David Popa has invented a breathtaking new art form that follows in the footsteps of Andy Goldworthy. He was born and raised in NYC and currently lives and paints in Espoo, Finland with his wife and daughter. He creates phenomenal, large scale works of art directly in nature that only exist for a short while. Documenting the work through the use of photography and drone videography has become an integral part of Popa’s process. Check out these amazing videos and the story of his evolution from graffiti to the natural world.
What types of paint and supplies did/do you primarily use and what were/are your safety precautions, if any?
I’m in the process right now of moving from spray paint to natural paints. That’s because my main profession as an artist is large scale murals, mostly in the urban context and one of the best materials for that is spray paint. The time I spend and the way I go about doing my work in nature is a very different process than the way I do my professional works with spray paint. These mural projects are usually high stakes, high pressure, large scale projects that have to be done in a certain amount of time.
So, I have two very different mediums and art practices and I’m slowly trying to make that shift - which I absolutely believe is possible. And I’m not gonna lie, I absolutely do love the medium of spray paint. No one likes it for its toxicity and no one wants to wear a mask or all that protective gear. But the way you can get different effects and colors is fantastic.
On the other side you have natural pigments, which was initially just fulfilling a need, because I wanted to paint large scale works in the context of nature. And then this natural process started doing work on my heart and my emotions and a lot of things started to become apparent. I hadn’t really questioned what was inside paints and I started to understand what the paints are made of and the consequences of using different types of paint. And in my case the consequences could be huge, because I’m using spray paint a lot.
Which artist inspired you the most?
My dad was one of the first ever graffiti artists in NYC and so he was using spray paint and he had a crazy life story. He grew up basically in the ghetto in NYC from a young age. He moved from Romania when he was around 2 or 3 years old and found himself doing all different kinds of gang activities and then graffiti. That was a really interesting time, a dangerous time and through a series of events he actually got stabbed when he was 17 and almost died. He then pivoted to the Old Masters because he found they offered a sort of liberation. Growing up I was surrounded by the Old Masters. In order to get better at his craft he was doing a lot of copies of their work. We had Los Moneies by Valesquez, the exact size, done in an impeccable way by my dad. We had a Caravaggio piece, an amazing copy done by my dad. And his original artworks were also done in the vein of the Old Masters. We would go to the Metropolitan Museum of Art and he would show me the baroque classical European artists. This is what I was surrounded by as a child. But growing up I was actually more into sports.
Can you tell us a little bit about where you grew up and did that place or landscape affect your life as an artist?
Growing up in NYC my family just wanted to be more in nature. Being in nature for just a couple of hours over the weekend really rejuvenated us. Almost every weekend we’d drive 45 minutes away from the city to Long Island and we’d just be in nature. And that was really where I was feeling the most, where things were clicking for me. Being out in the forest and creating in nature. So, we started creating these little films. My brother and friends and I were making movies about knights and we were making our own costumes and swords and all kinds of things in the context of nature. Anything that was artificial or plastic was forbidden of course.
What art training did you receive?
I went to an arts high school and an arts college and was very interested in this path. When I had the opportunity to go to Orivino, Italy for an intensive painting course, I said no, because I wanted to go hiking in Colorado. That was sort of the constant pull. I was doing art my whole life and I liked it but I wanted to be in nature having an adventure. I thought if there’s a way to merge adventure and art, I would be there. But I hadn’t figured it out yet, until my junior year when I learned the closest thing to adventure and art was doing large scale murals. I found myself doing these large, legal murals, building up my portfolio and that changed everything for me. The easiest way to do large scale murals was using spray paint. It was amazing to me because you’re summoning paint from the press of the finger. So, I became absolutely addicted to using spray paint and doing large scale murals, because you have to do a piece in a day and you don’t know, the next day it could be completely covered.
How did you end up in Finland and is the Finland art scene and community different from its US counterpart?
On one of my trip adventures I went to Finland and there was a lot of these legal walls and I started painting murals in Finland. I met a woman here who is now my wife and I’ve been living in Finland for close to four years. When I moved here after finishing my college degree, I decided I wanted to be a professional artist and built a large portfolio while traveling to different locations painting murals. I’m one of the few professional artists that do that here via muralism. Some call it street art, but people here call me a graffiti artist. I’m not a graffiti artist, I just use the medium of spray paint to do murals.
How would you describe your current art style?
