Howard Shindler, Painter

Howard Shindler is an artist based in New York City. I knew him first as a DJ on the local club circuit, but as we became better acquainted I discovered and became a fan of his visual art. Whereas his DJ sets are known for their festive and funky exuberance, his paintings are tender, contemplative works that at times convey a certain vulnerability and solitude, but with an underlying current of strength and optimism.

Howard ShindlerIf you could talk a bit about your background– where are you originally from?

I’m originally from NJ, which I’m proud of.  I grew up about 45 minutes directly west of NY.  When I was a kid I had an interest in drawing and comic books, I used to copy Wolverine and X-men and stuff like that.  My parents noticed that I took an interest in art and encouraged it, for which I’m grateful.  They supported me taking drawing classes and going to the Art Students League, a school in New York that I went to every Saturday for 4 years.  That school was my biggest influence art-wise—it taught me how to draw from life, and grounded me in a traditional way of drawing and painting.

From there I studied painting at the Artist Studio of Chicago for 2 years, and then finished up at Pratt because I missed New York—I’m an East-Coast man at heart!

You mentioned that your early training giving you a traditional foundation in painting & drawing….what else influenced you artistically?

As a kid I was really influenced by the realistic stuff—real figures, non-abstract…Rembrandt, Vermeer, Michelangelo….later when I took some Art History I was also influenced by some of the more abstract artists.

My biggest influences are the French from the 1800s—Post-Impressionism, like Degas, Bonnard, Lautrech.  Their use of color, movement, texture.  I’m very drawn to that, I like that aesthetic. I also love Pollack, the composition, the placement of colors…I don’t think it’s as random as people think it is….there is a structure to his randomness!

Howard ShindlerIn my own paintings I paint from life mostly, but I do like to push the color—colors have a way of pushing you in a certain direction, of making you feel things.  So, I’ll paint a sad apple, or a happy apple, that sort of thinking.  In this way Hans Hoffman is another huge influence:  with his work I can feel his feelings—I can tell if there’s a struggle, I can see it in his artwork .

How would you describe your artwork to someone who’s never seen it before?

Somewhere between realistic and Impressionistic. I do want to create a mood, an atmosphere. Someone once said that I reminded him of Edward Hopper’s work, and I can see that, I really love the loneliness, the solitude in a lot of his paintings.

A lot of your paintings feel portrait-like in nature.  What themes motivate you to paint?

Light, form, color—I really enjoy describing each one and exploring how one influences the other two.  For instance, I like to see how folds influence color, or skin….

I think what I’d also like to accomplish is the subtle gesture, the subtle movement.  Degas’s dancers had a subtle way.  If you actually drew the bodies of the ballet dancers beneath their clothes it wouldn’t necessarily be anatomically correct….I like that, so sometimes I’ll move things in order to create a certain movement within the painting.

A lot of your paintings seem to resonate with a certain emotional hue…there’s an inherent soulfulness that comes through…

I’m glad that people feel that way—usually when I paint I think more about the mood of the subject matter rather than myself, but I guess that my emotion comes through the painting indirectly.

Howard ShindlerWhat are some other themes that you’ve been thinking about, beyond light, form, color?

I want to do stuff from life, and I’m influenced by the French artists who did a lot of stuff en plein air, i.e. in the open air.  A lot of their subject matter was capturing lifegoing out at night, daily stuff.

My Subway Series is along these lines—I took photos on the subway and used those as a basis for the paintings, which allowed me to capture people how they are normally, without any distraction, without them posing—although they are posing!

So in that scenario did you just subtly snap shots of people?

(laughs) Yeah, with my phone.  I stopped for a little while because I became really conscious of it and felt a little weird. Sometimes even having a sketch pad on the train you get dirty looks, some people feel you’re invading their privacy and don’t like it.

I try to be as subtle as possible, my girlfriend and I were joking that I could be more  James Bond about it, like having a bag with a special camera (laughs).
Howard Shindler
I just like how gravity pulls on people on the train….their clothes, their belongings, especially in the winter when they are all bundled up.

How do you feel that your work has changed over the years?

