Artist Check-In: Painter Debra Slonim


We love chatting with artists across the spectrum – writers, visual artists, performers, and more. Everyone has a unique story about why they create and what speaks to them. And we all love a good story.

Welcome this week’s artist, Debra Slonim, who has been working for the past year on a different way of approaching painting. She has been using oil paints ever since her Grandma Kate taught her how to use them at ten years old. When Slonim decided to pursue being a fine artist, her paintings were rejected because of the lack of realism in her depiction of the human figure. This experience caused her anxiety about her artwork, and for two years she quit painting altogether. She eventually returned to painting, and recently came across the works of Jean Michel Basquiat, whose fast method of painting in acrylics inspired her to take a new path in painting.


When did you realize you had a passion for painting? 

There is a picture that my mom took of me when I was two years old. I was in a highchair wearing only diapers with a very concentrated look on my face. In this picture I had paint all over the place and a paint brush in my hand. I think I’ve always been a painter; I never had to realize my passion for painting it just found me. When I was a little older, in 5th grade, we had to do state projects. I chose Maine. I had to do a representation of Maine and my Grandma Kate insisted on helping me learn how to oil paint the Maine scenery. She went through a book of pictures I had checked out from the library and let me pick the picture I wanted. Together my grandma and I painted the Maine State bridge (of course she did the majority). That moment with my Grandma was what made me love, and continue to pursue painting.

Who would you say was the main influence on your artistic growth? 
I have had many influences on my art, but right now my main influence supporting growth in my particular style would be Jack Reilly. He is the Art Department chair, and my painting teacher at California State University Channel Islands. Jack is constantly pushing and challenging everything about my art. From my color choices to the dimensions, he’s always making me think more in depth about the work I’m putting out, and the meaning behind it. He’s very supportive when I explore new styles, and he never censors himself with his opinion. I always know exactly where he stands and listening to him makes me more confident in my abilities as an artist.

What other painters’ work do you admire?

As a child, the first work I can vividly remember was Van Gough’s Starry Night. That painting was everything I wanted to be as an artist when I was young and it still inspires me now. The deep blue colors from the painting influenced my color palette for years. When I got into high school, I fell in love with the works of Pablo Picasso and Jackson Pollock. I liked that they were both untraditional. My paintings never had much sense to them, so they inspired me to be myself in a unique way. I also found comfort in the works of the impressionist painters like Mary Cassat, Pierre-Auguste Renior, Claude Monet, and Edgar Degas being my favorites. I love these artists works because they capture life in idealistic state of beauty. As much as I love the beauty of impressionists I also love the gritty works of Jean-Michel Basquiat. He has a very crude way of painting as well as the way he lived his own life. His works make me feel sane, because the chaos in them is so relatable. I relate to the chaos because there are always so many random thoughts going through my head. When I see his work it reminds me of stream of conscience – Basquiat painted exactly what he was thinking. He didn’t edit his thoughts. They were raw and primal. I feel like that from time to time.


To whom would you liken your own style?

My style is a combination of Pablo Picasso and Jean-Michel Basquiat. I use acrylic paints like Basquiat does to portray layers of emotion, and quick improvisational thinking. While my structure isn’t like anyone else’s, it is most similar to Pablo Picasso. I enjoy doing narrative portraiture, and being able to distort different parts of the body. When I have distorted the portraits, I use painted black lines to bring my emotional strokes together much like Picasso. My lines are more fluid than a Picasso’s, but he is still a large influence on my own style.

What inspires you to get down to painting? An image, an idea, music, etc? 

Emotions inspire me to paint. Painting is my therapy. When I have an issue and I can’t figure out a solution, I start painting. I don’t always solve the problem I paint about, but it quiets me. When emotions aren’t a motivator before I work, I go online and look at other artist’s work. I try to remember as many images as I can. I also look through the studio I paint at, and see what others are creating. I make a mental note of colors, all this information soaks in and I let my hands and my right brain take over.

Shower ideas are the best. Usually when I’m in the shower I get the urge to paint, I’ll have an idea or a quick image in my head of a concept, and I’ll have to leave for the studio soon after to go paint (with my clothes on of course). I also love listening to conversations while I paint. When people are around it usually steers my paintings into a more interactive form of creating; instead of the stereotypical idea of the tormented artist inside their studio locked in there for days. I do listen to music when I paint, but not all the time. Music doesn’t usually inspire me to paint, but it helps me as I’m going through the process of painting. The best kind of music for painting is jazz – it lets my mind wander.

What do you hope your artwork says and what does it contribute with its message?

