On his 16th year of painting abstractions, Fitz Herrera continues to chase happiness through play.
Text by Khyne Palumar. Photos by Jovel Lorenzo.
Fitz Herrera admits that he’s guilty of breaking a few kitchen mixers not long ago, and it wasn’t from baking a cake. The culprit, he says, is the thick and gloopy DIY paint that he enjoys dolloping on the canvas—made by manually whisking together liquid color pigment and modeling paste. “Nung simula, manu-mano akong naghahalo, kaso nangangawit yung braso ko pag nag mi-mix ng paste and pigment. So hiningi ko sa mother ko yung mga luma niyang mixer,” Fitz says. (In the beginning, I’d do it manually. But my arm would tire from mixing the paste and pigment. So I asked my mother if I could have her old mixers.)
“Pero siyempre mabigat yung pintura, so minsan nasisira. Ngayon bumibili na ko ng heavy-duty mixer. Actually, KitchenAid nga ginagamit ko.” (Of course, the mixer tends to break down because the paint is too heavy. These days, I buy a heavy-duty one. I actually use KitchenAid.) Fitz also uses a frosting spatula in place of a palette knife, initially out of availability, but like the mixer – out of habit and familiarity – he’s kept it in his painting arsenal.
It’s for these personal reasons that the 42-year-old artist and son of a pastry cook tells Art+ that, in many ways, painting is a lot like baking a cake.
The icing in his impastos
Perhaps inevitably, Fitz sees a striking resemblance between his colorful impastos and the frosted pastries he grew up with in the kitchen. “Subconsciously, I guess I’ve adopted it in my paintings. Yung detail ng brush and palette strokes, parang sa pastries. Especially if you look closer at the canvas, para talaga siyang icing na gusto mong kutkutin at kainin,” he says. (It really looks like icing that you want to swipe off and eat.)
But more than nostalgia and an ironic inkling towards desserts (Fitz, by the way, dislikes eating sweets and prefers cooking over baking), the artist says what fuels his abstractions isn’t food per se. It’s first and foremost a desire for play. “That’s exactly the feeling when I’m working, para lang talaga akong naglalaro,” he says. (It’s really like I’m just playing.)
He aims to spark feelings of freedom and sheer delight, both for himself as an artist working behind the canvas, and for viewers on the receiving end of the piece. It’s why the Caloocan-based artist, who grew up in Nueva Vizcaya and Bulacan, titled one of his solo shows, The Happiness Series.
The exhibit is a fitting hat tip to his collectors and fellow artists, who’ve told Fitz time and again that his paintings “make them very happy. Yun ang una nilang binibitawang salita pag nakikita nila works ko: Masaya.” (It’s the first word they utter when they see my works: Happy.)
It took him a while to get into this lighter, more blissful headspace. Thematically, it’s the complete opposite of his first solo show Divisions—a snapshot of Fitz’s previous life in a 9 to 5 work setting, where office politics and hierarchies were pointedly undisguised. “Yung feelings dun medyo anger pa. Galit sa boss ko, sa mga titles, and sa division at pulitika sa work.” (So what I felt then was a bit of anger. Anger at my boss and the office titles, the division and politics at work.)
“Pero lately kasi mas gusto ko na mag-dwell sa positive thoughts. Madami nang negativity sa mundo lately, so gusto ko i-counter yun sa canvas with positivity. Gusto ko yung pag tumingin ka sa paintings, gagaan yung pakiramdam mo,” Fitz says. (But lately I prefer to dwell on positive thoughts. There’s so much negativity in the world lately that I want to counter it on the canvas with positivity. When you look at the canvas, I want you to feel lighter.)
After hours in front of the canvas
This year marks Fitz’s 16th year of creating abstract art pieces—but his point of entry in the art world wasn’t in abstractions but in painting mostly monochromatic, surrealist-style figurative works. When he was in his 20s, it was these paintings that bagged prizes at a few art competitions, most notably at the 2004 Metrobank Art Awards.