I think that nowadays I am more in control of what I want to do and what I don’t want to do,  what I like and what I don’t like.  I have a better understanding of my own process, so I’m better able to fine-tune my work to match what I’m trying to accomplish. It allows me to concentrate more on the subject matter.

I guess I’ve also gained more knowledge of who I am as a painter. I think that’s the biggest struggle of any artist, to find themselves, find their own way.

When painting do you ever set out with a specific agenda, or is it that you’re just struck by an image and want to capture that?

Yes to both of those things– I like capturing the actual moment of something, and have been wanting to go out and do more stuff like the Subway Series, capture groups of people in their element.

On the other hand, I also enjoy doing stuff out of my head- I’m not necessarily the best speaker, I’m not very good at writing. Sometimes I don’t know how to express myself in any other way aside from painting.

So I’ll start with the feeling of an old memory and translate that into the movement of a painted body. That’s where that big painting with all of the girls lined up came from—it’s more abstract, it was done at a point in my life when I didn’t have a girlfriend and there were feelings that I was trying to overcome.  There are a lot of crisscrosses in that painting, a lot of diagonals, a lot of lined-up angles so that you get pulled from right to left, I did that intentionally. It was a meditation on past relationships and how I felt about them at the time. A lot of them ended in the same fashion. I worked on that painting on and off for a good two years.

Howard Shindler

Recently I’ve been doing more stuff from life, just to get out of my own head.  I don’t want to think about the future or the past, I just want to be in the present.

Even when I’m painting from life I’m still trying to tell a story through a certain kind of language. If I paint somebody I want you to have ideas about that person’s personality and lifestyle, to come up with a story. One of the things I feed off of is people’s feelings when they look at my work. I had one guy look at my work and was like, wow that reminds me of my nieces! That reminds me of my daughter! I like it when people look at things, and they draw something from it. I feed off of that. It gives me motivation to do more stuff, that’s what I want to accomplish.

Your preferred medium is oil paints, what is it about that medium that compels you?

I like the control I have, the broader range of choices, rather than other mediums such as acrylic.  Acrylic feels very one-dimensional to me, whereas with oil paint I feel like it has four dimensions to it. With oil paint I can control how thick, how thin how shiny, how flat….
Howie's oil paintsA lot of people don’t have the patience for it, but I do.  I like that it takes a while. I enjoy the process. I enjoy anything with process, artwork in general, all of the artists that I really like, had steps that they took in order to make their artwork.

A lot of the stuff I do is rooted in traditional process.   For example, I’ll start with a full underpainting, and then I start adding colors gradually. Changing the light, changing the colors. Making them bolder, that sort of thing. And it all starts with a very traditional set up.

When I talk about my art, I always feel a little bit weird, because it’s like I’m rooted in the 18th century with a lot of the way that I do things. There is a term that’s called ” old masteritis,” and I definitely have it, and I embrace it.  (laughs)

A lot of the materials I use have been used for hundreds of years. I use linseed standard oil, and I mix it with mineral spirits, just like what Cézanne used to do.

Howard Shindler

Do you have any interest in expanding into other visual mediums?

I’m influenced by cartoons and anime.  I did graffiti for a long time.  This assertive boldness of colors, I feel like that’s the graffiti influence. I don’t know if that really comes across though….

What initially got you into graffiti?

There is a certain excitement and immediacy to graffiti, this bravado of going out and putting your artwork up all over the city, of putting yourself out there.  You want to be seen, there is a competitive aspect to it, and I like that.

The influence might not come out in my finished paintings these days, it may just be more in my technique– style and movement of my hand, I feel like the stroke of my paintbrush is influenced by how I used to use the spraycan. As far as the mentality of it, it’s a completely different mindset.  For me graffiti was more flash, more explosive, whereas nowadays my painting is more contemplative.

Howard ShindlerWhat kind of stuff were you putting up?

I was less of a writer, I would do more pieces, especially ones with characters– monsters, girls, skaters.

We would go out at all times of day but mostly the night, you know you’ll do anything when you’re dumb and stupid (laughs).  If we did big murals we would find safe spots to do them, and we would do those during the day. The whole bombing aspect of it all was more of a nighttime sort of thing. You go on a mission, you’d want to hit a certain spot, so you’d have to plan it out.

What made you stop doing graffiti?

