Interview with Alison Bukhgalter, Painter

Interview with Alison Bukhgalter, Painter

Professional & Academic Perspectives of Painting

Alison Bukhgalter is the head painter and designer in the Florence Studio Bottega d'Arte in Italy, where she is responsible for the decorative painting of furniture. Ms. Bukhgalter is also the tour coordinator for FlorenceArt Art Immersion Tours, which offers private tours to art galleries, workshops and the countryside around Florence. She has also worked in Canada in custom decoration work, restoration, gilding, and murals.

Ms. Bukhgalter has worked in the decorative painting field for over 10 years, and she also teaches decorative painting techniques through workshops at Bottega d'Arte. Her work has been displayed in exhibitions and design showrooms in Italy, Canada and the United States, and her work can currently be seen at the Dennis Rolland Inc. Design Showroom in New York.

She is a graduate of the Ontario College of Art (now the Ontario College of Art and Design) where she won several painting scholarships for her work.

Ms. Bukhgalter & Her Career   |   The Actual Work   |   Education Information & Advice   |   Job Information & Advice   |   Closing Remarks


Ms. Bukhgalter & Her Career

How did you discover you had a talent for painting? Why did you decide to pursue it as a career?

I was always just good at drawing and painting. I remember back in grade school when the other kids would say "Did you draw that? That's good!" I would get a real sense of satisfaction. I think that once you like something, you do it more because you can do it well and you get better at it. Pursuing it as a career came later. The idea was to follow what I felt passionate about, and hope to make a living from it eventually.

Tell us about how your career has unfolded thus far. How did you break into decorative painting, and how did you advance to where you are today?

I was always hoping to be an artist, that is, to be able to draw and paint for a living. I had a summer job at age 16 drawing profile portraits at Canada's Wonderland; then, another summer, I worked in a framing company, but I became discouraged. I really found my opportunity when I came to Italy, where I managed to get a job in a furniture decorating workshop while studying in an off-campus program while attending Ontario College of Art. It felt like heaven, being able to paint all day and get paid for it, too.

To advance to where I am today, I put in a lot of years of painting for eight hours and more a day. I worked in Italy, then returned briefly to Canada, where I worked in small company that did custom painted finishes and murals. At the same time, I set up a small company with a friend making Italian style painted furniture, which I had learned to do in Florence. We worked for designers mostly. At a certain point, I decided to return to Italy. I have been here ever since. After the birth of my first child, I started teaching courses in the workshop. I continue to combine the teaching with production of painted furniture, and I enjoy both activities.

You started at the Florence Studio "La Bottega" in 1992, where you're now the head painter and designer. Why did you go to Italy to pursue your painting career?

I feel that the pace here is a little slower, which gives more scope to artists to create work that they are happier with. There is still a compromise involved, as there is when you do anything for work and not as a hobby. You are obligated to produce under certain parameters and time constraints - yet here, the constraints are fewer. I also enjoy the beauty of the place. I derive inspiration from the natural surroundings as well as the centuries of art and architecture, all concentrated here in the 'cradle of the renaissance'.

You created "FlorenceArt Art Immersion Tours" in 1996. Tell us about this endeavour.

My work as a member of the artisan community here in Florence allowed me to see a lot of the other craft work that was going on in the city. Florence is a world centre for some incredibly skilled artistic work. There are many small workshops doing carving, gilding, marble inlay, restoration, bookbinding etc. I felt that for a city with so many visitors, here was a whole part of the city that remained unseen. Together with my husband, I started offering tours to these tiny workshops. This led to a new angle on touring. Many people who visit Florence today are eager to have an authentic experience and see what makes the city truly unique. We offer a range of private art tours to galleries, workshops and the Tuscan countryside that allow visitors to really appreciate and savour this place.

What are some of your favorite projects that you've completed in your career and why? Do you have any personal projects that you're working on now?

I remember two panels in particular, one with a water nymph and one with a satyr that I painted. I loved the colours and the mythological figures. I always have some ideas for personal projects in the back of my mind, but my kids are small right now and I have to dedicate my spare time to them.


The Actual Work

Describe a typical day of work for you in the Florence Studio "La Bottega."

I arrive at 9:00 a.m. and, if I am not teaching, I usually get to work on painting whatever piece I am working on at the moment. I work to early afternoon and then I go home. At home, I do some work on the computer, responding to e-mails and arranging tours and courses. I prefer to be at home more during this period when my children are small, as it allows me to spend time with them.

What are your key responsibilities as head painter?

I do all the new sample pieces for our clients, all custom 'one of a kind' pieces, and all frame samples. I train and guide the other painters and correspond with all our English speaking clients.

What are the tools of the trade that you use the most? Are there specialty paints and tools for the work that you do?

We do use certain paints, and a traditional gesso base that has to be made. I would say the tool I use most of all is a paintbrush, but I don't invest a lot in special brushes. I use normal synthetic bristle ones, and I change them quite often to always have a good tip.

What are the most challenging aspects of your job?

It is challenging to come up with new designs, whether they be for painted decoration or for furniture pieces themselves. I have to picture something that does not exist or try to invent something that meets certain criteria in an elegant way. It is challenging for the imagination.

What about your Art Immersion Tours? Is this at all affiliated with your decorative painting? How much of your time does it take? How do you find customers?

