Art Studio

"How do you decide what to paint?"

One of the questions I regularly get asked from visitors to my art studio in Asheville is “where do you get all these ideas to paint? Have you been to all these places?” My answer varies but basically, I explain that no, I have not necessarily been to all these places, though I have been to some of them and I’m always taking photos. “Oh,” they’ll respond, “so you work from photos then?” Yes. About half the things I paint are inspired by photos I’ve taken or received from a client. I find I especially lean on a photo if it’s a commissioned piece of art from someone who has something specific in mind. The rest of what I paint basically reflect the happy places in my head.

“Because this is my job, I have to paint

mostly what I think people will purchase…”

Because I’m a full-time artist, I need my work to sell so I’m always listening to the people that visit my studio (even when they’re whispering to each other — yes, I can hear you sometimes!). This is SUPER helpful to me because I know what is really resonating with people. When I paint something new and hang it on the wall and it gets a ton of attention, loud sirens and blinking red lights go off in my head: PAINT MORE LIKE THIS! So I do. Because this is my job, I have to paint mostly what I think people will purchase in my River Arts District art studio by visitors coming to Asheville for a vacation. So most of my paintings are local or generic scenes. That said, I’m most excited right now about two really impractical pieces of art I started thinking about last winter: A 3’ x 6’ single crashing wave and a 3’ x 5’ scene featuring a composition of towering, jagged Himalyan mountain peaks.

What does a crashing wave or jagged mountains have to do with Asheville, North Carolina? Nothing. “Don’t you want these to sell?” you ask. Well, yes I want them to sell but I don’t care if these two sell or not. See, every now and then, I think it’s important that you express something really personal and distinctly “you”, whether or not anyone else ever appreciates it. Maybe these paintings won’t sell, and that’s okay. That said, these two are thankfully getting a ton of attention as I’m working on them, so that’s really encouraging. I’ll post the completion photos here when the time comes.

Close up of silver leaf wave.

Close up of silver leaf wave.

Interior shot of my wave (with the first layer of paint) and the mountain scene.

Interior shot of my wave (with the first layer of paint) and the mountain scene.

Looking Back and Looking Ahead

In thinking about one year closing and another just beginning, I guess I'm not alone in getting a bit introspective regarding the accomplishments of this past year, and excited about the possibilities of the next. So to just get these things out of my head and on virtual paper, I’ll take advantage of this blog and record my thoughts and dreams here. So, in looking back…

2018 was very good to us. Here are some of the highlights:

1) Individual customer base grew to the highest level to date. See, there are basically three ways I sell paintings: individual clients who are purchasing artwork for their home during their trip to Asheville, sales from art galleries that represent me, and corporate / institutional jobs (public art, art installations, things like that). So the fact that more individual sales happened in 2018 is really, really encouraging.

2) Earlier last spring, I came up with a new method of creating an abstract painting. It involves applying texture to the canvas and then applying the metallic leaf, then drizzling resin over the entire piece in a random design or grid. Then when the resin sets, I add the paint in the "resin valleys" and then finish it all off with more layers of resin.

3) Just at the tail end of the year, I came up with a new form of installation art which will literally billow out from the wall. I've tested individual elements of the idea and so far, each test has worked awesomely. In the next few weeks, I'll be working on three prototypes. These will just be 20" x 24" pieces, but if this works (and I'm very positive about it so far), this concept could be accomplished with 4' tall panels, or eight foot tall panels, extending to whatever length desired to fill up the space.

And here are some of the things on my wish list for 2019:

1) Find more key galleries around the country that would represent me. This would result in "spreading out the sales" and income sources so that most does not just depend on Asheville, North Carolina. This seems wise. It would also be fun more me because I could expand the landscape themes I could paint.

2) Locate and work with more interior designers so that my corporate work would grow. These are really fun projects just because of the possible scale of them.

3) Develop and market my new "sail-form" art panels (see point three above). In my head, these could be really cool because the surface reflecting the light and holding the paint layers would be bent, so the colors would differ greatly from top to bottom and/or side to side. That could be really interesting.

