oil painting

"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

"The Time Between Times"

"Time Between Times" (22" x 34")

"Time Between Times" (22" x 34")

Sometimes when I am trying to get ready to begin a painting, it's difficult to know what I want to paint. I hear other artists say things like "I'm just waiting for inspiration...I'm in a dry season right now." That's not me. I've never been in a dry season. I've never waited for inspiration. If I dive into something (whether or not I feel inspired at the moment), inspiration comes quickly. It's like that inspiring little muse is always there (albeit quiet sometimes) but it can always be coaxed out. Sometimes it's like a pouting little kid that doesn't want to play and is sulking in the corner. And so you say "okay that's fine! I'll play without you" and before long, the kid slinks out of the corner and joins the play. 

So I am not slowed down when I don't feel "inspired". What I'm talking about is when I'm between projects and want to paint...am ready to paint...NEED to paint but I don't know what I SHOULD paint. How to decide...

What I usually do at that point is to look through all my photos in my camera and go to Bing or Google images and start the search for something to inspire my painting. I always tweak the photo so it's not a "copy" (I need the painting to be a unique piece), but I feel free to get inspired by a sunset, sunrise, interesting foreground or general composition of a piece. But the really big thing I'm looking for in a photo is not whether or not it's beautiful. There are lots of beautiful photos that make lousy paintings. I'm looking to create an emotion in the viewer. Manipulative, huh? It's true. 

The above painting is one I just finished this morning, "Time Between Times", and it depicts that five minutes of time between day and night that the world becomes magical with the quality of light and color. I'm looking to create a piece that evokes a sense of awe. I can imagine being there in the scene and thinking "Oh...my...gosh. (long pause) That..is...amazing". If I were standing on the shoreline of this lake at that time of day, I would feel awe. My goal is that I can share that sense of awe with the viewer of my painting. 

So to me, it's not my primary goal to create nice art. That's part of my goal, but utmost in my mind is that I want to elicit emotion (usually a sense of awe or peace or joy, but sometimes sadness and pain). If I can do that, then I've touched on something powerful and that is a very heady thing to try to master. I'll always strive to that end. 

World View #8: Post Modernism

"The Fountain" by Marcel Duchamp

"The Fountain" by Marcel Duchamp

I'm an oil painter in Asheville, North Carolina and I love living here. It's a unique little city. Asheville is an odd little cultural "melting pot". It attracts bohemians, artists, hippies, and hikers. To a great extent, we're a cool version of "the Island of Misfit Toys". Asheville is a southern American town with a handful of "locals" who were born here, and the rest of the population are transplants from all over the country. The vibe of the town, the beauty of the surroundings, the art, music (and craft beer) scene -- this is what draws people here (it's not the job opportunities!).  This makes Asheville a really interesting place to live, because you live your life amongst people who all have different views on things political, social and spiritual but (for the most part) respect the right of their neighbors to hold their own views. In fact, the only thing people here seem not to tolerate is intolerance. That sentiment leads us right into our next (and last) world view: Post Modernism.

To be accurate, a post-modernist would say that post modernism is NOT in fact a world view, but an “anti-world view". They would say that no single narrative is able to make sense of all our little cultural stories. In other words, "worldviews" are now out of fashion (which in itself is a world view).

Per this world view, there is absolutely no absolute truth.

Because our world views create the sense of how we interpret life here on this planet, how we make sense of everything we experience, a post modernist would assert we all create our own reality, and that it's pointless to try to convince anyone else that your particular "take" on things is the correct "take" on things. Post modernism would insist that there is no authoritative "take" on anything.  

Per this world view, there is absolutely no absolute truth. Yes, I wrote that sentence that way intentionally, because it points out to me the weakness of this world view. To say there is no absolute truth is in itself an absolute truth claim, so when I say "there is NO absolute truth", I'm contradicting the very assertion I'm making.  But because of the abuses of power by all who have held the previous world views discussed (see earlier blog posts), post modernists  distrust of all authority and dogmatism.  And if you listen to people speaking around you (from the news on TV to social media), you'll notice that the phrase "I believe this is right or true" has been replaced by "I feel this is right or true". I.e. post modernism appeals to our "gut" rather than reason and logic based on an accepted set of principles we regard as absolute truth.

