Jeffrey Simmons

Painter, Seattle / WA // June 2014
The watercolors are built up, layer by layer, beginning with the lightest of washes...I continue painting increasingly darker, narrower rings until I arrive at a fine line at the center of the original ring. That line, the darkest color, has all of the previous colors underneath it...If successful, I want the paintings to have the appearance of something inevitable, if not wholly predictable.

While on our WESTERN EDGE trip Klea and I naturally developed a habit of arriving at the address of an artist we were about to visit, parking the car and then sitting for a few minutes before getting out and ringing their doorbell. Sometimes we quickly discussed our expectations for the visit, but often we sat quietly, just taking a breather. Towards the end of the trip this brief pause had become an important ritual for me; it helped slow my thoughts down and zero in on just what it was about this particular artist and their work that I was curious about or confused by. And to be honest, to some degree it was about taking a minute to put my “game face” on— talking to artists for a solid two hours about their work and life is incredibly inspiring and fascinating, but it also demands being completely present and fully engaged, which can be exhausting.

But quite frequently what would happen is we would park in front of an artist’s house or studio, and immediately they would come out, shout out their hellos, and wave at us to come on in. And just like that my coveted interlude would disappear. If ever I was rattled by this, that feeling was immediately overridden by the enthusiastic and warm welcome expressed by the artists we visited. Jeffrey was one such artist– within seconds of parking the car he came out from his house and promptly won me over with his hospitality and zeal.

Both Klea and I were excited to visit Jeffrey in his Seattle home studio— the precision of his work, the chromatographic-like layers of transparent and opaque watercolor, and the spherical shapes that seemed to pulsate had peaked our interest and caused us to wonder just exactly how he was creating these pieces. Jeffrey’s paintings seemed unreal as if it would be almost physically impossible to make something like that, and they are in fact painstakingly executed. Using a rotating easel that moves the canvas instead of his hand, Jeffrey makes images from overlaps of transparent color. He built his turntable to rotate the canvas while orbiting a fixed point, thus creating lines that cross back over themselves. The effect is masterful, full of optical interest his turntable paintings simultaneously express control and kinetic complexity.

I was taken with how generous Jeffrey was with us— he demonstrated his technique slowly, carefully, totally aware of my initial confusion. It was obvious to me that he really wanted me to understand, to relate to his work intimately and to appreciate how special and personal of a process he had developed for himself. Jeffrey’s work reminded me how endless and complex the possibilities for color and paint application can be, and that sometimes the end effect is almost like an evocation of magic.

How would you describe your subject matter or the content of your work?
Layering transparent pigmented media, I make abstract paintings that are suggestive of light and atmosphere. There is a geometric element in my work. In one body of watercolor paintings, planes of color are painted so as to appear to be stacked on top of one another in pictorial space. Other watercolors feature floating, soft-edged rings. In the recent past I made acrylic paintings containing a bright mark that appeared luminous against a dark ground.

If successful, I want the paintings to have the appearance of something inevitable, if not wholly predictable. While I choose not to prescribe particular meanings to a body of work, it can be illuminating to see the various settings in which other people place my work. A few years ago, a curator at The Henry Art Gallery at The University of Washington hung one of my paintings next to a 200-year old Chinese ancestor portrait, with an Islamic prayer rug on a low platform nearby. It was extremely flattering to find my work in that particular juxtaposition.

What mediums do you work with?
I make paintings on canvas using acrylic, and on paper using watercolor. I am currently focused on the watercolors while I prepare to build a new studio for the significantly messier and more labor-intensive acrylics. The watercolors I started making around 2000 were one of the reasons I switched from oil to acrylics several years ago. I was attempting to emulate the layered transparency effects I was achieving in watercolor.

Your approach seems so meticulous, can you briefly explain your process?
The watercolors are built up, layer by layer, beginning with the lightest of washes. For the ring paintings, I begin with a pale, wide ring; when that ring is dry, I paint another one on top of it, a little darker and a little narrower. I continue painting increasingly darker, narrower rings until I arrive at a fine line at the center of the original ring. That line, the darkest color, has all of the previous colors underneath it. Then, if I am painting a series of overlapping rings, I move the paper and start again. I make some of my own tools, including a turntable for painting circles and a bridge to support my hand. I recently built a paper stretcher that allows me to use thinner sheets of paper.

As I developed this watercolor technique, a decade ago, I started experimenting with acrylics to see if I could achieve comparable results using transparent acrylic medium. One day, on a whim, I started sanding the surface in order to expose some of the lower layers. I realized that I could use this sanding technique to create an image that appeared to be luminous. This led to a parallel body of work, technically related to the watercolors but very different in terms of resulting image. I have alternated between the two bodies of work ever since.

