There’s a group of women staring at visitors to Dan Sabau’s studio in Brooklyn. Ethereal and haunting, their eyes flash with tightly drawn irises and willowy eyelashes. Their hair falls in soft waves or curls around their faces. The curvature of their jawlines and cheekbones dissolve into sylphlike streams of lavender, peach, or rose watercolor paint absorbed amorphously into thick white sheets of paper. They line the walls, these paintings, looking out and almost seeing in a way that feels both bewildering and enthralling.
Sabau has been working with watercolors for about seven years, drawn to subjects he defines as unconventionally beautiful — beyond the traditional visions force-fed to people by the mainstream media, whether they look androgynous or mysterious or like they fell out of a 19th-century Nordic painting. Yet while the exterior might be what first catches Sabau’s eye, when painting from a rotation of live models seated in his studio a few times a week, what he is really looking for is something beneath the surface. “I think through painting a subject from life, you’re able to experience that person,” he says. “After looking at them for an hour or two, there’s all these things that come up. That’s what I try to capture.” Inspired by painters like John Singer Sargent and Rembrandt, and the finesse of illustrator Charles Gibson (whose work Sabau admires so much he has Gibson’s most famous creation, “The Gibson Girl,” tattooed on his arms), he hopes to distill the connection between himself and his subjects, revealing the latter’s inner life.
Sabau was born in Romania and raised in Cleveland, Ohio, after his family left the oppressive regime of Nicolae Ceaușescu behind in 1984, when Sabau was seven. Sabau began taking art classes as a teenager, eventually graduating from the Cleveland Institute of Art with a BFA in painting and a minor in sculpture. He moved to New York in 2001 — having played there years prior with a former punk band, Slak — gravitating to the city’s unpredictability and excitement. He has since shown his work in galleries across the United States, and it also appears in Josh Radnor’s 2010 film Happythankyoumoreplease and in the personal collections of Tobey Maguire and former Pogues lead singer Shane MacGowan, among many others.
The same unpredictability that drew Sabau to New York is evident in his work. In 2014, after the death of a friend, the painter Ray Abeyta, Sabau found himself too unsettled to work in his studio for a few months. One day, though, his spirits turned. Working with watercolors, he painted an eye, a face, and then let go, adding a bunch of water to saturated color, then walking away for a few hours, not knowing what would happen to the work. That was the start of his current process. “I like that even though you can manipulate the medium how you want to, when you start adding water to it, all these beautiful accidents happen,” he says. “That excites me, it stimulates me as I’m making a piece.” The first painting Sabau created this way is still in his studio. Resting on a wooden easel, the form of a head and body ooze together, dotted with nebulous orbs of color. And yet the eye holds tightly: Sabau’s signature combination of complementary tension and ease are ever present. He feels that the eyes provide a direct connection to the subject, but he doesn’t like to finish a painting entirely. “I think less is more, and it makes the viewer wonder a little bit about what [the piece] is and search for things,” he says.
Before adopting this process, Sabau says, he felt he had too much control over his work. A classically trained painter, he can do and has done traditional oil paintings, but he didn’t find the process as rewarding as just being able to let go. “It’s sort of a metaphor for life — or how I like to live, at least,” he says. “Sometimes you gotta control things, and most of the time you gotta let stuff go.”
Sabau finds he’s able to create his best work at night, so he schedules one to two subjects a week to sit for him. Sometimes these are friends of friends; other times they’re people he meets during his bartending shifts. Sabau used to work as an art dealer, but he found it stifling to his process. “I had to stop because I didn’t want to feel like you had to sell art,” he says. “I think art sells itself.” About 12 years ago he became a bartender, which allows him the time and flexibility to continue creating his own work. Given the propensity for small talk at the bar, the recurring question “What do you besides bartending?” allows him to discuss his work with the people who flow in and out, many of whom are artists themselves. It’s an ongoing stream of inspiration. “I think by just sitting and doing a portrait of someone… it’s almost like I’m trying to celebrate that experience, whether it’s good or bad or whatever, not exploit it but try to express what it’s like,” he says. “I [try] to explain to the subject that it’s really about the experience that we’re going to have. Every piece is different. It doesn’t have to be special. It just is what it is.”
For Fernet-Branca, Sabau created The Eagles Dare, a refreshing summer cocktail inspired by a Misfits song.
The Eagles Dare
1 part Fernet-Branca
2 parts dark rum
Fill a highball glass with ice and 2/3 of the way with ginger beer. Float the rum and Fernet-Branca on top, and garnish with lime.