oil painting

Regarding "Inspiration" vs "Necessity"

A few days ago, a visitor to my art studio was watching me paint for several minutes, asking good questions about what I was doing, and sharing some of her adventures in artistic endeavors. Then she asked me a really good question that I think bears addressing: “What do you do when you have to paint but don’t WANT to paint?” Then she followed up with a related question: “How do you paint when you just don’t feel inspired?”

There are so many ways I can answer those questions. I wrote a blog a while back “How to create when you don’t feel creative” that addresses some of this, but I’ll answer from a different direction here. 

Art is not just born in a moment of whimsy.

It’s not controlled strictly by the emotions…

I’m a full-time artist and I have my studio in an awesome tourist Mecca: Asheville, North Carolina. We get visitors all year long from all over the country (and other countries) who spend the day wandering through the art studios of over 220 artists, looking at the artwork and getting to know the artists. Because this is more than just a hobby for me, we don’t eat if I don’t sell paintings and I won’t sell paintings if I’m not producing them. So I don’t have an option regarding whether or not I’m painting. That’s my job. What if a doctor didn’t show up in an operating room, or an airline pilot didn’t show up at the airport, or an Uber driving didn’t show up in his car or a restaurant owner didn’t show up at the restaurant simply because “they didn’t WANT to show up”?  I’m not different.

Art is not just born in a moment of whimsy. It’s not controlled strictly by the emotions. If it were, then most of the professional artists I know would go out of business. Just like everyone else trying to earn a living, professional artists have to do what they do, do it as best they can, and then hope it sells. 

I can’t answer for any other artist out there, but personally, I’ve never NOT wanted to paint. I love painting because I love imagining (I can’t help it). But the issue of painting when I’m not “inspired” usually just means I have to be quiet, go for a walk, listen to music. Creating involves emptying the creative “tank” inside my head and when that tank gets drained, it’s important to fill it back up again. So I hike. I pray. I think. I listen to leaves rustling in the trees. I try to listen to God. How one “fills up” would probably be a personal thing that varies from artist to artist, but that’s how I do it. 

In short, I don’t have the option of just painting when I’m “inspired”. If my creative tank is empty, it’s because I’m not regularly filling it up and while I sometimes don’t have control of when and how my “tank” is empty, I do have control over how often I am filling it. It takes time. Resting time. Quiet time. My culture would look at that sort of thing is frivolous and unproductive. It is not. For an artist (and I assume everyone?), that replenishing time is absolutely essential, and that’s an element of my culture I try vigorously to take exception to. 

The Best Complement I've Ever Received

A couple weeks ago, a woman from New Jersey entered my art studio in Asheville’s River Arts District and unknowingly paid me just about the highest compliment anyone could give me, exclaiming to her husband, “Oh, this guy’s artwork reminds me of Monet. It’s like neo-impressionism!” (I didn’t even know that was a word!) Compared to some of the things people say (like, “I think these are photos he’s somehow dipping into glass”), this comment made me smile deep inside. Monet has long been my hero. What he did with his oil paint was magical. The color variations, the light, the texture and the compositions of his work are (in my opinion) second to none.

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The Story Behind the Series

One of my all time favorite series of paintings he did has to be the Poplar series from the summer and fall of 1891. If you’re not familiar with this series, there’s kind of a fun story behind them. It seems the trees were growing in a marsh on the banks of the Epte River, just south of Monet’s home in Giverny, France. Each day he painted, he got into his small boat and rowed upstream to his floating painting studio (for the record, I would love a floating painting studio!) that was moored there in the river, with the poplars in the background, planted in a single row by the waters edge, forming a graceful S-curve with the river. According to the story, when he was about half done with the series, the trees were put up for auction and were about to be purchased by a lumber merchant. Undaunted, Monet decided to purchase the trees himself so he could finish his paintings. Upon completion, he did sell them to the lumber merchant who had wanted them in the first place, and I assume they were turned into pencils or furniture not long after that. 

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I love this story because it hints at a familiar obsessiveness about creating. The thought of him thinking “well, I’ll just buy the trees so I can finish my paintings!” just cracks me up but I love it and I’m so glad he bought those poplar trees. I do wish I could visit the Epte River and see that line of poplars now. The trees themselves may be long gone but they will live forever in his work. 

