Being a career west coast abstract artist would not be possible without the help of talented teachers.
When I first started this journey of becoming a professional artist, I was running solely on emotion and old, ignored art supplies. I didn’t have a goal. I didn’t know that this would be my career. I was merely trying to express feelings of remorse, anger and agitation that were alarmingly amplified when I decided to quit drinking. No longer comforted by simply burying these discomforts under the weight of alcohol, I unearthed them and then needed a tool for dealing with the difficulties that bubbled up.
I had leftover paint, paper and some brushes and so I started. I had never done abstract painting before, but sobriety was just about all my brain could handle. Thinking about realistic details of a still life, or…let’s be honest here…trying to do anything with any specificity at all was really difficult. I just began to move my brush-holding hand and abstracts are what sprung from my fingertips. And it saved me.
Finding art again was an unexpected gift given to me by my willingness to let go of old coping mechanisms and being open to getting to know myself. Self-awareness had never been my strong suit. So, discovering that I am an artist was amazing and at the same time, a “well duh” moment. I knew it all along, I just ignored it because I didn’t think it was practical road to travel.
Guidance from an established west coast abstract artist and teacher was the inspiration I didn't know I needed.
Nicholas Wilton is a Sausalito, CA based abstract artist and teacher whose workshop I attended flipped me into action. I have been painting consistently since.
A year into my self-administered art therapy adventure, a good friend suggested that I take an Art 2 Life workshop taught by Sausalito, CA based abstract artist, Nicholas Wilton. After briefly checking out his website, I was immediately attracted to Nick’s art. His use of shape, repeated pattern, movement and vibrant colors widened my eyes and motivated me to learn more. I signed up and drove to California for 5 days of art making. It was the best thing that I have ever done for my art, my confidence and my career.
Nick taught his 6 art principles which included color, harmony, value and design. Many of these had been introduced to me in my long abandoned fine arts schooling but not thought of since, and they were important reminders, but his 6th principle was the most important and influencing….Soul. Heeding soul was not taught in art world academia and wasn’t that what I was really working on? Cleansing, listening, being receptive and responding to my soul? Without knowing it, Nick was reiterating what I had been learning over the past year…to thine own self be true.
Nick also believes in the importance of having a community to lean on as well as contribute to. Over the past couple of years, he has continued to be a huge support and inspiration to me through his art, blogs, video lessons and willingness to make time for students like me. He recently made himself available for a 15-minute interview so that I may share some of his wisdom with you.
If you are an artist needing direction, I highly recommend his workshops and if you can’t afford those, just sign up for his blog "The Artlife". He often sends out videos discussing his work, process and problem solving. Read on for our conversation about his influences, challenges and maneuvering through the business of art.
A 15 minute interview with west coast abstract artist, Nicholas Wilton.
MG: You seem to be a master of creating patterns without making the painting have a “wallpaper” feel. Is that something that you have to work for or does it come naturally?
NW: People always say to make exciting design, you have to have a variety of sizes and shapes and things, and you can, for sure…but you can also [work within] a pattern. If the pattern is repeating, that can be somewhat monotonous because when we look at one part of the picture, the same kind of feeling occurs in another part of the picture, so that’s the recipe for sort of boring somebody.
But if you can offer differences within that context, that can become really interesting. So, for example, maybe the pattern repeats, but the color is different on different parts of the pattern. Then that becomes noticeable and interesting. Or maybe the texture is different. (Pointing to the painting above.) That painting looks like little chips of color [in rows]. That’s not a very particularly exciting pattern because the pattern isn’t really anything…just a bunch of colors…but I’m talking about colors and the conversation about color. All of the sizes are the same and they are in a line but I’m really paying attention and offering the viewer something that’s different. There are contrasts that happen to be in the [different] colors. Patterns can be wallpaper like but when you change things within that, then it becomes exciting.
MG: The first artist you studied with was a stained-glass artist Ludwig Schaffrath. How did working with glass influence how you paint now? What was the biggest lesson that you learned from him as a new artist that you carry with you today?
NW: Well I entered into it more as a craft. I liked making things, so I was learning how to make stained glass. The thing about stained glass is that [you start with] incredible pieces of glass. Some are translucent. Some are transparent. There’s glass from Germany that’s really beautiful. What you learn pretty quickly is that maybe it’s the materials that are so amazing.
Let’s say you pull out this amazing piece of glass that you love. It’s so beautiful just on its own. Then you cut it up and you make a flower out of it... So, I became interested in the questions of why do I keep taking this amazing material and turning it into pictures that happens to be made out of stained glass, but really weren’t very good? When you think about a picture of a stained-glass flower, it’s kind of bric-a-brac. It can be kind of cheesy. So, I started to look around at different artists that were doing work as good as the materials.
Ludwig Schaffrath was making these incredible modern day monastery windows…very contemporary and very much in alignment with the glass. I was seduced by the materials because of the caliber of the finished product. The materials were so good that it upped my game to get better at designing and using it. What I learned from this gentleman when I was 15, is that the only thing you can really do is something personal and unique. If you want to copy reality, that’s fine but you have to do it in a way that’s personal. He was the first one to press that idea that I still teach today and try to do in my own work.
