Karl Frey Talks the Talk with 1stAngel Arts Magazine

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When did you first become interested in art?

I remember wanting to be good at something when I was in grade school. Most kids had sports or theater, I hung out with kids that drew cars and robots. I was actually never very good at any of that but I could copy newspaper comics pretty well and my interest just kind of grew from that. It helped as a child that my parents sent me outside to draw flowers. My father was a proud gardener but I couldn’t imagine anything more boring.

What style of art do you use most?

In illustration I work hard to use styles that communicate clearly. Often aspects of my work are very representational and recognizable but I always try to present them in more of a pure design context. In my fine art, I get a lot more experimental with styles, everything from Pop Art to Impressionism. With my most recent work I’m trying to create Fine Art Drawings that are a little simpler and more illustrative though their meaning isn’t always intentional clear.

Has your style changed from when you first began as an artist?

My first serious artwork was all watercolor and almost always figurative, it was mostly inspired by the American Social Realists, Photo Journalism, and German Expressionists. The results were very dramatic and colorful paintings of the Holocaust or urban America. (Below image for example)

Redemption ©Karl Frey Copying from this site is illegal

What medium do you use?

For my illustrations I mostly use water-soluble materials like gouache, inks, and watercolor combined with pencil, crayon and pen. I dislike most acrylics but will use them if nothing else will stick to the material. For fine art I absolutely love to throw beeswax into the mix, sometimes as a binder as in encaustic painting) and often as a glaze. My favorite technique is to paint with oils on top of gouache and then to glaze it all with melted beeswax but it takes tons of preparation for the surface. (Below Image for example)

Hellafortuna ©Karl Frey Copying from this site is illegal

What made you choose that medium?

For illustration and print work I use whatever I think will reproduce most accurately. The only real difference I see between Illustration and Fine Art is that Illustration is always made to be reproduced and the artist should be aware and accommodate that fact. When making stand alone Fine Art objects, either painting or sculpture, I like to use things that aren’t entirely controllable, materials like crayon, beeswax, tobacco staining, sanding, or dissolving with rubbing alcohol. I like to see what my attempts at control become and I struggle to make them something I can be proud of. (Below Image for example)

Seed of Destruction ©Karl Frey Copying from this site is illegal

Do your ideas come from life or imagination?

A lot of both if by ‘life’ you mean books and the Internet. I collect lots and lots of imagery and then wait for an idea that puts it all together. I’ll often seek out reference for ideas that I’ve already fully formed, and sometimes shoot my own reference, but I’m not interested in limiting my subject matter to only my immediate surroundings, that’s what a sketchbook is for.

How do you choose your images and colors?

Many of my ideas are inspired by words or phrases. For example, I just did a series of Drawings based on the titles to some Kurt Vonnegut stories. Phrases like ‘Canary in a Cat House’ or ‘Fates Worse Than Death’ are just fun to play with visually. My color choices are often made to effect the tone of the piece, I m not at all afraid of balancing a lot of color but more often then not I tend towards a warm, slightly subdued palette now.  (Below Image for example)

Canary in a Cathouse ©Karl Frey Copying from this site is illegal

Who is your favorite artist?

My favorite artist is Allan McCollum whose work is usually conceptual sculpture and has nothing in common with my stuff except for a fascination in how people perceive and interpret art objects. My favorite pieces of his are his Surrogate Paintings, which are really just cultural props of paintings made of plaster with a painted frame and a black rectangle in the middle representing the artwork. If you freeze a movie or TV program when there’s a painting on the wall in the background, it usually looks just like one of Allan McCollum’s Surrogates.

What is your favorite piece of work by yourself?