The Art Immersion Tours takes some of my time in that I do accompany some people, and I do take care of most of the correspondence and bookings via e-mail. However, most of the tours are led by qualified guides. I do spend most of my working days in the Bottega d'Arte workshop, either painting or teaching. Most of our customers come to us through the Internet, through our showroom in downtown Florence, or through trade shows.

Are there any common myths about painters which you can dispel for us?

On television and in commercials, quite often, painters are portrayed with crazy smears of paint on their hands and face, and this makes me laugh. Now, I speak for myself here, but a person who works with paint all day every day usually doesn't like getting paint on themselves, and I am careful not to. A little on the hands is inevitable, but not huge smears across the face.

There is a myth of the artist as a 'free spirit' in our society. It is important to be talented, but if you don't show consistency, nobody will put up with you for very long. Michelangelo and other artists of the renaissance were always working for someone. They fit into a definite niche in society - that of the artist - and their work was clearly defined. Today's society is full of confusion over the role of the artist. As a result, sometimes artists are seriously undervalued and sometimes exaggeratedly mystified.


Education Information & Advice

Tell us about your education. What did you like and dislike about your painting-related education?

I have a diploma from the Ontario College of Art in Toronto. It has since then become the Ontario College of Art and Design, I believe. I can't complain about the college because I did enjoy my time there. There was a lot available and it was important to seek out the instruction I wanted and try to stay focused. There were some very good teachers there, but I feel it really depends on the student to get the most out of the experience.

You won several scholarships and prizes to help you through your education. How did you do it? What advice can you give to others who are trying to win art scholarships and awards?

I won scholarships after two-year end exhibitions at the college. The two years that I won, I presented a coherent body of work that was accessible to viewers. I think the jurors were looking for someone with a sense of direction, perhaps a clearly-defined style. My advice when trying for a scholarship or a prize would be to try to find out as clearly as possible beforehand what the judgment criteria are.

If someone has the talent already, should they go to school for painting and why?

I definitely recommend schooling for painting, whether it be in a school or private lessons. The eye of an experienced teacher can really help you to improve your skills. It can help you to understand your strengths and weaknesses more fully and define your work.

What factors should prospective students consider when choosing a school? Are there any different considerations for those who know that they want to specialize in painting?

I think students should meet and evaluate the instructors. I feel the instructors should be accomplished painters themselves, not necessarily in the style that the student wishes to pursue, however. Then, it is also important to understand if they are good at teaching. Try to find out if they have structured lesson plans and if they give individual attention.

Based on what you hear in the industry, what do you think are the most respected and prestigious schools, departments or programs in the world for painting?

I don't hear a lot about which schools are good. I know that sometimes people can come from the most prestigious schools, but still not know how to paint. As I said before I feel it really depends on the individual to get the most out of the instruction. You don't have to go to an important school, you can just take private lessons from an instructor, in the end it is your portfolio that counts.


Job Information & Advice

What can you tell us about decorative painting. How does it differ from other forms of painting? What are the special considerations of the art form? What is the history and the current demand?

Decorative painting requires a good knowledge of the basics, and a sure hand. For furniture you have to have a good design sense and a feel for colour combination. Here in Italy there is a long history of decorative painting, starting from the decoration of churches and then important family homes and villas. The current demand is mostly in the field of interior decoration and concentrated in Italy, France and the USA.

What kinds of jobs and positions are available for graduating students who specialize in painting?

There are jobs as painters available. As a starting painter you will get the most tedious and repetitive parts of the work to do, but you can work yourself up. There is always room for a skilled painter (somebody who can really draw and paint), so a good portfolio is important and reliability.

What are the best ways to get a job in the field? Are there specific things that graduating students should know or do when they're just getting started?

I think you just have to call around to the companies that are working in the field and show your best work. You can show your own fine art pieces, but I would recommend some samples of the kind of work that you are trying to get, to show that you are capable of this specific type of painting.

What is a typical salary for painters in your line of work (in US dollars)? What are people at the top of the profession paid?

I would say a typical salary for a full time painter might be around $19,000 a year. I don't know what the top people in the profession would get. I think you have to own your own business, employ painters and teach as well to make a lot of money. Most people who are painters didn't get into it for the money. It is more enjoyable and creative than a lot of other types of work, so that compensates for the lack of money.

How is the job market now for decorative painting and/or recreational art tours? What do you think it will be in five years?

There are few jobs available, and they have been created for the most part by people with certain skills. These are both almost 'create your own job' kind of fields. A talented person with imagination and determination will always find work, but quite often you cannot rely on finding a 'job' that already exists. A young person can start out with a painting company and gradually add to what that company can offer by lending their own particular skills to the work that comes in. I don't know if a lot will change in five years. Painting companies and specialized art tour operators are for the most part very small companies handling a niche market.

Does graduating from a prestigious school make a difference when it comes to landing a good job?

Not if you can't show good work. The portfolio counts most of all.

Has the popularity of the Internet affected your profession?

Yes, very much. As with all people catering to a niche market, the internet has greatly facilitated our direct contact with our clients.


Closing Remarks

Is there anything else you can tell us about yourself, your career, or the profession that would be interesting or helpful to others aspiring to enter and succeed in painting?

I think as a painter you have to be sustained by the love of what you do. There is no clear path to follow in your career, and there is very little in the way of job security or financial benefits. The main satisfaction is in the work itself.

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