INTERVIEW WITH ROBERT MANISCALCO
BY CATE MANISCALCO
Cate: Rob, you’ve been a professional artist for almost four decades. How did your early life influence you as an artist?
Rob: Well honey, “art” was the spoken language in our home. Growing up as the youngest in a household of four kids, with a single father who also happened to be Joseph Maniscalco, a nationally renown portrait painter, I’m not sure there was ever any doubt about what I wanted to do. In fact, my mother and father met at the Art Students’ League in NYC. It’s hard to believe that I’m the only one of my siblings who ended up making a life as an artist.
Cate: Who besides your mother and father influenced your journey as an artist?
Rob: When I was growing up I copied a lot of the old masters’ paintings, trying to emulate their style. Delacroix, Rembrandt, Sargent were all influences.
Cate: I’ve heard that artists must “make room” for art by sometimes choosing it over other areas of their lives. Has that been true for you, and if so, how?
Rob: I think I’ve relied on my talent to be my calling card, my entree’ into the world. Consequently, I think I’ve sacrificed to some extent, my personal relationships. I’ve built my life around my art and now that I have two beautiful children and the love of my life (you!), I think I finally know why I’ve worked so hard to become the best artist I can be. I am so very grateful to God for the life I have with you and my kids.
Cate: Me too (hug). Besides being an artist, you’re a published author, accomplished musician; actor, director and you have a beautiful singing voice. If you were financially secure, without worry of bringing in an income, and could do anything you wished, would you be following a different path?
Rob: Through the years I’ve tried to find a common thread that connects my various muses. I think my role as a television host on Art Beat (PBS) came close to combining my talents in a meaningful way. As my dharma, painting has become more and more meaningful to me in my desire to express the deepest part of who I am through my art. My art is an extension of my relationship with God.
Cate: Let us look at “Light and Shadow” as it applies to life itself. Many great artists give credit to their ability to embrace both light and shadow as it comes into their lives. How has this impacted your art?
Rob: At this point in my life I am no longer haunted by the demons I carried from my youth. It gets old or we get old, one of the two or both. I’m not a big fan of the Van Gogh syndrome. The suffering artist myth is highly over-rated. I’ve recently written a play asking what would happen if Van Gogh showed up in our modern time. It takes place in a mental institution, of course. I’m more of a fan of the optimistic philosophy from “The Power of Positive Painting (P3),” my teaching method. But as an artist I realize that we cannot be fully human until we embrace both the light and dark sides of our being. As a Christian, I understand we are all broken and we find joy by giving our brokenness to Christ and realizing we are part of something much larger than our ego can grasp.
Cate: What is your greatest challenge as a portrait artist?
Rob: Painting the same businessman’s suit over and over again! No seriously, I think ascertaining and capturing the personality; the voice of each subject requires a laser-like focused commitment to excellent painting. And also something that cannot be taught in art school, a love of people.
Cate: Your greatest joy as a portrait artist?
Rob: I have to say it’s when people appreciate what I’ve done for them. My hard work has opened a lot of amazing doors to me. I know it sounds cliche, but I feel very blessed; I am very intentional about being grateful. I know how fortunate I am that making art is also my livelihood. It’s a great life. Imagine, making a career out of your talent and creativity.
Cate: You’ve been teaching now for almost as long as you’ve been painting. What advice would you give a fledgling artist just starting out?
Rob: Develop a learner’s mindset. Make yourself into an insight-processing machine. Take good coaching when it’s available. And don’t settle for the easy way. That’s the path to the dark side of the force. On the other hand, the best solutions come from the most elegant and deceptively simple processes. Discovering those processes is the key to success. We can only fail when we stop trying.
Cate: What gem of knowledge and experience would you choose to give someone aspiring to be an artist to assist them on their journey?
Rob: Our biggest obstacle to success will always be our own ego. This is especially true in the arts.
Cate: Art in education has become a luxury in many of our schools today. What impact do you believe exposure to the arts has on becoming a well-rounded member of society?
Rob: The creative problem solving required to make real art puts that individual at an unfair advantage over his/her peers. However, for those lucky enough to excel in a strong arts environment, the trick is getting them to apply their gifts to something that will be meaningful and still make some money. Some of the most brilliant minds in the world are “wasted” in the arts. But in the final analysis everyone benefits from an arts education.
Cate: Your workshops have been enormously popular for over twenty-five years now. Who would benefit from taking a class or workshop from you, and for those who aren’t interested in painting portraits, how could the portrait workshop improve their painting?
Rob: For beginners portraiture is an excellent introduction to the basics of painting. For advanced painters it is a reinforcement of the basics with nuances and subtleties thrown in for good measure. People find it quantifies the process for them and gives them the tools to create consistency in their work. I think if you can paint a portrait you probably can paint anything.
Cate: When painting from life, what advice would you offer that would help to create dynamic compositions? How does one avoid the mundane or clichés in compositions?
Rob: I make use of thumbnail sketches a lot in my work and in teaching. Start with the most “mundane” or expected composition and then move the objects around in the format (the frame) until you have arrived at the unexpected, more original composition.
Cate: How might a pastelist or watercolorist benefit from the method of painting you teach?
Rob: You are right to call it a method that I teach, rather than a technique. The P3 method teaches how to see and interpret, combining left and right brain functions in a way that allows for honest observation. Techniques may change depending on the media but learning to see is a universal necessity. Imagine expecting music from someone who can’t even play a scale. Ear training is essential for musicians. The P3 method is eye training for the artist. I work very hard to keep my teaching from becoming subjective or arbitrary. This allows for maximum self-expression in the long run. If you want to paint a green background, for instance, I won’t try to talk you out of it. I’ll show you how to integrate it and make it more harmonious with the rest of the painting.
Cate: So who is this NETI character? Are you really NETI or is he really another person?
Rob: The world may never know the answer to that question.
Cate: Tell me about The Quench Project.
Rob: I like to work in series and TQP is my most recent effort. The project came out of my ardent desire to serve God through my art. It was a natural extension of my personal mission exploring the dynamic between darkness and light and my personal journey of survival. It finally dawned on me, that my identity as a professional artist has become less important to me than my identity as a child of God.