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Contrasting Realism: An Interview with Sean Cheetham

Experience the dramatic contrast of shadows, mid-tones, and highlights as they come together in a Chiaroscuro-esque composition; drawing the eye, like a moth, to the flickering of finite light. Utilizing darker shades to form the tone of the canvas, the subject, and shapes, we are invited into the murky unknown–a world where latent figures lurk behind subjects, hidden behind layers of mysteriously muddy yellows, greens, and browns.

This is the creative power and provocation of Sean Cheetham; who has amassed a loyal following through his sensational portraits, startling still life’s, and all-inclusive artistry. Allow the perception of pending gloom to agitate, then still the senses, as you willingly follow his brushstroke (and brilliance) into the realistic void.

Sean Cheetham painting
Sean-Cheetham-Contrast

Interview with Sean Cheetham

Firstly, tell me about yourself. 

Well, my name is Sean Thomas Cheatham and I was born in San Francisco in the late 70s. My mom’s side of the family was full of artists and it was something we always did and my dad is a retired jeweler so I was exposed to that craft early on as well. I moved to Los Angeles in 1998 to attend the ArtCenter College of Design and commit myself to a life as an artist. I just moved to the edge of the national forest north of LA to live and create with my girlfriend Kate Zambrano.

Do you have an artist statement you’d like to share? 

Unfortunately, no, I do not have an artist statement. Personally, I don’t even like artist statements very much and don’t feel like what I have to say in words would really represent me. Even with biographies, I prefer someone else to write it and take the blame.

What is your process from initial concept to final product? What medium and materials do you prefer?

My process varies quite a bit as do my mediums and materials. I paint a lot from life so that just involves showing up to class and doing my job of demonstrating. For personal work, sometimes it’s just an idea that I develop through sketches and photography but other times the idea is very clear and I go straight to photographing models or whatever subject I am attempting to paint. I have recently gotten into metalwork and sometimes that starts with a drawing but other times it starts with heating up metal and beating it into shape. I’m currently finishing up a chess set commission which involves a lot of drawing on my iPad and making pieces on my lathe from bronze and woods. And even more recently I started learning engraving, which feels like a perfect balance of drawing and metalwork. For that, I’ve been studying acanthus leaves and scroll design obsessively. 

In my mind, I’m just trying to capture the essence, their likeness, and maybe their soul.

Who are the subjects in your paintings and what do you want the viewer to experience when looking at them? 

When I first got out of school, I made it a point to paint my friends. I felt like if I was going to paint portraits of people they should be people that are close to you. Of course, if it’s a commission then I’m just acting as a hired hand but I do prefer to meet the subject and get a feel for their personality a bit. I don’t think too much about what I want other people to feel about the person or experience when looking at them. In my mind, I’m just trying to capture the essence, their likeness, and maybe their soul. What the viewer experiences is usually of less interest to me. I think I more often care about what the subject feels from the painting. And hopefully, it’s good.

Sean Cheetham painting

What place does realism hold in the art world today? Where do you think it’s heading?

This is always a tough question. I do think realism is making a little bit of a comeback and there are definitely some blue-chip artists doing figurative work but for the most part, I think it’s a pretty small niche. I do think it will keep growing and maybe someday it will balance out with the sheer amount of conceptual art out there. And maybe because the masses can understand realism more than conceptual it does have a chance at becoming more relevant again. 

Do you think it’s more difficult to set yourself apart as an artist within the realm of realism? Why or why not?
I don’t think it has to be difficult but it probably is for most people because everybody wants to paint like somebody else. There’s quite a lot of options for style and subject for people to find a unique voice. I have definitely been guilty of wanting to paint like somebody else but constantly have to remind myself that I am just me and this is the way I do it. This must also be true for lots of subjects and styles. How many ways can you splash paint on a canvas abstractly or paint some dots on it anyway? 

What do you find to be more rewarding as an artist – painting portraits or creating your own compositions? 
100% my own compositions. I’ve painted many portrait commissions and was just treating them like a job. I’ve trained to be a hired hand so doing commissions doesn’t bother me too much. But the reward there’s usually just in the paycheck. Of course, I want to make the client as happy as possible also.

When painting a portrait, how do you preserve the integrity of your subjects? What does your process of capturing their essence look like? 

I don’t think capturing the essence is something you can teach, learn, or even explain. I’ve had people tell me that I seem to capture the essence of the model but the goal was always just to get a straightforward likeness. Maybe after painting for nearly 30 years the essence just shows through but I’m not sure that’s something I can take credit for.

Sean Cheetham painting

Social media appears to be a central component for brands and businesses alike. What role do you feel art and the artist have in today’s society through this means of expression? 

I think social media is a central component of modern life. I resisted it for a very long time but when I finally got on Instagram it changed my business model. Of course, that has since changed as well because of algorithms and whatnot. But I went from relying on galleries to selling more artwork on my own than all my galleries combined. I’m not big on the idea of us having a role in society as if we are that important. We are all just trying to get by on this floating sphere in space. And to some this floating flat-shaped earth. Maybe at the bare minimum, we can create a little bit of joy and escape for people.

I don’t think capturing the essence [of your subjects] is something you can teach, learn, or even explain.

What has been your most demanding painting to date? What about it challenged you? 

It’s hard for me to remember my most demanding painting but without a doubt making knives in this chess set is much more challenging for me than painting. And that’s probably just based on the sheer amount of years I’ve been doing it… or also the fact that the metalwork is so much more physical. I’ve had to relearn my patience because I’ve gotten pretty quick with painting but the other stuff moves at a snail’s pace.

Who are your biggest artistic inspirations?

There are so many. Currently my son. His art and creativity are growing so fast it’s inspiring. I’m mostly looking at engravers nowadays as well. But we have a large library of books on art and look through them often. I’ve really been into the life and work of Caravaggio after going to Rome for the last 7-8 years. I listened to an 8 part podcast on Art Holes that I liked a lot. 

What do you believe is your responsibility as an artist? Why do you create? 

I create because that’s what I was born doing basically. I started young and was given the tools and support. I wouldn’t say I choose this life as much as it just happened. My only responsibility as an artist is to make enough money to support myself and my loved ones. Any other idea that I have a responsibility to the world or other people is not for me.

Is there anything else you’d like to share with Beautiful Bizarre Magazine and our readers?

Check me out on Instagram for upcoming workshops and any current projects. There won’t only be paintings happening so hold on tight! It’ll be ok! 

Sean Cheetham Social Media Accounts

Website | Instagram | Facebook

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