Hear “New Orleans watercolor paintings,” and no one could fault you for picturing brightly colored renderings of jazz musicians. But where others draw inspiration from the city’s more flamboyant offerings, native Sean Friloux finds the charm in New Orleans’ quiet street scenes — when the sun is just coming up and locals are gathering for a cup of coffee, or during the lull before revelers pack the bars in the French Quarter at night.
“For sure, the city has a bar culture; people like to party,” says Friloux. “But my experience
of New Orleans is much more muted. I like the everyday aspects, the calm moments, of living here.”
The artist maintains a studio that sits conveniently on a streetcar line that can get him to the French Quarter in 25 minutes, and is just a short 10-minute walk to the river in the opposite direction. “New Orleans is a great place to paint en plein air,” he says. “It has the feel of a European city, and there’s always something going on — always music playing somewhere, and always people around. I tend to draw a crowd when I’m out painting, and I feed off that energy.”
One question he gets asked frequently — “I don’t see that; where are you looking?” — reveals an interesting aspect of the artist’s process. Rather than a strict documentation of the scene before him, Friloux aims primarily to convey a mood or create a sense of atmosphere. “A painting that exudes a particular mood has more longevity than a painting made simply to depict an interesting car or house,” he says. “That’s the essence of what I do when I paint on location; I soak up the mood, the light, the sounds, and imbue the work with all of those details.”
If Friloux has to imagine or concoct an element that isn’t in the actual scene to help create the mood he’s after, he does it without hesitation. Inspired by film noir and the work of filmmaker David Lynch, he finds it helps to think of his subjects as movie scenery that can be manipulated to create a cinematic feeling. To maximize that effect, he looks for subjects that are “slightly off.” Shifting a bit to the left or right of a scene, painting the shadow of a building rather than the structure itself, or rendering only half the scene all work to create the unique look of Friloux’s compositions.
To accentuate the dream-like quality of his work, Friloux makes the best use of soft edges, which he creates by painting a series of glazes. “When I do a glaze, it softens everything,” he says. “To soften a hard line or edge, I’ll glaze a really diluted transparent wash over the top. By the time I’m finished, a painting may contain as many as five to 10 glazes. Sometimes, I’ll make a grayscale painting and then just glaze color on the top at the end to knock back some of those grays and soften everything up.” He’ll also use his hands, paper towels, or rags to rub and smear the paint to soften edges further. He’ll even hit the edges with water from a spray bottle. (Continue reading this article in the April/May 2018 issue of Plein Air magazine … )