An Interview with Douglas Ferrin

Douglas Ferrin Figures in Interior 72"x 96" oil on linen 1986

Douglas Ferrin's paintings are as richly colored and textured as the oriental carpets he often includes in his still lifes and interiors. There is a sensuous quality to the paint that makes the act of looking seem close to touching and feeling. 

Ferrin shares his thoughts on his formative years, his technique and his favorite painters. He candidly discusses the ups and downs of his life as an artist, as well as a recent stint in jail.
You can see more of Douglas Ferrin's work at his websiteand find out more about him by reading an article in American Artist Magazine.

TD: How old were you when you first painted in oils?

DF: The first time I did oils I was about ten; they weren’t much to speak of. I thought my older brother Ian was better than I was so I was trying to copy what he was doing: he was more precise and actually got some sense of illusion from the paint. I recall we did them on that cheap plastic-y oil paper.

A couple of years later I started using oil paint transparently on some kind of board I had found. I don’t remember what the images were, but I was enamored with the colors I could create.

TD: Who first encouraged you? What was it like to be a young and talented painter in your small hometown of Arcata, California?

DF: It wasn’t until I was sixteen or so that I started doing pen and ink drawings, which were the first things I got any real attention for. They were pretty tight, but they were what I used in my portfolio to get into art school. Today they look to me like typical 16 year old realistic drawings done with little dots of ink.
Dolls and Pumpkin 18"x 22" oil on Canvas 2012

The first person to encourage me, particularly with the ink drawings, was a substitute drama teacher. Perhaps the drawings weren’t as typical as I believed, because other teachers in my school, seeing my grades more or less failing, actually fudged my academic numbers once they had learned I had been accepted into art school. This made it possible for me to get into The Art Institute of Boston. Another teacher, Julie Oliver, came up with a private scholarship. She had some wealthy friends in Santa Barbara who gave the money to pay for my first year in school.

TD: Did you have trouble getting to museums to see great art?

DF: I went to exactly one museum during my years before art school: the de Young, in San Francisco. I was primarily influenced by books illustrated by Maxfield Parrish, NC Wyeth, and the Saturday Evening Post. My parents were also friends with Frank Duveneck Jr. and his wife Josephine – they lived on Hidden Villa Ranch which is now surrounded by what is called Silicon Valley, but it was there I actually saw some portraits, done by Frank Jr’s father, that made a lasting impression. I loved the browns and the realism that someone had seemed to have gotten so briefly on a canvas. The dry grass hills and oak trees of the landscape there touched me as much as the paintings.

Grimaud from Mont Roux 19"x15" oil on linen 1989

TD: You came out east at a very young age to study painting, first in Boston and then in Philadelphia. What was it like to have such a drastic change of environment?

DF: My parents were very much opposed to my leaving California. They wanted me to attend Oakland College of Arts and Crafts, but because of the private scholarship they felt they needed to let me go back east. At seventeen I became what you might call psychically numb, probably because of their lack of support. I couldn’t feel anything at all, emotionally, for many months. I left for Boston at seventeen, a few months after the numb thing had started.

The only city I had ever been to was San Francisco, which was relatively small and clean; Boston was the ugliest place I’d ever set eyes on. I had somehow imagined it would be a bigger version of my home town Arcata, except made out of brick. The dorm room I had rented turned out to have a view of a wall four feet from the window; then when I met my roommate, I learned he liked only the band Kiss, and at loud volumes. It was a nightmare. All I could think to do was draw, and draw I did about fourteen hours per day. 

Rage and Separation 60"x84" oil on linen 1991

TD: You received a certificate in painting from the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. Who were your favorite teachers there? 

When I first came to visit the Academy I saw Morris Blackburn give a demonstration on glazing. I was impressed with his gruff nature and personability. He told a joke that has stuck with me: guy goes into a restaurant and orders a steak – he tells the waiter exactly how he wants it done: seared on each side, a light sprinkling of garlic, two more minutes on each side and so on. After he had finished his description, the waiter turns and yells, “Joe, one beef steak.” I believe the idea of the joke was to give more attention to your painting than Joe was going to give to the steak.

