inspiration

Lessons I've Learned as an Artist

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I love Asheville and I especially love painting in my studio in Asheville in the summer time. Yes, it’s hot and muggy, but there are so many visitors wondering through the River Arts District — it’s really a fun environment to create artwork in! So many people and so many conversations! Some of the questions I’m asked are hysterical, and some are really deep. Last week, I had a couple visiting with me who asked an interesting question. And as I was answering them it occurred to me I should blog about it. The question was “what has being an artist taught you?” That struck me as a really huge (and very personal) question. I could probably write a whole book on that subject, but for the sake of brevity, I’ll condense my thoughts to five points.

  1. Thinking outside the box is what creativity is all about.

When you learn art techniques in school, you study the “masters” of art history and in a sense, you copy their techniques in order to learn them. In a sense, this places each modern artist in a wonderful place...you are standing on the backs of people like Monet, Renoir, Rembrandt, Da Vinci, and on and on back to the first cave painters. You learn the rules (yes, THERE ARE RULES TO ART). Once you learn the techniques and rules, then (the fun part!) you learn how to remix them into something brand new and unique. This is where rules (some of them) are broken. Learning how and when to break the rules...that takes a life time of playing with art and composition.

2. Mistakes are necessary for growth

My whole technique was developed through many (and on-going) experiments. Some of those experiments work out well. Some of them fail completely. How you respond to a mistake is crucial I think, and I would guess this applies to all of life. If you let them crush and discourage you (and I have let mistakes do that), then that's the end of the story. But if the mistake prompts you to ask questions (like, "why did that happen?", "how did that happen?", "how can I make it do this or that?") then a new experiment takes shape. This is play. This is how play works! Very few mistakes in life are utterly crippling. Most of the mistakes we make can and should prompt serious questions, and as we search for answers...play happens and life goes on.

3. Marketing is really important if you want to be a full-time artist

I wish I could paint all day. I wish I didn't have to take the time to work social media (or write blogs :) but that is not possible. If people do not see the work of an artist, they won't appreciate it, and if they don't appreciate it, they won't purchase it, and if they don't purchase it, you can't be a full-time artist (unless you've won the lottery and can blow through the winnings for the rest of your life). Connecting to people and marketing what you do is really important. How to do that best is a complete mystery to me, but I’m learning. I'm not wired that way, but I know people who ARE and I ask for advice or pay them to for their help.


4. Rest and rejuvenation is crucial for creativity

For me, creativity and moments of epiphany happen when I'm quiet. That's why I walk a lot. Almost every day off, we're hiking -- getting out into nature and breathing in the peace and quiet. Being in nature is like a baby being in it's mother's lap. It's just where we belong. Something almost magical happens sometimes when I'm hiking and enjoying the beauty of creation. The experience creates in me a wonder; it takes me back to being like a child. In that place, my own creativity is excited. I have likened all this (quiet time) as "breathing in" and my own creating as "breathing out". One is necessary if you want the other.


5. People are more important than art.

I work in a public forum. People walk into my studio all day long and ask me what I'm working on and inquire about my technique. It's tempting to wish them all away so I can quietly enter "my creative zone" and paint in undistracted peace. But I'm always reminding myself that the people who come into my studio are infinitely more important than any piece of artwork I create. Artwork only lasts so long. People are eternal (that's my belief anyway). And according to my faith system, people are created in the image of God, so if I love God, I should see him in the face of every single person that enters my studio (and treat them accordingly).

St.Claire Art Opening at the AC Hotel, Asheville

The rooftop of the AC Hotel, Asheville, North Carolina

The rooftop of the AC Hotel, Asheville, North Carolina

As a full-time artist, I hear a lot about the importance of "self-promotion", "putting yourself out there", and "getting noticed". And as I've been doing this art gig full-time for some years now, it's occurring to me that it's a really easy thing to start believing that success is measured by how much attention I get. That sounds really arrogant. Let me explain what I mean.

A few months ago, I was asked to have my artwork displayed at the roof-top bar of the AC Hotel in downtown Asheville in August. This is a real honor, as this hotel is truly amazing. Honestly, going to the art opening and reception, I will be so out of my league. But there's something really intriguing about "schmoozing" with the elite. If you do it enough, you begin to believe you are part of "the" crowd. I remember when I was an "emerging" artist, I'd look at more accomplished artists and see what they were doing to promote their work and my head would swim. "How do they get all this attention? What do you have to do to get that?" are questions that continually ran around in my head.