"How do you Decide What to Paint?"

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The other day, I had a really nice couple visit my Asheville art studio from northern Ohio. They spent a good deal of time looking at all my work and were obviously connecting with it. That “connection” makes me feel a sense of accomplishment because this is obviously my goal. After a good while perusing my paintings, they came up to my workstation in the front of my studio and asked, “How do you decide what to paint? I feel like I can just walk into each piece. How do you do that?" Oh gosh, I love questions like that. Usually the questions are nit-picky technical questions inquiring about the precise steps involved in my process (I don’t share those by the way) and addressing those questions all day long can be tiring. But THIS question made me smile. This gets to the heart of the matter. A cool technique might be interesting, but unless a painting “draws you in”, that painting will not sell. And as a professional full-time artist, I sorta need my work to sell and so this issue is something in the forefront of my mind as I’m considering what to paint next.

A cool technique might be interesting, but unless a painting “draws you in”, that painting will not sell.

When I have no idea what to paint next, I browse through all my old photos from various hikes and vacations we’ve taken over the years. The thing is, I some really awesome photos in my files that, while they are really nice photos, would make really boring paintings. One of the key things I look for is whether or not I’m “drawn in” to the composition. If you look through my landscape portfolio on this website, you’ll notice I often employ a pathway of some sort, whether it’s a road or footpath or something in between. I do that because that is such a simple way to invite the viewer into a painting: “Come down this pathway and see what’s around the corner!"

If I want to really accentuate the invitation, I’ll throw in a few sun rays. Sun rays are magical. In a dark, silent forest on a long-forgotten footpath, rays of sunlight up ahead beckon you on.

The other issue is that honestly, every painting I dream up is depicting a place I would personaly like to just go and sit (probably by myself) and listen to the sounds of the place. Maybe for all day. That’s what I’m into. I love being in nature and sensing that call to quiet. I really need more of that. And from what I’ve seen in my art studio, that “call to quiet” resonates with a lot of people who visit me and view my artwork.

So, combine a path and a few sun rays into a quiet space like that, and then you have it: a painting you want to walk into. It sounds really easy, right? It’s not! What I’ve explained in a couple of paragraphs here takes hours and days sometimes. But when I find what I’m looking for, I always save that idea and eventually, that idea gives birth to a painting that (if done right) will carry someone to a quiet place in a very busy world. I like to feel like that’s important.

What if...

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I’ve been waking up in the middle of the night (!) with ideas. I try not to, but I can’t hep it. It just happens. That’s the curse of being “a creative”: you can’t plan (at all) when the muse will sing her song. When she sings, you listen.

So I was listening to my muse a few nights ago and I got excited about a new idea for artwork. All my artwork is flat. Duh. Go to an art museum and look at all the paintings. They…are…flat. But what if they weren’t flat at all? Who made up that rule anyway???

So I’m thinking of an idea I have to play with. It might bomb. I won’t know until I try, but in my head, it looks amazing. I see sail shapes in various configurations on a wall, billowing out into the room. Each sail is luminous, covered with aluminum (reflective) leaf and oil paint. And each sail is coated with a thin layer of resin to bring out and accentuate all the color. And in their billowing glory, they’re mounted in a row. Three of them together? Five? Seven? Three hundred? (just kidding, but still…)

See, this is how I think. It’s really frustrating sometimes. But I guess artists are supposed to be eccentric and unpredictable so I feel okay about this. What I see in my head is really beautiful. I need to play and experiment and this may be an awesome idea that should just remain in my head but I’ll not know that for sure until I try. I purchased all my materials today and I’m starting a new sort of painting after the holidays (between commissions).

Sails. Think sails. I can’t wait to see the result. And…I’ll post the photos whether it turns out well or not.

Recent Projects on my Plate

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My gosh, the life of an artist is so much fun, but can be really busy this time of year! I’m so thankful for that! I’m still amazed I can do what is (for me) the most fun thing I can think of doing and be able to make a living doing it.

