I have officially been a professional West Coast Abstract Artist for 1 year. By treating my art like a small business, I have seen growth that many professional artists have told me they didn't see until about 10 years in.
As a self employed West Coast Abstract Artist who works from home, routine is oh so important to keep me moving forward. But how do I know if the routine needs adjusting?
On September 1st, I wrote a blog on how important my routine is to me and how I was excited to get back to it after a Summer of distractions. Now, I’m going to take all of that back. It is time to BLOW UP MY ROUTINE.
I have always been a goal oriented rule follower. I created my routine and as a rule, I’m going to stick with it until my goal is met. But what happens if my goals aren’t attained. Then what do I do? Well…after having a panic attack (and a carton of ice cream), I think it may be time to re-assess.
Last month I read you off my routine schedule and how it keeps me on track. That’s true. But what happens when I realize that the routine I’ve been adhering to isn’t creating the returns that I had hoped? I’ve been working the same routine for 6 months. Now in the long term, that’s nothing but in the faster paced world of social media, that’s quite a chunk of time.
I’ve had a rough couple of weeks. I blamed it all on my routine being screwed up. But here’s the deal…after trying to get back to the routine, I realize that it’s not working. My eblasts aren’t getting engagement, the links aren’t getting clicked on and the social media isn’t growing as quickly as I’d like it to.
So, what’s the fix here? Time to try something new.
I’ve been focusing on multiple platforms and I’m going to reduce it to one. Not that I won’t maintain the others, but I’m going to narrow my focus for a moment and see what it yields. I won’t get into the technical specifics as it’s more boring than watching paint dry. The point is that I have to start looking at marketing like I look at my painting process.
Woah...a scary step, indeed. But a necessary one in order to move forward.
When I’m painting, and something isn’t going the way I want it to, I change it. I take a “when in doubt, do” attitude and I experiment away. Now, with marketing, it’s a bit different as I have to have a period of time to examine and so changes can’t be quite so reckless. However, I think 6 months of a steady marketing routine is time enough to decide if this is working, or not.
The answer when applied to my current marketing strategies is “or not”. My social media growth is slow, my email list growth is non-existent and the website visitors are not beating my online door down. After careful analysis, lots of research and the implementation of some marketing help, I start anew. Let’s see what the next 6 months are going to bring.
It’s time to shake things up and see where they land this time around. *deep breath…and here I go.
The painting at top is Paper Airplanes 22"x28" Acrylic & Paper on Canvas. A gift for my daughter on her 16th birthday.
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Through the practice of Abstract Expressionism, my inner control freak has loosened her grip on my life and my loved ones.
Thank you to TinyBuddha.com for publishing my article titled How Expectations Can Drive People Away and How to Let Go of Control.
I once was my own worst enemy when it came to being fixated on outcomes. Being so focused on what I thought "should" happen all the time led to constant disappointment and a feeling of isolation. Through the practice of my art I have found that stress truly is optional.
Once again, I am completely humbled by the response to my writing. I have received emails, DMs and comments from people who know and struggle with the constant disappointment of expectations never being met. Please take a read, and if it resonates with you, feel free to share.
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As an abstract artist, the most common question I receive is "Where do you get your ideas?" Having giving this much thought, I realize that the answer is all around, and inside me.
I am preparing for my third show of the Summer and boy, my soul is tired. I was so excited at the response that I received when looking for places to exhibit my work. It wasn’t expected and so when three different places offered me shows for June, July and August, I knew that I was in for a busy Summer.
I have been working consistently and was able to have completely new paintings for each show. Making the art isn’t hard for me. I don’t really have to wait for inspiration to come. I have a schedule that I’m on the computer the first half of the day doing marketing and admin, and I’m in the studio the second half making abstract art and for the most part, I’ve stuck to it with ease.
The most common question that I’ve gotten is “where do you get your ideas?” and it’s a bit of a tough one to answer. My first instinct is to respond that the ideas happen in the moment as I practice abstract expressionism, which by definition, is spontaneous. But after answering the question for the 15th time, I’m realizing that I may be becoming less spontaneous and more thoughtful as time goes on.
Sometimes the most simple shape can have the most meaningful impact in my abstract paintings.
One of many paper airplane cut outs for my kiddo's birthday gift.
