Figurative painter Tony Pro strives for honesty in his artwork
By Wolf Schneider
What Tony Pro paints isn’t the stuff of imagination; it’s reality, as pure as he can discern it. Known mainly for his portraits and figurative works, he paints the people in his life: his wife, his kids, the squinting card-players at the smoky cigar bar he frequents. In fact, Pro renders people so honestly that they seem about to step off the canvas: to come alive, to move about, to tell you who they are and what they are thinking. “My art is what I see and what I feel,” says Pro. “Being honest is the number-one thing when it comes to art. Some artists paint naïve subjects or harsh subjects or controversial subjects. That could be how they think. For me, it’s about the reality of my surroundings—family, my kids, my beautiful wife.”
Pro works mainly from life so that he can get a better sense of his subjects’ thoughts and feelings. “I’ve been told that when people see my work they feel a connection with the sitter,” he says. “I tend to go for a dramatic pose rather than a romantic one.” It’s an approach inspired by Rembrandt, who was known to paint subjects with their mouths open in speech. “It’s about capturing the spirit of the person, almost as if they’re sitting there talking to you,” he points out.
Pro’s style has been called impressionistic realism, but he prefers to use the term novorealism when describing his work. “It’s a term [fellow artists] Jeremy Lipking, Alexey Steele, and I are trying to father in to today’s art world,” he explains. “A lot of us are being called new realists. Novo is close to the word nouveau, but we feel it’s more encapsulating. Novorealism is the idea that representational painting is—and has been since the days of cave paintings—the true art form for telling a story, to express a mood, or to convey thoughts and feelings. It’s basically what representational painters have been doing since the 1960s.”
Pro’s oil paintings tend to be simply composed, but surprisingly visceral and emotional. His influences, says the 36-year-old artist, are many. As for the subtlety of light in his paintings, he explains: “I’ve studied the old masters and how they painted light, how they painted air. I’ve spent a lot of time just observing that, and I apply it to my work as well—trying to see everyday things as they might have seen them.”
His muted color palette is inspired by French naturalists such as Emile Friant, Jules Bastien-Lepage, and Laurent Joseph Daniel Bouvier, though Pro also mentions the influence of Swedish painter Anders Zorn and American master John Singer Sargent. “Their palettes were fairly limited. It’s more about a tonal approach with a series of grays that gives a realism to it,” he offers.
“Although I sometimes work with stronger colors when painting a landscape or a still life. That’s more inspired by the work of Joaquin Sorolla and Richard Schmid, who was one of my mentors.
“Earlier on in my work, I used more gray in my palette. The first time I painted with Richard Schmid he made me see color deeper. Since then I’ve been trying to paint with more pure colors. Areas of pure color and subdued gray.”
Indeed, Schmid’s is the name that crops up most often when Pro discusses his influences. “What I learned from him is the sense of honesty he captures in his work,” Pro reflects. “Schmid is really the grandfather of novorealism, whether he likes it or not. He was painting in this style in the ’50s and ’60s, along with David Leffel and Burt Silverman. This type of art was not popular then, but they did it. They painted the people around them, and that has inspired me the most.”
Pro grew up in the San Fernando Valley, the youngest of four children born to Julio Pro, an anesthesiologist and art collector who later in life became a wildlife and landscape painter. “It was a somewhat privileged life,” Pro says of his upbringing, noting that he went to private schools. His closest sibling was 10 years older, “so mine was more of a self-reliant existence. My parents gave me a lot of leeway to do things myself.”
What he did with his parents a lot was attend art shows, like the annual Cowboy Artists of America exhibition. While at his dad’s booth at the Phippen Museum’s annual show, Pro sold his first drawings—pictures of airplanes—when he was just 8 years old.
He earned a bachelor’s degree in graphic design from California State University at Northridge and also studied with Glen Orbik at the California Art Institute. After college, he took a job as an art director at a printing company, which led to a series of positions in the entertainment industry designing DVD packaging and advertising and producing DVD special features. All the while, he kept at his painting.
In 2005, Pro won the coveted Gold Medal Award at the Oil Painters of America National Juried Exhibition, and he also signed on with his first gallery. With that streak of recognition, he quit his job at Sony Pictures and became artist-in-residence at the California Art Institute, where he also taught. And yet, says Pro, “The money went really fast, and I wasn’t seeing much coming in, so I went back to entertainment work, freelancing and doing DVD special features. I did that up until a year and a half ago.”
Since then, he has gone on to win honors from the Portrait Society of America and the California Art Club. He still teaches at the art institute, where he tells his students to “draw, draw, draw! There’s a misconception that to take a painting class, you don’t need to draw or to draw that well,” he observes. “Painting is 50 percent mixing the right color, and 50 percent putting it in the right place on the canvas. So obviously half of it is drawing on canvas.”
Pro sometimes paints still lifes and landscapes, but these days he is concentrating on his figurative work, mainly scenes from his own life, including his favorite cigar bar, the Old Oaks Cigar Company. “Smoke creates a hazy environment where you can actually see the air. There’s also a richness of color and dark earth tones. It gives a certain mood that I like,” he says.
His studio is in his home in Westlake Village, northwest of Los Angeles. He often spends the day stretching canvases and prepping surfaces and then paints from 5 p.m. until midnight. “If I don’t constantly paint or draw, it slips. It’s not like riding a bike,” says the artist. “The more I work, the better I get. There are no shortcuts to excellence.”
Pro’s newest venture is an online painting class, teaching live via the Internet. “It’s almost like a workshop experience. People will have the ability to chat with me,” he explains. He is also producing a series of documentary DVDs spotlighting artists, such as well-known landscape painter Scott Christensen. “It will focus on their studios and their lives. I ask them questions while they give a painting demonstration. You get a lot more out of it seeing artists in their own surroundings.”
Life is work and work is life for Pro, but he does take the occasional break, and when he does it’s to watch Gordon Ramsay’s cooking show on the BBC. “Ramsay’s kind of a rough guy,” Pro says admiringly of the former football player turned chef. “His approach to teaching cooking is how I’d like to teach painting.”
In surveying his career thus far, Pro reflects, “You’re only as good as your last painting. And that’s fine, because it keeps me working. It keeps my artistic eye fresh.” In fact, Pro muses, his own best character trait is probably “my drive to work hard to get where I want to go. Art is a long road, but it’s a road I’m always going to be on.”
M Gallery of Fine Art, Sarasota, FL; Susan Powell Fine Art, Madison, CT; www.tonyprofineart.com.
Featured in July 2010