…”self-promotion" is different than "art-promotion".

One is toxic and the other in not.

In the last couple days, I've been doing a lot of planning for this upcoming art opening at the AC (which is August 15th by the way) and it occurred to me that this is a fine thing to do, and it's necessary for an artist to promote their artwork (if you want it to sell). But "self-promotion" is different than "art-promotion". One is toxic and the other in not. I really do want people to value and enjoy my artwork. That feels awesome, and I do seek that. But having what I do valued and validated can NOT be confused with having my person valued and validated. If "I" am seeking value and validation with the attention "I" get, then I become really ugly. Everything becomes about self-promotion, and whatever attention I get will never be enough. Not really. And because of that, I'd always be looking for more and bigger and better ways of self-promotion. The bigger the event, the more attention I garner for my work, the more valuable I'll feel as a person.

I've decided to repudiate all that. What if value is not found in doing the big things that get all the attention, but in doing little things well…by adding beauty to the mundane chores of life? When I look out at a local mountainside, I see beauty everywhere: in wildflowers that will be wilted next week, in small pebbles with pink crystals in them that maybe no one will ever (EVER) notice again, in the random cardinal flying overhead, in the sound of the breeze through the leaves. Beauty in nature completely permeates the mundane. My faith tells me I'm created in the image of God, and if God infused even the mundane with beauty, then maybe that's how I reflect that Image. Maybe as a creator myself, maybe THAT'S the "biggest" thing I can do to express who and what I really am. This means that maybe by adding beauty to the smallest of things: to washing the dishes for my wife, to smiling at the person in front of me at the grocery store, to letting someone cut in front of me on the freeway, to playing with my grandchildren, to doing things no one will notice or care much about...maybe THOSE small things are really the biggest, most satisfying things that "real" life is all about.

So I'll got to this art opening at the AC Hotel, and I'm sure it'll be a lot of fun. But I'm there to promote my art, not myself. Now excuse me. I'm going to do the dishes. :)

"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.

One of my All-Time Heroes

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When we were living in Orlando, Florida, we discovered a museum in Winter Park that turned out to be a complete surprise to me. The Morse Museum houses the largest single collection of Tiffany stained glass anywhere in the world. To be honest, I had no real interest in stained glass at the time, and to me, I associated the name “Tiffany” with expensive jewelry. But from the moment I entered this museum, I was completely blown away by the unbelievable beauty of the glass. This was pure art and I was completely unprepared by the beauty of it all.

One of the things about being a full-time artist with an open art studio, is that you hear all sorts of comments from visitors to Asheville’s River Arts District. Thankfully, most of the comments I get are really kind and very encouraging. Some comments are not very kind though, and honestly even if I get one negative comment out of a hundred, that one comment can bother me. But what would it do to the emotional nature of an artist if he or she never really made a profit from their lifetime of art-creating and if a lot of their creations were simply unnoticed or completely unappreciated? I know I’d crumble.

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But this is exactly what I appreciate about Louis Comfort Tiffany as a man. He produced countless stained glass windows and lamps and he never did make a profit. How can you keep producing and actually improving in your creativity and your craft and not be making a profit? I have no idea, but that’s exactly what Tiffany did. Don’t get me wrong, some people recognized the incredible beauty of what this man was creating, but not nearly enough. There are stories about how people would purchase his stained glass windows at auction and pull out the glass and discard it, keeping only the leading so they could sell it. Unbelievable.

How can you keep producing and actually improving in your creativity and your craft and not be making a profit?

And in 1902, President Roosevelt had all the Tiffany windows in the White House removed (because they looked so “dated”).

The fact that this incredible artist/craftsman was able to forge on and keep going, and keep growing and keep creating his art is absolutely amazing to me. But this all just really makes me sad to think he never really was appreciated. That he did not rely on being appreciated says a whole lot about him. He is my hero.


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. 

"Frankenstein-ing" a painting

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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.

So then...

