Down the Barrel of a Colt - Colt Prehm

Published: 31 May, 2011 - Featured in Skin Deep 199, May, 2011

In a world where we constantly celebrate the mundane in the name of ‘modern’ art, Colt Prehm’s paintings are a tour de force of visual pleasure. The first thing that strikes you, when you see Colt’s work, is the quality and detail he puts into them. We are talking about portraits that look like Rembrandt himself could have painted them. Then look a little closer and you realise that these amazing paintings must be modern - because as far as I am aware, not many people living in the 16th century had ear tunnels or owned electric tattoo machines...

This is what I love most about Colt’s work, the mix of a classic style of painting with very modern subjects! It’s as if one of the old masters has found himself a time machine and travelled to the future to record how we are now - or Colt has travelled back in time to learn his craft. So when I was given the opportunity to talk to the man behind these works, I jumped at the chance to find out what drives a twenty-six year old from Santa Fe, New Mexico, to paint like a master from 16th century Europe!

“I have always been drawn to the great, old masters of the past; some of my favourites being Rembrandt, Caravaggio, and Ingres.  There is an underlying sense of craftsmanship to the work they were creating that you don’t find in most modern art…and I know I am probably stepping on a few toes here.  I remember the first times looking at Rembrandt’s drawings and paintings and being blown away by the technical ability that he possessed. I have always loved art, just like any kid. I don’t think there is a child alive that doesn’t draw, paint, love music or build things. Our creative nature is, well… part of our nature. As I have grown older (to the ripe ol’ age of twenty-six) my life has begun to be profoundly affected and changed by art.  Whether it’s creating a tattoo for someone that is helping them move into new places in their life or making/viewing art that is meant to inspire you or help you to consider new possibilities and ideas; art has no choice but to impact the human race on a personal and societal level.”

Did I mention that Colt is also a very talented tattooist? Though his tattoos are not in the same style as his paintings; artistically and technically they are bang on the mark! And it seems, in a roundabout way, that it was tattooing that led him along the path to becoming a better painter!

“I sort of fell into tattooing and painting. I was in college studying biology and psychology and began working at a local tattoo studio where I apprenticed for both piercing and tattooing.  By the time I was ready to start tattooing there, my boss at the time, Bob Parr, told me that I needed to get my art degree so that’s when I switched majors in school and started studying drawing, painting and art history.  I guess that’s when I started painting. I realised right away that although I really enjoyed tattooing, painting was what I have been called to do. Not to take anything away from tattooing; it offers an opportunity to explore a unique form of art and also to interact with people in ways that very few professions allow but painting is what I was born to do.”

“I don’t believe that art is all about self expression because if all you are concerned about is expressing yourself and sharing ‘your voice‘ then you can’t expect anyone else to care.  I feel that art is a means to communicate ideas to the population at large and that in order to do that you need to ‘speak’ clearly through the art.  The best way to accomplish this is to get really good at drawing, really understand colour theory and composition, and also understand not only the history of art but contemporary art as well. I am definitely still working on trying to get good at all the things I just mentioned.”

With both painting and tattooing being visual expressions of a mental image, does Colt find the process leading to the end result, is the same in both or does he approach each medium differently during the creative process? 

“To me there is not a separation in my mind between tattooing and the other work that I do in terms of process. Drawing is the foundation of all of the visual arts and painting seems to me to be a combination of drawing and colour theory.  Just as working in oil paint is a different medium from charcoal drawing, tattooing is a separate medium as well; although it relies on the same fundamentals of drawing and colour theory.  So when I’m tattooing I’m thinking about the exact same things as when I’m doing my other work. I’m trying to understand the structure and form of what I’m tattooing, gesture in the piece, composition, and in a colour tattoo imagining and trying to understand the relationship of the different hues that I’m using.  I treat a colour tattoo just like painting for the most part. I use a 10-20 colour palette for tattooing depending on the piece.”

Besides landscapes and still life, Colt’s paintings tend to focus on portraits, something that he does not seem him cover in his tattoos. Was this a conscious choice on the part of Colt, to keep the two completely separate?

“I don’t do a ton of portraits.  It’s not a conscious choice but I think a lot of that has to do with the fact that I don’t work from photographs in my painting and drawing and as little as possible with tattooing as well. I feel that photos are a non- experience and I want my work to be based on interactions with real people, things and places; not an interaction with a photo.  A lot of the joy of painting and drawing for me comes from spending time with my subject, a 3- dimensional being, and transposing it to a two dimensional surface.  It’s a really difficult and rewarding process and is much different than copying or utilizing pictures as they are already put into a 2-d context.  Not to say that good art is never made by using photos as tools, it just doesn’t interest me much.”

