Peter Eastman is an artist who lives and works in Cape Town. Predominantly self taught, Eastman spent one year at Michaelis School of Fine Art before moving to London where he worked as a restorer of antiquities and continued to paint in his spare time. Upon his return to South Africa he began making jewellery as well as art, and has since become best known for his enamel and oil paintings. Eastman kindly agreed to answer a few of our questions, allowing us to learn more about his work and his journey so far.
Were you exposed to art from an early age?
Not overly so, my father is a doctor and my mother is a writer. He has a passion for Turners paintings, which I never liked then but have now come to love, especially his more abstracted watercolors. And my mother always had lots of books about ancient cave painting around. When I was little my grandmother showed me a painting at Groot Constantia, it was an oil portrait of someone, I don’t know who, but when you looked at it from a certain angle you could see a hidden portrait in thick paint relief of another mysterious figure underneath. I always loved it, I think it might have influenced me in making my black portraits.
When, and why, did you decide to pursue a career as an artist?
In high school I had a deal with a friend’s mom, in exchange for a painting she would make sandwiches daily for me. It was pretty great until her son left the school. But I carried on selling and swopping paintings from then on, it was never done with a career in mind, I just loved painting, the paintings sold and I carried on. It was only after my time in London as a restorer that I considered the idea of painting as a career.
You left art school after the first year, and went to restore antiquities in London. What happened after this?
I have always had an interest in Archaeology and ancient art and artifacts, so when the opportunity arose to do that work I jumped at it. It was a very valuable experience to be surrounded by amazing museum artifacts, there is an incredible aura that surrounds ancient works of art. In some cases during the restoration of an object we had to fake certain areas, so I had a great learning experience with regards to medium by using the same material as the original, whether it be working with wax and pigment for the Roman-Egyptian burial masks or natural pigments and stone.
The owner of the restoration firm allowed me to use a part of the warehouse to have a painting studio, so at night I went back to the studio where I was surrounded by roman marble statues and some monumental ancient pieces, it was a pretty good place to paint. After I returned to Cape Town I started making rings and jewellery but painting all along.
Quite a while ago you mentioned that you were trying to make paintings that “only work as paintings”. Considering the work you’ve created more recently, does this still ring true?
The older works that that refers to is the ones where the reflective surfaces played a key role of either interacting with the viewer or reflecting light to reveal the image. It did mean that there was a frustration with photographing these works as it felt like the equivalent of presenting a movie still as the finished product. That statement is probably less relevant to more recent works but there is a point where a painting fails for me, when it goes from being a painting to just a picture of something.
What are the mediums you work with, and why?
Enamel, oil, acrylic and resin are my main mediums. I love enamel paint, the sticky texture of it, the strength and opacity of the color and the speed it has to be worked with before it starts becoming tacky and ugly. I sometimes mix pure pigment or oil paint into the clear enamel bases. I also love resin, as long as one has all the protective gear on. I mix oil paint into the resin, which seems to explode the pigment in the paint and give it an amazing color and feel like alabaster. It is amazing to see the difference between the highest quality oil paints and the student quality paints when it is mixed into the resin as you can see all the filler in the cheaper paints.
In addition to your paintings, you also produce digital prints by working over photographs in digital media. What is the thought and process behind these?
I no longer produce the prints, but there are still editions available. I made those prints at a time when I was working mainly in black paint. I love working in color and they were a fun way of using color where I could sit at the computer drawing and coloring in a very free way without having to be in the studio where toxic enamel was drying or resin curing.
What are some of the things that influence your work?
My influences are always changing, but a predominant obsession is the magic of time and light. Indescribable descriptions of things I don’t understand and don’t want to.
Do you believe that art should always be justified, or can it exist for its own sake?
It needs no justifying, it is its beauty that it communicates in different ways to different people, no didactic content necessary…for me.
What is the most rewarding aspect of what you do? And, on the other hand, what is the most challenging part?
The rewarding and challenging is all wrapped up together, painting is a roller coaster of pleasure and difficulty. It is a pretty amazing and daunting thing to think of something, painting, which is boundless.
What are you currently working on?
I am currently working on paintings for a new show of interiors and exteriors. Most of the exterior paintings I have been painting outdoors, the quality of light radically influences the use of color when done outdoors. The logistics of transporting massive aluminum panels to the outdoor settings is not so easy. The interior paintings are all done indoors but in different indoor spaces, influencing a much darker light.