Joseph Todorovitch | Eyes on the Prize

By Virginia Campbell

The past few years have been momentous for California figurative painter Joseph Todorovitch. In April 2009, his painting ANTIQUES won the Grand Prize at the Portrait Society of America’s international competition in Washington, D.C. The previous year he’d won the People’s Choice Award in the same competition and also signed on for exclusive representation with Arcadia Fine Arts, a New York gallery he had long admired. Major prizes and new representation have given Todorovitch the confidence to become even more focused in his work, finding new expression within the traditional discipline of figurative painting.

While his winning piece from the 2008 competition sold for around $40,000, well above the artist’s usual range, Todorovitch did not want to sell the grand prize painting. ANTIQUES was simply too special to him. It is certainly an eloquent introduction to Todorovitch’s work for anyone who has not seen his paintings. He painted it with the Portrait Society competition specifically in mind. “After doing well in 2008, I set out to make a more significant painting—larger and more ambitious,” says the 31-year-old artist. “I wanted to paint a very subtle portrait, to really articulate the flesh tones, just like what you see in real life.”

The model who posed for ANTIQUES is a close friend of the artist. “I like painting people I know,” says Todorovitch. “Kristin is very supportive of art, and she’s a patient, comfortable soul. She was able to convey the qualities I wanted, like simplicity and calm. I wanted this painting to be a personal painting of a friend in an unusual environment, yet one that speaks about her character. I chose the antique store because we both like to go antiquing, and we crave those kinds of things around us.” The personal quality of ANTIQUES had many dimensions, according to the artist: “Sometimes I am interested in capturing the model’s state of mind, and sometimes I’m interested in having the model represent my state of mind.” In this painting, it is easy to conclude
hat he is painting both.

His approach to this piece—his most ambitious to date—is an example of his artistic strategy. “The articles in the painting are antiques, but their arrangement is contemporary,” he notes. “The items are unified by a common thread of craft and style and attention to detail. And then there is a unique arrangement of color.” The unusual color of the model’s tights create an eerily beautiful harmony with her gold top, the blue settee, and lacy drapes. “Kristin arrived wearing those tights,” he says. “I had never seen gray tights before.”

The gray tights also serve to emphasize her legs, which are positioned to suggest that she has just tentatively taken a seat or is about to get up. “In every painting I do, I like to highlight some area of anatomical structure, and in this case it’s her legs,” says the artist. The positioning of the legs echoes the sharp curves of the settee’s arms and constitutes the most dynamic compositional lines in the painting. The contemporary body language combined with formal furniture from another era results in a painting both compelling and ambiguous.

Todorovitch grew up in San Gabriel, CA, and earned a degree in art from California State University, Fullerton. He then studied at the Los Angeles Academy of Figurative Art. Painting people has always had a profound hold on Todorovitch, encompassing all the complexities of representational painting plus the challenge of portraying realistic flesh tones, and, more important, evoking the emotions of the people themselves. The subtleties of his endeavors have led him to regard several artists as inspirations. Among them are Edgar Degas and William Bouguereau, who, while near-contemporaries during the 1800s, were very different in style.

Degas, broadly identified as an Impressionist, had a modern psychological orientation from which Todorovitch has learned a great deal. “I think of Degas when I think of the ideas I was trying to convey in ANTIQUES,” says Todorovitch. “The slightest change in a figure’s position can dramatically change how the painting is perceived.” In many paintings Degas was a master of that calculus, as well as the use of composition to convey psychological information.

Bouguereau, an academic salon painter of highly refined pieces, was celebrated in his time but later fell out of favor. Only in recent years has there been a renewed interest in his works. “His figures are extremely convincing, with multiple figures in very complex compositions. And the intermingling of flesh tones is amazing,” observes Todorovitch, who is in awe of Bouguereau’s subtle handling of skin. If one could imagine a painting that was two-thirds Degas and one-third Bouguereau, it might look like rather like a Todorovitch.

One of the things Todorovitch particularly admires about Bouguereau is his tireless work ethic. Bouguereau’s style was labor-intensive to begin with, and on top of that he had a strict ethical dedication to painting. Todorovitch can identify with that. Early in his career he worked multiple jobs to support himself and his young son, Ezra, who was born when Todorovitch was just 20. Finding the time to paint was hard-won, and he was careful not to waste it.

At the time he painted psychologically evocative portraits of friends, people he knew from the art world and the local music scene. Those paintings were generally less complex than his work now, but they exhibited that striking quality that Todorovitch naturally captures and emphasizes on canvas. Five years ago his life began to change significantly when a gallery in Laguna Beach became his exclusive representative and began to sell his work consistently.

“Suddenly I didn’t need other jobs anymore,” says Todorovitch. “I had just been offered a job by UPS. I’d worked for them before, loading planes, and had to call to turn down the job.” There is a slight tinge of regret in Todorovitch’s voice when he recalls this, as he has an almost old-fashioned respect for hard work, whatever the activity.

With his focus now on painting, his artwork has shown rapid gains, especially in his handling of paint and his willingness to tackle more complex compositions. That’s partly because he moved into a bigger, better studio instead of a bigger, better apartment. The larger studio allowed him not only to paint more effectively, but also to teach. Two nights a week he holds a workshop in his studio, during which time he paints with his students. He also teaches one day a week, splitting his time between the L.A. Academy of Figurative Art and the Laguna College of Art and Design. Todorovitch says he sees “a big difference” in his work now compared with what he produced four or five years ago. “The change,” he says, “is in my comfort with paint. With how it behaves and the possibilities that come from that—what it can do, what ideas it can convey.”

Todorovitch’s work is now finding a wider audience. He is thrilled to be represented by Arcadia Fine Arts, noting, “Some of my favorite painters are there. I’ve admired the gallery since before I was with any gallery at all.” Todorovitch is now painting in two parallel efforts: He’s producing canvases to sell on an ongoing basis in the gallery, and he’s creating a body of work in preparation for his first one-man show at Arcadia, which is scheduled for October of this year. The gallery gives him wide berth in determining what these new pieces should be. “They just say, ‘Take your time,’” says Todorovitch. “These are very thought-out paintings. Complex and ambitious. They involve figures in elaborate settings. And they take much longer to do.”

Todorovitch’s awareness that he has a lot on the line right now expresses itself not so much in words but in his actions. He works long hours, whenever he is not teaching, taking care of Ezra, or sleeping. “I have no time for anything else, especially now,” he says. “I want to be diligent.”


Arcadia Fine Arts, New York, NY;


Arcadia Fine Arts at the L.A. Art Show, Los Angeles Convention Center, January 20-24.

Featured in February 2010