EK Interview Revisit: Steve Salo

EK_MH_Steve Salo

Big brush strokes. Fat chunks of paint. The work of Steve Salo colorful as hell and incredibly human in its expression. Check out his interview:

Where in Australia are you from? How would you describe the emotional culture of where you grew up? Is it open? Are people talkative? How has your home informed your emotional self?

I live in Geelong, a regional city one hour’s drive from Melbourne. Growing up, this place had two sides. It’s a natural wonderland by a river, bay and a short drive to stunning beaches on the peninsula and the Great Ocean Road. It was also a manufacturing hub hit hard by the social impact of economic downturns and change. A local-based building society (that nearly everyone in town banked with) collapsed when I was a teenager and I remember the sadness and angst on the adults’ faces, it was the sort of thing people openly discussed with strangers in the street. I’ve always been sensitive to people’s emotions – and my own. Also, as a child I had severe asthma and was in and out of hospital…you do a lot of observing in that situation and it’s also where I discovered my love of drawing, it was my solace.


What are you feeling when you paint? Where do you go emotionally? Is each painting a different side of you or do they all come a single place? And how does your emotion inform and guide your painting?

It varies. Every time I paint I go into my own world where I’m not aware of time. Often I feel completely content. Other times, depending on the subject, I get my feelings of frustration out on the painting; I’m driven by something I saw on the news or felt in my life or noticed in someone else. My paintings are different corners of my mind – or maybe different sides of us all, from pure lightness to the dark.


How is it that thick, obscure, brush strokes that contain little detail can convey meaning? Why is your work so emotionally meaningful when many of faces you paint are, and I mean no disrespect by this, a smear of color? Do you feel your work relies on, or takes advantage of the viewer’s imagination? How much do you rely on posture to inform your audience?

When I’m doing thick brush stokes, I try to see underneath first. I’m aware of the feeling and often paint in layers with the thick strokes almost like a mask in areas. If each brush stroke is done with feeling and intent, then surely that comes through. Likewise, a smear of colour done with purpose shows through. When I’m really in tune with the subject or emotion, I might do smooth areas that are gentle, almost realistic depictions of the subject, then I’ll scoop up thick paint and switch to raw and expressive. I have a no-fear approach to painting, sometimes I’m almost on auto-pilot instinctively knowing what to do next, it’s built from many years of experience.


When I paint, all I do is convey my feelings and inner-self and often I don’t consider the viewer. But I know if I do it right, someone somewhere will connect with it. I’m not telling the viewer what to think, but they do add their own imagination. It’s like I form a crossroad and the viewer can work out the rest based on their own personal experiences, emotions and capacity for empathy. If a person takes a few moments to stop and ponder the painting or the subject – or something about themselves – that’s a satisfying response to my art.


I see ‘Passerby Union Street’ and I imbue the painting with emotion, that might not be at all what you intended, but if that emotion is meaningful to me, and emotionally impactful, have you succeeded? What do you want from your viewer? Do you think it all important for a viewer to respond in the same emotional vein that the painter was when making the piece?

In ‘Passerby Union Street’ I painted what I saw in a young man’s eyes, then used forceful strokes to depict his outward confidence and energy. Different people may have felt different things from him and the same happens when people view the painting. I’m depicting the many sides that people have – and I love that people respond in their own way to the painting, it adds another layer of human complexity.


Tell us about your process. About how you actually put paint to canvas. What are your rituals, what do you do if you err, what is your favorite part of the process?

There is no repetitive process I use, it varies. Most paintings I start with a charcoal drawing or sketch then lay down paint with palette knife or fingers. Other times I’ll use a paint brush to sketch out the subject. The background and delicate areas are mostly done with a paint brush. Usually I spend a lot of time creating the colours on the palette, but sometimes I’ll throw paints on the canvas and start mixing there. Generally I use a limited palette, but there are times when I’ll pull in more colours. I like using areas of muted or greyed colour and adding areas of intense colour that reflect my mood or the subject.


If it’s a planned piece, I sit on the couch and think. Once the painting is in my mind, it may flow out or I need to contemplate it at various points. Often I have several works on the go and come back to them, even weeks later. I don’t hesitate to abandon or paint over something if it’s not working, even if I’ve spent hours on it. I feel full confidence to not be attached and to start over.

A private ritual I haven’t told anyone about until now is that before I start I have the canvas on the easel and for about five seconds I extend my energy into it – my Jedi power, haha. It puts me in the right frame of mind. My favourite part is signing the painting.


What is an everyday item or practice that you are awed by?

The love of my wife. The birds in our garden.