I continue to want to combine adventure and large scale art. I thought, “Where can I make my own walls and in what context would I want it to be in that would be amazing?”. And nature was the obvious one. I actually don’t like the urban context that much. I would rather be in nature. And so, I started doing a series of installations using stretched wrapped plastic, using a landfill biodegradable plastic, with recyclable plastic to make it as environmentally friendly as possible. I would essentially stretch the plastic between two trees and paint portraits on it with spray paint. And so, of course we’re using spray paint and we’re using plastic, right? I don’t want to use those materials anymore. All of a sudden, I started getting concepts and ideas that switched the whole thing. With drone technology, I can paint whole murals of limitless size on the ground and do drone videography of it. And then I started delving deeper. All of a sudden it was a returning of a sense to myself and returning to when I was a boy and returning to a much more primal instinct. I then started experimenting with painting on large rocks.
How did you arrive at the idea to use natural pigments and paints?
I was thinking – the paint has to be washable and eventually wash off the rock; it needs to be totally natural and non-toxic. I started researching paints and I didn’t realize or understand the concept that you need to mix a binder with pigment and that some pigments are synthetic and some are very toxic. I had thought they were all artificial and I didn’t even realize you could make your own paint by using natural materials like bone black. What is bone black? That’s a cool name. Iron oxide, what’s that? I had no idea what these things were. Iron oxide is actually a naturally occurring mineral and bone black is actually from burnt bones and all of a sudden that became really, really interesting to me. That I can even go to the river near by and scratch off some rocks and even make my own paint. That just became fascinating to me. And all of a sudden, a whole new world opened up to me.
What is your process creating these paints in nature and do you still use spray paint?
I first started with just natural pigments and water. Using brushes and garden hoses and pressure sprayers with water from a nearby stream and then throwing in some pigment. I would do these large pieces. I recently just completed my largest scale work which was pretty enormous. It’s a portrait of my wife on a nearby islet, an island near Helsinki and it got huge media publicity. Some people were even flying their own drones over to witness it. It’s sort of been a game changer.
Now I’ve shifted into a whole other realm as a professional artist. But at the same time I’m still doing large urban murals and if I’m not using spray paint, then it’s house acrylic paint. I’m pigeonholed into using certain materials because of the nature of the work. And these murals have to stay for a very long time and generally the more toxic the material is the longer it will stay. At least that’s what seems to be preached and told.
We at Natural Earth Paint are hoping to inspire a “Slow Art Movement” and encourage artists to slow down their process and take the time to hone their craft, create their own art materials like the Old Masters and develop a real connection with their process – allowing the inspiration to come in its own time and taking the time needed to create it. This reminds me of your work, does this resonate with you at all?
So now I’m coming from a whole other perspective and starting to do research and ask “Is there any way to do urban murals with all-natural materials?” Soon after that I did my very first limited edition print release and it did very, very well. So, I’m even seeing possibilities of selling prints of my natural work and maybe travelling around the world and doing these and being able to get some sort of collector base, based on limited edition prints. This goes directly in line with the slow art movement, which is something I realize I was yearning for after last summer when I was almost fully booked. Sometimes I would have an overlapping two or three projects. I’d literally be working on a mural and going to do photo references for another mural and then I had to hire my own dad to help me with my murals. It was just getting crazy. And then it would be quiet for months.
So, I realized this is not the ideal way for an artist to work and progress. It’s been fascinating that the “Slow Art Movement” can be paired and is adjacent to the use of natural earth pigments and doing work in nature! Everything is done in a very different spirit and manner.
What are other plans you have for the future?
I love inspiring other artists to pursue what they want to pursue. I’m working on a series of courses right now from basic drawing to large-scale murals and painting. My painting courses will break it down and also teach using natural pigments with walnut oil.
Last week I went out and got some reeds and ended up making my first brush. I found a feather and this black rock from the river. For the first time I’m interested in making my own brushes with found materials, using natural earth pigment as paints and even down the line, making my own paper.
Can you share an interesting story that happened while creating your outdoor installations/paintings?
I was painting this piece on a large rock and first of all, it looks very bizarre because I’m using these big sprayers and it almost looks like I’m disinfecting the rock or something. A lot of people would see me across the island from the mainland and think I was a biologist and they’d come over and ask what I was doing. Also the work is so large that when you’re standing right next to it, you have no idea, no conception of what’s going on. And the techniques I’m using in order to pull it off are simple, but actually quite, quite complex. It was funny to see their confusion.
Tell us how can we see more of your art?