10 questions with Francisco Rodriguez, the Chilean painter who manages to encapsulate the human experience

September 11, 2022
9 min read

Tell us about yourself and your journey towards becoming an artist.

Well, since I was a kid, I enjoyed drawing. My first memories are always around pencils and sheets….like many children, I imagine. The difference I think with other kids is, when children start to develop other interests, like sport, they leave drawing because it is considered a hobby for little ones. In my case I continued drawing because the activity was very present in my home with my father and siblings drawing quite regularly. When I was like 12 years old and my friends from school started to question why I continued to draw, I was lucky enough that my older brother started to study Fine Art in the university, so I realized that you can be an adult and also make a living out of drawing and painting. I remember it being a massive relief. Since that time, I have never stopped, and I took it very seriously from a very young age. I was convinced I wanted to do this for the rest of my life. It was like a promise I made with myself, like a religion or getting married, even stronger, like a promised love to one of your children. I don’t have kids, but I guess it is the same feeling, the feeling that this is something that will be with you forever. It is crazy, but after 20 years I am still 100% committed to what I do, I have two certainties in my life, the first one is I will die, the second one is I will die drawing and painting, ha!

They Who Laugh, 2018, oil on canvas, 220 x 190cm. Courtesy of the Artist

Please tell us about the comic-sinister characters that populate your paintings. They all seem like the same character yet they are painted in a way that shows their different personalities. Sometimes these appear young and innocent and other times like screen villains.

It's me and it’s not me at the same time. It's everyone, but nobody. It’s a container where I express human feelings or human actions. It’s like the character in the Japanese anime Neon Genesis Evangelion, Rei Ayanami, she is just a container for other purposes, she is just a container in the form of a human. I guess my characters fulfill the same function, they are just human containers with their purpose being a bridge between the observer and the painting.

Ghosts, 2017 Oil on Canvas, 220 x1 90cm. Courtesy of the Artist

We need to talk about cinematography, which is immediately recognizable in your paintings - one can almost hear music when gazing at your works. They are like deconstructed frames from a film, where multiple scenes are happening at once - some quite fearful, others quite peaceful. Your  landscapes and backgrounds appear so silent, like a pause from what’s happening in the foreground, but also like a warning for something threatening that's about to happen. They also seem quite dreamlike and mysterious like your characters. Is this your intention? Has film informed your practice, and if so, how?

Yes, you are right. I think it’s because I am hugely influenced by Japanese animation, even though I am not a huge fan of it. I don’t watch it, but when I grew up and started to draw and paint, I consumed a lot of animation, particularly Japanese ones. So, I built every painting like a scene from a Japanese animation movie. It is very natural for me, this way to see the world, the pictures, the actions, the composition etc, the aesthetic appears very naturally, I don’t think about it, it’s not something I decide consciously. I plan every exhibition as a movie, where I just paint the scenes from the movie that exist in my mind, it is my way to work, I have built this system over the years and for now, I really enjoy it. 

Left) La Virtud, 2020, Oil on canvas, 60 x 40 cm & (Right) Midday, 2020, Oil, enamel and sand on canvas, 152 x 117 cm. Courtesy of the Artist

Your color palette is quite neutral but it is also composed of pastel colors and lots of gray tones (even the characters’ skin tones are a mix of the background colors). Shadows are also very present in your work. Can you talk about the role of color in building out these environments? 

When I was younger and studying painting in Chile, I was struggling with the choice of color in my paintings. I tried many times to make “good” color compositions, and yet the paintings looked dissonant. It was very difficult for me to do a balanced painting, it always looked wrong, so I decided instinctively to move on to greys, whites and blacks. I worked for a while with a very limited palette, but when I was doing my MFA at Slade here in London, I rediscovered Japanese prints (Japan again!) and I understood how to make a balanced painting in terms of its colors. I don’t know what happened but it was like something clicked in my mind after seeing these Japanese woodblocks and I finally understood the balance, and since that moment every painting is much more equalized, and I understood something hard to explain.

The Accomplices, 2021, Oil on canvas, 210 x 170 cm. Courtesy of the Artist

There seems to be some influence with Japanese comics. Can you name some of your main  influences and how they have informed your practice?