Currently, I’ve got twelve paintings in various stages of creation that will end up in my open art studio / gallery in Asheville’s River Arts District. These are mostly local landscapes with a few “generic” themed landscape pieces. When I paint for my studio, I have to consider the fact that visitors are mostly tourists that would like a piece of art to remind them of their trip to Asheville. I’ve learned over the years that venturing too far off the path (of local themed paintings) is not a great idea if I want the art to sell (and I do).

And so far, I have six commissions lined up for a January start date! Here are my assignments:

1) 44” x 72” piece that depicts the view off the back deck of my clients house near the tip of Long Island, NY. This will feature some trees in the foreground, and wetlands with cattails and fishing docks in the mid-ground and the sparkling water of the bay in the background.

2) I have a 24” x 72” piece that is a panorama of woodlands at the tail end of summer, so the trees will be mostly green leafed, but with a hint of gold and rust thrown in here and there.

3) 12” x 35” spray of orchids. This will be fun and challenging because the orchids will be built up and sculpted onto the canvas, then covered with the aluminum leaf and paint.

4) Two 8” x 10” paintings of birch trees during summer and autumn (to go with another two I did last year for this client featuring birch trees in spring and winter) so this will make a complete four seasons group.

5) A 36” x 36” painting depicting a scene from the Netherlands. My clients are using their own photo for this one (I love it when people feel the freedom to do that!)

6) A 24” x 40” painting featuring a scene on the Biltmore Estate of an old oak tree overhanging the French Broad River in autumn.

So that’s what’s on my plate right now. That should be enough to keep me busy and out of trouble for a while anyway! Huge thanks to everyone that has asked for commissions! I’m offering a 20% discount on any commission ordered now but that I can start after the holidays. So if you’d like to own one of my paintings at a discount, now’s the time to inquire about it!

Okay, enough blogging. I obviously have to get back to painting!

Planning for a Second Studio Location!

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This winter, I will be doing the preliminary set up for a second art studio…in TEXAS! I love mountains or wild seascapes, so I never, ever thought I’d be excited about being in Texas but here’s the thing…three of my four kids are there and seven of nine grandchildren are there, and Joy and I have the opportunity to set up shop right there with them all. We’ll still be keeping Asheville, North Carolina as our home base, and St.Claire Art studio in the River Arts District will still be open there, but parts of the year (corresponding to slower tourist seasons in Asheville), we’ll be painting in Texas.

I’m excited about two things related to this: first of all, I absolutely love the idea of being close to our family, and second, this opens up new opportunities for galleries in the central U.S. and Rocky Mountain states.

…finding the ear of a gallery owner takes either a personal visit by the artist, or a connection via a third party…

I’ve always wanted to find gallery representation in that part of the country, but being on the east coast, it’s just too far away to realistically explore. And finding the ear of a gallery owner takes either a personal visit by the artist, or a connection via a third party who knows the artist and the gallery owner. This second option happened to me just this summer. There is a gallery Elk River, Michigan (on the north-west coast) that will be carrying my work in the spring and I’m really excited about it! I’ve been to that area and it’s gorgeous — and it’s frequented by tourists. This opportunity came about because a client of mine that lives in that part of Michigan knew a gallery owner and she played matchmaker, and I’m so appreciative whenever that happens because it makes my job so much easier!

So if anyone out there in cyber-land knows of galleries I’d fit into in the central US and Rocky Mountain states, please let me know! This spring, I’ll be ready. :)

Commission Confusion

This last week, I had a visitor to my studio in Asheville’s River Arts District who spent quite a bit of time looking at all my paintings I have displayed in my art studio/gallery. They walked around a couple of times, studying each piece. I just assumed they were an artist trying to figure out my technique, so I was politely quiet. :)

I don’t charge any more for commissions and I guarantee you’ll be happy with it…

After several minutes, they left, but then returned about an hour later and went back to a couple of landscape paintings I have hanging near the back of my studio. On my way to my “back of studio workspace (where I do the messy work), I briefly commented that if they had any questions, to be sure to ask. They nodded quietly and continued staring at my painting. That’s fine. After another ten minutes or so, they walked slowly by my front-of-studio workstation and watched me paint. So I got to talking with him just a bit and he said that he REALLY liked a couple of the paintings but was afraid they were both the wrong size for his space. So I recited my standard commissions speech:

“If you would like to commission a painting based on one of the paintings you like, I am very happy to revisit that idea in another size. I can even change it from a summer to an autumn scene or add some sun rays coming across the trees. I don’t charge any more for commissions and I guarantee you’ll be happy with it or I’ll sell it here and paint you another one. And I ship for free, which, since you live in New York, saves you having to pay the NC sales tax…”

“Oh no,” he said. “I wouldn’t want to have you do that.”

