“I think it would be cool to have the Artsy chick in a picture,” Daniel Heidkamp mused, late one night last February at an afterparty fueled by alcohol and post-opening bravado at an Upper East Side apartment of a young dealer. At the time, I didn’t know if the 34-year-old artist known for his distinctive plein-air painting was serious about painting me. Months later, the idea materializes, and we finally squeeze in time for a studio visit and sitting, a week before his White Columns show opening.
Having shown with taste-making gallery spaces including Knowmoregames, Zach Feuer, Half Gallery, and 247365, Daniel’s works stand out amongst his peers. They are bestowed with the kind of insider art-world credence that is hard to quantify, but bound to gain wider attention at any minute.
The morning of the sitting, I scramble to figure out what one wears to a portrait, when he texts me a set of instructions, “Think high art. I painted your background color, it’s light blue-ish.” Feeling slightly panicked, I add "looking like Aphrodite" to my to-do list for the morning.
As I venture to Sunset Park in Brooklyn, an upbeat area on the Hudson River, newly overrun by artist studios and young families, I walk past tares of industrial core amongst residential life. Daniel meets me on the street with a grin and a baseball hat over a pile of floppy, dark hair.
Stepping into his studio, my senses are instantly jolted into overdrive. Every wall is hung salon style, drenched in vivid color and leafy, fresh landscapes, jovial figures, and the wet smell of paint. There is something wondrous and awkward about the canvases. He takes me through the most recent "MET" series, intended for the White Columns exhibition. Painted over the course of spring months in Central Park, the works all feature blooms and tree-lined scenes, each with a hint of the inaccessible walls of the Metropolitan Museum.
After the tour of the sun-soaked studio and a lengthy discussion, we take up our roles as artist and subject. He offers me orange juice and instructs me to sit on the sofa. We go over several variations as he examines my angles, moving around with relaxed assuredness and joking banter. He begins expertly mixing paints, starting with the pigment of my flesh, remarking “you have more green in you than I thought.” Obsessed with getting the exact shade, he walks over several times to compare the paint with my actual skin, while I watch in eerie fascination as swatches of myself emerge on his palette. The tubes of paints he uses are made in the South of France and are identical to the ones the Impressionists relied on more than a century ago. “The paintings that I look up to the most are 19th century," he explains. “I like the idea of using the exact same brand of paints. The method is not the same but the tools are.”
After about 40 minutes of mixing, Daniel asks for a break. The loose playfulness of his work is transferred to our dialogue, which is easy and candid. Before going in for the first stroke, he does a pre-game chant. “No fear. Gotta get pumped up. Got my color. One direction. Forward!” he exclaims as the brush hits the primed light blue vastness. “I like it already!” he continues after the mark is made. “I am going to commentate the whole time.”
Through the five hours of the sitting, we talk about his work, Instagram, and his experience of being a parent in New York. He divulges that he paints on board, not easel. “I put my canvas on the ground, in the grass or dirt, and I dig in,” he explains. Only a few paintings get stretched, and most get cropped when they do, achieving a wrapped edge effect, nearing Wade Guyton’s prints.
Having been a studio artist for Kehinde Wiley and Bjarne Melgaard in the past, he studied at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts Boston, and initially began painting in a nearly photo-realistic manner akin to Richard Phillips. But to achieve the “unexpected nuances” in his works, he always works with live subject matter, not photographs. “There is an adrenaline feeling that happens while working live, and that energy can translate directly into the painting,” he says.
Being the subject is not grandiose but rather a very close and subconscious study of him as he studies me. The portrait starts with the head and evolves. I am a disembodied figure floating. The sofa is the last thing he paints that day. Late in the afternoon and on a high—off paint fumes and the meditative state—I make my exit.
Days later, I am rushing to White Columns, where the "MET" show is opening. In the crowded room of transplanted Brooklynites, Daniel occupies the main space. The portrait has a title, The MET Studio Visit, and hangs in the far corner, gazing out of the show in an approving manner. “Isn’t that the Artsy chick?” someone comments. Minutes later, caught taking photo in front of the work, I confirm that it's true.