Up Close With Diego Boonen.

So, Diego, what strikes me about your work is that it’s very lively and kind of rough around the edges. It sometimes feels unfinished in a way – how do you see that? 
I think that aspect of my work shows who I am and what I’m like (laughs). From when I was a young kid until now, I was never the one that had it all figured out or that colored nicely inside the lines, so to speak. Any type of expression will always reflect who you are, and that’s me. And with that I don’t mean that everything has be all heavy, or that every piece of art needs a super serious or tragic backstory – that’s not my thing. I am who I am, and I just paint whatever comes out of me. That rougher aspect, the elements that don’t seem like they’re exactly how or where they should be – that’s what I think is awesome (laughs)
It feels very spontaneous, or even a little naïve to me. There’s a playfulness in there that I really enjoy.
That’s exactly it (laughs)! I often discuss this with Jesse (Tomballe, an Antwerp painter that works in the studio right above Diego – ed.), whom I’ve become good friends with over time. We’re almost polar opposites in terms of style, and I always tell him that I could never draw or paint in a way that’s not naïve. I do admire artists that are very technical or create work that is super realistic, but that’s just not what I’m into creating myself. I don’t think art has to be like that. 
What matters most to me is getting the composition and the colors right. I think most people will agree with me when I say that those are the factors that make you fall for a certain painting, whenever you step into a museum or gallery. Even if you don’t understand what’s going on in that painting, you can find it beautiful. At the same time (laughs) – it still has to make some kind of sense too. At least to me. It can’t just be whatever. It’s almost like a soup. You have all these ingredients, and you can improvise with those, but in the end, you have to get the flavor just right.
But that’s not easy, right? You were just saying how you often work with layers upon layers, or how you start over, or change all the colors. Do you really feel it when that balance is achieved? Or do you tire yourself and accept that it is what it is?
It’s funny that you put it that way (laughs). I do always have a certain idea in mind of what I want to paint, of the story I want to tell. Then again, I also want to make something that I think is beautiful – which causes me to adapt and change my story. So yes, there’s a lot of destroying and rebuilding involved. The process can be exhausting, but I can’t rest until I’m satisfied. If I’m not satisfied, I won’t ever be able to show the painting to anyone (laughs)
I can imagine there’s also a point where you feel like you’re only going to make things worse if you keep changing things? It’s gotta be hard to know when to stop.
Honestly, that’s the scariest thing about painting (laughs). I’ll say this; going from 0% to 70% is easy. I’ve got my ideas, my sketches, the colors I want to use, and I just go for it. But then I hit that 70% point and I’m like, “shit, where do I go now?”. It gets super hard (laughs), I start doubting myself and get caught up sometimes. But every once in a while, I get lucky, and I can go from 0% to 100% in one go, but that’s rare.
How about working on a series of works, for an exhibition. How’s that? 
That’s another of those things (laughs)! It’s complicated because in one way or another, you constantly evolve as an artist. You get better at what you’re doing. Well, hopefully (laughs). But when you’re working on a series of 8 paintings, for example, and you finish the 8th one, you look back at the 1st one and it feels like you have to start all over because the differences seem huge. But that’s something you got to get over. I’ve learned to just leave my signature and put the paintings away, otherwise there’s no end, ever. 
With that constant evolution in mind, how does it feel when you look back at your earlier work? 
I know that some artists look back at the work they made 5 or 10 years ago and feel embarrassed. But I don’t really have that. I can see the progress I’ve made since, but I don’t necessarily think it’s bad. There was something there. Something that was even more spontaneous than what I do now. Everything was wide open in a way, there was less of the second guessing that I just mentioned. Plus, with time you start paying more attention to what other people do, and that’s not always a good thing. It can be as inspiring as much as it can slow you down. 
In the end though, you can only be yourself. You’re born with the talents you possess, and you get your inspiration from certain places, but I do believe that the only thing that really works is being true to you.
Was there a time when you felt like you weren’t doing that? And how did you get out of that?
Sure. When I was younger and had just started painting, it sometimes felt like I was trying to please someone else. For a while I tried to pay attention to “what worked” or what was “commercially viable”. That didn’t feel good, obviously. It felt like when I was going to school, where my teachers tried to convince me that I had to get good grades for myself. But it never felt that way to me. I went to school because I had to and because I didn’t want to let my parents down, but that was it.