I was fine with that, smiled and told him to have a great day and to make sure he comes back again next time he’s in town. But honestly, I don’t understand his reluctance to commission a painting. Did he want a “unique” painting? Or did he not want to spend the money for a “commissioned piece”? Or did he think a commissioned piece wouldn’t have the same “artistic energy” from me as a painting that came “from my own heart”? I didn’t ask because, well, I just never would.

Is it unique?

As far as being a unique painting, each one I do is a unique piece of art. I never just “copy” a painting of mine — I always tweak it so each one is unique, but I feel complete freedom to revisit a favorite theme (look up “Monet Water Lilies” or “Money St.Paul’s Cathedral” and see how many iterations he did of the same theme). If Claude can do it, so can I (that’s my reasoning). And honestly, when I try a new thematic idea and it works, when I have gone back and rework it, the new one always turns out better.

The cost of a commissioning a painting?

I never charge more for a commission. It’s exactly the same price as it would be if I just did it to hang on my studio wall and tried to sell it here.

Is a commissioned painting inferior to a piece that “came from the artists’ heart”?

No. Bottom line is that I just love painting. I don’t care what I paint. And commissioned pieces honestly have always been the most fun because I get to paint ALL SORTS OF THINGS I’d never be able to sell here in my Asheville art studio. For commissions, I’ve painted scenes from Scotland, Canada, the Swiss Alps, New Zealand, the canals of Venice, underwater fish “cyclone”, even a sunset over Antarctica. I absolutely love it when someone says something like “I have probably a crazy idea for a painting…” Right there, they have me hooked. Something new and try!

I hope my studio visitor comes back sometime and sees something he likes. But I would really get excited if he said, “okay, I don’t see exactly what I want so let me try to explain it and see if you can do it.”

I can do it, and I promise I’ll have a blast.

Beauty in the Center of the Pit

Let me first say that if someone by chance is reading this blog, you probably already know I’m an oil painter in Asheville’s River Arts District. I paint some abstract pieces (great therapy!) but mostly I paint local landscapes. For the record, my favorite time of the day to depict in a painting is dawn or dusk, because the light is perfect, and my favorite time of the year to depict is probably autumn, because again…the light. I love trying to capture that moment in a day that may only last a couple minutes and then it’s gone — that time when the sun colors the clouds crimson and orange and the world feels like it’s holding it’s breath, waiting for the first cricket to begin it’s song. In short, I love depicting the awesome beauty of this place.

This week though has been really difficult for me and I need to write about it. So this blog entry will really be more like a journal entry. I need to get write this down or I’ll pop.

“I’m not afraid”.

I got a phone call from my 92 year old dad last week and it sounded like he had the flu, so he went to the hospital. As the days of last week slowly ticked by, we found that he has a large tumor in his colon and it’s nearly blocking the whole thing. I know what this means, and my dad does too. I knew he wasn’t going to live forever but “that day” was (in my mind) always off in the future. Grief and fear are really interesting. Most of the time, I steel my heart and I’m fine. But then there are waves that are too large, and they knock me off my feet. My plan was that my dad would live the end moments in my home. But he’s in Dallas and I’m in Asheville and this snuck up on us by surprise. By Tuesday, when they get the biopsy results back, we’ll be able to make a plan. For now, we wait.

