Artist Interviews 2021
By Laura Siebold
Ernie Steiner is an airbrush artist and muralist who creates layered masterpieces, reminiscent of Liechtenstein’s pop culture art and often dominated by the female gaze. Influenced by the “colorful, improvised, and raw aesthetic” of skateboarding and graffiti, Ernie invites the viewer to take a deeper look into these sources of inspiration by translating them into art. Ernie recognizes and pays homage to the power of someone’s eyes in expressing emotions by primarily focusing on this part of the face in his paintings and murals.
In his interview, Ernie reveals some insights into his path from real estate to becoming a full-time working artist, artist collaborations, and the intention behind his colorful art. Ernie is based in Inglewood, California.
You are a master of the airbrush. When did you first come in contact with this technique?
Thank you! It’s crazy for me to think about, but I have been airbrushing for over thirty years. My technique has just developed naturally throughout this time. When I started, I imitated graffiti artists and just naturally developed my own style throughout the years.
We are curious about your background. Did art play a role in your upbringing? When and where did you decide to dedicate your professional life to art?
Art played a major role in my upbringing. I spent a lot of time during my teenage years and before drawing and taking different art classes. Art was never something forced or intentional for me, I just always picked up a pencil or paint brush in my spare time because it was something I wanted to do. I spent my twenties and most of my thirties working full time jobs in real estate while painting any moment in between. I gradually built more clients/work within art and soon found it difficult to keep up with different demands I was having while working full time. About three years ago a client reached out to have a mural painted on one of their buildings in San Diego. When breaking down the time it would take to complete the job, I knew I wouldn’t be able to accept this job while working full-time in Los Angeles. I took the risk of quitting my stable full-time job and running with this mural work and I have no regrets!
Your website states that you are heavily influenced by “Graffiti, skateboarding, fashion, and the atmosphere within the urban environment”. Which is the most important source of inspiration for you? Do you have a specific procedure which characterizes your style?
In general, I would not say one source is more inspirational than another because I usually see them as just one source. I think skateboarding is so interesting because what the skateboarder is wearing can often be as big of a topic as the tricks, he/she may be doing on the ramps, walls, or benches which are usually covered in graffiti. Everything somewhat flows together and for me reviewing them together gives this often colorful, improvised, and raw aesthetic which I try to translate into my art. I don’t necessarily have a calculated procedure to characterize my style. I’m influenced by so much art and artists and I try to embrace these influences without copying.
Your artwork is very expressive, and mostly colorful, combining different shapes and focusing on the female gaze. What made you choose this combination? Which role does the female, specifically the eyes of women, play in your artwork?
This just comes back to those early influences. Most of the graffiti I saw utilized bright and opaque colors, which in many cases had hard line work around it. As a kid I thought this was the coolest thing I’d ever seen. I always like to interpret this into a smaller canvas or cradled panel work with a figure. The eyes were always of such interest because an eye can say so much and be interpreted in such a range. Just by looking at someone’s eyes you can typically tell if he/she is happy, sad, mischievous, lying, etc…. I think we interpret so much about a person and situation through his/her eyes, but we don’t even realize so much of our interactions are based on the many cues we are reading from the eyes. I am trying to dull down many of these other factors by hiding other areas of the face as an effort to highlight how much power the eyes have in presenting emotion. By hiding areas of the face, it also eliminates the ability of the viewer to link an image to one specific person. These emotions the viewer sees from the painting could be any person and maybe the viewer will link it to a person in his/her life.
Where do you personally draw the line between murals and fine art? Do you explore different themes in these two artistic forms?
I try not to draw any lines between the two practices. I see them each as a way to create something and make a statement. I always like to explore different themes within the work and obviously the scale can be different between the two, but to me each have the same purpose which is to provoke some kind of emotion from the viewer. I understand I cannot control the emotions a viewer feels but my goal is for them always to be positive. The pallets I choose are also so colorful because I want the viewer to feel happy or warm from the piece. We all deal with so many stresses and difficulties, I would like to do something that makes the viewer feel good.
Reflecting on your engagement with art, can you recall a specific experience that reassured you to continue your path as an artist?
You get little wins now and then that seem to assure you of the path. Whether that be a sale of a work or winning a mural job. Don’t get me wrong there are a lot “no’s”, too --- a short memory is key! What was I saying? – Just kidding!
Have you ever collaborated with another artist during your career and what was the outcome of the collaboration? If you have never collaborated with another artist, who would be your first choice and why?
I have collaborated with other artists and I really want to collaborate more! It has been a great way to break away from these little habits I get into painting alone day after day. Collaborations have been an amazing way for me to get creative in new ways. Don’t get me wrong, collaboration comes with a price, you need to compromise, and sometimes handle conflict, but the outcome has always opened me up to different ways of thinking and approaching future work.
Do you feel that the pandemic has had an impact on your imagination or process of creating? Elaborate.
I think I just about locked myself into my studio and painted during the pandemic. So much about the time was very difficult and the effect it had on lives was heartbreaking and unfortunate. So, I am not downplaying the gravity of the pandemic, but it was a rare time when I had the ability to simply paint distraction-free. I’m now building all my own panels/stretcher bars and experimenting further with multidimensional pieces which is very exciting. I think this is all a direct result of the time I had in my studio to analyze my process and see areas I didn’t need to outsource.
We are curious about your future ambitions as an artist. Can you give us an insight into anticipated goals and projects?
Murals, Shows, and a clothing collaboration!!! Some of these items are still in the works, so I can’t provide a lot of details, but follow my Instagram - @erniesteiner, which will have all the information, as it finalizes!
If you were asked to install several murals in the City of Los Angeles, which spaces and motifs would you choose? Which story would you like to tell with your art?
Anywhere and everywhere – It’s illegal to just paint walls, but I would like to add some color everywhere. Unless the client has a specific vision, the motif is secondary. I primarily like to have the location of the wall or the history of the building/property influence what I’m going to paint.