What path did you take to become a professional artist?
It was a circuitous beginning, but a straight line to where I am now at the same time. Briefly, I grew up with an outdoor dad who was also a pretty decent artist, mostly a cartoonist and watercolorist, who majored in wildlife biology. We lived all over the US, and in Norway, so I went to a lot of museums and galleries, and had a lot of experiences that gave me a love for the outdoors, and the landscape of different places. Because of that, as high school and college time neared, I decided to be an ornithologist and began my studies in that direction. About that time, a friend gave me a portfolio book of an artist, one of our greatest bird artists from the early 20th century, Louis Agassiz Fuertes, from Ithaca, NY. I was completely blown away by how life-like his field studies were of birds from all over the world. So, I decided that my interest in birds was a more aesthetic interest than a “scientific” interest and began to investigate art schools. I put together a portfolio [for the Art Center College of Design] and submitted it for enrollment. To my surprise, I was accepted and began as an Illustration Major at Art Center in the late 1970’s. Still not sure what to do [after that], I thought more art school would be a good idea, and looked into the American Academy of Art in Chicago. I had grandparents living in Wabasha, Minnesota that would let me stay with them while I worked to gather some funds for tuition at the American Academy. So, I packed everything I owned into my Chevy Vega and drove to Minnesota without any real idea of what was next. I fell in love with the Mississippi River, hunting, fishing, cross country skiing and all that part of the country has to offer. I had my family there, two sons who still live in the area. Minnesota is where I grew up as a painter, where I spent time outside with paints, studied art as hard as I could, and began to build a career as a painter. I spent 20 of those years painting birds for the publisher Wild Wings in Lake City, MN, with the occasional venture out to paint en plein air. In 1985 I landed an illustration job with The National Geographic Society to be an artist illustrating their Field Guide to the Birds of North America. That job lasted over a year and allowed me to become a full time “professional” artist. In the year 2000 I decided that landscape painting, plein air painting in particular is where my soul lives, so I quit the bird painting per se, and began serious, hard working study in the world of landscape painting. Since then it’s been a series of fortunate events, set backs, hard work, and a never ending quest to become more knowledgeable about painting and expressing ideas with paint, that has kept my path moving forward.
As someone who lived all over the U.S. as a child, did that constant movement affect your artwork?
It is what awakened my love for the landscape since any new place I ended up, the landscape was always something that I could connect to. As my life as a painter has developed, I’ve wished that I had been connected to one place more than I have been in life. It seems to me that if you grow up in one spot, spending your entire life there, you will have a much deeper understanding of what makes it what it is. So one of my goals as a painter, settled and living where I live now on Tybee Island, GA, is to try to dig as deeply into my home ground as I can, even as an outsider, to gather as much soul of the place as is possible for me to understand and feel. That’s what I struggle with and am challenged by with with every painting that I paint; how to feel the landscape as if I’d always been here. That’s a huge challenge for any painter, but specifically if you’re painting somewhere that you’re not native to.
What is it about plein air that you’re drawn to?
Aside from preferring to be outside way more than inside, painting from life, whether it be the still life, figure or landscape, is where visual truth lies. It’s the landscape that fuels my emotional and creative soul. There is nothing as accurate as real life, we all know that. Still photos, videos, even in this age of great digital sources, can’t replicate the sights, sounds, feel and smells of nature that your senses are able to pick up. Visually speaking, our eyes see differently than a camera lens so we need to study things like perspective, both linear and atmospheric, color, edge relationships, movement, textures, etc., from life, or the photo will mislead you when trying to use it as a reference to paint from. You need to be able to experience nature in person, in order to accurately create from it. It should be an emotional reaction to something, something the artist feels, but first the artist also needs to understand the basic structure, the basic nature inherent in the subject for an ‘accurate’ piece of work can be created. You need to be able to experience nature in person, in order to accurately create from it.
Can you describe how you set up for painting en plein air?
Equipment has become much lighter and more portable so setting up is pretty simple and straight forward. If I’m working smaller, I like to carry it all, easel, paints, brushes, paint box, etc., in a backpack and pack as light as possible. The other extreme is working out of my vehicle with larger canvases, larger easels, and all. The one thing to always do is to try to place your painting and your palette in the same light. Both in the shade, or both in the sun. The shade is preferred, the sun is a challenge because it causes the color you mix to look ‘warmer’ and ‘lighter’ than it really is, due to the warmth and brightness of the sunlight. You can use an umbrella if the winds aren’t too bad, or position your easel to put both in shade. Watch where you stand, safety first, no ant hills and check behind logs and rocks for snakes (experience talking here!) Also, be sure not to stand too close to heavy traffic because you are a distraction, and drivers do weird maneuvers when distracted. Eyes wide open… that goes for observers around you too. I always suggest not painting alone unless you’re very comfortable where you’re at. A ‘buddy’ system for painters is a great idea.
What is most rewarding, and challenging, about painting en plein air?
I’ve mentioned some of the challenges above. As for rewarding, the satisfaction that comes from spending an hour, or a day in the field lost in the intensity of observation and creation that painting en plein air fills you with, is hard to beat. Returning home or to the studio having spent time outside painting is as calm and centered a place as I ever find myself. That includes those times when I keep a study, and those times when I wipe them off. I was once told that “Your worst day outside painting will always be better than your best day inside painting,” and I agree completely with that. There’s a never ending learning process painting on location; something valuable is always gained.
Do you have any advice for the artists submitting their work to the Into Nature exhibition?
Always submit the work that you would like to have seen and hung on the walls. Don’t submit what you think the show, the jury or the judge would like to see. It never works out the way you think it will, but if you submit what you are most proud of, what you feel most represents who you are, you will feel good no matter what any of the results are. I’d rather have a painting that I am proud of accepted into a show and have it simply be there, than have a painting that I’m not as proud of win an award. Be proud of any accomplishment, such as getting into a show like this, and build on that. Good quality photos are a must! Viewing entries online, which is how it’s done now, doesn’t present images in as good a light as they would look in real life. So the better your entry photos, the better the jurors will be able to see how your work looks. Good luck!