Laura Zerebeski is a self-taught painter with a modern expressionist style. Her paintings have cartoonish elements of distortion and vivid colors to create a whimsical, cheerful view of the world. She has sold her Vancouver-themed work to corporate CEOs and politicians and is an active member of the Canadian Federation of Artists.
1) How long have you been painting? At what age did you start?
I remember drawing and painting going as far back as early childhood. When I was about 11 or 12, I started taking oil painting lessons from a nice old lady (Mrs. Duncan) who taught classic oil technique and how to use a brush. Every Saturday, I would go to her house with a few other people and we would work on painting from her various tutorial books, which meant lots of roses and fruit and portraits of cowboys and horses.
I kept doing it, and without directly giving away my age, that's a few decades of painting. I also took the usual high-school art courses and continued to paint through university in my spare time while I studied English, philosophy, and a handful of art history courses.
2) What drew you to painting?
There's something tactile and sensual about it. Clay or sculpture may be more hands-on and three dimensional, but paint has a wonderful fluidity and viscosity. It can be sculpted with a knife or pushed around with a brush or even smeared with one's hands.
I love how it smells, sometimes like leather, sometimes as pungent as vinegar or urine, and sometimes warm, like heated plastic or bread. Every medium and color has a different smell.
It is endlessly interesting, as well. The colors, I mean. I don't pre-blend: I blend on the canvas and aim for accidents. I enjoy experimenting with the different behaviours of paint. For example, I know that Cerulean looks mauve next to Phthalo Blue, and that any of the Phthalos need to be thinly applied, over white but never blended WITH white, otherwise they get muddy. And Quidnacridone is the brightest transparent red-gold you can find but it's transparent so you need to layer it. And the best way to make colors brighter is to layer over neon. There are so many discoveries yet to make.
3) How important is painting in your life?
I can't go two days without doing it, now. There was a period where I stopped for about eight or nine years while I was immersed in a corporate career. Maybe I just wasn't unhappy enough to paint. Then, in late 2005, I received a set of paints and an easel for my birthday and picked it up again, not due to unhappiness but rather the opposite.
Suddenly, I started seeing the world again as a painter might see it: colors, simplification, perspective, form. Everything around me – trees, water, mountains, buildings - seemed to have brushstrokes. It was like being on LSD (or how I imagine that would be, since I've never tried it).
4) What fuels your creativity?
Generally it's the peaks and valleys of emotion and the need to express those emotions. I'm a classic Myers-Briggs ENFP type [http://typelogic.com/enfp.html] – which means outgoing and social but slightly introverted at expressing my feelings. So I do it by painting.
When I was younger and angsty, I painted a lot as a way of getting it all out. I'd lock myself in my room and go through a pack of cigarettes while furiously applying paint to canvas or plywood or whatever I could afford. I'd come out hours later in a cloud of smoke with some depiction of a screaming face or despairing figure or a skull with a lot of red and purple on it. I'd tack it to an already overflowing wall and slink back to my room. My roommates were worried about me.
Eventually, I quit smoking and started running. And for whatever reason – maturity, health, satisfaction – I wasn't angsty anymore. My paintings became much brighter and happier. Around that time I also realized that people don't necessarily want to hang angst and pain on their walls. They want something cheerful and relevant, a nice punctuation mark before they go out the door to a world that may not be as bright.
5) How often do you paint?
Every day, if possible, though I try to take one of the weekend days off. Sometimes it's not painting as much as futzing around in the studio, rearranging tubes or something.
6) Are you a full-time painter?
Yes. I resigned my 16-year corporate career at the end of April, 2008, so I am now painting full time. It is the best job I have ever had, though the ups and downs are trying. I guess it is like that for any entrepreneurial business. Still: if the trade-off is money and power for time and happiness, I'll take the latter.
7) What can you tell us about your style?
I get called "cartoony" sometimes, and certain generations say they see a similarity to Hey Arnold (some animated series with which I am not familiar). I am directly influenced by two Canadian artists that I admire: Fred Peters and Tiko Kerr. My style is almost a combination of their two styles, but with more feminine, wiggly lines. I also obsess over skies and atmosphere. A landscape starts with the sky for me: until that works and is in place, the rest doesn't go anywhere. Figures. I’m a Libra, an air sign…not that I believe in that horoscopical silliness. Ahem.
With landscapes, I try to portray a sense that one might have when moving by it or through it, like when walking or running. Certain landmarks you see might hang in your head and then you see another landmark or point of interest; in your mind, it all seems closer together and brighter. When you view a panorama, you usually move your eyes from one point of interest to the next and the next and that's how you "feel" a view, like it's all crammed into your head and almost overflowing. So that's how I paint it. I try to do portraits the same way, verging on caricature. My abstracts are more experimental. Those are how I learn about paint and how mediums behave.
Someone once observed that my abstraction of nature was minimal but the abstraction of built things, like bridges and roads and buildings, was extensive. The statement, I guess, is that nature is inherently unstable but predictably so. When man-made things are portrayed all wiggly, the sense of them being impermanent and mortal is exaggerated. I think. So nature - mountains, trees, clouds, oceans - will always outlast us humans and whatever we create.
8) Who are your favourite painters?
The majority of the expressionists: Van Gogh, Munch in particular. I'm a stylistic descendent of the Canadian Group of Seven, who were influenced by the European expressionists.
I also like Klimt – his work is pretty - and Monet and Manet, too, for the usual reasons: the former for his treatment of light and the latter for his strong figural work. I'm pretty stuck in that early modernist period in terms of taste. I don't understand much of postmodernist art.