I'm really, really grateful that I can now make a living doing what I absolutely love to do. This is something I never want to take for granted. And I'm really excited about dreaming together with my wife Joy regarding goals and ideas and possibilities for the next year. You never know the ride a year (or even a day) can take you on, but I'm ready to take a deep breath and dive right in! Wooo hooo!

Planning for a Second Studio Location!

Asheville art studio.jpg

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. :)

Thoughts on New Directions, New Possibilities

I'm an oil painter in the River Arts District in Asheville, North Carolina. I love our spot in the Blue Ridge mountains. It's really a fun, dynamic and sometimes crazy little city here in Western North Carolina. I've been painting in a studio in the arts district for almost eight years now and in my current studio for three years this month. It's been amazing. I get to paint and talk to people interested in artwork all day long, five days a week.

It is very much in my personality (maybe it's a basic human tendency??) to think "this will last forever". I love to "pigeon-hole" things so that life looks organized. And as much as I love change, there is something almost intoxicating about the idea of stasis, you know? Predictability can be comforting. The trick for a person with an artistic-adventurous spirit like me to find the line between predictability and unplanned adventure. The balance between predictability and adventure, comfort and fun -- that is the goal.

Sometimes though, so many things can change so very quickly. This season I am entering looks like one of those seasons of change, and from where I sit, it all (thankfully) looks like very good change. There are possibilities of new interesting painting commissions here in Asheville, new painting themes, expansion of my technique with a variety of finishes on my work, expansion of my market with international art galleries and the development of a new part-time art studio in the Dallas area (where three of our four kids live).

So over the next few months, I'm looking forward to sharing my adventures (if they work out) and maybe some disappointments (if my expectations do not work out) but it may be a pretty interesting next several months. In the mean time, I will keep painting, keep my studio doors wide open and totally enjoy the fall season (traditionally the busiest time of our year).


How to Make a Living as an Artist

StClaire art.jpg

I was recently asked “How do you make a living as a full-time artist?” That is the million dollar question for a lot of really creative people out there, and there are so many factors involved in the answer. I’ve seen people become really successful with an art career and some miserably fail. It’s really not rocket science, but there are certain things you should do and some you shouldn’t do that can help or hurt your chances. Let me explain.

A few years ago, a gentleman came into my art studio and told me he was an artist and wanted to talk to me about getting his paintings into my “gallery”. He then proceeded to remove several oil paintings from a cardboard box to show me. I had to explain that this was my studio (where I create and sell) my own art, and not an art gallery per se. And honestly, the level of skill I saw was not something that would inspire sales and sales are the only way an artist can make a career out of creating art.

Just because you want to sell something
doesn’t mean anyone will want to buy it.

I am reminded me of an experience I had when I was four years old. I wanted some money to fund a trip to the store for candy and baseball cards, so I cooked up a scheme involving a handful of rocks. See, I decided I would set up a card table out by the street and make a sign that read “ROCKS FOR SALE”. These were super cool rocks (I thought) and I was sure someone would agree (enough to part with a quarter). No one even stopped to look at these gems-in-the-rough. No one. Important lesson learned: Just because you want to sell something doesn’t necessarily mean anyone will want to buy it.

In my opinion, if someone desires to make a living creating and selling artwork, they need to be willing to seek solid artistic training, critique and learn the basics of promoting their business. 


If you want to create and sell your artwork as a career, get training, and pick your school carefully. Not all art schools or art programs teach actual skills. Visit the school and take a look at the student art and ask yourself a question: “Does this look like something people would actually purchase?” Some of what I see at art colleges look like the students are having a truly cathartic experience creating some really edgy art, but unless that’s combined with real skills learning, how do you make a living with that when you graduate? This is why so many art students graduate and end up flipping burgers. Training is really important. Look, if someone works on my car or repairs my air conditioner or operates on my brain or makes me Beef Wellington at some expensive restaurant downtown, I would absolutely expect they were well trained and have some real ability. Same with art. Same with everything else we do.

