Matt Gonzalez Interview with Artist Joana Ubach

Written by FCJ Editor. Posted in Arts/Entertainment

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Published on December 09, 2011 with 1 Comment

Artist Joana Ubach uses oil paint on aluminum to amplify the reflective and refractive qualities of light.

By Matt Gonzalez, special to

Editor’s Note: San Francisco attorney and collage artist Matt Gonzalez recently conducted the following interview with fellow artist Joana Ubach. Ubach, 26, was born in Portugal and attended Colegio do Bom Successo in Lisbon where she studied Anthropology and Fine Art and where she first began painting with oils.  In 2007, Ubach earned a B.A. in Anthropology and Fine Art from the University of Arizona.  She currently lives in San Francisco where she earned her Masters in Fine Art at the Academy of Art.   Examples of Ubach’s work can be found at her website,

December 10, 2011

MG: How did you get started painting?

JU: I was introduced to oil painting at a very early age while living in Portugal. My dad had an ambitious hobby of copying old master’s paintings in the living room. I remember being six years old and watching him paint a copy of Thomas Gainsborough’s The Blue Boy in its original size and thinking about how the large canvas had such an impact and presence in the room. I could feel the significance of painting as an addition to my life even then. I also began taking oil painting classes in the 4th grade at the Colegio do Bom Successo in Portugal. It was a traditional school of painting and I learned how to draw and use oil paint on canvas. When I moved to the United States, I took a break from painting but continued to sketch in my free time. When I began college at the University of Arizona, I felt a need to develop more creatively and decided to do a double major in Anthropology and Fine Art.

MG: You paint on aluminum. How’d you come about painting on metal?

JU: I was first introduced to the idea of painting on aluminum when I saw the artist David Kessler’s works at a gallery in Scottsdale, Arizona. I was captivated by the movement of light on metal and the photo-realistic quality of the images. The metal allowed for a rippling effect in the paint that enhanced his landscapes by giving them a reflective, effervescent quality. As I was studying anthropology at the time, I became interested in portraying people using the same aspect of reflective light that I saw in Kessler’s work. During my M.F.A. at the Academy of Art in San Francisco, I began to paint more strictly non-representational work that emphasized the interplay of light and metal. I embraced the idea of a painting based on a fluid concept, much like ripples within water – the scratching of poured oil paint upon metal gives way to movement and rippled distortion. At the Academy I experimented with etching into the aluminum with various knives and drills and applying layered paint to enhance shadow and depth in organic forms. In effect, I paint on aluminum to capture light within forms and I paint to capture the imagination of the viewer within my own artist process. I paint on aluminum to capture light within forms, and I paint to capture the imagination of the viewer within my own artistic process.

Oil on aluminum by Joana Ubach.

Oil on aluminum by Joana Ubach.

Oil on aluminum by Joana Ubach.

MG: How do you start? Do you have to treat the surface with something?

JU: I start my paintings by sanding down the aluminum sheet with a fine grade of sand paper, leaving just a light surface scratch that allows the paint to adhere to the metal more effectively. The sanding process also allows for more reflection, or “movement” as I call it, from light that is shined directly onto the metal. Light is reflected back from the metal as it passes through the layers of paint that I put in multiple coats on top of the metal. The reflective nature of light is an important element of my work, as I feel that the metal can project organic forms through the various paint layers. A high degree of my art process is the additive and subtractive process that occurs from adding and removing paint as well as scratching through the paint into the metal, creating light movements with each artistic gesture.

MG: Is canvas not conducive to capturing light?

JU: Canvas is conducive to capturing light, but I feel it also can negate the reflective qualities of light. Aluminum is a much more malleable surface when it comes to manipulating reflection and glare. Aluminum allows me to represents forms through light and allows light to interact with the forms in the painting as well. Light becomes the third dimension to the piece.

MG: The Dutch painters of the 17th century were fascinated with light. Do you feel any affinity for their work?