My daughter is turning 16 this month (holy crap) and she asked for a new painting for her room, which we are going to paint and make over for her birthday. When I was beginning her painting, I thought about objects and images that she likes, and a sharp yet light paper airplane shape stuck out to me. And so, I began Nora’s painting with paper cut outs of 16 dark paper airplanes and 16 light ones (she is amazingly balanced for an almost 16-year-old).
The painting came out fantastic. (I'll share it with you all after her birthday.) It was the first time that I used an actual “thing” for my paper cut out instead just a repeating shape like a circle, diamond or hexagon. It was whimsical and fun without being immature and it managed to retain sophistication. And upon completion, my brain was immediately flooded with images from my own childhood growing up in New Orleans and the swamps of Louisiana.
Inspiration may come from many different places but images from my childhood in Louisiana are allowing me to create more meaningful pieces.
One of many different pelicans cut for the first of my Louisiana series. (See finished painting at top.)
I settled on pelicans for a second experiment and began a painting using the same process that I used for Nora’s paper airplanes. I'm so pleased with how it turned out. I have sketches now for a Louisiana series that has images of shrimp, hurricanes, fishing hooks, fleur de lis, snowballs… There are a lot of ideas and this is how I plan on spending my Autumn. I’m can’t wait to dive in.
This series is more personal and I’m finding that it is reminding me of some of my old artistic inspirations that I got from children’s book illustrations. I can’t wait to see how the series turns out. In sketching these images, I began to realize that even in the paintings that seemingly come out of nowhere, just as these Louisiana images came to mind and I was able to observe and collect them into my sketch book, I have been collecting ideas for my abstracts in similar ways all along.
"Shrimp Again?!" A common dinner time complaint from me as a "spoiled by fresh gulf seafood" kid. #2 in my Louisiana series.
Want new creative ideas for your abstract art? Just look around. Observation is an important tool.
So, when I’m interested in finding inspiration, here is my tip to myself: Be Observant. I mean this in a few different ways:
- Observe what gives me a “charge”. I took Nora to see Taylor Swift in 2015 and at one point during the show, her dancers had huge paper airplanes on sticks and they were flying them over the crowd. Visually, it was right up my alley. It was playful, whimsical, surreal and a little magical. I felt a fire of amazement begin to burn in my chest at the visual impact that these simple paper airplanes had on the audience. Nora felt it too…we still talk about how amazing it was thus, the paper airplane painting.
- Observe recurring images in my head. Ever since I was a kid, I loved to watch the pelicans sore over the bayou. When I learned to surf as an adult, I was so excited to see them surf the air currents over the waves. I didn’t know they could do that as we didn’t have waves like that in the bayous. After beginning my pelican painting, I realized that I have a ton of these simple images in my head. They are all special to me and I believe that connection can be seen in the painting. It is more personal.
- Observe all the time. One night I was out to dinner and the server brought over our silverware rolled up in napkins. The napkin rolls were secured with strips of paper about an inch or so thick and were covered in an intriguing prism like purple and blue pattern. I took everyone’s little piece of paper from their napkin rolls home and included them in a painting. I also have taken candy wrappers and foils, wrapping paper, cocktail napkins in pretty prints… Art supplies are everywhere. I’m in the habit of being on constant look out for them.
Unbelievably cool paper used as napkins rings at a local restaurant.
It took about 2 years for this habit to develop. But now, I have to carry a little sketch book with me at all times as when I see inspiration in my head (or on my dinner table) I know that I have to catch it quick or it may be forgotten. Last night I thought of another great New Orleans image and this morning it’s gone. I was lazy and didn’t make a note of it and there it goes. Out into the ethers. I hope I remember it later.
So, if you’re wondering where I begin, the answer is that I simply look around both externally and internally for those little nuggets. Who knew a simple paper airplane or a silhouette of a pelican in flight could be inspiration for a painting? A better question is why wouldn't it be? Thankfully there are an infinite amount of ideas flying around and all I have to is pluck them and put it in my pocket, or in my sketchbook. It’s just that simple.
How and/or where do you find inspiration? Please tell me in the comments below. Thanks for your input! Please share this post if it resonates with you.
For this West Coast abstract artist, dealing with rejection is just part of putting myself and my art out into the world.
In the past week, I have received 2 rejection emails for articles I wrote, very little response to a social media challenge that I’ve been working 2 months on, and an art show that yielded no sales. Oy…all of that sure doesn’t feel too good on the old confidence level.
