Randall Lake | Confronting the Creative Process

By Barry Scholl

After 25 years as a professional painter, Randall Lake experienced an epiphany recently. “I was concerned that my work was becoming too meticulous,” the Salt Lake City-based artist recalls. “Then I saw an exhibit of Vincent van Gogh and Paul Gauguin paintings in Chicago, and van Gogh was just working the paint, weaving it and piling it on. It was exciting as hell. My work is still meticulous, but it’s now more passionate and exciting, finding new dimensions in familiar subjects.”


There are some who would argue that Lake has made a career of exploring unexpected dimensions in a wide range of subjects. From still lifes of teacups and flowers to portraits of community leaders and cross-dressers, Lake’s work typically combines revelatory details with a highly personal and bold approach to color and composition.

Lake’s studio overflows with old photographs, books, toy dinosaurs, and other memorabilia. Classical music resonates from a wall-mounted CD player. The air is thick with the smell of paint, cigarette smoke, and plaster dust. Two Staffordshire bull terriers tussle over a rawhide bone in the north-facing back room, which Lake typically reserves for painting portraits. The studio is on the third floor of an appealingly run-down 19th-century brick building that was once a hotel. Since the early 1930s, a bicycle shop has occupied the main floor.

A self-described technophobe, the 55-year-old artist uses 19th-century techniques to depict contemporary scenes of beauty, pathos, and social commentary. “It’s like Manet said, ‘One must paint what one sees.’ He painted contemporary Paris the way he saw it,” he says. “I’m in love with the 19th century, and I think it’s interesting to live in Utah, because it’s such a puritan culture that you can still shock the conservative sensibility rather easily. But it’s a great place to work because there are so few distractions.”

Although he professes indifference to modern essentials such as the Internet, e-mail, and electronic bill-paying, Lake does find inspiration in contemporary culture. “Recently, I did a painting of an old Victorian house,” Lake recalls. “The people renting it had really let it go downhill. There was an old couch on the porch, propane bottles—all the junk people accumulate was scattered about. Yet you could see the beauty that had once been there. [The house] had gone from Greta Garbo to Roseanne Barr, from the elegance of classic architecture to debris.” In Lake’s view, the subject tells a classic story of dissipation and decline. “I’m so unimpressed with modern society and what it has done,” he explains. “When people ask me whether I have a web site, I tell them my idea of technology is a fountain pen and rag paper.”


A native of Southern California, Lake recalls first being drawn to art at the age of 12 while attending a boarding school in Chesières, Switzerland. There, one of his drawings impressed an art teacher, who encouraged him to develop his talents. “Seeing all the art in the museums across Europe really made an impression on me,” Lake says. Still, even at that young age, he felt some of the existential loneliness inherent in the creative process: “My father was a golf pro and my mother was a society woman. My two older brothers are golf pros. I was kind of the decorative plant in the family,” he deadpans. “I played piano, which helped me to develop the habit of working alone. Practicing [the piano] is not very different than painting in the sense that you perfect your skills by working solo.”

In 1970, upon graduating from the University of Colorado with an English degree, Lake followed the classic expatriate route and went to France for a couple of years, teaching English at the Sorbonne and experimenting with the post-pop art trends prevalent at the time. “Nobody in Paris was teaching classical drawing and painting because of the influence of New York,” he says. Fortuitously, one day a fellow American professor mentioned the art program at the University of Utah, where British artist Alvin Gittens specialized in teaching 19th-century realism and portraiture. Gittens was renowned as a gifted mentor and an unsparing critic, whose frank appraisals had been raising psychological welts on the backs of his impressionable young acolytes since the 1940s. However, he recognized Lake’s potential, and the two forged a close mentor-student relationship soon after Lake arrived in Salt Lake City in 1973.

“Not that it was easy—it wasn’t,” Lake explains. “I had a quite a task to win him over. Gittens was ruthlessly critical; he used to say that ‘you must judge my affection for you in terms of criticism.’ I came to him at the age of 26; in his timeline that was too late. He said, ‘You’re old and you’re stiff.’” Still, it was a formative experience for the young artist. “The best thing, in retrospect, was that he was utterly honest and he taught us to be honest about our work,” Lake says. “He used to say things like ‘your proficiency will only be as good as your ability to be self-critical.’ From him I learned there was only a future as an artist if you’re willing to pay the price.”


Lake still recalls the advice Gittens proffered as he was preparing to graduate. “He warned me about trying to paint the subject matter of the 19th-century masters. Their influence is so strong that it’s hard for people trained that way not to paint what they did,” he says. “I’m not excused from that. To make a living I’ve done copper buckets and dead pheasants. I don’t regret it, either. I can’t get excited about painting a pot roast wrapped in cellophane sitting on a plastic plate. Yeah, it’s contemporary, but to me it’s not interesting.”

Lake says he has only recently learned to trust his instincts. For example, his color solutions are increasingly daring and personal, as are his subjects: “At 55, I’ve only got so many bullets left in my gun, so I’d rather take chances,” he says. “Not too long ago, I did a still life of the dirty dishes in my sink. For that week, I had to do the dishes in the bathroom so as not to move my props. Sometimes, I have to remind myself to experiment like that. When you experiment, you have to be willing to risk failure, and that’s when you make discoveries. I thought nobody would buy it, but a lovely older lady did.”

Lake paints seven days a week, arriving at his downtown Salt Lake City studio by 8 a.m. most days. He devotes the first two hours of the morning to the requisite tasks he says are unavoidable: paying bills, catching up on paperwork, and straightening. “I’d love to start painting the minute I get in the door, but I seem to have to build up courage to confront the creative process,” he confesses. “I don’t see any correlation between creativity and squalor. Ordering the studio is like mediation to get some of the dust to settle, and the older I get, the more ritualistic it becomes.”

Typically, he works on a number of canvases at a time, moving between them as his mood and inspiration dictate. Like one of his oft-cited inspirations, van Gogh, Lake embraces the hard work of revising, attempting to solve the unique problems each subject presents. “You can’t like a painting too much in the beginning,” Lake says. “Because it’ll make you hesitant to make the revisions that will make it so much better. You’ve got to be willing to destroy what you’ve done in order to put something better over it. You don’t want to become so enamored of a canvas that you won’t push the envelope.”

A stickler for good-quality canvas and paint, Lake also favors hog bristle brushes. He works alla prima, eschewing the use of elaborate drawings, and paints wet on wet, piling pigments until he’s satisfied with the results. Gittens’ influence is evident, Lake believes, in his use of chiaroscuro, or the contrast of light and dark areas to suggest depth. “I paint so things turn around within the canvas and look volumetric,” he says.


After all these years making a living as an artist, his perspective combines bemusement and hard-won pragmatism. “You have to paint for the joy of painting,” he says. “It’s not the result; it’s the process that’s important. When you’re young, you think you’ll make it big. When you mature, you realize the chasm between you and, say, Velázquez or Sargeant is as wide as the Grand Canyon.” And by the time success finally arrives, he adds, it’s not that important, really.

“I try to remind myself never to paint focused on getting results,” he says. “If my big drive is to finish the painting, I can almost guarantee it will be a disaster. Instead, I try to paint for the joy of it. When I’m painting well, it’s such a rush, nothing else matters. That feeling is very gratifying to me, and it has not diminished one bit.”

Lake is represented by MJW Fine Art, Balboa Island, CA; Galerie Alexander Butman, Paris, France; John Pence Gallery, San Francisco, CA; and Williams Fine Art, Salt Lake City, UT.

Featured in April 2003