I hope my artwork shows people there is more to a painting than just paint; there is process, emotion, and life. My paintings are all autobiographical stories about life, and that of those around me. These pieces tell stories in a very expressionistic manner. If there is any message that people take away from my painting I would want it to be, there is more to humanity than the face you see on the outside. No one is perfect, behind our public faces there can be so much stress, turmoil  and self doubt. These emotions in ourselves and in life are what complete us and help us grow as people.

My message through painting is like a self diary. In that respect, I would want people to look at the struggle I go through and think, I can rise above the problems in my own life.

The shapes and colors you incorporate in your work are fantastic. What was the reaction to your distinct stylistic choice when you first started to develop your own painting style?

I was scared out of my mind, I thought that no one would get it. In fact, I didn’t fully understand my emerging style. Trying to obtain this style was almost like tinkering with a science experiment  without knowing which chemicals would create which reactions. So I began to grab everything around me to figure out the right formula for my paintings. I started very abstractly with bright colors and attached spheres made from balloons and paper mache on to my painting. These spheres were fascinating to me, but the flow of my pieces stagnated under these spheres. The color was also very distracting. As beautiful as it was, it needed to be edited into one overall feeling so it could be emotionally read by viewers. Then I started adding my sketches from my notebook to the paintings. I was too timid to paint the sketches onto my canvas, I wasn’t sure how that would read. After a while, a few people started telling me that the sketches weren’t working and I should rethink that. I got mad at the canvas. I got mad at myself, and through that I surrendered to my style. I let it be, and listened to the mentors around me, and at that moment I became comfortable experimenting with my style.

Tell us about your favorite personal piece. Why does it stand out to you?

I made a piece recently on canvas with acrylic paint, newspaper and super gel, called ” Commandment 11″. This piece was empowering to me, because I took one of my first paintings called “The Quest” and painted over it. I had never painted over an old painting before and it made me feel in control of my art. The meaning of both these titles is very significant to me, because when I was starting  to find my own style it was a quest to figure it out. Now that I have gone through all these changes and revisions of style, I come to Commandment 11. What I mean by Commandment 11 is, “to just be yourself.” When I started painting, I was hesitant to paint like I sketched. I didn’t trust myself, and I didn’t think that people would like it. By the end of this series, I stopped thinking about what I thought others would like, and I just started painting. This painting has a depiction of god stepping out from the clouds – we can all obtain a form of greatness if we can just be ourselves. This piece stands out to me the most because I found my artistic voice through it.

What project are you excited to be working on currently?

I went to a show at the MOCA Museum in LA called Destroying the Picture: Painting the Void, a show of abstract paintings that came after World War II from 1949-1962. The show highlights 26 artists from all over the world painting in a bold manner through their post war depression. Going to the show left me so inspired I decided to challenge myself to think beyond the clean crisp canvas. So I sliced holes in my canvas, covered it in newspaper, and then painted over it. The holes in the canvas leave the viewer to reflect on, “the void.” Emptiness can be filled with thoughts. How did I feel when I cut the canvas? Is this anger? Is this freedom?

What I love about this project is it’s not just painting anymore, it’s also a sculpture.  I’ve always loved experimenting with this art form. The interesting thing about putting sculpture into paintings is that it makes a viewer redefine, what is a painting? Now it’s something that not only tackles color, but also addresses light, shadow, and space.


What advice would you offer someone who wants to pursue their artistic ambitions?

Never stop learning. Anyone who wants to be an artist should know a few basics of art history as well as be familiar with contemporary artwork. A great t.v. series to learn more about contemporary art is Art 21. Learning about contemporary art, and the work of the masters is just another tool to help an artist spring board creativity from what’s already been done. Don’t be afraid to get weird, strange, and find an innovative way of doing things. In art it’s normal to not be “normal.” Following the traditional art rules is perfectly alright, but there is not just one way to do things. Do things that you’ve never done before. Trying something new can open up new avenues of exploration.

Talk to other artists, and ask them what their artistic process is. Getting input from other artists makes the whole “art process” less lonely. Also, observe as much art as you can by going to museums, finding gallery shows, and immersing yourself in the art community. Make sure you have some kind of online presence so that you can stay connected to the community, and they can see what you are doing. Connections are important in the art world, so establish good friendships with artists when you can.

Always practice, take classes. A live drawing class session even without a teacher can help you learn so much about light, perspective, and the human figure. Continue to grow in your art, and it will take you down a rewarding road of self discovery.

Thanks Debra! For more of her work, pop on over to her page.