A Murch, Deal and Wilson alumnus, Shinberg grew up in Forest Hills. He has been working as an architect for 45 years, leading many fine school projects and a wide range of residential and commercial projects. Shinberg returned to the neighborhood 30 years ago, to a home on Upton Street.And now you are painting in watercolor. So tell us: How did you make your way to painting?
The easy answer: I wanted to be a doctor!
I went down to the National Gallery of Art when I was 13 to study anatomy by “copying” art, which meant drawing Michelangelo and DaVinci, a pretty good starting point, and I got hooked on drawing instead. That led to art and then to architecture. Goodbye medicine.
When did you consider yourself a painter? What was the defining moment?
I took up painting 5 years ago, but drawing had become so natural over the years that the composition and sketching part of painting was a pretty soft landing. Not so the actual painting. It’s not easy for architects to be “imprecise,” and watercolor is a medium of flow and risk and intentional imprecision. That was and is the challenge.
The first time I gave up on trying to make a good painting, accepting and enjoying how the paint itself moves and changes, that’s when I began to see a path to becoming a painter. Still very much on that path and still reminding myself to enjoy watching the paint.
What subjects do you like to paint?
Somehow or other, architectural settings do find their way into the mix, but I’ve found it’s the compositional potential of an image, not so much the subject, that engages me. Since watercolor is “liberated” from imitating reality, you can bring whatever intention or idea you invent, or how you feel, to each painting. Each one has its own life.
I think of the paintings as growing up while I paint them. They start in a dramatically immature way and, if you’re lucky and keep at it, they develop and mature. And then you just have to decide when to stop. Some paintings are better if they don’t get past exuberant childhood, and others need to go to full adulthood.
Are you experimenting with other media?
I’ve been a photographer for as long as I’ve been an architect, but I’m definitely not an architectural photographer. I focus on faces quite a bit, and on scenes that have, like the paintings, good compositional tensions, forces that pull your attention and engage you in the image.
I continue working on them in software and then it gets “painterly.” It seems to me that it matters less whether you have a camera or a brush in your hand than whether you feel the process of making art. The commonalities are far, far greater than the differences between media.
What advice would you have for parents with children who show a bent for drawing?
Do what my mother did: send me to the Corcoran in the summer. For today, try the Washington Studio School or the Art League of Alexandria (where I go for classes every Saturday morning).
Encourage art. Go to a few carefully selected museums. Find biographies of great artists and make them human, accessible as models. Reading the Michelangelo biography The Agony and the Ecstasy as a teenager was inspiring. Having a relative or two who are artists doesn’t hurt at all. In other words, engage that child with other young artists and encouraging teachers who know that artists take years to emerge.
See more of Milton Shinberg’s work at shinbergart.com