Mountain Top Experiences


I'd heard of Roan Mountain for a long time. It's one of those "you have to hike this trial!" sort of places you hear about. I feel a bit like I've cheated myself because I've lived in Asheville, North Carolina for almost ten years and Joy and I have hiked countless trails, but we had not tackled Roan Mountain. And it's kind of odd that we waited so long, because as a landscape painter in the River Arts District, I paint local mountain scenes all the time. Every hike we take, I've got my camera ready and when I get back to my art studio, I start composing the next painting based on the best of the best photos. So hiking and photos go hand-in-hand for me, and they are both a very big part of what I end up painting. So, why did it take this long to discover Roan Mountain for myself? I have no excuses.

It turns out Roan Mountain isn't just a peak (i.e. it's not a singular mountain) but a whole range of bald peaks (no trees on the top) morphing into each other as you walk along Appalachian Trail heading north. So with our hiking poles, Camelbak's and lunch sacks in hand, we trekked from Carver's Gap north. The day was unusually clear and comfortable (I guess that's sort of unusual for that location) and we made good time -- even with all my stops to take photos. Finally, we reached the monument at the top of Grassy Ridge Bald and honestly, this afforded the most spectacular view I'd seen in Western North Carolina. Look one way, and you gaze about a hundred miles into North Carolina. Turn your head to the left, and you gaze about a hundred miles into Tennessee. Absolutely spectacular.

That hike gave me ideas for several paintings for the coming year. What kind of awesome job do I have anyway!? I just realized I can take my gas expenses as a tax write-off!

For more info on Roan Mountain, here's a great link.

The Power of Mystery

I love watching people. Call it voyeuristic but it can be quite entertaining sometimes. I have an "open art studio" in Asheville, which as I've explained in the past, means that anyone can walk in at any time and take a look at my paintings on the wall and watch me work (if they want to). When people enter my studio, my area is just to the left of the door, so I'm right there, and that's my favorite time to pay attention. Oftentimes, the expression on peoples faces is one of complete bafflement. Just last week, a woman strolled in, took a couple second look at the first painting on the wall, screwed up her face and said, "Okay, so what is this? How do you do it?" That made me laugh inside (I love that my artwork baffles people!).

When I began painting and first opened my studio in Asheville, I used to answer these questions in great detail, which, when I think about it now, was really weird I felt compelled to do that. It would be like if you went to a French restaurant and asked the waiter how the chef cooked the Chicken Basquaise and the chef came out, sat down at your table, pulled out the recipe card and went over it all step by step. That was me.

I don't do that anymore simply because I realized that when you de-mystify something, you take power away from it. I don't want to do that. I love what I do -- I put so much of myself into my paintings -- I don't want to take away their power to grab people. I WANT my artwork to baffle people and give them enjoyment. I really want to illicit wonder. So...I WANT people to wonder what the heck they're looking at and I want them to guess how I do the kind of artwork I do, but I walk a fine line. See, I want to be polite and answer their questions and encourage even more questions. But I have to try to figure out how much to answer and what not to say, knowing that the more detailed an explanation I give, the more I deflate the power of the art I'm explaining.

I want my artwork to be truly unique. I've spent almost eighteen years developing something that no one else is doing, and while that's really satisfying, it also is frustrating because I WANT to talk about it. I think what I do is fascinating (most of the time). I have a blast and I think it's probably normal for someone to blab endlessly about what they're excited about. But in my case, I have to know how little is acceptable to say, and then say no more. Mystery gives power, and I would think all artists would want their work to be powerful.

Forsyth Park Fountain

Forsyth Park Fountain.jpg

I love it when an Asheville visitor wanders into my art studio and asks if I do commissions. YES! I love commissions. Some commissions I get are awesome. Then there are some that are extraordinary. This request for a painting was in that second category. In Savannah, Georgia, there is really beautiful fountain in Forsyth Park. So rather than retell the story, I'll cut and paste it from the original email I received that began the commission: 

  • My wife and I met on line a little over 8 years ago and our first date / meeting was at the fountain in Forsyth park. She drove from Atlanta and I from Florida. 
  • We met late afternoon. 
  • Probably from the vantage point in the picture you sent, a wedding was taking place.
  • We stopped a watched for awhile.
  • We went to dinner and came back to the park after dark.
  • Impulsively we climbed the fence surrounding the fountain and proceeded to the center.
  • We sat at the base enjoying each other's company while becoming thoroughly drenched.
  • We have been together ever since and hold fond memories of the fountain and our first meeting.
  • My wife thinks that if you consider the different view points that hundreds of online photos can provide, you will capture the essence of what it means to us.

Cool story, huh? I love that! This was a challenge though because (obviously) these people know and love this fountain. I had to get it right! I hope this piece does that magical moment justice. Gosh, I love my job. 


Angsty or Terrified?

So last week, as I said in an earlier entry, a husband and wife breezed through my Asheville art studio/gallery without saying a word to me and then left, sitting down on the chairs right outside my door (which was open -- with me working just inside said door). At that point, the man said (loud enough for me to hear) "well I know, but it's ridiculous! I wouldn't pay half what he's asking for that!"