I thought Henry Pearlman gave great critiques, as did Will Barnett. Arthur DeCosta, although not my favorite at first, became what I consider a good friend, and the person who could answer most any technical question I had. And although he taught glazing and more traditional techniques, I liked his idea that glazing, velatouras and so forth were ultimately dressing for alla prima painting. He also believed that direct observation was more important than, say, a deep knowledge of anatomy, that responding to the world with our own eyes was the ticket to good and great painting.

During my first class with Sidney Goodman (I was very nervous because he was already a hero of mine from books and magazines) he came up to me and said, “I, uh, I like it. It has a nice nervous quality.” “Just coffee,” I mumbled. “Well,” he said, “Have some more.”
I also miss very much Joe AmaroticoBen Kamihira and Dan Miller.

Lace and Blue Bottles 20"x 27" oil on linen  1987

TD: Looking at your paintings, I sometimes imagine that I’m looking through a portal into good memories. Your work is not sentimental; you don’t idealize the world but there is often a mood of warm remembrance. Do you think you are nostalgic? If so, why?

 Growing up I spent a great deal of time alone in the attic of our old Victorian house, looking at old objects that my parents had collected over the years and relegated to the dusty confines above the kitchen. Other houses I spent time in were similar (my grandparents), often having old garages and tool sheds with dusty windows, old bottles and tools on the sills and shelves. I think the images in my paintings were simply like things I grew up with.  

Waiting for the News 14"x18" oil on masonite 2006

I loved the silence of those places and in fact still long for them. Perhaps I am nostalgic because I do wish such places still existed in my life and now that I find myself in a noisy, rapidly moving world I miss the silence of the dusty places and objects more than ever, and I try to – not even try to, I just do - create that world in my still lives.

Self Portrait 72"x 48" oil on masonite 1991

TD: You have completed many extraordinary self-portraits throughout your painting career. Have you kept track of how many?

: I haven’t kept track of them, but there is a client in Palm Beach who has collected at least five of them. I was just in Florida visiting my children, and my client has what she calls “The wall of Doug,” which was interesting, to say the least, to see. A bit chilling really.

Self Portrait 22" X 28 "oil on linen 1999

TD: Many artists find the self-portrait an especially difficult subject- it’s hard to see yourself as you really are. You don’t seem to have this problem. 

DF: I like being honest with how I look. I want my self-portraits to cover the parts of my life honestly. I always thought Rembrandt let it all hang out, at least after he was 25 or so, and I admire his work more than almost anyone’s. I tend to dislike people who do glamour shots of themselves. I don’t get the point.

Self Portrait 40" X 54" oil on linen  2003-05

TD: Why do you think you are so drawn to this subject? 

DF: I’m not sure why I’m drawn to the subject. On a daily basis I never look at myself in the mirror, but when I do I want to see what’s really there. They also sell really well, which is mystifying to me, but there it is.

Self Portrait 22" X 28" oil on linen 2013

TD: As with many male painters, you have an ongoing theme of women in rooms, nude or clothed. Many of your paintings of women are quite large and ambitious. You seem to view these women with a male sensibility, being keenly aware of their sensuality, but their presence goes beyond this. I can feel the weight of their thoughts, which gives these paintings real depth. 

Joyce Lifting Her Skirt 48" X 60" oil on linen 1983

Do you like to get to know your models? Do you enjoy painting women more than men?

DF: I’ve always liked women better than men. I think I like drawing men better, but doing a long term painting, especially from life, I’d rather spend my time in a room with a woman. Spending a lot of time with a person while doing a painting is an experience where I get to know the person better than in almost any other quarter of life.

Still Life With Nude 48" X 60" oil on linen 1985

Many of my models have become great friends. I think getting to know them over the course of one or more paintings allows me to see their sensuality and female presence in a genuine way.