Later on, he took a day job as a graphic artist for Universal Records, where he designed album covers for club and lounge music artists for a decade. At the end of his 8am to 6pm shift, the Fine Arts graduate from the University of the East would return to the canvas and try to paint. Juggling his passions and day job would prove difficult but it ended up reshaping how Fitz approached art-making.
“Umuuwi ako sa bahay around 7pm medyo burned out, pagod na utak at katawan,” he says. (I would go home at 7pm a bit burned out. My mind and body would be spent.) “So instead of doing figurative works, I tried playing with different colors. May minamantsahan ako sa canvas na binabalik-balikan ko, tapos ang ganda ng kulay. So sabi ko, seryosohin ko ito.” (I kept staining a section of the canvas over and over and saw how pretty the colors looked, so I said to myself, I’m going to take this seriously.)
In the weeks that followed, Fitz produced five small abstract paintings that he would submit for consideration to a few galleries in Megamall. One of them would agree to hang up his works, and within a month, all five paintings were sold. The same gallery would ask Fitz to send more of his art, and he took it as a sign to explore a newly adopted painting style. “Blessing na nag-enjoy ako magpinta ng abstract, and at the same time, may nag-appreciate.” (It’s a blessing that I get to enjoy painting abstractions and have people appreciate it at the same time.)
Painting abstract pieces became an after-hours work routine that Fitz happily plugged into for four years. “Eventually na-overshadow na ng pagpipinta ko yung day job ko, so I focused on painting.” (Painting eventually overshadowed my day job.)
From a handful of acrylic splotches in his early years, Fitz worked his way up to covering a canvas with 30 different shades of paint, and still counting. His impastos would gradually double in thickness every year, and he’d introduce more elements on the canvas. When it comes to his artistic evolution, Fitz prefers taking his time.
“Ayoko ng forced. I don’t know if many people notice, pero in the recent years lang ako sumubok gumamit ng pinks and greens, dati kase parang di bagay sa ginagawa ko.” (I don’t believe in forcing it. I don’t know if many people notice, but I just tried using pinks and greens in recent years because it didn’t match what I was doing back then.)
Of course, Fitz’s artistic exploration extends beyond being picky with colors. Sometimes it’s as subtle as scrawling spontaneous shapes over dollops of paint—“circular motions, minsan semi-triangle, minsan distorted square. Di ko din ma-explain (I can’t explain it), it’s a very human gesture, very spontaneous,” he says.
Other times, he’d simply do away with the canvas and create literal objects of play, as seen in a collection of 12-inch resin art toys he called “Drumheads” – a self-referential nod to the hobbyist musician’s other passion – playing the drums.
An urgency to create
At the time of our conversation, Fitz is busy producing pieces for this year’s ManilART. But one gets the impression that it hardly matters what exhibition he’s doing because, whether or not he has a show lined up, Fitz likes working non-stop. “I paint every day. Laging nandun yung urge, yung addiction sa pagpipinta (I always get the urge, an addiction to paint),” he tells us, during an evening call from his Caloocan studio. His once after-hours painting routine now fills up his mornings that, by the time the clock hits 7pm, he’s already putting away his spatulas.
Fitz tells us that he’s thinking of calling his ManilART series LomoLove, inspired by photographic colors that plastic toy cameras produce. The lomographic aesthetic also feels like a backdrop for childhood nostalgia, he says, musing about a less worried time when we cared little about the world’s problems. “Ang biggest problem kasi sa mundo is lack of love. Nababawasan, yung iba nakakalimutan. So ibalik lang natin yun.” (The world’s biggest problem is a lack of love. Sometimes it fades, sometimes people forget. So we just have to bring it back.)
As for the abstract artist’s love affair with the canvas, it all circles back to Fitz’s core motivations: chasing happiness through play. “Wala nang ibang word for it, yun talaga eh, laro. Pag pinahid ko na yung huling pintura sa canvas, at tinignan ko kung ano yung na-produce ko, iba yung happiness na nakukuha ko. Sulit.” (There’s no other word for it, it’s play. After that last smear of paint on the canvas, I step back to look at what I’ve done, and I feel happiness that’s unlike anything. It’s worth it.)