If you know me, you know that I have a very healthy work ethic. I’m a goal oriented doer. I have the ability to get more tasks done in one day than most and this didn’t change for me, as it does for some, when I started working for myself at home.
So, when I received a flurry of rejection this past week, the work horse side of my ego took a supreme hit. “What the hell?! I’ve been working my ass off! Doing ALL THE THINGS that I’m supposed to do to grow my business. Why isn’t this working?”
Being a professional abstract artist means consistently putting one foot in front of the other, but sometimes a rest is in order.
I received advice from my artist group and my mother (who is a novelist) that it might be time to take a little rest. This is not my instinct. My default to “failure” is to work harder. But this advice, mixed with exhaustion and a touch of sadness, led me to take a few days off.
After two days of loafing around, one cheeseburger with tater tots, a carton of chocolate-chocolate chip ice cream and more episodes of “The Good Wife” than I care to admit to, I was ready to get back to work with a renewed sense of optimism. That makes rejection recovery sound pretty simple but I have to note a few things about dealing with “failure”:
By doing the following, I am able to renew my creative energy and confidence and get back to making abstract paintings.
- Shift your perspective, Woman. I need to stop using the word “failure”. These periods of time when more people are saying “no” than “yes” are not total defeats. I’m new at what I’m doing. The fact that I’ve only been at this 6 months and have had multiple acceptances (2 shows under my belt and another in August, articles published, press from local media…) and multiple rejections mean one thing: I’m doing what I’m supposed to be doing, which is putting myself out there and which also means I’m going to hear the word “no" often…but I also have heard “yes” plenty of times too.
- Chill Out, Lady. My Mom told me that early in her career, she and another writer friend of hers decided that when rejection hit particularly hard, they deserved at least one day of feeling sorry for themselves and room to mope. I’m a sensitive artist. Sometimes ignoring negative feelings is not effective for me to move on. I have to honor the crap-ass feeling. Usually this happens when I’m more tired than I realize anyway and rest and relaxation is exactly the remedy.
- Get back on the damn horse, Artist. This week I continued work on a botanical and nature inspired series that I’m doing for my August show. The style of abstract painting is different than what I have been doing and the change was refreshing. I’m also deciding that it might be time for a strategy change in my marketing and PR efforts. I still haven’t found all of my audience and after six months of my current tactics, it’s probably time to move on to new ones.
That doesn’t mean I’ve failed! It means that I’m making progress. I know more now than I knew last year and I will learn even more in another 6 months.
I am a sensitive artist by nature. Sometimes exhaustion, frustration and sadness just have to be honored in order to move forward.
By now, you’re probably all familiar with the old WWII British motivational poster, “Keep Calm and Carry On.” I’ve seen many satires of this poster all done in red and white with the crown at top that say things like: “Run Around and Freak Out” and “I am Latina! I Cannot Keep Calm!” I often thought there should be one for artists that says “Keep Painting and Cry Often” (maybe with a cheeseburger on top instead of a crown).
All joking aside, sometimes the emotional release is necessary for continuance. So is rest. And the funny thing is that once I cried, ate junk food, slept and binge watched Alicia Florrick, I was able to be calm and carry on. Sometimes we just need to give ourselves permission to glimpse defeat in order for the fire of persistence to start burning again.
Rest and relaxation allows me to take flight once again.
And so, I shall close with a silly poem as #4 on my list should be “don’t take myself so damn seriously”:
As a professional West Coast abstract artist, I have many tools in my studio. But the most important tool I have is a willingness to experiment.
Put me in the middle of an art supply store and for an instant, I am a six-year-old in a world of wonder. I see possibility in just about every product offered and my fingers will literally start to buzz. It’s a visceral feeling.
I feel incredible inspiration just walking through the aisles and what I’m thinking is: “just hold onto this feeling until I’m back in the studio”. This doesn’t just happen in the art store, but also browsing interesting products online such as stencil cutters, gold leaf kits and different shapes of paper punches. I could easily spend hundreds and hundreds of dollars on all of these products and in fact, I have. (See unopened stencil cutter on bottom shelf).
However, time and time again, when I think about the most important and most regularly used tool in my arsenal, it’s not something physical. Rather, it’s the flexibility of my creative mind AKA a willingness to experiment. Without this tool, my art would be pretty monotonous and boring.