TD: You have spent time painting plein air landscapes in France as well as northern California. Do you still like to paint outside? What do you find especially challenging or rewarding about painting on location? 

: I haven’t painted outside in years and I miss it very much. It was one of my favorite things to do: it made me feel enormously energized. I loved the speed I had to work at, to get the feeling of the light and the mood of the sky.

Cêret 30" X 23" oil on linen 1989

DF: Van Gogh once said, more or less, that painting outside didn’t take energy from, but gave it back to him ten times over.

Spring Cleaning 40" X 31" oil on linen 2004

TD: Your range as a painter includes not only still life, landscapes, portraits and figures but also some huge and ambitious narrative work. What kinds of narrative subjects interest you the most?

A little later on in this interview you ask about my time in jail. While I was there I came up with some narrative ideas that I want to do. One of my favorites is a kind of modern St. Sebastian: a kid by a river in California has been tied up to a tree and a couple of other kids are sitting on a log taking pot shots at him with their pistols. The sky is a late autumn pale, pale blue. Birds are flying from trees and the hills are empty, like they always were where I grew up. I want the feeling to be that life goes on, that the nature around the tied-up kid simply goes on, that nobody notices the drama except the three involved. That the most poignant thing to us human observers is the least important to the world around, perhaps like Bruegal’s Icarus. The tied-up kid’s backpack is spilled open, a few personal items spread on the ground, perhaps the only legacy he will leave. The painting has a great deal to do with the isolation, and the dread, I felt growing up in an empty, beautiful and dangerous part of the world.

I have several other ideas that have to do with isolation but a burning hope of redemption.

TD: Every painter would likely agree that there are high and low points to living the life of an artist. Can you describe what has made you glad that you’ve chosen the life of a painter? What has been especially difficult? 

 I’m not really glad I chose the life of an artist: it was genuinely the only thing I could think to do when I was in high school, and the only thing I was really any good at. I’m glad I got attention for it; I didn’t for much else. The most difficult thing has been the feast or famine lifestyle, often having to struggle to give my two boys (now 19 and 17) the things they need and want.

TD: If you had the choice of living an alternate life, what do you think you would like to do? 

: I love playing music. I also like making things out of wood and metal (sadly my workshop burned in a fire), I like to write and I like doing animation. If I could do anything, I’d like to be able to wake up in the morning and decide what I’d prefer to do that day. I have ADHD, so if I could run around from one project to another without having to worry about making money from any of it, that would 
be ideal.

Clouds from Lake Worth 18" X 14" oil on linen 1998

TD: How do you get inspired? Does painting ever seem like a chore, and if so, what do you do about it? 

DF: Getting ideas has always come pretty easily to me. It’s the work of carrying them out that is the chore. Some days just getting out the brushes, putting out the paint, and stretching a canvas is the hard part.

To answer more directly though, seeing the way light hits objects, thinking of people in (often) deeply spatial environments, and thinking of paintings I’d actually like to see on my wall are some of the things that inspire me. Incidentally, I’ve used a lot of oriental rugs in my paintings, and people often think I like to paint them. I really don’t, at least not usually: I just like the texture they add to a setup.

Still Life with Orange Squash 24" X 30" oil on linen 1990

TD: Can you talk a little about your method? Do you prefer painting on canvas or panel? 

DF: I like both canvas and panels. By canvas I mean linen: I dislike cotton- something about the hairy quality of it. I also like painting on white lead because of its slippery surface. It’s a bit more work getting a painting going because the paint doesn’t grab the way it does on acrylic, but I don’t mind the extra trouble. I’ve discovered a few ways of making acrylic have a similar surface. On panel I always use acrylic ground.

TD: Do you always tone your ground? 

