grade. Every day I would work on my coloring book, and each time I finished a page, my teacher would put it up on the wall. My teacher gave me an assignment to fill up the entire classroom, and I did. In my third year of high school, we are already living back in the Philippines, and I was studying at St. Scholastica’s. I studied painting as an elective. Painting came easily to me. I found oil paint to be a very friendly medium; if I made a mistake, I could just scrape it off. At St. Scholastica’s, there would be one week in a month when the students become the teacher. I was assigned to be the art teacher because my art classmates would always ask for my help.
Is this when you decided to study Fine Arts in college?
No, I studied Psychology at Ateneo because I wasn’t sure then if I could sustain myself as a painter. But I failed Chemistry. I didn’t like numbers. By my fourth year, the school opened an elective for drawing and painting, and I took it to make myself happy and less demoralized. It was something I was good at. After graduation, I applied for a position to teach art as an elective at Ateneo while also studying at the University of the Philippines. I did this for five years. While studying Fine Arts, I couldn’t believe my luck of going to school and loving it. It was like I went to heaven.

Something Of Everything In Everything, 

Oil on canvas, (6x8ft diptych), detail, 2021

Is this when you developed your distinct painting style?
In our exercise, the entire canvas would be covered except for the one grid we’d be working on. That one grid is the only thing that would matter for the day. Mr. Chabet also asked us to bring a biomorphic object to class. I brought a piece of ginger. He asked us to draw it several times, the faster the better. This helped me focus more, which is a habit that I have until now. When I have too much time to make a painting, the adrenaline is not there.
Why do you have very thick strokes?
The thick strokes are not simply an effect. When the paint is thick, it means that it took me a while to get it right. There are layers upon layers of attempts to get it right. The grid helps me because seeing the whole canvas is overwhelming. Working on only four grids in a day feels doable, like a mind game.

Nothing Can Come from Nothing, 

Oil on canvas, (6x8ft diptych), 2021

I consider the audio book a material. Because I want to hear the end of the story, listening while painting encourages me to continue. Each sitting is like a boxing match. I once read Lucian Freud, and he wrote, not verbatim, that the canvas is a battleground. I also read Van Gogh who said that he must persevere, he can’t give up, because the painting is resisting. 
 What are you painting for ALT?
I’m painting a pink gate on shaped canvas—my first time to use shaped canvas. When a painting is on shaped canvas, it becomes an object. While I’m on the road riding a car, I see something that just pops out. MM must experience the same thing when she’s doing street photography. I’ve been painting gates since 1997. I see gates as readymades—something that you can take from the street and put inside a museum. They are abstract forms that are also representational. I spotted the pink gate along Congressional Avenue, near my mother-in-law’s house.
 In some of your recent shows, you presented drawings..

It had been my dream to draw (for a show). I use oil sticks and oil bars. Drawing is very raw, although I think that a painting can be very raw too. Drawing is a real test in successfully capturing something. Drawing has a certain character to it. You can see the pulse of the artist. There is no color to help you out. It is very challenging.

Not all my works are made with grids. My portraits are made through free drawing. My paintings of chairs are not made with grids either. I sometimes paint according to color. If the chair is purple, I would finish that first so that the purple paint won’t dry out on the palette. I use a grid depending on the subject matter. If it’s dizzying, like painting (a body of) water, then I would work on four grids a day. Nona taught me that turning the painting upside down helps with one more thing—I don’t have to stoop down low to work on the bottom of the canvas. Mr. Chabet really taught us how to paint.
I did while studying under Mr. Chabet. He taught us how to paint with a grid, and with the painting turned upside down. In that position, you don’t know what you are painting but the grid acts like a GPS. Just follow it and it forms something.
The subject resists being copied. After every sitting, I feel like I had come from a boxing match. Mr. Chabet advised to make a painting that will encourage you, and to work on just one grid at a time until that grid is beautiful.
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