Well, that's not true. I understand it, but I am just not sure I appreciate it on the same aesthetic level as the early modernists. No: I am sure that I don't.
9) Tell us about the material you use...
I use a variety of materials, mostly acrylic right now. I use good heavy-body paint – the Golden brand tends to have the highest pigmentation – but I can increase the saturation of color with neon fabric or craft paint as a medium rather than the usual acrylic gel medium. I like to build texture on the canvas.
For my abstracts, I'll throw on anything: marble dust, ash, bits of clay, along with pastes, glazes, glosses,
I work mainly on canvas and I prefer the deep-sided gallery-wrap canvases (1 ¾"). I usually paint the sides the same as the picture; it gives it a sculptural effect that can hang unframed on a wall.
10) Many of your paintings are either landscapes or cityscapes: do you have any intention of doing more portraits?
Yes. Portraits used to be my thing, actually, more so than landscapes or cityscapes, but to me they have less commercial appeal, if I can be crass enough to admit that I also do this for money, not just love.
I have plans to do a series of jazz greats. I've got done one: Charlie Parker, and plan to do Billie (ultramarine blues), Ella (golden greens), Louis (warm golds and siennas), Miles (turquoises), and Coltrane (purple and violet). It's on my To Do list. I've had people ask me for portraits but I'm not ready to go there, commission-wise, yet. My level of abstraction could be insulting. I don't know.
11) If our readers are interested in buying your paintings, how much money, on average, should they be ready to pay for one painting?
I price by square inch, so it's based on size. 16"x20" goes for about $500 (Canadian) while something much larger, say 30" x 40" goes for $1500. Price list is published here: http://www.laurazerebeski.com/Prices.htm
I'm working on a series of "smalls" for a show in September. These are 8"x10", 10"x10", and 12"x12" sized canvases. They'll go for about $100 to $250 or so.
12) Does music play a role in your creative process?
Totally. I tend to gravitate to louder, angrier, more bass-driven music, like Ministry, Bauhaus, Type O Negative, Eels, Bob Mould, and so on. My studio-mates tend to play things that are more avante-garde and it makes me feel embarrassingly fusty. Magnetic Fields, what?
It's funny: I always wanted to have a job where I could play music all day (it was a no-no in the Corporate office where I worked for years) and now that I have one, I am surprised to realize that a 4 gig iPod just does not hold enough variety and I am now bored with most of my current playlists. So lately I've started to listen to various lectures that I find on YouTube, whatever kind of polemic I can find. I am sure it is only a few steps away from Talk Radio. Yikes.
13) Tell us about your creative place...
Do you mean metaphorically or the place where I actually create stuff? As for the latter, I have a studio. I'm still in awe that I have it because it's a pretty desirable building for artists and even has its own website: http://www.mergatroid.ca/
The building is, literally, on the "wrong side of the tracks" in East Vancouver - wrong side being east, and I do cross railroad tracks every day to get there. It's an industrial area. Still, the owner of the building hosts barbeques every Friday in the summer and there is just a great sense of community. As for the space itself? It's biggish, but I share with three other women who are rarely around but it's fun when they are and then we drink a lot. Lots of natural light. Messy. Sometimes it is uncomfortably fiery-sweaty hot in the summer (the studio mates are all ceramic artists; at any given time there could be a couple of kilns firing at 1500 degrees with accompanying radiant heat). Best thing is that unlike my kitchen table, I don't have to tear down and set everything up again the next day. It's got a fridge and a microwave and I can hear my neighbours playing music next door.
Odd bit of trivia: my very first high-school boyfriend from my hometown shares a studio two doors down. Pure fluke. He dumped me after two months on Christmas Day when I was 14, but still. It was a surprise to run into him. See, community!
14) How does your family react to your being an artist?
They like it much better than when I was a short-tempered corporate type who travelled all the time, but the obsession level is the same.
15) Would you say that painting makes you happy? Or that it somehow fills up an empty place in your life?
I don't think painting makes one happy as much as it is an expression of one's happiness (or the opposite, sometimes). I don't do it to make myself better, though it has that effect. The best paintings I do are the ones when I am already happy.
It would kill me to not do it, though. I'd feel a void. So I'm not sure if it "fills up an empty place" as much as it already has its own weight and dimension. It's always been there.
16) Do you draw?
I used to draw a lot more than I do now. I filled up dozens of sketchbooks in my youth, mostly faces. I recently purchased a sketchbook to keep at home just to catch ideas and practice. However, drawing seems much more mechanical to me, less about expression with color and fluid and brush and more about how this line intersects with some other line. I'll do it to practice and hone my skillz but I can't imagine ever selling any of my drawings.
17) What is a typical day in your life?
Get up early. Exercise (run or gym). Go home, shower, do Mom stuff like breakfast and packing lunch for school and then bike to studio, ideally by 9am but sometimes it is 11. Drink a pot of green tea and screw around for an hour. Then paint for four to six hours. Clean up, store palette for next day and bike back to pick up son. Once at home, deal with the usual chores and then hang out on internet for a few hours (such a time waster, really!) and the next day is lather, rinse, repeat. Sometimes things get switched around if my husband is travelling or if I just don't feel like it. I don't have an on/off switch for creativity, so sometimes there are days where I haven't planned what I'm going to do and so execution is pointless. And some days I'll do a full painting, hate it, and rinse most of it off.
So I guess I'm defending my work ethic. It looks good, but it's not all pure productivity. Sometimes the stuff that works best – painting-wise - happens in under an hour when I don't have much time.