I can hear someone say, "So you just dismiss everyone who's self taught? You think we all need art degrees?" And I would answer a definite "no". I basically invented (self-taught) my whole technique I use (with the help of the foundation I received with my training). I'm not discounting the concept of "self-taught" at all. I just think that a person can go a lot farther in any profession we're talking about it if that person got some coaching, and the easiest way to get coaching is school. There are actually "rules" in art that would be really helpful for an aspiring artist to be very familiar with.  Knowledge of those rules will help you create something amazing. When I was a kid, I was bored with normal tomato soup and so...I decided I would experiment with adding orange juice to it. I learned very quickly that certain flavors blend well together and others definitely do not. There are rules. An art degree is definitely not the only way but it's the easiest way. If you don't go that route, try to find a mentor. All I'm saying is that in addition to any possible self-teaching, get trained. Get input from others (and especially experts), which conveniently leads me to my next point:


If an artist has an arrogant personality that doesn't listen to or seek out critique, I don't think that's going to help them move forward. (I have more to say on this subject in an earlier posting if you're interested.) To make a living doing this, you have to listen for criticism and not just TO criticism. Sometimes what an artist wants to paint may be really therapeutic, but won't be sellable. When you look at art creation as a career, you have to find a balance -- it should be both inspiring to you and inspiring to the viewer of your art.  

I’ve had one artist a couple years ago visit my studio and ask if they could make an appointment to ask me for advice as to how to make art his career. That was totally flattering and I liked the fact he asked for an appointment (that was respectful). When you show someone respect, they will be much more likely to help you out with some advice. So seek out other artists and/or gallery owners. If they’re too busy, they’ll tell you, but you may get some really great advice this way. 

The other thing you could do would be to enter your work in juried art shows. If your artwork is consistently rejected or consistently gets attention and/or wins an award, that will be a real gauge as to whether your abilities are what they'd need to be. 


Get professional looking business cards and create a website. The website should have your artist statement, bio and lots of photos of your work, and how to contact you. Do you do commissions? Explain how that works. Don’t be afraid to look at other artist's websites and make notes of what you like and don’t like. If you can’t afford to pay someone to create a website for you, there are DIY website programs out there and they’re fine. Just make it simple and clean and informative. 


After training, critique and creating professional-looking self promo tools, you’re ready to begin actually putting together your career. In my next post, I’ll discuss the variety of ways you might do that and explain what I did (which was a bit less “conventional” than most professional artists out there) but it worked really well for me. 

"How do you decide what to paint?"

Johnsen Commission concept photo (for future 30" x 60" painting)

Johnsen Commission concept photo (for future 30" x 60" painting)


One of the questions I'm often asked is how I decide what to paint. That question is most easily answered if said answer is dictated by the desires of a client for a painting that is commissioned. Obviously, for a painting commission, the client tells me what they want. That makes it easy (and usually a lot of fun because the subject could be almost ANYTHING).

When I'm just painting something to fill my walls here at my art studio in Asheville, then the answer is a lot more subjective. I usually am trying to keep an ear open at all times to what seems to be resonating with people as they enter my studio/gallery. That helps dictate what I will be working on next. See, my work station (where I do 85% of my work) is located just inside the door to my studio, so I'm right there, meeting and greeting people (and hopefully) painting. I hear people's comments (sometimes they crack me up!) so I know what is interesting to people. That helps me so much when I need to sit down and figure out what to paint to replace something that's sold.


One thing I've learned is to think one season ahead. Right now it's autumn. But right now, I've got an entire wall full of winter themed paintings and I've got more in the pipeline. The winter scenes are hot now through the holidays. As soon as "REAL" winter settles in and we're under snow pack and fighting freezing rain and sleet, then the appeal of snow scenes wears off. But that won't happen until January 1. As soon as it hits January, I'm painting spring scenes and by May, it's full-on summer scenes. I think this is because the human heart loves to anticipate the next season, but when we're "in the MIDST" of that season, we get bored and are longing for the next season. This is all new to me -- I grew up in southern California and we really didn't have much in the way of seasons at all, but the rhythm four seasons in Western North Carolina brings to life is just wonderful I think. I'm so glad to be living now in a place with four real seasons, because I love to paint all four (the Blue Ridge Mountains are spectacular all year round).

When I'm painting an abstract, then usually I just take a look at the "in" colors that are hot for decorating and I use those colors. Usually.

In the end though, I paint what makes me happy. There. True confessions. That's how I decide what to paint. Enough writing now...back to work.


