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Revealing the Sublime

David Rothermel’s work is full of complex layers—layers that reflect the rich backstory and ideology behind the artist. In our interview with David, he explains how pivotal moments throughout his life, from a class trip to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York to a bad fall from a billboard, have led him to where he is as an artist today.


Rothermel in his Santa Fe studio

How would you describe your creative process?

DR: My creative process comes out of an old traditional way of painting. By that, I mean the way I set up my palette—first I have my primaries, then I intermix them with half-tones, and then I prime the panels with those half-tones. When I paint my panels, I prime them in a variety of colors, so that they all have a different underpainting. 

The traditional way of painting is fat over lean, which means thick paint over thin. Therefore, my initial coats are thin. From there, I have many options of what goes on next. In the beginning it’s usually a random mix of under paints and under colors. Tradition also dictates going from light to dark. I follow these traditional paths—light under dark, fat over lean. 

I’ll paint several colors over each other and then I’ll sand it down to where three or four of the layers are showing, and from there I can refine and address the juxtaposition of where these panels will fit. Sometimes it’s a happy surprise. My panels work as a modular system, where I can change one panel out to the next one and then substitute or embellish to let it breathe. I get them dating and then I get them married to each other.


“My panels work as a modular system, where I can change one panel out to the next one and then substitute or embellish to let it breathe. I get them dating and then I get them married to each other.”

What inspires your color choices?

DR: A lot of things I see out here in the Southwest are more intensified then they are in grey/blue, rainy Pennsylvania or Maryland. You have some crisp contrast here at 7200 feet; you’re closer to the sky and the clouds. And there is a lot more color—you can see color in the shadows. It’s inspiring. Also, some of my panels will be highly textured. I see a lot of that in the old buildings out here. It has a rustic feel, but it’s still highly contemporary. I might get inspiration from nature, a butterfly, a piece of fabric. When you’re looking as an artist, you have to learn to think with your eyes.


“When you’re looking as an artist, you have to learn to think with your eyes.”

Tell us about your background. When did you start making art?

DR: My mother was a one-room school teacher, and we lived in Pennsylvania. She would always paint the porch floors with gray, and when I was a youngster she gave me a brush and asked me to help out. She would tell me how to use the brush —you would use heel and toe and then feather it out.

I was also very involved in the outdoors. I would go hunting for small game in the fall when the colors of the leaves were changing. Then I would come back home and do pen and ink sketches. I studied things with my eyes and thought about what they meant to me. 

In the summers during high school, I would paint houses and lifeguard to make money, and then I went to art school. I went to a commercial art school, York Academy of Art, for two years, where I studied all the basic fundamentals. I had an instructor that was very instrumental. He told me that my fine art was much better than my commercial art, and he advised me to change schools and go to the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Art. So I did. By the time I graduated I had evolved into an abstract painter.

Then I went to school in Maine at Skowhegan, and studied under living artists that were quite well known, such as Josef Albers. During this time I was very influenced by Hans Hofmann. Back when I was at York, we went on a field trip to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. I walked around the corner into the contemporary section, and there was this big Hans Hofmann. I didn’t even know who it was, but all of a sudden I started tearing up and the hair on my arms stood up—I just sort of wept in front of that painting. Then I got on to studying about him—his concepts of painting and the breath of abstraction. Somewhere along the line I absorbed it. It was an indelible experience, and I tried to stay close to that as I evolved in my own painting.

When I got out of art school, I moved back with my mother in Pennsylvania, where I had a studio and opened up a little sign shop. We would letter cars, trucks and vans. It was a wild time, during the hippie days. Eventually, I had to get out of there—I knew that everything I wanted was out west. I always had a romance with the west, so I moved to New Mexico. The second day I was here I got a job painting billboards. I did that for six years.

Billboards are constructed with panels—you take them out along the highways and install them side by side. That’s where I got my idea of fitting the panels together. One day I fell off the billboards. I broke both my wrists. The wind was so strong it just blew the ladder off, and there I was head first, trying to break the fall with my hands. It was sort of like a calling that said “You know if you take chances like this, you’re going to lose your light—the light that’s on in your heart for art.” So I made the decision to quit my job, get a divorce, move to Santa Fe and paint full time.

A lot of things have come and gone in between, but when I got up here I was sort of on a spiritual journey where I could just paint the landscape and not do the abstracts; I could just paint what I saw. It was during this period that I got my life back together. About 20 years ago, I went back to abstract painting. In my heart of hearts, I knew that Hans Hofmann still was indelible, and I just wanted to lay the paint on in big areas. And many years later, here I am!

How do you create the depth and luminosity in your paintings?

DR:The old masters used to use what they called “suspended transparencies.” If they were doing a portrait, the light side was opaque and the shadow side was transparent. That’s how you get such depth and luminosity with the transparencies—the underpainting has a lot to do with it. And then I use texture as a rhythmic element in my work.

How do you make the paint transparent? Are you adding something to it?

DR: Well actually, I’m doing the opposite—I’m wet sanding the outer layer of paint off and revealing the under paint. So in other words, instead of glazing, I’m reverse-glazing.

What exactly is wet sanding? How does the water aid the sanding process?

DR: Wet sanding is when you spray the panels with water right on top, and then use a hand sander and keep it wet. And then I squeegee off all the muck. Dry sanding would create too much friction, and the acrylic paint that I use would gum up. So with the water you don’t have any dust, and it doesn’t gum up.

Is there anything else you would like to share with us about your work?

DR: I want to talk about the way it makes me feel when I slide some paint around on the panels. I’m really a spiritual being, and trying to get that breadth of abstraction to where it works and has spatial continuity is really important to me. In other words, the painting is not done until it has spatial continuity, until it breathes. It has a breath, and it has its own identity. That is called "revealing the sublime." That’s one of the deepest feelings you can find. You need to reveal the sublime, because if you don’t, it’s just decoration.

I do watercolors too on the side and play around with other things and they all have that same feeling. Whether a landscape or a contemporary color field painting, the relationships that you make create the sublime. It has to do with those fundamentals we spoke of earlier. I know that if I put yellow down next to purple it is going to look great. I’ll tone them down to avoid being too obvious, but that’s the way I get the paintings to move or jump. The same thing with color harmonies—the primaries, the secondaries, the tertiary colors—they all have their own sense of being. And if you use them right you can create contrast and opposition. I use all those techniques I learned in art school, but if it doesn’t reveal the sublime it’s not art.

Art is a special thing. Hans Hofmann talked about the two-dimensional surface of a painting—it’s not a hole in the wall that you’re looking through, you know—rectangles and two dimensional objects and paintings have reality. You’re creating this spiritual thing out of a two-dimensional thing, and when you’re dead and gone it will still be breathing.

Interview with Sarah Deming of Merritt Gallery, Baltimore MD, Chevy Chase MD and Haverford PA

August 2019

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