After a while it really dawned on me that I had to do what made me happy, I had to paint what felt right to me. I was just lucky enough be surrounded by people that believed in me and that pushed me to follow that instinct. I’ll always be thankful to everyone that gave me their support along the way. No one held my hand, but I do want to acknowledge that. You really do need supportive people around you, people that believe in what you’re doing.
If I’m not mistaken, you didn’t go to art school, so exactly how and when did you start painting? 
You’re right. And I sometimes wonder if things would be different if I had gone to art school or an academy at some point. School wasn’t easy for me as a young kid. Thinking back, a lot of signs pointed to me being more of a creative person, but I didn’t pursue that back then. Then again, I don’t really mind having a different background. I studied economy and trade in high school, it could very well be that all that trading and selling also explains why I talk so much (laughs).
Somehow, after a brief stint in marketing I ended up working in fashion, part time at first. It was during that time that I wanted to launch a brand of sunglasses with a friend, and to get better at designing those I took evening courses in drawing. That helped me, even if it was a little boring too at times. It was only when I took up painting that I really felt like I’d found my thing. The more technical aspects still aren’t my forte, but that’s fine. I don’t want to worry about a hand or a foot being anatomically correct. Honestly, I want to feel free. That’s what I love about drawings or paintings that kids make. They just put something on paper that’s very instinctive and uninhibited. Shapes and colors come out the way they come out and that’s perfectly fine.
Going back to your first show, how did you experience that whole thing? I can imagine it feeling like a really big deal. I mean, it was your first solo show.
It was pretty terrible actually. By that I mean that – for me – showing my paintings in an exhibition, or even on social media, feels like taking off all of my clothes and walking through the streets… naked (laughs). That sounds stupid, but that’s how it feels. Everything you’ve worked so hard on, by yourself, gets put out there for everyone to see. And even if a lot of the feedback is positive, you can’t control what people will think or how they will respond. I know it’s all part of the deal though. Both the good and the bad need to be taken with a grain of salt, I try to not let any of that phase me.
The wonderful thing was that most of the response was very positive, and sales went well too. That doesn’t say everything, but it does indicate that you’re doing alright (laughs). It’s also interesting to see which paintings people are drawn too, and which ones kind of fall to the wayside. In a way that really helps with future work as well, because often it confirms that the things that I love doing personally, also really appeal to others. That’s a good feeling. In the end that first show definitely gave me a boost of confidence.
I totally get that. All the attention must’ve felt overwhelming too, even for a very sociable guy like you? 
It’s a strange thing. I don’t really feel like the artist should be at the forefront, it’s the art that has to do the talking. Just like for a fashion designer, it’s the clothes that need to do that. But of course, being there and talking to people is part of it. It’s funny too, because I’m someone that talks a lot, but that doesn’t make that type of event any easier (laughs). If you’d ask my girlfriend, she’d say I enjoy the attention, but at the same time I don’t really enjoy it. It would’ve been just as good without me there. I was just super thankful that so many people showed up and checked out my work.
There’s something very humble about the way you present yourself. I feel like that was reflected in the venue you had for that exhibition, which was basically an old house that was stripped down. That’s not a coincidence, right?
It comes down to knowing your place. Of course, I’m ambitious and I have dreams of where I want to go with all of this, but at that time, that setting was perfect for me. I want to take things step by step. Working with a gallery is something that will come one day, I’m sure. I’ll just keep on doing what I do, and I’ll get there. But for a first solo show, it seemed like the perfect location to me. A lot of people thought it was very charming and a nice change of scenery.
Thing is, I can’t help but always think of the next step anyway. I used to paint at home for a long time. That wasn’t doable anymore after a while, so I started dreaming of an own studio. Now that I have my own studio, and it’s cool, I’m already thinking of trying to find a bigger one (laughs), because space is limited, and a lot of my paintings are big. That’s how it goes. When I think of it, I’m already living the dream right now. I can focus on painting full time, and that’s awesome. I’m not where I want to be yet, and there’s often stress involved, but it’s important to keep going and keep believing. I’m glad I made that leap. Not everyone that I talked to thought it was such a great idea, but I just did it. If it doesn’t work out and I need to get another job next to this, that’s alright too, but this is what I really want to do now.
Thank you Diego!
Pictures by Wouter Struyf
Production & styling by Gijs Grondelaers
Words by Bjorn Dossche