I started this series the same way I always do. By painting the canvas and then papering with different shaped cut paper.
Not becoming attached to my abstract art is the first step to experimentation.
Early on in my abstract art experiment, my mentor told me not to allow anything to become too precious. This was something that I was quite familiar with as a lot of my pencil drawings and illustrations were so detailed, that I wouldn’t even allow my hand to rest on the page for fear that the graphite would smear. I was so high strung and bound up about a lot of my life when I got back into art, and I didn’t want that feeling to override the rest, so I began drawing with my left hand.
By doing this, and without even knowing it, I had learned the lesson about not keeping my art too precious. I was yearning for freedom in many places in my life where the need for control had become overwhelming. In art, I found a safe place to practice this freedom without there being any consequences. Nothing mattered. I could literally piss on my art and no one was going to tell me that it was wrong. (Although it’s not the most original idea as Andy Warhol did that back in the 70’s.)
I wanted to try something new so I taped all 6 of the little canvases together and painted the next coat as if they were one painting.
A few weeks ago, I wrote about just doing anything when it comes to art; about changing it up when stuck. The essence of this strategy is not being afraid to “ruin” anything. I used to get so attached to my art. Not so much anymore. There have been pieces here and there that I have kept but for the most part, once I have a good photo, I’m happy to separate with it to a good home.
Without experimentation, I would pretty much be making different iterations of the same piece over and over. B-O-R-I-N-G! I would rather experiment and find the next really cool technique, even if it means painting over what I just spent 3 days working on. What’s the worst that can happen? I end up painting over the entire thing and start from scratch. Musician and song writer Allen Toussaint lost nearly his entire body of work and his beloved Steinway in Hurricane Katrina. Do you know what his reaction was? Something along the lines of: “That’s ok…I'll get another piano and I’ll just write more.” YES!!!! No fear. No attachment. Just continuing creativity.
That day, my Mom gave me a little round tin that had all of these cute tiny cookie cutters in all different shapes. Inspiration ensued.
The only abstract art rule I follow is that there are NO RULES.
I once overheard an artist at her exhibition talking to a patron about the workshops that she teaches. She said, “I tell my students that they absolutely CAN’T use paint right out of the tube. They HAVE TO mix it and make it their own.” I’m gonna go ahead and call bullshit on any statement about art that has the words “can’t”, “have to” and “shouldn’t” and also any sort of art “rule”. There is no such thing. As a person that used to live a pretty high risk life, art is a safe haven for me in that THERE ARE NO RULES. There are no “bad” color combinations. There is no governing board of artist laws. The coolest thing about being an artist is the absolute freedom to experiment.
Estival #4, 8x10, Paper, Acrylic & Graphite on Canvas. Even that dark blue bubble like shape was due to experimenting with new "tools"... like the lid of the tin.
So, if you’re stuck on what your next move should be, or if you know the piece isn’t finished but you’re scared to ruin what’s already there, go and paint something bold over whatever it is your stuck on and that’s too precious to change! Use the paint right out of the tube! Put black next to blue and while you’re at it, wear a belt that doesn’t match your shoes and white after Labor Day! Let your freak flag fly and express yourself any damn way you please. And if anyone ever tells you that something about your art is “wrong”, first swallow the urge to tell them to go f*ck themselves. Instead, simply smile and say that “wrong” is in the eye of the beholder.
All you fearful artists out there, repeat after me: “THERE ARE NO RULES IN ART THEREFORE MY ART CAN NOT BE RUINED!”
I'd love to hear about how you experiment. Feel free to comment below!
When sitting on the sofa, eating crappy food and feeling sorry for yourself doesn’t improve your mood, it’s time to take a different approach to attitude adjusting.
I have just come off a week-long gloom binge. I wasn’t feeling well at all. My work wasn’t satisfying, my home life irritated me, exercise was an unattainable motivation and food…well…if it wasn’t made from sugar or high levels of sodium, I wasn’t interested.
As a sensitive and moody artist who is prone to anxiety and depression, it can be hard at times to pull myself from the depths of my own head. Once I’m there, the darkness can wrap around me like a blanket which, oddly enough, can feel rather comforting. Instead of craving things that would improve the situation, I hunker down, binge on television, cry in the shower, eat ice cream for dinner and procrastinate doing anything that could possibly be good for me. It affects my productivity in EVERYTHING.
