Interview with Steven Husby: Op Art – Colors and Numbers

Steven Husby, designer and painter, uses Photoshop in his design process and then paints hard-edged images using acrylic on panel, creating abstract compositional permutations with a 3-D sensibility by applying gradations of color. The resulting “new media” optical art is both playful and visually appealing.

ArtStyle: How do you create your compositions?

Steven Husby (SH): I compose most of my work beforehand on the computer using Photoshop, starting with simple gradations of 4 to 12 colors. I stretch, distort, copy and paste the initial gradient into simple patterns that make up the virtual first stage of the work. Sometimes I make paintings from these initial solutions. But more often than not I keep going — cutting and pasting biomorphic fragments of the initial pattern back onto itself. No matter how complicated and obscure the work gets, it’s always held together by the initial pattern. From a practical standpoint, the key to my drawing process is trial and error and working in layers.

Steven Husby 1b
Courtesy of the artist

ArtStyle: Your paintings rely a lot on color theory and seem to be ironic, in the sense that they could be done by anyone, painting by numbers. Is it mechanical for you when you paint or is there something more existential to your practice?

SH: For me, the appearance that these could be made by anyone is definitely not pejorative. I'd like to think that a self-evident relationship with my means of production grounds the work and is part of its charm. Aside from that, I've always been drawn to the immediacy of the four-piece more than the full orchestra. I try to keep all the constituent components of the work as clear and distinct as possible. I find it that much more gratifying and mysterious when I'm able to experience it as something more than a conglomeration of replicable parts, even though that is in fact what it is.

ArtStyle: There is a definite duality in the imagery of your work. How do you go about applying the paint to get the exact color in the replicated reverse image? How long does this take?

SH: Once I've arrived at a composition for a painting, I mix the colors in plastic containers in large enough quantities to be able to complete at least one painting from them. Lately I've begun executing some of this work on paper as well, which allows me to work on a smaller scale, and use colors I've mixed previously for larger work. And whatever is leftover finds its way back into the mix eventually. Once the color is mixed, it really is like a paint by number — I literally number the containers and the sections I'm painting, so I don't get lost. I mask off as many parts at one time as I can and then just fill it in using a house painting brush following the dominant direction of the area I'm painting. Occasionally I've used a roller to create an even area without directional marks. I like the connotations these tools carry as artless implements. It usually takes anywhere from three to ten coats for each part, depending on how opaque the color is.

From start to finish, the whole process takes about a month to complete once the drawing is done. The drawings come and go at their own pace — sometimes in bunches, and other times, months apart. Sometimes it takes me a year or more to get around to executing a drawing as a painting. And as time goes on, I increasingly have a stable backlog of drawings to work from. Because the process of composing the paintings in Photoshop demands no set-up and no materials, I can pretty much do it whenever I feel like it — my relationship to it is much more like the conventional notion of a creative relationship to one's studio.

Steven Husby 2b
Courtesy of the artist

ArtStyle: Coming from South Dakota to Chicago, how are you influenced by the city?

SH: Of course, I love the architecture and the lake. But I think the main way that being in Chicago has influenced my work has more to do with the way art and culture are treated here. It's a matter of being in an urban area where those things are being ambitiously pursued and valued. Given my background, I think my sense of art's scale and context was a lot different before I came here. For instance, I've used the color of the wall as a given in my decisions about the color for my painting grounds for quite a long time. Before I arrived in Chicago, I often used an off white. Now I more or less stick to a cool bright white. Before I came here, I think I was used to seeing and imagining work in a much warmer, more intimate context like a middle-class living space or a public university art gallery. I knew what contemporary art exhibition spaces looked like, of course, but they didn't really feel like home to me until I got used to seeing them here. I work bigger now, too, for similar reasons.

ArtStyle: Your paintings have a playful quality with the changing color scales and puzzle-like shapes. Who are some of your favorite Op artists who play with optical illusions, and how do they influence you?

SH: Mostly my heart belongs to the New York School and work that comes out of that tradition. I'm a big fan of Clyfford Still and Ad Reinhardt. I love their obstinancy. I admire certain critics for the same reason — Greenberg and Fried, Kosuth, and Lane Relyea. In time I've grown to appreciate Ellsworth Kelley's work as I've felt less of a need to couch my art desires in terms of critique. I think Jasper Johns, but especially Frank Stella, Morris Louis, and Kenneth Noland are big touchstones for my practice. I like to think that what I'm doing is part of that lineage in some way, internalizing some of the lessons of Pop and Conceptualism, and returning to the kind of broader engagement with iconography and pictorial space of early Modernism. But as far as Op, I love a lot of Bridget Riley's early work. It's solid without being stiff, and disciplined without being dry.

Steven Husby 3b
Courtesy of the artist

ArtStyle: Before these optical color paintings, you used numbers. Do you feel the use of numbers justifies art?

SH: I've used numbers for a lot of reasons. I began using them as compositional elements in my work about 7 years ago, which was about the same time that I began using masking tape and flat, un-modulated color. At the time I was trying to find a way to bring my investment in collage to my newly developing practice as a painter. In grad school I was really encouraged to distill what I was working on. The compositional play of my backgrounds and the intuitive arrangement of numbers was becoming more and more complicated. I began composing paintings made up of only what had previously been the background elements. Just as in an earlier stage I had learned to see the number compositions as “‘enough” without the interruption of improvised gesture or juxtaposed images. I learned to see and evaluate these edge-derived compositions without the figurative content of the numbers. Then I stopped making them for a few years while I started to figure out what I was doing with the newer work.

Ironically, when I began making the more elaborate computer-generated collaged compositions, I also began re-investigating the number motif — only this time in a more absolute and rigorous manner.

Steven Husby 10b
Courtesy of the artist

ArtStyle: You have also combined the numbers with your rhythmic pattern paintings. How do you balance the compositions so they read as one and have a harmony with one other?

SH: Ultimately, each piece comes down to trying out different solutions and manipulating variables until it “feels right.” Sometimes it has to do with pictorial associations and connotations of certain colors and approaches to the surface. Regardless, the optical mechanics of it have to do with the specific kinds of shapes that result from my playing around with each composition. I think that it was interesting, for instance, in the case of the pieces which employ both the gradations and number elements, that the graded fragments tend to coalesce into phantom solids or perspectival fields. And no matter how concave or convex the contours of the fragments of the number fields are, they tend to read as negative space.

ArtStyle: What is the general scale of your painting?

SH: Most of the work is determined by the scale of the available materials. I work on panels which I make from sheets of MDF, which usually comes in sizes of 4’x8′. The bands tend to be about the width of a 4″ brush, which is important, because if they were much bigger it would be hard to maintain their density and to control the consistency of my mark without using a much larger brush and a lot more paint. I've experimented with much smaller work, some on different supports. In the latter case, it can change your awareness of the paint. The materials are more dramatic and a little rustic on a smaller, smoother surface.

ArtStyle: If you could have the ultimate warehouse dream gallery, what type of series would you paint?

SH: I would want to make a lot of every kind of work I make now — more permutations of color and composition, as well as multiples of identical pieces in identical materials at identical scales, which I've rarely done. And a lot more numbers. I'd love to do at least one “one solution” show.

Steven Husby can be contacted at

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1 Comment so far

  1. Husby steve | Sharefoto @ September 11th, 2012, 11:12:55 pm

    […] ArtStyle » Interview with Steven Husby: Op Art – Colors and NumbersJul 3, 2007 … Steven Husby (SH): I compose most of my work beforehand on the computer using Photoshop, starting with simple gradations of 4 to 12 colors. […]

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