Your work plays with the visual tension between soft and hard edges— can you tell us more about this interplay?
To put it simply, I find the hard-and-soft contrast to be visually satisfying. It occurs between individual works—between the hard, geometric plane paintings and the soft, single ring paintings as they are hung together on a wall—and within specific pieces as well. I recently started removing ring-shaped layers of paper from some of my watercolors, and replacing the surface with a ring cut from fresh, unpainted paper. This reintroduces white into a painted area, and allows for a very sharp edge to appear alongside of the soft, hazy edges of the other rings.

Years ago, I painted in oils using a rotating, wall-mounted easel and striping brushes. Similar tensions existed in those paintings, between opaque and transparent marks, and between hard edge pinstripes and runny, uncontrolled paint passages. The contrasting edge treatment in the current work is a subtler refinement of this same tendency.

Besides your art practice, are you involved in any other kind of work?
I taught continuing education drawing classes up until our daughter was born, six years ago. Since that time I have been dividing my time between artwork and afternoon child care, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. Of course, I have significantly more time to work now that our daughter is in the first grade.

What influences outside the visual arts inspire and impact your approach to making work?
The most direct, non-visual art influence I can name is music. I am married to a musician, a pianist who works and teaches in the classical style, and we spend time in the company of other musicians. Our house is full of piano students, and our daughter is learning piano and violin. If I’m not listening to someone practicing an instrument in the next room, I often have headphones on. The abstract nature of instrumental music has a relationship to the kind of imagery I work with. I have even started to make reference to this in my titles; the series title Resonator is intended to call attention to the way the overlapping colors interact, which I liken to waves of sound bouncing around in a confined space.

What does having a physical space to make art in mean for your process, and how do you make your space work for you?
Well, yes, this has been an issue of particular interest to me recently. In my professional career I have had a succession of spaces, beginning with a small, pantry-sized room off of the kitchen in our first rental house, and eventually moving on to commercial spaces offering varying degrees of light and comfort. My last rental studio was within a huge industrial space that had been used by Boeing to make Bomarc missiles during the Cold War. I was part of a group of artists leasing surplus space from the U.S. Federal Government. It was unheated and the air was dirty, but I was able to make larger, messier work there, and I had access to friends’ woodworking tools. We had to leave after eight years, when the property was torn down for redevelopment.

I have worked at home since then, and have moved twice, which resulted in a series of noticeable shifts in my work, in terms of scale and imagery. The disruption of moving forced me to take time off, and when I returned to work I found it difficult to pick up again where I’d left off. I tried to make an asset of this in my 2011 show here in Seattle, hanging divergent works side-by-side, including the last dark acrylic paintings from the big studio and later, smaller, very pale watercolor works I made at home.

More recently I have been working in a small bedroom in our new house. My watercolor technique necessitates that I work on small sheets, so to go up in scale I have been spreading the image across multiple sheets of paper. The restricted space makes it hard for me to view the entire work from a distance, but I have found a few tricks that help, like taking pictures, using mirrors, or simply standing on top of a stool.

Is there something you are currently working on, or are excited about starting that you can tell us about?
My most recent show, in January 2013 at Greg Kucera Gallery here in Seattle, featured two newer bodies of watercolors: the groupings of overlapping rings on single sheets, and the larger, multi-part works with symmetrical arrangements of rings. Both bodies of work will benefit from further refinement, and I am quite content to be doing that right now. But I am also preparing to convert our garage into a painting studio, a project that will probably occupy a substantial portion of my summer. This is a project I have been thinking about for the past two years, and I’m quite eager to get started. Shortly before moving out of my old studio, knowing that I wouldn’t have access to a woodshop for a while, I spent two weeks making wood panels to stretch canvas over and paint on. I made fifty of them, in various sizes. This is where I will begin, once I finish my new space.

Do you see your work as relating to any current movement or direction in visual art or culture? Which other artists might your work be in conversation with?
Though I have preferred to think of my work in relationship to certain historical tendencies, such as 1960’s op art, I have recently found the Internet to be a tremendous resource for finding other artists who whose ideas appeal to me. Tumblr has been especially useful in this regard, as lots of interesting contemporary painting appears on my dashboard every day. Consequently, I know there is a diverse body of abstract painters, like Ann Pibal and Shannon Finley, producing modestly scaled work of great inventiveness and vitality. I only wish I could see more of this work in person rather than on a computer screen. I suppose I should travel more. There are several local artists I pay attention to, such as Victoria Haven and Michael Ottersen.

How do you navigate the art world?
I try to be as self-reliant as possible. Obviously, there are essential dependencies—and I have been quite fortunate with regard to representation—but a certain degree of detachment can be useful at times, particularly with regard to the social aspects of being an artist in a community of artists all vying for attention. I have tried to remain true to my principals as an artist, and have faith in the power of the work to speak for itself.

Words of wisdom?… a motto, favorite quote?
Not really. My excuse is that I’m not particularly adept at memorizing quotes. I suppose the answer I gave to the previous question is as close as I come to wisdom.

Are you involved in any upcoming shows or events? Where and when?
No major commitments at the moment, partly by design, as I want to finish my workspace before beginning any large new body of work.

To see more of Jeffrey’s work:
See works in progress at and