With fishing wire, sticky tack, construction paper and a camera in hand, Tom Urioste III is ready to start his next oil painting. The shutter clicks three times to capture the suspended silver skull ring, then Urioste puts the memory card in the MacBook sitting on the kitchen counter of his North Center garden apartment.
“I’m going back to something I did almost a year ago and trying to make myself look bad,” said Urioste, 30, senior at The American Academy of Art Chicago. “People always said [the old painting] was good, but I think I’m better now.”
The original canvas shows the same skull ring that’s suspended for Urioste’s current project. It’s very realistic; the details in the ring and the painted background are astonishing. The chrome finish of the ring reflects the light so realistically, on first glance the oil painting might be mistaken for a photograph.
Urioste is an oil painting major at The Academy, graduating this December. He’s on a break from school for the summer, giving him a chance to work on personal projects. Recently, he’s been finding his inspiration for personal and academic projects in music, he says.
“One song has been getting me in the vibe for what I’m doing lately, it’s ‘Pyramids’ by Frank Ocean,” Urioste said. “The song got me thinking about shapes, which is really just everything all of this is. There’s something divine about the number three, but it’s our jobs to explore it, not explain it.”
The path to art school was a unique one for Urioste. He comes from a family of military legacy. The ex-Army vet found himself struggling once his time as a part-time jailer in the Oklahoma County Sheriff’s department and a recruiting assistant for the Army were coming to an end. Urioste said he was depressed, and his father made him move to Chicago to get his life back on track.
“I wanted to be a tattoo artist, so I brought my portfolio to Skin of a Different Color in Aurora, and was told I needed to go to art school. The artist went to The Academy, so I applied to The Academy,“ said Urioste.
Urioste sends a picture of his set up to two friends and waits for their response before he continues. Jeff Sant and Alex “Zespo” Velasquez are two classmates of Urioste’s, and he won’t start any of his work without getting approval from them. He consults them on everything from his original idea to overall composition.
“I don’t do a painting unless I run it through them. I’m inspired by their opinions, Jeff’s work ethic and Zespo’s hunger,” said Urioste.
Urioste waits as Sant and Velasquez send him sketches of how he should set up his scene. He has to look at something to paint it, so the scene must be perfect. He takes a piece of glass out of a picture frame and sets it on two glasses. He gets a text from Sant. He finds more sticky tack and angles the piece of glass between the two glasses to get a perfect reflected angle.
After taking more photos of his set up, he begins to loosely sketch out the scene on his canvas. He works off both the live set up and the picture that frames the scene the way he wants it to be documented.
“Starting is the hardest part. I’m very particular about what’s being put on the canvas,” said Urioste. “I need everything to be measured. I have OCD and it goes into my paintings. Everything’s measured from corner to corner.”
It will take Urioste about a month from start to finish, idea to completion for one of his works. Once the painting process begins, he starts with an underpainting of raw umber and layers colors until he arrives at his desired destination.
Painting only from sight, his works are not stylized but very realistic. While his ideas are very much always in his head, he cannot create a scene just from memory.
As Urioste’s time in formal education is coming to an end, he’s still trying to figure out what he’s going to do. He has yet to sell one of his paintings, but not because they can’t sell.
“I don’t do this for everyone else, I do it for me,” said Urioste.
After many careful measurements, the canvas is ready for paint. The line of the glass divides the middle, with the ring and its reflection flanking both sides. A pyramidal shape takes form.
“The process isn’t the same every time,” said Urioste. “I may not get the drawing right for a day or two.”
After many layers of paint, an end will be in sight. Urioste says there’s a certain feeling he gets when he knows a piece is done.
“I think, ‘I better stop now before I ruin it.’”