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In the Studio: Derek Penix

by Allison Malafronte

Derek Penix in his Oklahoma studio

Derek Penix is a primarily self-taught painter from Oklahoma who sees his artistic vocation as more of an adventurous journey than a predictable path. Not wanting to be known for one particular subject or to stagnate his growth, he constantly keeps his eyes and mind open to what is speaking to him next, anchoring himself only in the current fluidity of each creative moment. With his colorful, energetic brushwork and a focus on both expression and technique, Penix aims to be as artistic as possible with each new level of progression as a painter. In this Q+A, Penix speaks a bit about the place from which he is currently finding the visual vocabulary to honestly express himself.

American Sycamore, 2018, oil on canvas, 40 x 30 in.

AM: I know that Quang Ho and C.W. Mundy were important influences in your art education. If you could summarize your greatest takeaways from both artists, what would you say? 

DP: I am really fortunate to have been able to work under Quang for a season and then to be mentored by C.W. Mundy. It has been a sort of Cliff Notes from their formal education, along with them imparting their decades of experience and knowledge as full-time artists. Also, having C.W. a phone call away to offer critiques on my latest work has been invaluable to me. It has been something I feel extremely blessed to have. As far as takeaways, Quang helped me see in terms of shape: the dialogue between all the elements of design, including the abstract dialogue. C.W. is helping me become more of an artist by thinking of visual tools as a language to say what you want to say in a painting. 

Involution (Koi Series), 2018, oil on panel, 20 x 16 in.

AM: As someone who paints in both representational and abstract styles, what dictates what style you paint in? And what commonalities have you found between abstract and realist painting, if any? 

DP: I sometimes want to marry the abstract with representational. I like how a little abstract mixed in with the representational brings an energy and mystery to the overall piece, along with making the painting more interesting and engaging. Although I often begin with a plan, there are also times when I just have to go with the flow and see where the painting takes me.

AM: I notice that you paint koi and spade fish a lot recently, subjects that many artists find appealing because of the fish’s beautiful color and designs. What do you love about these fish?

DP: Although I do not want to be pigeonholed for one specific subject, when I find something that inspires me, I focus on it for a while, usually working in a series. So right now I am painting a series of koi. I love their colors, and the fluidity of their movement when swimming together is mesmerizing. I aspire to capture that in my paintings. I also really enjoy the light that sprinkles through and hits the fish underneath the water. 

AM: Your boat paintings are beautifully done. Being from Oklahoma, when and where did you first become intrigued by harbor scenes, and where do you go to paint them? 

DP: My wife and I got married in the French Riviera and that is where I originally saw the boats from the area. We subsequently went back a handful of times, and from those trips I took many photos of the boats all around the region. We love the Nice, France area, all the way to Monaco. I painted a series of those boats over about a three-year period. Even today, however, I periodically will jump back and paint boats again.

<em>Red White and Blue (Boat Series)</em>, 2018, oil on panel, 20 x 24 in.

AM: What other art forms or influences inform your work besides the artists and influences of the realist art community? 

DP: I am constantly looking for inspiration everywhere I go. For instance, when I saw an aerial view of the buildings in New York City from a helicopter, I immediately thought that would be a great perspective to paint of those buildings. Or when I saw a picture of a koi yin and yang that someone drew, I got inspired to find a koi pond in town and paint koi. However, I want to move beyond focusing on what the next subject will be and instead just be creative with whatever I paint—not so much rendering what I see, but really being artistic and creating something new and different.

AM: What is your favorite painting to date and why? 

DP: I don’t think I have a favorite. I am pretty critical of my paintings after I paint them, as I always see ways I can improve. But if I had to choose, I think I would pick New York in Blue. I painted it in 2017, and it was in the American Masters show at the Salmagundi Club last October. I love the aerial perspective and the electric blue that I chose to paint it. For me it really captures my experience of New York City and how alive it is there. 

New York in Blue (Aerial Cityscape Series), 2017, oil on panel, 40 x 40 in.

AM: In addition to your mentors, which artists do you most admire today and why? 

DP: There are so many great painters. I really like Mark Daniel Nelson, Ron Hicks, Dan McCaw, Carolyn Anderson, Vincent Xeus, and Kevin Weckbach, to name a few. I admire anyone who has creativity and skill in their paintings—those who are able to break through that barrier of just painting what they see to create something new. I want to do more of that myself.

<em>Coastal Waters</em>, 2018, oil on panel, 20 x 20 in.

AM: Any educational advice you would give to an aspiring professional artist? Do you think “apprenticing” under one or two artists you really admire for a period of time is a good choice?

DP: I think only God can help you to know what to do with yourself.  I've been the type to try to figure things out on my own, with much turmoil. But I'd probably advise an aspiring painter to paint, paint, paint and study only the best painters. Take many workshops with the greatest. Never stop learning and never stop trying to grow. Just remember that it's not about the technical aspects and knowledge but the ability to use them as tools of expression and to be yourself.  

<em>Wren II (Bird Series)</em>, 2015, oil on panel, 6 x 6 in.