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Since the writing of my last blog post, “What if…” I’ve done some experimenting. In short, those experiments have gone really well (!) so I’ve entitled “So then…” That doesn’t always happen, but so far with this particular idea, it has.

See, a couple weeks ago, I woke up (at 2:17 AM) picturing a new type of artwork than I’ve ever done before, and all the tests and experiments I’ve done are remarkably encouraging. I think I’m onto something. Let me explain a bit more at this point…

I’m an oil painter and (not surprisingly) all my paintings are painted on a flat surface. Go to any of the art studios in Asheville’s River Arts District and notice what the painters are painting on. They are painting on flat surfaces. Go to an art museum and notice what all those framed oil paintings are painted on: flat surfaces. Noticing a trend?

But I’m going to paint on a flexible surface that can be bent in an arc shape. I have a furniture maker friend of mine (thank you Asheville Wood!) that is experimenting with me on this project. They are working on the wood runners (think cherry, black walnut, pecan, bamboo) that will be mounted to the wall (no visible attachments) and that will receive the panels of my artwork and keep them in tension, forming an arc out from the wall. That’s what I’m thinking, and so far, it’s working. I’m going now to the next step and actually fabricating a full size panel (rather than a small sample). I’ll cover the panel with flexible texture, Italian aluminum leaf, oil paint and resin. Resin is flexible? Yep. Turns out one or two layers are perfectly flexible and will provide brilliant color.

In theory, the colors I will apply to the panels will alter greatly because the angle of light will vary over the entire piece (because it’s bent in an arc). What’s in my head (and slowly coming to fruition) is a dynamic piece of artwork that can span many feet (either vertically or horizontally).

I’m excited!

People ask me all the time “when did you come up with this type of art?” and I always laugh and tell them I’m still coming up with it! I feel like I’m half artist and half mad scientist, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. It’s just too much fun.

The next post on this subject will be photos of the prototype. Fingers crossed!

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!

Claude: My Creative Hero and Muse

“Cliff at Varengeville”, 1882

“Cliff at Varengeville”, 1882

As an oil painter, one of the questions I’m often asked at my Asheville studio is “What or who inspired you to paint like this?” That’s a really good question because my creative process is like a good stew simmering in a crock pot or all day: a little bit of this, a little bit of that, a handful of this and gobs of that.

When it comes to my art process, “Gobs of that” come from one man: Claude Monet. Monet was in my opinion, the ultimate genius. What he did with light and color was unheard of and brand new. And it cracks me up…the Parisian “respectable” art society wanted nothing to do with this new brash style of painting. “The texture is too unrefined — it’s just a mess of brush strokes". “The colors are too bright — completely unrealistic.” It’s really hard to understand any time in history when Monet’s artwork was seen as anything but magical, but there you have it. We are a species that naturally distrusts anything novel, anything new (even if it’s an improvement over the accepted standard"). Monet broke the conventional rules (no doubt about it) and he created brand new rules which formed the backbone of his new style he called “Impressionism”. Why the title “Impressionism”? Because his goal was not to capture a photo-realistic copy of nature onto a canvas. His goal was to capture the “impression” of the place; to capture the emotional and visual impact of a landscape onto a canvas. How to you capture an emotion in a visual manner? Look at any of Monet’s artwork…that’s how.

“The texture is too unrefined — it’s just a mess of brush strokes". “The colors are too bright — completely unrealistic.”

What he did with color was unheard of at the time. Take a look at the red cliffs in the detail photo below.

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In the past, rendering shadows on a red rock cliff was fairly standard…you take the red color of the rock and add darker pigment (black or umber to it). Take a look at the shadows though. See any black? No, they’re blue (the complimentary color of the warm reds and gold colors used in the depiction of the cliff. When set side by side, the complimentary colors buzz…they pop, vibrate. It’s a color riot on the canvas and something about it, although not realistic looking, to me looks better than realistic.

That “better than realistic” quality is what I aim for in every single painting I produce. My free use of complimentary color and my mad use of texture — that all came from one man named Claude. Monet was a genius and what he captured with the texture and color he employed is still an awesome thing to behold. It’s humbling to me. I’m pretty sure I could never be where I am and doing what I’m doing if it weren’t for the fact that he did it all before me. Thanks Claude!