Studio (Courtesy of the artist)

After Workshops in Old Lyme, Artist-Instructor Jesus Villarreal Reflects

in Art & Design

When artist Jesus Emmanuel Villarreal teaches painting, he doesn’t just talk about it, he paints right alongside his students so they can see what he’s working on. 

“I think that’s the best way to learn … I don’t believe in those teachers who just tell you and they don’t show you anything,” said Villarreal, a realist painter who taught four one-week painting classes sponsored by Florence Academy of Art, on the campus of Lyme Academy of Fine Arts, in August.

Rachel (Courtesy of the artist)

Villarreal, who spoke with CT Examiner by phone, said he likes to start his classes by showing students images of masterworks as inspiration. He then shows students the process before they pick up their own brushes — and while they’re painting, he’s painting too. 

“With smaller classes like at Old Lyme, instead of showing a slideshow, I just brought a bunch of books that were related to what we were talking about — like landscape books, portraits or figures, books from old masters and history to get inspired… to see what it is we’re going to be aiming for,” he said. “Then I go on to doing a demo where I paint the landscape, figure or portrait in front of them, and as I’m painting it, I’m explaining the process to them, my thinking process, and what to look for and what not to look for.” 

Even though he is teaching, he said he constantly learns more about painting from his students. 

“It’s a really fun process because I get to learn a lot by being with the students — you’re revising all of these elemental basic principles and seeing their work, helping them make their work better,” he said. “It’s a really fulfilling job because you’re going through the motions of what you do all the time with each and every one of them.” 

Old Lyme’s history as an art colony provided an extra layer of inspiration for Villarreal’s landscape classes because students could see paintings of particular locations in the Florence Griswold Museum.

Last portrait of Rachel (Courtesy of the artist)

“I took them to the old stomping grounds of all of these artists … I would choose which area we went to and used the historic areas like Florence Griswold and the Congregational Church on Lyme Street because it was a lot easier for the students to realize the complexities of nature … It was a lot easier to show them pictures that were already translated into paintings.” 

Villarreal, 35, is originally from Maracaibo, Venezuela, and immigrated to the United States with his family when he was 13. He grew up in Miami

At age 15 he began studio instruction with artist Abdon J. Romero. Villarreal went on to earn his B.F.A. from Maryland Institute College of Art, followed by three years at the Florence Academy of Art in Italy.

From 2010 to 2017, he based his studio in Bridgeport. In 2017 he returned to Miami, where he teaches from his studio. He has won numerous awards, including the 2011 Grand Prize from the Portrait Society of America’s International Portrait Competition. 

But his first mentor was his father, a self-taught artist and musician whose work and lifestyle inspired Villarreal to follow a similar path.

Self Portrait (Courtesy of the artist)

“It all started because of seeing your father as an example. [Painting]was a part of my life, all my life, even before I decided to draw or get my hands dirty,” Villarreal said. “I love the lifestyle of independence and the lifestyle of questioning everything and responding to it through your painting or through your drawing… the smell, the studio life, all of that… it just attracted me and I still love it.” 

Sketch by the beach at Old Lyme (Courtesy of the artist)

Back in his Miami studio, he said he was excited to start painting afresh.

Right now I bought new canvases and I just have blank canvases and every other painting that I have in the studio, I just put it in storage… This is usually the most exciting time when you’ve cleaned up your studio and you have new material waiting for you and now it’s like, okay, where am I going to go with this?” he said. “I’m still finding or reinventing myself and I think everytime you’re making a painting you’re doing so.”

His subject matter is his life — the portraits, landscapes and figures “are all about my intimate life, my surroundings, my streets, my friends, my girlfriends, my lovers, my cat, that’s my subject, my life,” he said. “What else are you going to paint about? You’re leading with your experience of being alive and that’s what I base my work on.” 

Villarreal said he hopes to return to Old Lyme, potentially with a group of realist painters in 2021 to celebrate the centennial anniversary of the Lyme Art Association. The idea would be to “echo” the art colony experience of Florence Griswold’s day.

“It would be an excuse for us painters to get together and really talk about our work. I thought it was a really exciting idea and something to look forward to as well,” he said. “I think it would be so interesting to see what 21st century artists are going to do with that same landscape from 100 years ago.”