It is usually the piece that I’ve just finished that is my favorite and in this case that would be a larger than life-size drawing I did completely in crayon and beeswax called Delusions of Grandeur. It’s part of a recent fine art series where I try to give classic Rorschach inkblots a little psychological context of their own to aid in the viewer’s interpretations. I like using inkblot imagery because everyone knows they are supposed to see something and that it isn’t supposed to always be the same. I think of it as empowering the viewer by giving them permission to interpret the artwork for themselves. (Below Image for example)

Delusions if Grandeur ©Karl Frey Copying from this site is illegal

How much time (on average) does it take to complete a work?

The latest piece has been on my easel for several months because I was trying a lot of new techniques and materials. You wouldn’t believe how many types of crayons are out there (jumbo, twistable, erasable, etc.) and I tried them all on this last piece. Usually I could finish almost any piece in a week if I really put my mind to it.

How well do you take criticism?

The more helpful it is the more it shakes my confidence, usually that sort comes from my wife and it’s always brutal and exactly correct. I tend to pay little attention to passing comments at my show openings but if someone puts the thought into writing something down in my comments book then I’ll take it to heart. Luckily people who go to art galleries are usually a pretty polite crowd. Criticism is always hard but if I’m allowed to critique my student’s work I better be able to handle some critique myself.

What do you do to overcome a ‘block’?

I used to head to the library and look at photography books. Now I just look at all the great art and design blogs on the Internet and something always pops out to inspire or shame me back into working.

How do you know something is ‘finished’? Is it easy to walk away?

Usually I have a pretty well defined end product in mind when I start a piece. This means doing sketches, color tests, mock-ups etc. I only have trouble knowing when to stop if a piece doesn’t turn out the way I intended, then I can spend way too long ‘fixing’ it. I’m proud to say that I haven’t completely given up on a piece of art in a long, long time. There can be a ton you can learn from those struggles to make something work.

Have you had exhibits in galleries?

I’ve been lucky enough to exhibit in galleries all over the states of California and Texas and each time it is a lot of work because you always try to show something new and different. I try to do a solo show once or twice a year because it keeps me producing. I also like to show my work at institutions and universities because the work gets to stay up for more than a month. My favorite venue was the Three Columns Gallery at Harvard University in America. The space came with lots of unique challenges and a great insurance policy.

Have you any exhibits in galleries planned for the future?

I just finished a show of my new drawings at the Arte Reyes gallery here in San Antonio. Right now I am working on a piece for the Landfill Art Project, details can be found at, it is a long-term, international, collaborative project but there will be a traveling show and book sometime in the future.

What are your plans for the future?

I am trying to challenge myself with finding new ways to do drawings that interest me and I am enjoying raising my two young boys. Once I don’t have to worry about them ingesting toxic materials I plan on returning to more oil painting and mixed-media work. I also fully expect to be kept busy by teaching art classes and to keep being surprised by what I learn from my students.

What advice would you give new artists?

Don’t do it to build your self-confidence, do it because you can’t help yourself. Making art becomes your identity more than just about any activity could. If there is anyway you could imagine giving it up, then you might save yourself and your family a lot of mental anguish. If you can’t give it up, well then you are an artist, and at least you’ll create a lot of tangible evidence of your obsessions. I’ve met a fair share of well-known artists through my schooling and work with Universities and Art Schools. You might even say that they are famous, but not a single one of them is or has ever been rich (except Jeff Koons and I think that for him it’s all part of the art, he gave up being a stock broker to do it after all). Most of them are very happy though, narcissistic and chemically-dependant maybe, but happy.

Have you done any courses to help you?

The most helpful class I ever had were watercolor lessons when I was still very young. The brilliant California, purest-water color painter Diane Wallace was my teacher and she made every idea I had seem entirely possible to create. She taught me more than five years of design school and three years of graduate school ever could. It’s all about the work. When I have time to take courses now, I take life drawing workshops so I can practice sketching with a live model. You always need practice.

What do you do to market your work?

Besides having semi-regular gallery shows, I maintain a website which has been incredibly helpful at exposing my work to new audiences. I am starting to sell prints of some of my pieces on-line at and other than that I keep it pretty low key. Of course anyone that comes to my house is overwhelmed by all the art on the walls, so it’s no secret what I do for a living but I don’t hand out business cards very often.