DF: I almost always paint on a white ground, but sometimes tint it with a very light raw sienna. I usually start with a chromatic chiaroscuro, let it dry, then work back into it, usually putting down a thin glaze, or bath, in the area I want to work on. I find that this unifies the colors I lay into the bath. I often paint with Liquin, but my favorite medium is Venice Turpentine, sun thickened linseed oil and turpentine, all in about equal parts; I will either add a bit of cobalt dryer to that mixture, or a bit of Liquin to speed up the drying time. It gets tacky very quickly, and I like the way it pulls at the brushes when I work into it. I also like making semi-opaque surfaces, particularly in the shadows, using colors to create optical grays.

Be Myan Valentine 23" X 29" oil on masonite 2003

TD: What colors are on your palette?

DF: My palette is as follows: Titanium white, flake white, Naples yellow, jaune brilliant, Naples yellow deep, cad yellow light (Rembrandt), cad yellow, raw sienna, indian yellow, cad red, cad red deep, rose madder genuine (I’ve never liked alizarin crimson), burnt sienna, Schminke’s transparent red oxide, raw umber, asphaltum, lamp or ivory black, Rembrandt permanent violet, ultramarine blue, cobalt blue, cerulean blue, Rembrandt king’s blue, permanent green, Schminke’s olive green and sap green. All the other colors that I haven’t listed are Winsor & Newton.

TD: What are your favorite brushes?

DF: I like soft-ish round brushes. Not too soft – Winsor and Newton Sceptres are one of my favorites. Over the years they have become all I use.

Church in Cêret 15" X 12" oil on linen 1989

TD: You have recently had to spend some time in jail. Would you care to talk about this?

DF: My advice is don’t go to jail. I’ve recently finished an article about my experience there that I’m hoping to publish, and I’ll let you know if it does. It was the second most terrible experience of my life and I came out of it a changed, darker person.

The American jail and prison system has nothing to do with rehabilitation or correction: it is simply about punishment; also, it is a huge money making machine (albeit a broken machine) for the private companies that run it, such as Aramark, Prime Medical and Wackenhut. It is interesting to note that fully one percent of all American adults are incarcerated. We have the highest incarceration rate in the world.

Almost everyone I met while in jail was there for the same reason that I was: getting drunk and doing something stupid. I myself blew up a toilet with an M-80. No one was hurt, or even close to being, but I spent six months in a medium security lock-up for my idiotic crime. Six months is the standard amount of time in lock-up before seeing a judge.

TD: As dreadful as the experience was, do you think it was in any way enlightening?

DF: I had never given a thought to jail before, as I suspect most non-criminal types have not. I suppose before I was there that I, in a knee-jerk kind of way, assumed the people in jails and prisons deserved more or less what they got.

As I said before, it is a machine, and an enormous machine; one that I now believe we are all complicit in creating, if only by ignoring it. We have in our society, I believe, a paradigm of “the bad guy”, and keeping these “bad guys” off the street is the theme of every cop show I’ve ever seen, as well as a large part of our popular mythology about the legal system. The truth, however, is that the people in jails and prisons are simply recycled with new “bad guys”, and the ones released are angrier and sicker than when they went in.

I would estimate that at least 80% of the people I met “in the joint” were either bipolar, schizophrenic, or seriously ADHD. Jail, and the constant verbal and physical abuse one receives there, in my opinion, simply does not help the mentally ill. It didn’t help me.

TD: While in jail, you completed some fascinating drawings of your fellow inmates. Have you given these all away? Did these drawing help you to pull through those long months?

 I gave away quite a few of them while there in trade for coffee and candy bars. They were actually pretty good currency, but I kept a great number of them.

Jail Drawing #1 pencil on paper 9" X 12" 2011

Jail Drawing #2 pencil on paper 9" X 12" 2011

I probably did hundreds of them, and yes indeed they helped the time pass. They also made me popular in jail. I was a “Beast”, as they called me, which is a good thing. The paper and pencils were the worst I’ve ever had to work with, but I trained myself to make them function, sometimes quite well.
Jail Drawing #3 pencil on paper 9" X 12" 2011

I also did a prodigious amount of writing while I was there, and sketched out a couple of graphic novels that I’d like to complete one of these days. There is never enough time.