“Besides working from observation I create a lot from imagination too which I really enjoy.  It’s taking all of the information that has downloaded into my brain through making thousands of drawings, paintings and tattoos and creating a new reality out of those experiences.  It’s amazing to me that as artists we can construct a new reality! We can take a culmination of experiences that we have had and mesh and mix them to create an image that the world has never witnessed before. And by showing them something new you are providing them with a new construct to their reality.  It’s really powerful and I think that is why it’s important that we are responsible about what we are putting out there as artists. I make a conscious effort to be uplifting with my art and interactions with people; I believe it’s important.”

With his combined tattooing and painting styles being quite encompassing and covering a broad spectrum, I ask Colt who and what his influences are?

“I think that the question regarding influences is really important because of the massive impact those people we respect have on us.  I already mentioned several of the old masters that I really get inspired by but there are definitely contemporary artists I love as well.  First of all I have to mention my teacher and mentor, Tony Ryder.  I have not met a more influential, gentle, talented and humble person…ever.  I feel that I must give him the credit for anything that I know about drawing and painting.  Several other painters and draftsmen working today that I really respect and study are Yuqi Wang, Jacob Collins and Johannes Heisig.  There are a ton more but those are a few that popped into my mind.  In terms of tattooing my biggest influence has been Guy Aitchison.  I don’t necessarily want to tattoo like Guy but I really respect what he has done to raise the bar in the tattoo industry; he’s a really great tattooist.  I doubt he remembers but when I first started tattooing I emailed him asking questions and saying hello and I received some nice responses in return.  I think that we as artists often underestimate the effect our taking the time to talk to someone can have on them.  I really love talking to other artisans and aspiring artists and encourage people to email, call, etc.”

“Another influence, I would like to add, is my family; especially my wife Liz.  It is so important for an artist to have a great system of support and I have the best!  I can always count on family to not only build me up but to offer constructive criticism when it is needed as well.  Also, it is crucial that we are that support to those we love and share our lives with as well. It’s easy to get lost in our own little creative world sometimes.”  

And Colt is quite happy to do his share of encouragement and knowledge building too. “I teach primarily painting and drawing but I have done short term tattoo apprenticeships as well.  I am teaching a lot locally right now and am also teaching a portrait class at BACAA (Bay Area Classical Artists Atelier) just south of San Francisco this fall.  There is info on my website about the class.  I feel that teaching is not only something that I enjoy doing but it is a kind of responsibility I have to others. I have been blessed with one of the best art educations available and need to share what I have been so graciously given.”

“If you have discovered you have a passion or desire for something I believe that it has been placed there for a purpose and you should do whatever you have must to pursue it and cultivate it.  This often means seeking new training or taking classes but it’s worth the investment, even if it’s to advance yourself in what you are already doing.  There is always learning to do and I try constantly to stimulate my mind by obtaining new information.  At this point specifically for me that has been by inventing my own personal drawing course to put myself through in order to improve.  The second and most important thing is to discover why it is you do what you do.  If you understand the reason you are doing/ pursuing something you won’t lose heart or feel like you want to stop. Keep your reason in your mind always; write it down on things around you and don’t allow yourself to lose sight of your goals and the cause for your feeling of passion for something.  As I always say, feel free to contact me anytime and I would be happy to talk more about… anything!   Whether it is for asking questions, having a discussion or commissioning a piece of artwork!”

So consumed by his passion is Colt, that even his studio he works out of is considered a project! “Prehm Studios is a new project I just recently started and I think it’s a really special place.  It’s essentially just my personal painting studio with a private tattoo station in there as well.  I have had an enormous positive response to the space.  Clients coming to get tattooed there are in for a new experience in collecting their body art.  There is something really stimulating and calming at the same time about being tattooed/tattooing in a place where you are surrounded by drawings and paintings, many of which are in progress. Most clients who walk into the studio do not even look at a tattoo portfolio, I think they are comforted by seeing all of the work that is going into creating the drawings and paintings and I treat giving someone a tattoo exactly the same way that I would approach someone wanting to commission a new piece of art on
the canvas.  I always tell people that my goal is to give them the best experience and body art they have ever had, period.”

Talking of goals, what does the future hold for Colt? Any new projects on the horizon?