To that man, I would like to say "thank you for your rudeness. You gave me something  to write about in my blog!" Because of that encounter, I began thinking about how best to respond to critique and I am taking this platform to share my thoughts to anyone interested. I have already addressed what I call the "angsty" artist who doesn't care WHAT anyone thinks about their craft (whether it's painting, writing, music or whatever). They do not digest criticism because they immediately deflect it.

The other type of artist I know is not angsty at all. They are frightened and completely insecure, not wanting ANYONE to see their artwork.  Putting their art out there for people to actually see absolutely terrifies them. I tried to teach art students who were the "terrified" type, but found them just as difficult to teach as the arrogant students who would not listen to my advice or instruction. I remember a young woman that was in the class I was teaching. She was working hard on a painting, but when I walked over to her desk to see how it was coming along, she swept it up and hid it from me. "Please don't look! It's a mess! Yours is so much better!" If you can relate to this woman,  may I gently suggest that the "terrified" artist is not that much different from the "angsty" artist? See, neither the angsty or terrified person them allows any criticism or correction -- they just take different emotional roads to the very same end.  Whichever side we fall on, we can be categorized as arrogant.

"Arrogant?" I hear the terrified artist type cry. "I'm not arrogant!" (The angsty artist doesn't see themselves as arrogant either.)

Well, follow me here. The angsty type doesn't listen to any criticism and neither do you. In my opinion, whichever side we fall on, we all think far too much of ourselves. The terrified artists (I was one of you  at once point) think we have to be perfect at what we do and critique is crushing and to be avoided. The angsty artist thinks he's already perfect, and critique is pointless and unnecessary in his mind and is to be avoided. So what's the difference?

Both the angsty and terrified artist (or whatever) types need critique. We need to be okay with correction and advice. When I finish what I think was a great idea and no one pays any attention to it, I may have to conclude that the idea may be great to me, but if the people purchasing art do not agree, I won't be selling that piece. If this is repeated with all my work, then I'm out of a job.

A professional artist has to listen to critique and adjust sometimes. Hopefully as we mature, we begin to know the difference between a good critique and someone just being rude. I think we need to feel the freedom to toss what we think is bad advice. I also think we need to feel the freedom to accept advice with humility, and that's admittedly really hard to do sometimes.

To the "Angsty" Artist...


Note: This is a continuation of my last entry. I would advise the reader to take a look at that first.

Have you have seen that Food Channel show "Master Chef"? My wife and I are kind of addicted to it and especially the first few weeks are really interesting. The show depicts all these home cooks that are vying for the Master Chef title, which is supposed to mean they are the very best home cook in the country. In the first few weeks though, you inevitably watch some cook who thinks they are God's gift to the culinary world. They innately know it all. It becomes very apparent that they are not listening to Gordon Ramsay's instructions and they will outright argue with him sometimes (I would personally never recommend arguing with Gordon Ramsay). So inevitably, you watch them proudly present what they are convinced is awesome gourmet fare and Chef Ramsay will look at it, look at the cook, look at the dish again and yell "ARE...YOU...KIDDING ME? This looks like a dog vomited up his dinner on this plate!!!" And you can't help but think "YES! Put this guy in his place Gordon!"

See, no one likes an arrogant man or woman and it's refreshing to see them taken down off the pedestal they created in their own mind. But the guy probably has no idea he is arrogant. In his eyes, he's not arrogant, he's just right and Gordon Ramsay is obviously a jerk and everyone who watches the show shakes their head in disgust and embarrassment for people like that.  It's probably wrong to be so entertained by that but I confess, it is entertaining.

What's this have to do with artwork? Well see, if we're the angsty artist type, I think we can learn a lot from this illustration, because if we're in that camp, we can be very much like the arrogant cook who refuses to listen to the instructions and advice of the professional chefs on the show and everyone sees the insecure arrogance (except the arrogant chef, or in our case, the artist).

"But what if we're not that "angsty artist type"? What if we're more the "I'm completely terrified of anyone seeing my creative work" type? Really glad you asked. Read the next entry for my thoughts on that. 

"I woudn't pay HALF of what he's asking!"

I am a professional artist (oil painter) in Asheville, North Carolina. I have an open studio in the River Arts District and the front part of my studio is my art gallery/work area (where my artwork is hanging, and where I do most of my painting). In the back (behind the curtain) is where the messy or secret stuff happens (to get back there,  you have to learn the secret handshake).  So during the day, I'm usually painting just to the right of the doorway out to the street, and I talk to people all day long and answer questions about my work.  So the other day, I had a couple breeze through my studio without saying a word to me, and then leave, planting themselves into the chairs I have just outside my door. Because I work right on the other side of the door, I could very easily hear the man exclaim to his wife, "well I know, but it's ridiculous! I wouldn't pay half what he's asking for that!"

So, if you're an artist, what do you do with comments like that?

I would like to take a few blog entries and share some thoughts that have been developing in my mind. I think it would help me to put these thoughts to virtual paper, and they may (?) help some other artists that struggle with insecurity.