JU: My artist background comes from a very traditional school, both in terms of an emphasis on figure drawing and classical composition. I am influenced by the old masters, and the acquisition of knowledge has enhanced my understanding of the direction that I want to take my art in. I feel that composition and color management are important elements of the classical tradition, and my art strives to embody traditional principles of depth and perspective. My fascination with capturing light goes beyond trying to enhance form, but also tries portray light as a form interacting with other forms. One aspect in my painting comes from the interaction of the viewer with the painting. Depending on the position of the viewer, the forms interacting with the light will change. I found this element relevant to much of the classical tradition, the ability to connect with the art from different viewing angles and receive a different experience from the art depending upon perspective.

MG: Do you prescribe a particular way to hang the work to manipulate the way a viewer sees the work?

JU: Definitely, depending on the mood or atmosphere that I am trying to convey with each piece. Warm light will affect the movement of light that the viewer sees with cool shadows, where in the same piece cool light will capture a different movement of warm shadows to the viewer creating a totally different experience. The placement of the pieces next to a well-lit window will change the piece throughout the day.

MG: The darker pieces remind me of Jay Defeo’s “Rose” painting. Do you know it? Who would you say are your influences?

JU: I have looked at Jay Defeo‘s work and feel that she was also intent upon representing organic forms. The nature of expression in her work speaks to me as a powerful statement about the ability to manipulate paint in an emotional context. I feel that my pieces are very influenced by my emotions. One of my first major influences was the work of David Kessler, an artist who began my fascination with the artistic potential of oil painting on metal and the interaction with light. Another artist who I have come to be inspired by recently is Sam Francis. His use of color and his dynamic compositions have influenced me in creating forms that have positive and negatives spaces that interact organically with each other within the paintings.

MG: How much do you rely on chance in your work?

JU: There is some element of fluidity created by my pouring oil paint at the initial stages of the process. But once the painting begins to emerge for me, I create the composition that I see, manipulating the painting, no longer in a fluid way but in calculated manner by removing large areas of paint with a Dremel tool or drill to show the raw metal or by applying specific areas with additional paint. The final piece is a result of the combination of spontaneity and precision.

MG: When you start removing paint that was initially placed randomly, don’t you lose the elements of spontaneity?

JU: The process of spontaneity doesn’t end. I continue to add and subtract layers by pouring paint until each painting reaches a point that it needs to be refined. That point can be after months of the process stages. I only focus on enhancing the forms that I create and I use my judgment as to when a painting is complete.

MG: American abstraction went through a period of focusing on geometric forms in the late 1930s. Later, it broke into many different strands. Your style is very loose, it doesn’t adhere to a hard edge. Do you plan on keeping this up? Was this loose style prevalent in Portugal, where you grew up?

JU: Someone once told me, whatever you sketch is what kind of art you do. I’ve always been attracted to organic forms. I grew up next to the ocean in Portugal and I would sketch organic forms, abstract forms that could have been representative but were mostly fluid and organic, natural forms that didn’t come from any particular point of reference. I have also had a fascination with water and I love how water reflects light. I have been a competitive swimmer from early childhood through college, and swimming and being in the water still is still a huge part of my life. The light in Portugal, being a coastal country with a Mediterranean influence, is direct and clear, an element of my work that I try to capture with the way direct light influences my organic forms. My art is directly influenced by these parts of my life that I have given so much time to and enjoy so much. I am sure that I will continue to evolve in my interests outside of art in the future, but I expect to see my art evolve along with these changes.

MG: Are the color elements that appear in some of the work new? Would you say those pieces are about light also?

JU: Every piece incorporates an element of light movement. Some focus more on the positive organic shapes that enhance the forms through color. In some pieces, the thinning and thickening of layers of paint allow movement to be present in a subtle way compared to my more dynamic monochromatic pieces that focus on the contrast between the negative, positive shapes and light.

MG: How is the art scene in San Francisco different from the Southwest? What is next for you?

JU: I feel that the art scene in San Francisco is very involved in building an artist community that creates a presence that will influence growth. As an artist, it is inspiring to be constantly surrounded by new creativity, not just in the painting scene, but also in music, theater and literature. I really love San Francisco, it reminds me of my past life in Lisbon and it inspires me to want to build a future here. I want to continue to develop my art.

Oil on aluminum by Joana Ubach.

1 Comment

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  1. Luke, a nice addition to Fog City Journal, art!
    Joana is a very talented artist, I have never seen art work like this before, comments anyone.