“My plans for the future are relatively straight forward. Keep making art. I set goals for six months in advance, one year in advance, five years and ten years. Within the next year I want to be published ten times and be featured on television for my art. And I want to be making the most beautiful paintings that I have ever created.  Also, I have shown with several galleries but I would like to have full time representation at one of my ‘dream galleries’ this next year.  In the future you can plan on seeing much larger paintings too. I am finally feeling confident enough to begin approaching more ambitious projects and I have some pretty large canvases stretched and ready, up to 2.5 meters.  I feel like scale is going to play an important role in my work later on.  One goal for the distant future, is to have work hanging in the Metropolitan Museum of Art while I’m still alive.”

With direction and focus like that, I can see Colt being huge in the near future. But with such big ambitions and such a busy creative life, I ask Colt what inspires him, keeps him fresh and driven to work so tirelessly at his chosen path?

“My inspiration for the art I make is primarily spiritually based. I really feel that I have been destined to be a visual artist by God and that through my work I am going to have a positive impact on the world. I chose painting, drawing and tattooing as my creative vehicles because of the history and effect these arts have had on humanity.  It’s wild when you think about the amount of lives that have been changed though art. Take Rembrandt for example. His work is not only evoking feeling and telling a story, but it has been passing on his ideas and beliefs for hundreds of years. By his work he is still living, having an impact on the lives of millions of people.  If after I physically die I can influence multitudes of people to love more, care more and discover their meaning for being and their passion then I guess I will have done what I needed to do while I was alive.”


Everybody has heard the name but most presume it to be Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn’s surname - when as you can see, it’s plainly not. A Dutch painter and etcher (15 July 1606– 4 October 1669), he is considered one of the greatest that has ever lived. He is one of the very few to have been popular whilst he was still alive too.

In his paintings and prints he exhibited knowledge of classical iconography, which he moulded to fit the requirements of his own experience; thus, the depiction of a biblical scene was informed by Rembrandt’s knowledge of the specific text, his assimilation of classical composition, and his observations of Amsterdam’s Jewish population. Because of his empathy for the human condition, he has been called “one of the great prophets of civilization.”

It is known that Rembrandt ran a large workshop and had many pupils. His fame was such that important dignitaries visiting Amsterdam wished to buy pieces, and he was more than willing to comply if he could. The list of Rembrandt pupils from his period in Leiden as well as his time in Amsterdam is quite long, mostly because his influence on painters around him was so great that it is difficult to tell whether someone worked for him in his studio or just copied his style for patrons eager to acquire a Rembrandt.

Interestingly, a letter published in 2004 by Margaret S. Livingstone, professor of neurobiology at Harvard Medical School, suggests that Rembrandt, whose eyes failed to align correctly, suffered from stereo blindness. This conclusion was made after studying 36 of Rembrandt’s self-portraits. Because he could not form a normal binocular vision, his brain automatically switched to one eye for many visual tasks. This disability could have helped him to flatten images he saw, and then put it onto the two-dimensional canvas.


Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio (29 September 1571 – 18 July 1610) was an Italian artist active in Rome, Naples, Malta, and Sicily between 1593 and 1610. His paintings, which combine a realistic observation of the human state, both physical and emotional, with a dramatic use of lighting, had a formative influence on the Baroque school of painting.

Infamous while he lived, Caravaggio was forgotten almost immediately after his death, and it was only in the 20th century that his importance to the development of Western art was rediscovered. Despite this, his influence on the new Baroque style that eventually emerged from the ruins of Mannerism, was profound. It can be seen directly or indirectly in the work of Rubens, Jusepe de Ribera, Bernini, and Rembrandt, and artists in the following generation heavily under his influence were called the “Caravaggisti” or “Caravagesques”, as well asTenebrists or “Tenebrosi” (“shadowists”). Andre Berne-Joffroy, Paul Valéry’s secretary, said of him: “What begins in the work of Caravaggio is, quite simply, modern painting.”

Only about 80 works by Caravaggio survive. One, The Calling of Saints Peter and Andrew, was recently authenticated and restored. It had been in storage in Hampton Court, mislabeled as a copy. Richard Francis Burton writes of a “picture of St. Rosario (in the museum of the Grand Duke of Tuscany), showing a circle of thirty men turpiter ligati” which is not known to have survived.

Prehm Studios

1550b #2, 
Pacheco St. 
Santa Fe, 
NM. 87505. 
(515)451 7652.


Text: Trent Aitken-Smith; Photography: Colt Prehm