Inspiration and Rest

Fishing on the lower Blue Lake, Breckenridge, CO

Fishing on the lower Blue Lake, Breckenridge, CO

Last week, my whole family (kids and grandchildren) were given the opportunity to spend time at a cabin of some friends/clients in Breckenridge, CO. We spent the week hiking, biking, fishing and a lot of laughing (especially during endless games of Settlers of Catan). If you ever need to be recharged and inspired, the Rocky Mountains will do the trick. Awesome and severe and covered with wildflowers this time of year, we left them inspired and ready to dive back into the Asheville summer season!

I enjoy my job so much as a painter in my studio in Asheville's River Arts District. I usually am not even aware of the fact that it would be good to get a break. See, painting FEELS like my "break" and I get to do that five days a week. For those of you who have purchased my artwork...THANK YOU for giving me the privilege of doing what I love to do. It's not lost on me that I can joyfully create because people like you support and encourage me by actually purchasing what I create. 

But I can get so blissfully caught up in the creating of art that it's really easy to miss the fact I need a break, and that even with art, I need to take time to recharge and to fill my depleting creative tank. 

Well, now that creative tank is full again. I left the Rocky Mountains rested and inspired and with some new ideas I want to try. If these ideas work, then some exciting things are in the making in the next few months, and I'm really excited about that. 

Half Baked Ideas...

I usually don't show anyone what a half-completed painting looks like, but then I thought it might actually be interesting for friends to see. Every painting I do goes through what I call "the ugly stage" and these pieces, each approximately 50% complete, have JUST come out the other side of that ugly stage. Admittedly, they ain't beauties yet but they're not as hideous looking as they were a few days ago (trust me on that). When these pieces are complete, I'll post side-by-side photos (in process / finished) if people are interested. 

A Funny Thing Happened at the Studio Today...

So, imagine blissfully painting by your window (so you're in your "zone") and a nicely dressed woman (the mayor) enters your studio followed by professional looking gentlemen from HBO carrying TV cameras and a huge boom mic and she starts asking you questions about your unusual painting technique and what it's like to be an artist in Asheville. Yeah, so that was my afternoon!

Musings of an artist...

I work in one art studio of many art studios in the River Arts District of Asheville, North Carolina. And I do most of my work right in front of my front door (the light is best there and, well, I like to greet people as they come in. And then, after being greeted, the questions start...How did you get interested in art? Why are you an artist? Why are you an oil painter? How did you get started doing this?

And because I have an open studio and work about four feet from the door, I get to talk with visitors all day long, every day. And I'm asked these questions constantly. And honestly, it's really funny. I mean, I would never go to a Christmas wine and cheese party and ask an accountant or dentist or history teacher or lawyer any of these questions. Maybe that's because I'm an introvert but still -- what is the big deal with being an artist? I mean, I do like the attention (okay, I said it). But still, what is this all about?  It's interesting and amusing and humbling all at the same time.

 It's interesting because, well, I was talking to an accountant just today and I am so thankful there are people like her that actually understand numbers! Seriously. I think THAT is mysterious and awesome. I'm just a painter. I play with oil paints all day long. I mostly paint mountain landscapes somewhat specific (but not entirely) to Western North Carolina. I do that (mostly) because I can, and (mostly) because it's fun. It's not at all mystical, it's just really, really fun. Making ledgers balance -- now that is mystical to me. If you're an accountant...thank you. I need you. God bless you.

It's amusing because people come in and see me busy painting and often (in whispers) "Oh, he's working!" This makes me laugh every time. "Yes. I am scooping up paint on this brush and rubbing it all over this canvas here..." But I never say that. I always say (because it's actually true), that this isn't work. This is joy. This is pleasure. And right now, this is my life and I am so, so thankful. still makes me laugh inside when people say this.

And it's humbling because I'm no rock star. I think I'm rather awkward and can be kind of a geek (just ask me about ancient history and be amazed at my geekiness). But that's okay. How many people get paid for doing what they love to do? The answer to that question is why I'm truly humbled at the attention given artists.

And then, there was the visitor yesterday who , upon looking at the oil painting I was working on said, "Well, if I can be honest, I think you're wasting your time".  Ha ha. It takes all kinds.