Most artists I know fall into basically two camps: The "angsty" artist and the terrified artist. That first camp (the "angsty" artists) would say, "I don't care WHAT people think of my art! It's MY art and I'll do what I want to do with it and if people like it, fine. If not, I really don't care." If that's where you're coming from, and that singular sentiment describes you, that's fine. My hat's off to you, but you're probably not making a living selling your artwork are you? I say that because when you make your living by selling your artwork, expressing yourself is crucial have to be listening to critique well and sometimes adjust what you do in order to sell your artwork.

Ha! I can hear the angsty artist crying "SELLOUT!" It's about expressing yourself! It's not about making money!" Again, my hat's off to you, but I personally prefer expressing myself AND making a living selling my artwork. What is wrong with listening to critique and evolving your craft as a result? Do you think listening and considering another opinion makes you small and weak? It's really easy to think we already know what we're doing, but input (if we take it in) can actually help shape what we're doing as time goes by, don't you think?

More on the "angsty" artist in my next entry.

"On the Water"

On the Water.jpg

"On the Water" was a surprise. See, every now and then, I get a visitor to my Asheville art studio (in the River Arts District) that sees one of my paintings in progress...with just the aluminum leaf applied to the texture, no paint, no resin, nothing but texture. And they say, "I love it just like it is!" Okay, so this one is for you, visitor, if you've thought "why does he muck it up with all the paint???"

Muck it up? Really?? (Some comments call for a thick skin.)

Listening to the Minority...

I had intended to paint this one but at the very last minute, I thought that maybe this would be a good one to leave naked (so to speak). I was especially happy with the composition, because it really does hold together well (and is interesting) sans coloration. And so, I just coated it with one thin layer of resin and voila!

"On the Water" is the only painting in my studio collection with no color at all. But it's still getting a good deal of attention so I'm thinking those few people who have wandered into my Depot Street studio in the River Arts District may not all be wrong. Not entirely anyway. We'll see if it sells (that's the real test). But honestly, it's pretty cool. Am I allowed to say that? I REALLY LIKE THIS ONE. There. I feel much better being honest.


Song of Autumn

Song of Autumn.jpg

"Song of Autumn" is inspired by a drive Joy and I took on the Blue Ridge Parkway last month. This was one of those "WAIT! Stop the car and drink this in!!" moments. Magical. It was mid-afternoon on a wonderful, crisp October day and we drove through one of those "tunnels" of tree branches stretching out overhead. Up ahead was a clearing and a scenic viewpoint (we have many of those on the parkway). I didn't really notice it then, but when I got back to my Asheville art studio, I looked through the photos I took and one of them in particular really struck me --  I loved the blue dot at the end of the tunnel created by the clearing. Since blue is the complimentary color of orange, it worked! I geeked out and thought this would make an awesome painting. So I got busy creating. I am very happy with the results of that photo.

To Autumn
by William Blake

O Autumn, laden with fruit, and stain'd
With the blood of the grape, pass not, but sit
Beneath my shady roof; there thou may'st rest,
And tune thy jolly voice to my fresh pipe,
And all the daughters of the year shall dance!
Sing now the lusty song of fruits and flowers.

"The narrow bud opens her beauties to
The sun, and love runs in her thrilling veins;
Blossoms hang round the brows of Morning, and
Flourish down the bright cheek of modest Eve,
Till clust'ring Summer breaks forth into singing,
And feather'd clouds strew flowers round her head.

"The spirits of the air live in the smells
Of fruit; and Joy, with pinions light, roves round
The gardens, or sits singing in the trees."
Thus sang the jolly Autumn as he sat,
Then rose, girded himself, and o'er the bleak
Hills fled from our sight; but left his golden load.

"Top of the Mountain"

Top of the Mountain.jpg

Winter scenes are really challenging to paint I think. Winter reduces everything down to a minimum of colors. Think about the springtime, mountainsides are covered with bright green new growth on the trees and meadows are filled with blooming wild flowers. Summer is filled with deep greens. Autumn is nature blazing with wild oranges and reds. Winter is...nothing. Winter reduces nature to black and white. So winter scenes pose a problem for the painter...

How do I make Winter interesting?

This recent painting is entitled "Top of the Mountain" and it basically is a mixture of three colors: Black, blue and white. You probably can't see it in the photo, but the blue...there are areas of cool blue ("Ultramarine blue oil paint for those who care) and warm blue (Thalo blue). These really are the only two blues I use for any of my artwork. And then there are areas of each of these blues that are grayed down with just a bit of dark brown (Burnt umber). The blacks are all a mixture of the ultramarine blue and the burnt umber (I never use just raw black paint from a tube). Mixing black with the two color components allows me to vary the shade of black, because I can cool it down with a bit more of the blue or warm it up with a bit more umber. Easy, right?  

So the challenge with any winter scene is to work more careful than ever with composition and value, so it helps the eyes know exactly what to look at in what order. It also is a real challenge with very minute variations in whatever little color there is. It's a great exercise for the eye balls! 

So next week is Thanksgiving and some of you will be visiting...ASHEVILLE! Excellent choice. Please consider yourselves invited to visit my studio in the River Arts District and you can see a variety of winter paintings I have ready for adoption. :)



"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.