Well, getting arrested slowed me down considerably (laughs)!  Don’t let anyone tell you differently, jail is NOT a nice place!

How did you get busted?

The messed up part was that we hadn’t even done anything, I was waiting for the train with my friend, and these four undercover cops, the vandal squad, pulled us away from the train just as the doors open and roughed us up a bit and booked us for having markers and sketchpads in our bags– mind you, we were in Art School at the time.

How was that legal for them to book you guys when you hadn’t done anything?

It was totally NOT legal, but graffiti was on the rise, and they wanted to make an example of us. It was their word against mine.  I was 21 at the time.  Didn’t even read me my rights, they just threw me it in the back of the police car and took me downtown. They kept us for three days, which was actually completely illegal.  The judge eventually removed the incident from my record, but it was a huge ordeal.

Anyway, I love street art, and still have some friends who do it, but I just moved on after a while.

What are some of the things you do while painting, do you put on music, movies or anything else to get your creative juices flowing?

I often put on music to get out of my head– I listen to a wide variety of musical genres, but when painting I usually put on downtempo stuff:  Jazz, Soul, old Rhythm & Blues.  Al Green is a favorite, also Charlie Parker and Sonny Rollins…

Another thing that’s been good for my painting is exercise—I’ve been riding my bike, I like to play basketball.  I sometimes to do this whole ritual of push-ups & sit-ups prior to painting, just to get the blood flowing….I don’t know if I should admit that! (laughs).  I also like to drink Earl Gray tea.

Do you have any desire to expand into other mediums, such as computer graphic design?

I don’t think so—I made a commitment early on to the craft of painting by hand, and I think that if it’s a matter of one thing suffering for another.  For example, for awhile in my life music and DJing took over, and my painting suffered, it took the backseat.

Speaking of which, you’ve developed a name for yourself as a DJ—how did that come about?

I always loved music & dancing. I was really into Hip Hop early on, later I got into early Rave culture—the NASA parties, Shelter, etc.  Back then people in Rave culture were really nice—it was about a community of people with the same interests who cared about each other.  In contrast to the competitive, “I’m strong” nature of a lot of Hip Hop, in early Rave culture everyone was on equal ground, the mentality was “How can I add to the group, how can we contribute to each other, and influence each other.”  On top of that, you could dance all night long!  I was sold!

DJ Lil' HI collected vinyl and had several friends show me the ropes over the years, but it wasn’t until the late 90’s that things really came together for me and I started DJing parties.  I think that as a fellow DJ you would understand, that the feeling you get from it is indescribable—having an entire room jump up & down and scream for you is something that you can’t really describe in words.

How did you start throwing parties?

I guess it was that influence of the Rave culture, i.e. having a good time and wanting everyone else to have a good time.  All you needed was the records & turntables, and you had a party. Despite what people say, it was really about the music and the dancing back then, drugs were just an afterthought.

What pleasure do you get out of DJing vs. Painting?

There are similarities—when I DJ the way I’m feeling is reflected in my music selections, just how when I’m painting my mood affects my colors and movement of paint.

As far as differences, there’s a whole performance aspect to the process of DJing, as opposed to when I’m painting on my own.  I also think of DJing as more of an instantaneous, direct interaction with the audience, whereas when I’m in the process of painting the interaction is between the canvas and myself—the audience factors in later, when I’m presenting my work.

I guess you could say that when I’m painting it’s more about me, whereas when I’m DJing it’s more about community.

What is your take on the commercial art world?

I think that there are a lot of creative people in that scene, but I do think you lose something when selling your work becomes a main objective instead of just freely expressing yourself.  Once the focus shifts to selling something instead of saying something, it loses some of its soul.  Also, once you become concerned about selling your art, you begin letting other people set the definition for what you are doing.

So on that note, do you have any desire to put yourself out there and make a living off of being a painter?

That’s my goal but it’s important to me do it without feeling like I’m compromising my artistic voice or letting someone else call the shots.

What do you currently have in the works?

I’m currently trying to get a NYFA grant, so I’ve been working on my portfolio.

What are your aspirations for the future?

I just want to be able to paint freely and live comfortably.  If I could paint in the studio all day I would be happy.

Howard Shindler website:


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