art composition

What Was Art School Like?

Art Center College of Design, Pasadena, CA

Art Center College of Design, Pasadena, CA

The other day, a family of five came into my art studio in Asheville. They’d been browsing in and out of the different art studios in the River Arts District and had a lot to say about the artwork they’d seen and artists they’d met. Super nice people. This couple’s son said he was interested in pursuing art as a career and Jim (the dad) asked me if I’d been to art school for training and if so, what was it really like? Was it worth it? Oooooo. Good blog post idea!

So, I’ll try to condense what was a half hour conversation into a short blog.

I really think that if it’s the “right” art school, it can be really valuable to an artist. “Self-taught” is fine, don’t get me wrong. No one taught me the technique I’m known for in my artwork. I made it up. But…I made it up using the tools I got from my education. I went to Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, CA. It was extraordinarily challenging but was definitely an amazing experience. I absolutely loved college. One of the things I learned there was to be organized with my time (a valuable tool I’ve used ever since). The work load was so intense and the pressure on the students was incredible. The years I attended, Art Center was ranked #2 (right behind Harvard School of Law) in terms of stress level on the students.

“Crit time” reduced us college students to tears…”

This was also the place I learned to take artistic criticism. I had to either learn to take critique or emotionally crumble! See, upon completion of our assignment, we would post our work on the walls around the classroom. Then we’d each present our assignment, and each of the other students would take turns expressing what was right and what was wrong with what we’d done. There was none of this “now remember, with art, there are NO MISTAKES”. Don’t believe it. “Crit time” reduced us college students to tears. It was brutal and really, really helpful (if you opened up to listening).

The other really helpful thing we learned was about the correct way to compose a piece of art. Did you know there are good and bad color combinations and good and bad compositions for a painting? Oh yes. We learned color theory and we learned about the laws (google "the Golden Section” sometime) that govern makes a pleasing composition of a piece of art. When I got to this point, Jim (the dad in my now captive audience) asked “What about abstract art? Would those rules apply to types of art other than landscapes or still life?” Oh my gosh, YES. Color and good composition are all you have with an abstract painting. Knowing the rules is even MORE important in an abstract.

My time at art college was amazing. I so appreciate the instructors, the brutal critique (though I didn’t enjoy that at the time) and the awesome life-long friends I made there. Because of all that, I’m able to now paint full-time and live in an awesome place like Asheville (and talk to nice families coming into my art studio asking me about my experience at art school. :)

"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.

"Frankenstein-ing" a painting

Blue Ridge Mountains Oil Painting.jpg

One afternoon last autumn, Joy and I had a hankerin’ (Southern for “urge”) to pack a picnic and watch the sunset. So we stopped at the store and grabbed what is now “standard picnic fare”: a roasted chicken, whole wheat rolls, potato salad, a bottle of decent wine and Pim’s (for dessert). It was somewhat cloudy that day but the afternoon seemed clearer than the morning, so this was one of those evenings I wasn’t sure about the weather but it was still worth taking a chance. In short, it was wonderful (but cloudy). We drove up onto the Blue Ridge Parkway and headed south (toward Smoky Mountain National Park). About a half hour drive from Asheville, we found a good west-facing turn out and parked the car and feasted, enjoying the muted sunset and the peace and quiet of the place. I took several photos, always hoping for the sun to break through but alas, that evening the sun was a “no show”.

That’s the really great thing about being an artist: we get to “play God” every now and then…

That’s how it goes sometimes. I had what I thought was a great composition in my photos but just not the perfect lighting because of the clouds. So, in looking at my photos afterwards, I concluded it was the right composition for a painting but the wrong sky. What to do, what to do…

That’s the really great thing about being an artist: we get to “play God” every now and then. It occurred to me that I could use an older photo of a really beautiful sunset I had taken on my walk home from my art studio in Asheville’s River Arts District. The sunset was gorgeous, but the foreground was the French Broad River (nice enough) and the New Belgium brewery (also, nice enough but…uh…not “painting” worthy. So…I decided this was a chance to do a bit of artistic “Frankenstein-ing”: taking a bit of this and a bit of that and combining it into one piece, add 10,000 volts of electricity (just kidding) and VIOLA! IT’S ALIVE! (Just kidding.)

So the photo of the painting you see pictured here is from two very separate experiences I had with nature. One in May of 2017 and one in September 2018. There. Now you know my secrets. I unabashedly (and quite regularly) combine foregrounds, midgrounds and backgrounds of photos I take (or find) and create (with the addition of 10,000 volts of electricity — just kidding) a new and unique piece of art.

That’s how we roll here. That’s how we roll.

"How do you Decide What to Paint?"

Forgotten+Pathway.jpg

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.