The Food of My Art

My fascination with painting food began in senior school in 1999, when I was painting a series of toys that were chosen by their form. I found the shapes and curves of toys like rubber ducks attractive and even felt they invited the impulse of one to interact with them. Rubber duck designs make you want to squeeze them, bite them even. They’re inviting. As a joke almost, I quipped about the idea of painting a big juicy steak, like one of those rubber ducks that I had painted: something I’d want to sink my teeth into. Thus began my series of meat paintings.

Susan Moore was a teacher of mine at Tyler School of Art in Philadelphia, and she recognized a quality of my paint handling and suggested I look up an artist that she had worked with in her senior school years, Wayne Thiebaud. I wasn’t aware of Thiebaud or his food paintings then but instantly fell in love with everything he had done. It was more than a decade later that food entered my studio practice.

I then met a fascinating person at a foodie pot luck dinner, called Tenaya Darlington and she was the creator of the Madame Fromage blog. When I asked for advice she became one of the biggest supporters of the cheese painting series. She’s been my cheese mentor. I have met so many passionate cheesemongers and learned a great deal about delicious cheeses through this process.

My apartment is in a redeveloped factory building from the early 1800s. It’s a bright space with very large windows. I designate the larger of two bedrooms for my studio. I work from still life there and always eat my cheese subjects immediately after the painting is completed

I paint so often and for so long, that it’s easier for me to work only with paint and no pencils. Drawing is sometimes a slower process for me. Initially, I make some brush marks to decide on a composition, proportion and perspective. Then I get into a focused state of mind and paint for four to six hours with minimal and short breaks, if any. I work quickly, which has a number of benefits. It enables me not to get too precious and overwork a piece. I usually place the cheese on a shelf around eye-level, close to me, and start painting with oil paint straight onto wooden surfaces. Sometimes, especially if I know a cheese is going to be runny like soft or bloomy rind cheeses, I keep the subject in my fridge and mix paint and set up my palette ahead of time.

Working quickly enables me to get on with eating the subject of course, so that’s the best reason for speed.

My patrons have mostly discovered my work in places like Culture Magazine, whose readers are the perfect audience for this series of cheese portraits. A very important food critic, Craig Laban, here in Philadelphia {which has become even more of a food-minded city in recent years} wrote a small mention in the newspaper with a photo of the Morbier painting. This led to another large wave of sales from patrons that requested to visit my studio. It is the seeing of the works in person that has always resulted in higher sales so the smaller news article had larger results.

In the last year or so I have focused on self- representation more, and sold pictures directly from my website. Once I sell an original painting, which I keep reasonably priced since I do not have a gallery to split commission with, I offer an archival print of that portrait for sale from my website and in cafe shows and art boutiques and galleries.

My home town of Philadelphia is alive with foodie energy. I live alone and cook whenever I can. I approach cooking similarly to how I paint, as a form of alchemy. Understanding ingredients, I can create dishes more intuitively, though I am no stranger to following recipes. Farmers’ markets and food co-operatives in my area are abundant as well as the typical grocery stores. As for restaurants, my biggest complaint is that I cannot find enough time or funds to eat at every great eatery in Philadelphia. The dining scene started to flourish years ago and as the economy picks up, so does the range of choices here.

I love city living and do not have the space or time to garden or grow my own food. There are urban farms within blocks of me though, and they are a great source of ingredients for my kitchen. I’ve focused my painting subjects primarily on attraction associated with food indulgence or urges. I love meat. Cheese is as seductive as cakes and pies. I know that vegetables are important for my diet but have not yet made me swoon.

For the future, I have found it is best not to choose or plan what opportunities might arrive next but rather allow good projects to present themselves naturally. Generally speaking, whatever is going on in my life usually ends up in my studio. I have learned to recognize new ideas and concepts rather than artificially aim for them. And food has been one of the most important things on my mind for a long time. I think my great love of food will remain with me forever.

Further information

Mike Geno’s website:

Moore College of Art and Design in Philadelphia:

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