Sure, the characters from the movie Akira have been very important when I think about my characters. The scenes, silences and tension in the scenes are very influenced by the anime Neon Genesis Evangelion, but I would say almost everything I paint has a resonance with the anime. For instance, the smile-sinister character is very present in almost every anime- almost every villain in the Japanese animation culture has this personality. In some way, I learnt how to draw with the character and cartoons I watched on the television. All that influence is very present in the way I imagine and execute a painting, always unconsciously. I am not interested at all in conceptual reading about Japanese animation or anime in my practice or life as a Chilean painter. The influence just appears because it was learnt by every muscle in my body, from my eyes to my hand at an age when my muscles were being developed. I am hugely interested in representing my memories of living in Chile when I was a teenager or a kid, not because I believe my life is more interesting than the rest, but because I want to share feelings with others, I want to be universal, I want to connect with everyone through my own experiences, so the only experiences I can speak with some property are my own. As Tolstoy said, “if you want to be universal, write about your village.”

Your paintings are larger than life and engross you into the “scene”. Do you sketch drawings before painting on canvas?

No, I always draw and paint intuitively, everything is without a plan. As soon as I have a plan, I don’t want to follow it. The times I have done some sketches, I feel like I am killing all the enjoyment. I never plan anything, I don’t plan the exhibitions, I don’t plan the paintings, I have just a vague idea, clear enough to work, but blurry enough to not feel like I am following instructions on my own, and I must always feel that I am free and allowed to change my mind. I don’t follow any instructions… If someone suggests that I paint a certain way or thing, I will do the exact opposite. If you want a mediocre painting made by me, then let me know what I must do. 

The twin room, 2021, OIl on canvas, 210 x 170 cm. Courtesy of the Artist

Philip Guston once said, “ art is nourished by the common and ordinary.” Your practice embraces mundane scenes with the characters doing ordinary things like painting, playing, walking etc. However, curiously, with the shadows present and curious objects hidden, they also appear quite suspicious and foreboding. Is this duality intentional? 

You are right, my paintings are based on my common and ordinary experiences as a human being, but I like to play with other elements… this feeling of something else happening in an ordinary scene. I think this element is influenced by the magic realism of Latinoamerican writers like Julio Cortazar, where in his stories you can always find a dissonant element that somehow for the reader doesn’t look right, but for the rest of the characters in the story feels perfectly normal.

What feelings, subjects or concepts inspire you as an artist?

Human feelings in general. To be honest, my paintings are just an excuse or a vehicle to reflect on feelings such as loneliness, tenderness, violence, fear, and peace. I run away from everything else. I paint from the memories of my own life and experiences, or like distorted dreams based on my experiences but immensely influenced by movies, paintings, literature, dreams, conversations, daydreams, and music. I am not interested in any philosophical reading about my own work, any reading of my work that sounds smart and complex. I am not interested at all. If someone wants to do that kind of reading, they are very welcome. I am just not interested in it.

What is it about the medium that appeals to you as an artist? 

I choose painting every day because the medium gave me the most direct and non-mediated experience with the object. I will try to explain this. Painting as a medium has the marvellous quality in that everything you do over the surface is immediately visible. If you are painting with brushes, every gesture made by your hand will stay and be visible immediately. If you press one of your fingers over the surface, the mark of your gesture will be recorded and will be visible instantly. Unlike other mediums where the object must pass through another process like a print, an oven, software, a dark room, etc, the experience between your body and the object is not mediated by anything. It is just your body, and the object. I am not saying painting is the only one which has this quality but it is the most versatile, and this versatility is its stronger characteristic and the reason why many artists consciously or unconsciously have chosen it over the centuries.

Atardecer, 2020, oil on canvas, 170 x 130 cm. Courtesy of the Artist

What is next in the pipeline for you? Any new directions or shows coming up

Well, yes, I am finishing a large solo exhibition right now. The exhibition will be shown at White Space Gallery in Beijing at the end of this year, and I think is one of my most ambitious projects I have completed in my life with very large-scale paintings. I am very happy with the result of these paintings; they are taking a new direction that really excites me. Also, I am working on many other exciting projects for the next year, so happily no time to rest for me for now!

Sign up to learn more