See more photos in Shannon Cottrell's slideshow, “Vanessa Prager: Studio Tour.”
When 26-year-old painter Vanessa Prager was just 19, she decided that she wanted to paint.
“I started drawing when I was a teenager,” said Prager when we met at her Silver Lake studio. “I wanted to get bigger and more colorful than pencil would allow and then painting came up out of that.”
She went to some thrift stores, picked up how-to books and taught herself.
“That was how I learned to paint,” she said. “And trial and error. A lot of error.”
For Prager, who works in oils, color mixing was the biggest challenge, she said, “because in oil, it can get really ugly, really fast.”
“It's bad,” she continued. “If you mix one too many colors in there, all of a sudden, you have poo brown or like grayish brown, which is like the worst thing around.”
Prager got the hang of working with oils pretty quickly, though, and, eight or nine months after she began painting, she threw her first show in a warehouse space downtown.
“I just wanted to show it to people,” she recalled.
“So I put my paintings up and invited all of my friends.”
Prager has been putting together her own shows ever since. For the past six weeks, she has been working on “Across the Universe,” which will open at ADBD Gallery on June 2. The new collection will feature 35 pieces, which she estimates will be split between 20 paintings and 15 drawings. While most of her drawings were in the process of being framed when we stopped by the studio, her paintings hung from the studio wall.
“A couple of the pieces were started early,” she explained. “I probably started those within the past two months, two and a half months.”
She began working on the bulk of the pieces six weeks prior to our visit and worked on them simultaneously.
“Because I work with layers, it's build-up after build-up,” she said. “It takes a while to dry, even if it's a day. Over a period of three to four weeks, I completed a lot of them.”
Prager's dark, ethereal paintings for “Across the Universe,” which were untitled at the time of our visit, are based on found photos that date back to the 1930s and '40s, some of which came from her grandmother's collection.
“She actually had a photography studio back in the day and she had a lot of photos that were awesome,” said Prager.
She added though, that she uses the photos more for initial inspiration than “direct reference.”
“Those photos were cool on their own, in their own way,” she said. “Now I'm making a different painting inspired in part by all those photos.”
One painting of a young girl on a bike in front of a picket fence with clouds rising in the background is based on a childhood photo of the artist's mother. Prager noted that, unlike past shows, this is likely the only painting inspired by a photograph of someone she knows.
Prager looks towards the past to create images that seem caught between eras.
“I don't like doing modern so much because I feel like that dates it,” said Prager, immediately adding an answer for what would have been the next question. “True, that dates it from the '40s, but it's different because there are modern elements mixed with old and I like that. It just seems to work in my mind.”
Prager said that her work has changed since she first began painting.
“When I started, I was going for super realism because I wanted to know how to paint well, especially people and skin tones,” she recalled. “Now it's much more surreal and dreamlike and eerie.”
The “Across the Universe” paintings frequently feature clouds or big billows of smoke.
“It plays different roles in different images,” said Prager of the motif. “I like it because it's a good intro from real to surreal for me.”
She added that the clouds often cover “blanked out areas,” portions of the paintings that are “not painted or either blown out, like how old photos are, or white.”
Similarly, Prager's drawings include “unfinished parts.” She works with ballpoint pen on music paper, which she uses in part because “it's not pristine white.”
“I like that because the ballpoint pen is really dark and the contrast can be too heavy on bright white paper,” she said. “I like the yellowness of it.”
She also appreciates the “double image” quality of it, noting that you can either focus on the drawing or the lines of the paper.
In between creating a sizable collection of paintings and drawings, Prager has been organizing the show on her own. She coordinated the sponsorships (WeSC and Whole Foods Market), took care of the promotion and handled her own press. Prager refers to this as the “independent stage” of her career. Next year, she is set for a solo show at Subliminal Projects, “a proper gallery,” she said, which will relieve her of many of the tasks she's had to do up to this point for the larger shows she's pulled together.
Working in a DIY fashion has its benefits, though, and Prager has learned a lot in the process.
“If you want something to happen, you've got to make it happen,” she said. “That's the biggest thing I've learned. Also, it's fun. It's a lot of work, but I like working on something I believe in.”
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