We recently interviewed artist Ethan Diehl after meeting him at the 2019 Portrait Society of America show in Atlanta, Georgia. Ethan has an astounding talent for photo-realistic oil paintings. In fact, his paintings are so realistic that he even has a disclaimer at the top of his website that says, “Yes, these are paintings.” See for yourself!
SBL: When did you start painting and what inspired you to pick up a paintbrush?
Ethan: I started painting almost before I could walk. Granted, it wasn’t in oil (closer to Gerber’s baby food), but it was the starting point. My mother babysat a bunch of kids, and she converted our basement into an art room. A half dozen young artists, mastering our watercolor craft. I didn’t start painting in acrylics until junior high, and oils didn’t come on the scene until college. I don’t know why I picked up a paintbrush. I’ve always liked the visual world. The stars at night. Storms on the horizon. Movies. Paintings. All of it. Being able to capture images that lived in my head, and in front of me, always seemed special to me. Like my superhero power.
SBL: Do you have any formal training or instruction?
Ethan: I went to Stanford to study rocket science. Literally. However, after a year of not enjoying my classes, I started to take studio art classes. One of them, a drawing class, was taught by Nathan Olivera. Nate was an incredible person. We hit it off in his class, I completely changed the direction of my studies, and he became my art mentor. More than simply learning the technical side of making art, Nate taught me how to pay much closer attention to what was right in front of me in the visual world.
SBL: Before you became a full-time artist, what did you do?
Ethan: The concept of full-time artist makes me chuckle. I knew very early on that it would be nearly impossible to make a living by just selling art. So, I got a job, which I still have, as a software developer. I’ve been doing that for 21 years. However, this doesn’t mean that I don’t put in a fulltime amount of work each week in the studio. I do. I’ve been doing 40+ hour “work” weeks + 40+ hour “art work” weeks for almost 15 years.
SBL: What is your favorite subject to paint and why?
Ethan: People are my favorite subject. Primarily women. This isn’t exactly an original concept in the art world. Haha. I like spending my time focusing on the beauty that only women bring to the world. Within the subject of women, I only paint women I know. It’s important for me to have a personal connection to my subjects, because it takes SO long for me to complete my paintings. I really don’t want to spend months on end staring at a strange face in my studio.
SBL: How long have you been using Silver Brushes and why do you like using them?
Ethan: I have been using Silver Brushes, and only Silver Brushes, since 2004. That was the year that I started my professional art career. I only use 1 particular brush: the Silver Bristlon® Flat size 0. My paintings are made of tens of thousands of squares of oil paint. Each square is 1/6 in by 1/6 inch. The Flat 0 is the perfect width for that size square. The way that the bristles are constructed works well for me, too. I like the flex of the bristles as I’m working on the squares. Once I found this one brush, I was hooked.
SBL: Can you explain your painting process further?
Ethan: I use a pencil and ruler to turn my canvas into the equivalent of a super-sized piece of graph paper. Then, I spend months looking back and forth between my computer monitor (which has a pixelated image), and the canvas, and painting tiny squares. My Silver Brushes are never the same afterwards. I normally use 1 single brush per painting, and then the brush is “retired”. This process is not recommended for anyone else. It works for me, but it’s painful.
SBL: Have any artists influenced or inspired your work?
Ethan: Chuck Close specifically influenced the way that I paint, from a technical aspect. I’m inspired by living artists like Jenny Saville, Mark Tansey and Banksy.
SBL: Is your artwork on display anywhere?
Ethan: My art is shown at three galleries:
• Julie Zener Gallery in Mill Valley, CA
• Robert Lange Studios in Charleston, SC
• Morton Fine Art in Washington, D.C.
SBL: What advice do you have for aspiring artists?
Ethan: Work hard. Be nice. Enjoy the process. Fight envy with all of your strength.