When Zak Duff was earning his masters in oil painting in 2017, his thesis centered on the human form—specifically faces representing a broad range of people and personalities. Yet, in the midst of school, he became a father. Suddenly, Duff’s favorite childhood memories flooded his mindscape—like visiting national parks or the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History in DC, where he was born and raised. “I immediately wanted to start reliving those memories with my own kid,” Duff tells.
Though portraiture always had been a signature of his work—whether through various solo shows or more than 30 group exhibits he has participated in with the local Thrive Art Collective—he began doing studies of animals, plants and objects while in grad school. “And I was nerding-out over old National Geographics and reference books while thinking about taking my son to Bryce Canyon,” he notes. “All I wanted to do was paint studies of fish and birds and plants.”
Positive response and reinforcement kept his watercolors, pen and ink, and oil paintings evolving. So it became the natural state of things to put his focus on abstract landscapes and realistic critters.
“I think everyone has some living creature they have an affinity to or somehow feel connected to,” Duff tells, “so I enjoy creating little tokens of appreciation. My personal affinity is to nature in general, which is where my more abstract paintings come from. They are an attempt to capture the general happiness and peace I feel when I am on the water or in the woods, far away from the constructs of society.”
Duff has been working in acrylic, pencil, ink and watercolor when doing plants and animals. The imagery is easily achieved in size and scope, and those media make it more manageable. “With ink and watercolor, I can work small without losing detail, and move through a painting either slowly or quickly without needing to worry about drying.”
But he goes larger with abstract forests and thus uses oil. Because it doesn’t dry as quickly, Duff can contemplate emotions and return to the piece to change it as needed.
“With oil and canvas, I can depict big feelings,” he adds. “The oil paints will stay ‘open’ and workable for days to weeks at a time, so if I feel inspired to make changes or experiment, I can.”
His portraiture work uses the widest variety of media. Duff allows the subject matter dictate his tools. For instance, a mandala may appear in the background, done in pen and ink, while a face at the forefront is created in watercolor.
“The less certain I am with how I want the final painting to look, the more likely I am to use oil paint,” Duff admits. He chooses his faces according to appeal and positivity. First, he determines if he will enjoy spending time with the subject matter for a considerable amount of time and then if he will be able to communicate with it.
“I am looking for ‘emotionally and aesthetically pleasant’ [faces,]” he describes, “a person who is unique and intentional in their appearance, who is mentally and emotionally intelligent, and is clear in their own mind as to who they are. I’ve had my share of brooding, ugliness and uncertainty in my life, as I think most people have, and I’m not interested in depicting or expressing that negative stuff in my art. I’m here to uplift with my paintings, not to pull or hold down.”
The faces are the most challenging for Duff. To replicate and illuminate the likeness of a person isn’t an easy task, even for pros. Also, evoking a personality with one look or pose, a pattern or angle presents its own set of obstacles.
“It is an impossible task I will hopefully one day have enough sense to stop trying to accomplish,” the artist jokes. “But, until that day comes, I will continue to enjoy a good challenge and the opportunity to do some experimenting.”
He also includes iconography or text in his work or will place subject matter among the abstract or surreal. It’s all in effort to bring to life the dispositions of each subject.
“Some are outwardly hardened and somber conceal a loving heart that radiates from within, and the only way to reflect that is with an overly-flowery mandala and an obvious title,” he explains of “Radiant Love.” “Others are as tough as the tattoo on their back and are uninterested in any opinions on the matter [‘Don’t ‘At’ Me.’] While each personality is unique, and every person is different, they still manage to fall into categories or tropes that make them identifiable and relatable to like-minded people.”
Duff has large works on display at Century 21 Sweyer and Associates’ downtown office (21-B Market St.). It’s a solo exhibition of his nature work, and centers on the environment surrounding the Cape Fear. He also helps with shows at Blue Surf Cafe on Racine Drive, which is the home of new exhibits from members of Thrive Arts Collective.
“The styles and subject matters vary widely every two months, and include paintings, illustrations, prints, jewelry, clothing, and the occasional sculpture and ceramic works,” he notes. “I personally have some nature studies, as well as some landscape oil paintings hanging there.”
While Duff teaches acrylic painting at Wine and Design in Leland, his 2019 already is shaping up to be productive. He has an exhibit planned this summer at the Leland Cultural Arts Center and more group shows with Thrive.
“I have a couple of trips to the mountains and along the waterways of North Carolina planned to photograph reference material for new work,” he notes, “and I am looking forward to finding my quiet, happy place again.”
Duff also will break into various arts markets hosted around town in 2019, starting off with Art for All this weekend at Brooklyn Arts Center. He plans to have quite the selection of works for sale, including large oil paintings, which will include a 4-foot-by-4-foot Aspen forest. He also will sell framed and unframed smaller watercolors and oils, including other landscapes, various creatures and portraits, plus famous faces from music, film, and politics. Original works will be priced between $50 and $150, with prints starting as low as $10.
“I’m very excited to enter into the market scene,” he tells. “The biggest benefit is the massive audience and networking opportunities. Market events give artists the opportunity to speak with hundreds and hundreds of potential collectors and collaborators over the course of two days.”