TD: What sorts of subjects are you most excited about painting right now? How has this changed from when you first graduated from art school? 

DF: When I first got to art school, I just wanted to be able to paint and draw. I think I wanted to prove to my parents and the kids in the little town I grew up in that I was good enough at something worthwhile. After I got the knack of it, I wanted to do romantic paintings, mostly of virginal-type girls dressed in white dresses. I did a bunch of those, but they were based on childhood fantasies.

The idea of doing more straight-forward nudes and things that actually expressed my current emotional state started to interest me. Also I liked the still lives, getting the values, the light and dark, creating a mood with simple objects. I saw a lot of brutalism in the work around me, in magazines, at school, but it never appealed to me. I wanted to make beautiful things, but with a sense of my own honest sensibilities.

I don’t know that much has changed, except I like the idea of making paintings that are more universal. I wouldn’t say my work is edgy, but it is much more so than twenty years ago. Also, when I paint someone now, it is more about the person I am painting than it is about me.

Sabrina 20" X 24" oil on paper 1997

When I paint still lives, I like to use objects that seem to have life in them, some kind of history, some kind of spirit that comes from people having lived with them.

TD: Can you name some of your favorite artists, both living and from the past? 

: Rembrandt is my all-time favorite. I also love Bruegal and Monet and GericaultMichelangelo is big for me too: not so much as a painter (although he was a great painter) but just in his sheer ability to conceive and make things happen. Frank Duveneck, being one of my first influences, is important to me. I like a lot of American Impressionists like John TwachtmanWillard Metcalf and Theodore Robinson.

Modern painters are harder to name, but I like Gregory GillespieOdd Nerdrum, Sidney Goodman, Ben Kamahira and several of my friends, like Vince Desiderio. Also Fairfield Porter and his student Ted Leigh, who is also my friend. Bob Simon is a damn good sculptor. I got to know Robert Rauschenberg- I miss him, and I developed a genuine respect for his work.

Black and White Still Life 24" X 29" oil on linen 2003

TD: I’m always struck by how different your style of realism is from photography. Unlike artists Chuck CloseAlex Katz, and David Hockney, who all use photography as a tool, I don’t sense that you feel bound to let the camera’s images influence your style. Do you ever feel any competitiveness with photography, wanting to show that paintings are a completely different thing?

DF: I’ve more or less stopped using photographic reference in my painting.I’m not sure if I feel competition with them: they are a force of nature, or at least of art, and have more or less replaced what painting did for educated people 100 years ago. That is, entertained them. Painting can, I believe, still be entertaining, but it has a much smaller audience, and certainly the people who find it entertaining are fewer and fewer.

It seems to me that responding to life directly, and not filtering my vision through the colors and distortion of a camera, is what makes my painting interesting to me these days.

Buffalo 18" X 14" oil on masonite 2009

I don’t know that I want to “show”, as you said, that painting is different than photography, or prove that it is; I don’t have an ax to grind in that way. I like movies as much as the next person. I also like Chuck Close and what other painters do with their photographic reference, but I want my painting to be a different experience for myself, and hopefully a different experience for the people who look at my paintings.

TD: What do you enjoy besides painting?

DF: I like being with my children. I like playing music, building furniture, making anything with my hands. I like being in France, and I like speaking French, at which I am still fluent (if any else is, give me a call – it’s a great hobby of mine). I like dinners with friends, I like telling jokes, I like seeing old friends. I like girls of course. I like to read, watch movies and sometimes really stupid TV. I like alcohol and drugs, but I can’t do them anymore because I’m an alcoholic and drug addict.

Apropos, I’d end with this. Jack Warner, a former manager of Woody Allen’s, said about Lenny Bruce, that he, Lenny Bruce, “Sinned against his talent.” I think what I enjoy besides painting is simply being alive.

Thanks Douglas Ferrin!
You can see more of Douglas Ferrin's work at his website, and find out more about him by reading an article in American Artist Magazine.  

Doug can be contacted at


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