Last week, while in the midst of a down-swing, I continued working on a painting and although I worked on it every day, I didn’t make much progress. That is kind of indicative of how my mood affects my day-to-day. When I’m in a negative head space, everything seems to take longer and my actions don’t seem as productive as I know they can be. It’s like everything is done in vain which depresses me even more…OH THE DRAMA OF IT ALL!
On Friday, after my 12th biscotti, 7th grilled cheese sandwich and 4th failed attempt to get to the gym, I had to do something. I chose to take the same attitude towards my day-to-day that I take when I’m stuck on a painting. JUST DO ANYTHING. Seriously. The more different, the better.
Just as in abstract painting, contrast can also be the solution to depressive moods. Trying something opposite to instinct can help.
I decided to approve my teenage daughter’s proposed 8-person sleepover. I know what you’re thinking: “WTF?! You’re fighting the doldrums by inviting a slew of crazed teenagers over?!” Yes, that’s exactly what I did. To justify this decision to my melancholia, I told myself that I would now have the weekend to finish cracking out on crappy food, as that is what the human teenager consumes at a sleepover.
What I was hoping is that all of these fresh faced, energetic, silly-as-hell children running around my house would totally obliterate the misery problem at hand. You try being stuck in a funk on a Saturday night when girls are being dragged across the floor laughing hysterically, sporadic dance parties are popping up on your front lawn and THIS is standing in your kitchen:
The point is that it got me out of my spin cycle. I woke up in my van Sunday morning (yes, I gave up the comfort of my house to the juveniles for the night) and joyfully cooked pancakes and scrambled eggs for a mess of youngsters. I found it amusing (instead of frustrating) when an iphone was found under one of our cars, when I realized that two entire jars of pickles were eaten by one 90-pound girl (ew) and when I was repeatedly asked for something to eat while I was in the middle of cooking a meal.
As it turns out, my Mother was right…it really is important to get outside and play on a beautiful day.
That afternoon, I got outside for the first time in a week and gardened (another one of those activities that is so hard for me to start, yet feels so good when finished). Monday, I woke up and rocked that painting, continuing on in a completely different direction from where I started. I had been painting in a pretty dark pallet so I took a light blue and painted over about 85% of my painting.
When in doubt, just do anything.
After a brief panic attack, (and another biscotti) I took the canvas outside and started sanding the paint down. Layers of texture and color slowly emerged through the light blue, creating a dreamy, twisted, complicated junglescape. Out emerged something I never could have planned or imagined and it was beautiful.
When I needed a break from that, I got on my bike and hauled ass on the bike path for about an hour. In that time, I was able to release most of the remaining dark cloud that I had been dragging around. It was really hard to pay attention to the blahs when I chose to engage with the outdoors for a minute. It’s Spring, Moody Artist! For Pete’s sake, go outside and play!
Today is Tuesday and I still feel my bad mood hiding out and waiting for an opening to creep back in. But instead of engaging with it, I’ve decided to write about the ridiculousness of it all. After lunch, I will incorporate some darks back into this painting and then I’m going mountain biking.
Detail of the painting after working a dark blue back in. Sometimes you just have to keep doing the opposite thing until you land where it all comes together.
The only constant mood is the changing one
We all go through ups and downs. If I’ve learned anything in my 40 years being human, it’s that there is no such thing as an endless good or bad mood. They are all temporary and part of a much bigger picture. It’s where we choose to focus that’s important. I’m always amazed when a once huge problem doesn’t seem quite so big when I don’t stop and stare at it. I mean, it’s Spring in Southern Oregon…I’d much rather stop and stare at the wild flowers.
Sometimes, it seems such an easier choice to curl up on the sofa and continue on with the pity party but right now I have to take the 180 degree turn that will get the spark back into my eyes and the motivation back into my hands. If I choose to remain stuck in my mood, that’s all I’ll be…stuck. Just like with my painting, I have to take action and I can’t wait to think of the “perfect” solution. Just shake it up! Throw caution to the wind, paint onto the canvas, and when in doubt, and if it’s available to you, laugh with a bunch of goofy kids (I hear puppies work too).
When you feel stagnation set in, what do you do to get unstuck? Let me know in the comments below. Goodness knows I need all the strategies that I can get!
Painting at top is Blue Music, 36x36, Paper, Acrylic and Watercolor Crayon on Canvas
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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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