Do you use social networking in your day to day life?

I’m on Facebook and Myspace and Linked-In, all for different reasons, but I find they are more helpful for hobbies (like for my band Surreal McCoy). I’d much rather hear from people through my e-mail and my website.

Band Sites:

Are you available for work (commissions)?

I’ve done quite a few Fine-art commissions. Often people will want a Sticker painting or a Lego painting of a subject matter they choose and I’m happy to do it. Most commissioned work is illustration though, editorial cartoons for newspapers, caricatures, book illustration, or drawing other peoples cartoon ideas for them. It’s rewarding and I’m always looking for more. The least interesting commission I’ve had recently was to paint the logos of the client’s three favorite sports teams. It was nothing more exciting than that, but he used to be a student and I’m a sucker for making people happy. The work was ridiculously simple but it made him happier than if I had done the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.

Have you got hobbies?

I play guitar and write a blog at, otherwise I enjoy comic books, TV and the other necessary vices of my generation.

Where are you based?

I live and work in San Antonio, Texas, the largest state in America with the largest average waistline.

Isabella FA Shores
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Isabella FA Shores

Founder at 1stAngel Arts
I live in Sale, Cheshire, England, and am happily sharing my life with a mental budgie, two Alsatian puppies, and a long-suffering, sculptor-boyfriend . . . not necessarily in that order. 🙂 Often accused of being an insufferable know it all, I often do, but more often do not.
Isabella FA Shores
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One thought on “Karl Frey Talks the Talk with 1stAngel Arts Magazine

  1. Hi Karl!

    I’m excited to find this article about you, to help catch up with your art and activities a bit. I’m so glad to see you are still loving art. Did you know that Eric Merrell is finding success as a plein air painter? Go to his website at — last summer he had a 3 month solo show at the Forbes Building in NYC, and recent magazine articles as well. And several are working for Steven Spielberg. I’m just now starting to track them down…I’m glad to see that my teaching efforts are helping others to reach their goals.

    I’m still teaching kids and some adults, but not as many classes because I take care of mom who needs 24/7 full care — at 92 she is nearly blind, and feeble, with Altzheimers. The classes are a welcome relief to maintain sanity and human contact.

    I’ve also started to collect some incredible antique art — 18cen to early 20cen drawings, watercolors, and oils. Original work is powerful — It’s almost like meeting the artists themselves. Their work is helping to revive my art energy again. Had to start supporting my parents about 1992, so my life as a painter has been on hold for 20 years! I demonstrate all the time in the classes, so am a much better and succinct painter than when you were here, but have only created small studies and sketches all these years. II’m feeling like now it’s time to really get back into doing major works. (Hard to do when caring for mom, but think I can finally do it.)

    A few friends have had me sign up on Facebook, but I haven’t a clue how to use it yet. Looks like I need to learn…

    I finally have a website!
    You can see artwork from some of my youngest students there — the teenagers haven’t gotten around to submitting theirs yet. Can I put some of your early school work there, too? That work would most closely reflect my own impact on your work at the time, so probably is the most appropriate to use here…

    Thank you for the complimentary reference in your magazine article. I knew I had prepared you well for Pasadena, but had no idea how well. I always wanted to go there myself, but had no mentor to help it happen, and no financial help from family either. Didn’t know about the scholarships. Business and professional contacts would probably have made a different life possible. I’m excited to be able to help it happen for my students. You were the first to get into the Pasadena Art Center, and the first one from south Santa Clara County in 22 years to be accepted; every one who has applied since then has also been accepted, and gotten scholarships. Of course, some have gone to other Art Schools as well.

    I found your article because I was searching former students to find out what they are doing now. What a treat. Thank you. And now I have your email, so don’t need to be such a total recluse in the future.

    Hugs from Diane!

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