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David Palumbo: Mesmerizing Confidence of Female Performers

American artist and illustrator David Palumbo is known for his dark, moody, emotional art. His work has been recognized, awarded, and showcased throughout America and Europe, receiving worldwide respect and appreciation.

Serious academic education and surroundings that encouraged and supported artistic aspirations set a solid base for David to pursue art as a career. His vast interests in genre themed artworks led to opportunities and work with book covers, game illustration, card games, advertisements, and narrative art among others. David’s client list includes impressive media moguls like Marvel Entertainment, Wall Street Journal, The New Yorker, Simon and Schuster, and Lucasfilm.

As MINUS37, we had an incredible opportunity to chat with David Palumbo about his journey as an artist, finding his style and voice, struggling with meaning behind work, and ways of making a living out of his passion.

"Revealing" by David Palumbo, oil on panel

Tell us a little bit about your life. Was art always present?

I was always interested in drawing, mostly from comic books. When I was about 7 years old, my mom began pursuing her own career as an illustrator and, from then on, I was raised by full time working artists (her and my stepfather).

"Jacqueline" by David Palumbo, oil on panel
"Invitation" by David Palumbo, oil on panel

What is your artistic background, when and how did you start? How did you end up with the style you currently work in?

As a kid, I loved drawing monsters and superheroes. The first actual training that I ever had was taking life drawing classes from a local school at about 12 years old. I had expected that I would draw comic books because that had been what I enjoyed at the time, but decided to attend the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Art (PAFA) and study painting. My brother was already a student there and it looked like a good foundations building program. The instruction at PAFA really promoted a painterly, traditional style. At the time I was a student, I was much more interested in tight, finely rendered realism, so I was also taking lessons from my parents and learning their process for commercial art. This lead me to be involved in both fields, showing personal works in Philadelphia galleries and starting to build a career in illustration genre (book covers, games, etc.) I was initially following the more polished direction, but did come to find the love for painterly work and started developing a process that was a sort of hybrid between my formal instruction and what I’d learned from my parents. It took several years of experimenting, but I ultimately found a process that feels like it really fits me.

“In the end, I think my style turned out to be born from combining the traditional academic tools I was taught with the speed and efficiency needed in working for commercial clients.”

"Undressing II" by David Palumbo, oil on panel

How do you usually work? Walk us through the process.

I typically begin with very loose pencil thumbnails to work out concepts, compositions, and poses. In the figure portraits, I tend to have foggy ideas based on my sketches and will develop that idea further with the model in the room.

I like to work from large monochrome prints to really focus on the values and shapes, letting colors come together based on what it feels the piece needs. I prime my panels with a knife to give texture and then tone them a muted purplish midtone. The first pass is always just a structural drawing in oil (monochrome, and only adding darks) to place all important shapes and elements. Once it’s dry, I’ll wash color to start finding the colors of the piece. When I begin developing the full painting, I try to work with an alla prima mindset and bring a piece to finish in one sitting.

“I just attack focal areas first and try to say what is needed and no more, moving eventually to the supporting and peripheral until nothing more needs to be said.”

"Blue Dress, Blue Room" by David Palumbo, oil on panel
"Randi" by David Palumbo, oil on panel

What are the sources of your inspiration and ideas?

As strange as it may sound, I think this is something that I’m still working to understand. For many years, I created personal paintings from visual impulses that didn’t necessarily connect with a clear motive. Deep down, I’m certain much of my visual language has cinematic roots. The figure series was something that started originally as a way to experiment in finding my technique. I have always really enjoyed figures and portraits, so it felt like a good subject matter that would hold my interest while I was working out my process. I’m not sure I thought about it much more than that. More recently, this is something that I think about quite a bit. I definitely find myself inspired by and drawn to dramatic and moody work.

“I’m really interested in art that feels very real but does not spell everything out. I love work that leaves space to interpret between the lines.”

"Feline" by David Palumbo, oil on panel

What are some of your favorite tools to work with?

I’m not much of an experimenter, so I don’t change up my tools much. I use a very specific set of flat tipped watercolor brushes, a very consistent pallet, and my surface is gesso on masonite panels. For medium, I use linseed mixed with turp, and I use it sparingly. This is my toolset for 99% of the time.

I also love photography and use my photography as a tool for creating paintings as well. Not just in developing reference images, but even in how I plan and design an image, much of it is influenced by thinking photographically (focal lengths, angles, lighting, etc.).

"Grey Sweater" by David Palumbo, oil on panel
"Portrait of Shoshi In a White Shirt" by David Palumbo, oil on panel

Tell us about the journey to your first gallery show/exhibition. How was your work discovered?

I started showing really early after winning an award from a local gallery, while still a student. They had a very serious interest in emerging artists, and I ended up showing with that gallery for a number of years. Beyond that though, I’ve always been involved in multiple avenues and often find one thing might accidentally lead to another.

“Mostly I’ve found just making personal work and it sharing online has brought a lot of opportunities I didn’t even know I was looking for.”

"Meredith" by David Palumbo, oil on panel
"Babe With The Power" by David Palumbo, oil on panel

What is the main message behind what you do?

This is a big question that I have been asking myself recently. And the different branches of my work certainly mean different things. Right now, the figure portraits I’m doing are about confidence more than anything else. The models that I work with are mostly performers, and they just radiate that confidence on stage.

In my paintings, I am looking at that in a more intimate setting. To a certain extent, they’re paintings of the beauty and sensuality of the figure. Beyond that, it is a desire to feel what they feel. There is a kind of performance to their poses and attitudes that celebrates sexual confidence in a way that I find magnetic.

"A Study In Cures" by David Palumbo, oil on panel

Where do you hope your artistic journey takes you? What are your goals?

I want to keep creating work I find exciting and to continue better understanding what drives it. I spent so many years focused on technique that I’m only recently giving serious thought to message and intent. I want to really dig deep into that.

"Gina" by David Palumbo, oil on panel

Could you give any tips or tricks for young emerging artists?

I’d advise making the work that you really connect with. Don’t get swayed by what you think others want or expect if you don’t feel it.

“If you can speak to your own interests in an honest way, you’ll be speaking with an honest voice and your audience will find you.”

All images and text courtesy of David Palumbo.

You can view more work by David on his Instagram and website.

Intro written by Natalie Kotok

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