MG: I recall you saying in a workshop that you can try to make your art look like another artists’ but it’s never going to. It’s always going to look like you.
NW: Yeah. We can try on different ways of working. I can copy an artist for a day and try to make my art look like theirs but you won’t stay there very long because it’s not very interesting because they’ve already done it. But it is important for you to pull out and discover the reason why you were attracted to their work. You might love Mark Rothko but you don’t want to be Mark Rothko. You just want to understand the way he’s using color because that’s what you love. I wouldn’t want to do a Mark Rothko painting because he already did them all. People learn that eventually and they move on.
MG: What is the most challenging part of being an artist at a professional level?
NW: I think there are three parts: 1. Isolation 2. Not having all of the information to do this…it takes time to have all of the information, how to paint, what to do when you get stuck, all of that technical stuff and then 3. Having the right place to do it. I couldn’t make these paintings in a small room anymore. I had to move to a bigger space and it was scary. I had to pay more, I wasn’t sure I could do it… Having a practice that works…that’s something you have to learn. They don’t teach that. Having a good community and a solid art practice or approach and just the basic information. That is what I teach in my online courses and workshops. If you can give that to people, that does it…. especially the community part.
MG: So creating a community of artists that you see regularly and having people that you talk with often…
NW: Yeah and even connected on a Facebook group or whatever. I’m really interested in creating community…that’s why I’m talking to you right now. We are staying connected. We might not have talked for a long time but we’re connected and I just believe that’s a path that allows me or anybody to do this rather unusual activity and pull it off successfully.
MG: You teach workshops as well as painting. Do you enjoy one more than the other? Do you feel that teaching and painting complement each other? How?
NW: They work in conjunction. I don’t think I could teach if I wasn’t doing the practice. I have my own personal practice and then I’m helping people develop theirs. I do these Sunday blog posts and those are done completely spontaneously. I’m painting and then I learn something new or I’m getting new perspective and I just share that with people. Certainly, the teaching is derived from the painting. And teaching clarifies my own practice. The best I ever paint is after 7 days of teaching a workshop. I go home and I can pretty much guarantee that I’m painting more confidently and probably a little bit differently than I was before I left. So, it’s a win/win as far as I’m concerned. It works for me.
Also, you can’t forget that by teaching I’m getting inspired by all of these other people. When I see your painting and what you’re doing…you’re painting larger now…I get that juice from you. There’s been an exchange because we’ve worked together a little and I see what you’re doing and it’s bigger and it’s “wow!” and that fires me up and my day is just a little bit better and I use that energy to go do this challenge (pointing around the studio).
MG: You had a gift line business adventure at one time. How did you feel when that opportunity came along and why did you ultimately decide that it wasn’t for you?
NW: I created the opportunity in a way because I was tired of doing illustrations…you get paid for one and then do another one and another one and another one… I would make some really good art but it would just disappear so I thought “how can I make some of this art stay around?” and the idea of putting it on products, gifts specifically, like trays, boxes and tote bags, came along and I worked with some friends and we created a company.
What happened though was that the momentum, the need, the desire to sell, that directed the company, of course…that’s the whole point…to make money. But my direction was partly that, but to also make the best possible work I could. And at one point, one of our biggest sellers were basically little tiny cheap reproductions of paintings that you could get at Walmart or Bed Bath and Beyond for like $5. I saw my own personal work [reproduced] but I was uncomfortable because I’m also a fine artist and I had done a lot of work to keep my work at a premium, to keep the prices high, to make it prestigious, because it is. It’s what I do. It’s really important. But I saw that this was cannibalizing that and I didn’t like that. It didn’t feel good to me. And when something doesn’t feel good to me, regardless of the money, I know from art, from my life, you don’t do continue doing that. You do something else. There are alternatives.
MG: Spring is almost here. Seeing as nature is such a big influence for you, do you notice that your paintings and pallet choices change when the seasons change?
NW: Yeah. I think so. My studio isn’t heated and I’m warmer now, which is half the problem. I get so damn cold in here because these ceilings are so high so I’m bundled up in the Winter and it’s just a hard road for a few months. Also, I think Spring is more of an opening and unfolding and Winter is a closing more. There is an ease to it and a looseness and more color. I think there tends to be, over the course of an artist’s career, to go from control to more and more loose and more and more exploration and an opening or broadening and I think that relates to seasons as well.
MG: What piece of advice would you give a young artist starting out and does that advice change if someone is starting out as a young artist vs. an older artist?
NW: I just think it’s important to realize that each person, old, young, whatever, whoever, if they’re interested in doing this and if they can pay attention to what they love, and really focus on that and look within themselves, that’s really the path to making personal, authentic, sellable, desirable work that you love. That’s the path and that’s available and they have everything they need they just may need some guidance. Everybody’s unique and everybody can therefore make unique and personal work. They just have to pay attention to themselves.
Learn more about Nicholas Wilton on his website.
The painting at top by me is "Original Bubble" 12x12 Acrylic, Paper and Graphite on Birch Board and was one of the pieces I created while attending Nicholas Wilton's Art 2 Life Workshop in 2014.
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