Because of this, tolerance, freedom of expression, inclusion, and refusal to claim to have all the answers are the only universal values. And honestly, that sounds really good but...but it's a world view of contradictions.

Consider the following conversation between two friends:

Sam:  "I don't think you should do it. It's not right.

Tom:  "I think I should have the right to do whatever I want to do."

Sam:  "I just don't think it's right."

Tom:  "You're just pushing your morality on me. It's YOUR morality. Not mine. You're just judging me. Who are you to tell me I'm wrong?"

Sam:  "Wait, so you think judging people is wrong?"

Tom:  "Of course judging people is wrong. Everyone knows that."

Sam:  "So you think I'm doing something wrong when I'm judging people?"

Tom:  "Yes, of course you're wrong when you judge people."

Sam:  "But you're judging me. I think I should have the right to do whatever I want to do. What if I want to judge? Who are you to tell me I'm wrong?"

Logic like that is really hard to debate. So I personally find post modernism really frustrating and most difficult to scrutinize, but it is an absolute truth (pun intended) that this world view has very deeply affected twenty first century culture.

And so, we've reached the end of our very over-simplified discussion of world views. Theism, Deism, Naturalism, Nihilism, Existentialism, Modernism, New-Age Pantheism and Post Modernism...these are the world views that have shaped the western civilization since time immemorial. And because of that fact, they have drastically affected the art produced by our culture.

So in light of all we've discussed, how do we use our knowledge of world views to understand art? I would suggest it boils down to asking two questions when we are exposed to artwork (painting, photography, ceramics, poetry, music):

1) What world view is it speaking from and to? The answer to that question has a whole lot to do with what is the artist is probably saying.

2) So in light of the answer to the first question...is there a message in the art and if so, what is it?

“BUT IS IT GOOD ART?”

I think that's a fair question to ask and a rather simple question to answer. Once we have at least some idea of what the artist is saying, I would consider one more point: What level of skill is involved in the execution of the art being considered?  I mean, do you look at the piece of art with any degree of wonder? (i.e. “Wow, how’d he or she do that?”)   

That’s it. You don’t have to be sophisticated to figure it out.  When my kids were little, we took them to a modern art museum. For the record, I wouldn't suggest this outing for most kids, but it was pretty hysterical. Everyone there looked like they were quietly viewing the artwork (one was a blob of red paint in the middle of an 8' square white canvas) with wrapped fascination. To me, it was so interesting just to watch the people. It really felt like a modern retelling of the story of the Emperor's New Clothes and I felt like the little kid that was laughing at the emperor because he was in fact naked (though everyone was acting like they saw such astute wisdom in the king's choice of royal finery). Everyone else in the museum was acting like they saw such wisdom and depth in the artwork on display. Into that scene, my kids come racing around the corner and shout (so embarrassing), "Mom! Dad! You gotta see the stuff in this room over here! It's even weirder than the stuff in this room!" There were gasps from the museum crowd. Truth hurts.

What level of skill is involved in the execution of the art being considered?

There's a true story about an art auction in New York some years ago. There was an abstract painting auctioned off for millions of dollars. It was prized for its frenetic energy and non-traditional use of color. It was later found out that it was painted by a gorilla. The interesting thing is that everyone was completely insulted to find this out and the buyers demanded their money back. This is fascinating. Was it good art or not? Everyone thought it was great before they found out it was painted by an ape. Again -- think "Emperor's New Clothes".

Look, bottom line is: If it’s good art, you can probably tell.

Since I'm obviously giving my opinion at this point in my blog series, let me go one step farther:

I don't believe that everything called art is art. There. I said it.

  • Just because it’s shocking doesn’t make it art. It may well be a visual expression. But unless there is skill involved, it is not art.
  • Just because it is clearly conveying a message doesn’t mean it’s art if it is not skillfully pulled off.
  • Just because no one else has thought of doing it doesn’t mean it’s art.

For what it's worth, I think good art says something TO the viewer (which is why we need to interpret the art in lieu of the artist's world view) or that art does something IN the viewer...and is skillfully done.

That’s it.