Suddenly now, I remember all the ways I disrespected my dad (he wasn’t perfect — surprise!) and caused him pain with my words and my own brokenness, and that regret can be crippling. But when I talk to him now, I can tell none of that matters to him at all. He just loves me and wants me to know he’s not at all afraid. For him, this is the final logical step one has to take to meet his Maker, who loves him, and my dad takes that very seriously. Yesterday (through many tears) I read Psalm 91 to him…

”Whoever dwells in the shelter of the Most High will rest in the shadow of the Almighty. I will say of the Lord, “He is my refuge and my fortress, my God, in whom I trust.” Surely he will save you from the fowler’s snare and from the deadly pestilence. He will cover you with his feathers, and under his wings you will find refuge; his faithfulness will be your shield and rampart. You will not fear the terror of night, nor the arrow that flies by day nor the pestilence that stalks in the darkness, nor the plague that destroys at midday…”

I was crying but he was encouraged. “I believe that Steve”, he said strongly. So do I.

I don’t know how long he has. Maybe days or weeks? Maybe months or years? No idea. But this is grief and I guess it’s time I become familiar with it and let it become fuel for my creativity as the waves wash over me. What does grief and creating artwork have in common? If done right, I think they are very much connected because they’re both real and honest. I found myself painting some pieces of art this week that I’m really proud of and excited about, not as a diversion from the grief and fear but because of it, propelled along by it. Strange thing.

Alright. I feel better now at least getting that much down. I promise I will not regularly use this blog to vent regarding this. But this was therapeutic.

SURVEY: GLOSSY OR SATIN

Even before I became a full-time oil painter in Asheville's River Arts District, I was developing a unique way to create a painting using dimension, both in the build-up of the composition and in the finish (which has mostly been using a thick, high-gloss, solar-resistant resin). In fact at this point, I think I'm probably known for that "shiny" resin finish. I like it a lot. It allows me to embed flecks of gold that are essentially "floating" above the surface of the actual painting.

That said, my largest commissions over the last couple of years have been with a satin varnish finish, which leaves all the texture visible (and touchable) and is not nearly as reflective as the high gloss resin. And I'm really liking the results of that finish as well.

Lately, I have more and more people asking about the satin finish and so I'm thinking I need to listen.

And so I'm asking for your brutally honest opinion:

Would you suggest I continue to produce paintings with a high gloss resin finish or would you honestly prefer a softer finish that leaves more of the texture showing and is much less reflective? You won't hurt my feelings either way and on the contrary, you'll really help me decide what direction I need to go now.  (SEE PHOTOS BELOW FOR EXAMPLES OF BOTH)

HIGH GLOSS FINISH USING RESIN

HIGH GLOSS FINISH USING RESIN

SATIN FINISH USING SYNTHETIC (NON-YELLOWING) VARNISH

SATIN FINISH USING SYNTHETIC (NON-YELLOWING) VARNISH

So, what do you think? One or the other, some of both? Mostly one, some of the other? I'm really open to listening. If you could leave your opinion below (so they're all consolidated in one place), that would really be appreciated! Thank you!

Where it Began

"Autumn Reflections", April 2012

"Autumn Reflections", April 2012

When I was a kid, I used love to look through my grandparent's old photo album. In it, were scary photos of dead ancestors -- dressed very smart, unsmiling, staring into the camera. Something about the thought that "I am related to these people -- this is where I came from" kept drawing me back to that old book of ancient photos.

I thought of that memory just the other day, as I looked back at the first first photos I posted on my (then brand new) Facebook page. Wow. I cringed and laughed out loud. I found myself staring at the very first painting I had shared back in 2012, "Autumn Reflections". This was one of the very early "landscape" pieces I had done using my new technique I called "Dialuminism" ("Light Passing Through"). See, when I started working with painting atop aluminum leaf and finishing with resin, I was doing all abstracts. Separately, I was painting small quasi-impressionistic landscape scenes, but I really wanted to figure out how to paint landscapes using the tools of dialuminism but I had no idea how to coax the materials and ingredients to create what I wanted to create. The painting I'm showing here was my first attempt at a landscape. I had so much fun with it (and these new reflective landscapes were SELLING!), that I quit doing my more typical oil painted landscapes and jumped head long into my technique, using dialuminism for every piece I did. It became my trademark.

I enjoy seeing where I come from. I was all about ancestors long before ancestor.com. I like seeing progression. It's fun. And I thought it would be entertaining to share that progression with other people. I hope you're enjoying the ride as much as I am!

"Until Tomorrow", July 2018

"Until Tomorrow", July 2018