Living Ind

Brush Strokes

by Anna Purdy

Herb Roe painted himself from Appalachia to the Gulf.
By Anna Purdy

Wednesday, Dec. 28, 2011

Herb Roe painted himself from Appalachia to the Gulf.
By Anna Purdy

The waiting list is long for folks wanting to get into Herb Roe's apartment, including me. It's probably the coolest in Lafayette, and that's mostly because he designed it along with virtually everything else in it.

Located on Garfield Street, the apartment rests at the top of an art gallery in an old warehouse. Trains pass a dozen feet behind the building, serving as a reminder of its past life. This is also where Roe and fellow artists host their art shows.

I first met Herb nearly 10 years ago when I was a bartender downtown. Details of the encounter are too salacious for print, but suffice it to say I was asked to come to the front of the building to get a woman to put her shirt back on. Her I knew, Him I didn't. We shook hands around her naked form and, like so many friendships based on creativity and eclecticism in a square world, our meeting was appropriately weird.

Roe was born in Portsmouth, Ohio. He and his siblings were raised in a middle class Midwest home with mountains shading the horizon. An artistic impulse threaded Roe's life, but aside from the exoticism of New Orleans as a spot for a future visit, moving to the Gulf Coast was the furthest thing from his mind. Enter Robert Dafford.

In 1993 the Lafayette-based muralist was beginning work on an extensive Floodwall Mural project throughout the Ohio Valley. Roe had just finished his first year at art school in Columbus and thought the chance of working with and learning from a "real artist" was too good to pass up.

"He had an innate knowledge of color and color theories," Dafford recalls. "Very few people can understand the palettes we use to make true realism, especially in creating a large scale illusion of space.

"He had an advanced knowledge of types of perspective plans and the systems for infinitely adjustable grids and scale measurements I use for adapting imagery to very large scales, odd viewing angles or locations. He quickly learned how I adjust the composition to the human eye. He also knew how to work. Believe me, painting 40,000 square feet of concrete wall is work."

For 15 years Dafford and Roe worked together on murals projects around the country. "He became a part of my family," says Dafford. Roe's work with Dafford brought him to the Hub City. He never returned to Ohio. And all these years later Roe is now the "real artist" he always wanted to be. Under his belt he has a graphic novel, Black Sun, based on an Elvis-like film noir hero, allegorical portraits hung in homes around the country and dozens upon dozens of murals under his belt.

Chris Briggs, a UL education professor, is an ardent admirer of Roe's and an avid collector. "I started collecting Herb's work when I became smitten with his John the Baptist painting," Briggs says. "I love how this work seemed so real, like the person was standing right there. The details are amazing - the fur in his vest, the veins in his arms. Then I continued my collection adding one of his Mardi Gras pieces - a Mardi Gras character playing the violin. Each additional piece was acquired because the work spoke to me in some way. Bottom line, it is the fine details of his work that set the works apart for me."

Herb and I spoke about his work over Ohio River Valley moonshine tempered by friendship and surrounded by his work.

What drives a boy from Ohio to want to paint like an Old Master from centuries ago?
It's an oddity isn't it? I've never been sure why myself. It has just always been the way I wanted to express myself. Something about that particular style lets me express my thoughts about people, relationships, life. It takes a lifetime's work to gain proficiency with the style, but I've never really had any desire to paint in any other way.

What do you call your style of portraiture?
"Classical realism" is what I generally term what I do, based on the classical tradition of doing detailed underpaintings followed by layers of colored glazes and working into the wet glazes. I have developed my own individual working methods, especially for how I begin and compose pieces. I've interjected a lot of computer manipulation into my sketching process. I like to costume, pose and light my models in the traditional manner, but I use digital photography to capture the image and then do Photoshop manipulation to compile multiple figures, backgrounds and make adjustments prior to transferring the image to the canvas. I sometimes combine as many as 15 separate images together to get the one composition I want. After that it's pretty standard classical technique with the detailed grisaille painting followed by layered glazes to adjust light and contrast.

About how many steps are involved with laying something down on canvas? How many hours go into the average portrait?
It depends on the piece. Some as few as 3 or 4 layers, some as many as 20, with the toning glazes and layers of more refined detail. For a typical piece I'll spend from 20 to 40 hours working on it from sketch phase to varnish, but for larger or multiple figure pieces such as my newer Courir de Mardi Gras-themed pieces, it can take as much as 120 to 140 hours to finish a piece to my satisfaction.

If someone commissions you for a portrait what is it you look for in them? How do you bring out who they are?
I try to figure out what they see themselves as. We all have our own stories, our own way of seeing the world and how we fit into it. It's like the old adage about life being a stage, only I think deep inside we all see ourselves as the main character in our own personal story. I try to look for that and find a way to show it on the canvas.

Allegories and mythology are a theme that reverberates through your work. What is it that draws you to them? How does this influence your work?
It helps me relate to how people see themselves. What stories do they tell themselves about who they are? Are we Sisphyus? Salome? Hercules? A personal combination? I take myths and stories as a starting point and usually mishmash many different stories together. People are complex, and no one story fits us all.

Herb Roe

What murals did you take part in downtown? Were they all under Dafford?
I worked on the "Exporting Cajun Culture to the World" allegory on the side of the parking garage where T-Coon's used to be and on the historical down piece where the ACA now stands. I also helped repaint a few of the older ones, such as the iconic "Cars" on the old parking garage, but most were done by Robert in the 1980s before I started with him in 1993. Most of the murals I did with Robert were in other states. I've never actually counted exactly how many there were, but it was well over 200 pieces. In my hometown in Ohio we did over 60 on a half-mile stretch of river floodwall. In another in Kentucky we did 40, so they can add up pretty quickly.

What advice would you give 18-year-old Herb Roe and is it the same advice you'd give to another young artist?
Work harder and never be afraid to explore new techniques. Do more preparatory work. It is so much easier to do a good painting if you know where you want to go with a piece when you start it; you don't spend the majority of your time correcting things you should've worked out already. I would give that advice to any young artist, including an 18-year-old Herb. The more I work and the more my technique improves, the more I wish I had gotten here sooner. Practice, practice.

What is the process for a mural? Do you use a computer program to map it out?
I use a lot of different methods, but over the last 10 years certain computer programs play a huge part in my design process. I combine many sources for pieces, from old photos, to my photos with period dressed models to 3-D renderings of sites or locations that have changed dramatically from the period I'm trying to show. An example are some murals of Native American villages and mound sites I've done. They were inhabited anywhere form several hundred to a thousand years ago, a little before the advent of photography. So I intensively research whatever archaeology has taken place at the site or similar sites; I reconstruct what was where from the available research and build a 3-D model, which I can rotate until I get the composition that I want. Then I transfer it to the wall. Then it's a matter of painting in the thousands of details that make it a real scene. This has become my technique in general, not just for murals.