“Perpetual Search” is a mini-dream of mine; to learn from some of the best painters in the world and then go on a painting binge where you “find” your voice as an artist while crisscrossing the beautiful backroads of MN…a very romantic idea. Practically speaking for me this venture will culminate in an exhibit in October 2015, but will probably be an ongoing pursuit for the rest of my life.
It’s called perpetual because even though we find answers and solutions to our problems as artists, we often end up asking the same questions a month or two later. It’s a cyclical rollercoaster of understanding and wondering; trying to secure answers to rhetorical questions… What is my style? What is it I’m trying to say here? How do I make a living as an artist? These are predicaments that require continuous attention and revisiting.
That might sound daunting, but it might actually be the beauty of it all; the mystery creates the excitement. How boring it would be to just go through the motions knowing you were going to do the exact same thing every day with a pre-determined outcome. Maybe we all find that balance in our lives, in our work; weighing the mundane against risk taking while pursuing our own perpetual search.
In my version I’m looking for artistic and career direction. A recently rekindled love of plein air painting, which means painting outside, was my inspiration to learn how to do that better and also how to plan and market a career as an artist. Doesn’t everyone wonder how an artist makes a living? Probably the number one question artists get is “Do you have a real job?”
It’s an incredibly lucky and fortunate artist who is able to say "I’m a full time artist", and I know a lot of really good artists who aren’t yet able to say that. It took me 10 years of painting houses and building up my art career on the side to be able to do what I do. It can be a very tough gig, and unfortunate as it may be; skill and ability are probably less important than marketing and promotion. Self-employed careers take planning, and that’s one benefit to writing grants as an artist; it requires that you sit down and make a plan.
The Plan for Perpetual Search:
- Attend the Plein Air Convention to learn new approaches to painting, marketing, and planning a career as an artist.
- Create a blog post summarizing that experience (this blog post)
- Create a blog post outlining a new career plan to gain national exposure (next blog post)
- Immerse myself in a plein air painting experience, traveling to inspiring places in MN. (This summer)
- Exhibit the new work and share the adventurous story of the successes and struggles along the way.
(October 2015, at Paramount Visual Arts Center’s Studio C)
Why go to the Plein Air Convention?
Reasons why people attend the convention include; painting demonstrations, career planning advice, rubbing shoulders with elite caliber artists, and of course painting the Pacific Coast.
I wanted to go to the Plein Air Convention because some of the best artists working in plein air were schedule to demonstrate there. I was hoping to pick up some tips on technique, but more than that I needed direction on philosophy and career planning. What motivates these artists to paint what they paint; where does their inspiration come from; what is their process for painting; and how do they make a living as an artist?
It also seems important to meet successful artists and see what their life looks like. If we could look into the future 20 or 30 years then we might be able to plan accordingly now. What I learned is that each artist runs their career differently; some teach a lot of workshops, some don’t teach at all and only work with galleries, others own their own gallery and studio where they live. There was one artist who only exhibits in his home town maybe once a year. That opened my eyes to the possibility that an artist could really live anywhere, since their work isn’t necessarily tied to one place.
Although I’m confident in my abilities, I have to admit I was a bit intimidated to meet a lot of these “giants” of the plein air art world. What I hadn’t expected during this trip was the comradery and networking; even though these were some of the best painters in the field of plein air, they were normal people with everyday problems. They were incredibly welcoming and friendly, which made it a very inviting experience for aspiring artists. We were all there to learn, improve, and meet new friends. In plein air painting I’m not sure you ever really master the task at hand; it’s so unpredictable that I think you just learn to manage your approach better. These were all my expectations and reasons for going there, but I had very little idea of what would actually happen.
So we packed up our bags and headed out west!
We arrived Saturday, midafternoon. After a quick bite and house brew at Peter B’s, we headed to fisherman’s wharf to explore, and I wanted to paint on the beach. Here is what I made that first evening, and I think it turned out to be one of the best paintings from the trip.
My wife Mallory could elaborate about the level of frustration I experienced during this painting, but I’ll summarize: two of the four legs on my easel broke and I had to zip-tie them back together, technically it worked, but the image of a newborn fawn on a frozen lake comes to mind. Halfway into the painting the tide started to creep up, and by the end of the session I was soaked up to my knees; wet shoes on vacation are not ideal. Back in the hotel room I settled down and after a couple days I could see past the experience and start to enjoy the painting for what it was; a fresh and colorful response to a new environment. It looks much more appealing now, in a dry studio.
Sunday was spent in Carmel Beach, Mal was lounging in the sand and I was painting. It was a busy beach and its dog friendly so we were missing our own pooch Ruby. That also meant that there were a lot of gockers peering over my shoulder. Which is okay; if you are going to paint in public you simply need to get used to people watching and talking to you. Here is my painting from Carmel Beach; I think it’s my favorite from the entire trip.
We headed back to Monterrey, strolled along the beach walk, and bumped into fellow MN watercolorist Andy Evansen who I took a workshop from about 10 years ago and have stayed in contact with since. This turned out to be fortuitous as we ended up painting together for the rest of the trip. Andy is one of the best watercolorists in the country; well connected and I was able to meet a lot of great artists through his introductions, plus anyone will tell you he’s just a cool guy to hang out with.
That night we painted Carmel River beach, I painted a couple of paintings including Mal on the Beach, and had dinner with a bunch of artists at Clint Eastwood’s Mission Ranch. They were oil painters, but they offered to buy the first beer so we obliged. We met the very talented Jesse Powell of Carmel, CA, his wife Ashley, and also present were a few MN great’s; Bob Upton and Carl Bretzke.
Monday we went to Carmel Valley. Andy and I painted, Mal did some wine tasting; it was a wonderful day overall. The convention started Monday night.
Let The Festivities Begin…
Over the course of the trip I painted 12 pictures in 6 days, watched about 11 demos or presentations from nationally prominent artists, attended marketing boot camps at 6 am every day, and met more enthusiastic artists than I can't even begin to describe here.
The demonstrations were split up into media used, so there were 3 demos going on simultaneously in different rooms. There was the oil track, pastel track, and water media track. I spent most of my time hanging out with the watercolorists, but did manage to catch 2 oil demos and one pastel. In total, demos watched include Francesco Fontana, Eric Wiegardt, Michael Reardon, Georgia Mansur, Frank Eber, Antonio Masi, Len Chmiel, Quang Ho, and Jean Haines, not to mention an incredible opening talk by painter and sculptor George Carlson. There were so many amazing demonstrations that it would be tough to pick a favorite, but I did find the watercolor demos by Eric Wiegardt and Francensco Fontana to be standouts.
Eric’s approach was so fresh, simple, and abstract, yet from a distance his painting really held together. We met the night before through a mutual friend, here are some quotes from Eric that stuck with me:
- “Soft edges are a watercolorist’s friend”
- “Make a value pattern so simple that a 5 year old could understand it”
- “Color is in the mid-tones, not the lights and darks”
- “If you get the value right, the color can be anything as long as it’s reasonable”
- “If you screw something up, LEAVE IT! The worst thing you can do is let it affect your psyche.”
- “I don’t have to paint a boat; I just have to get you thinking you’re looking at a boat.”
- “A slightly false statement done fresh is better than a tireless truthful one.”
“The eye not told what to see, sees more.”
Francesco emphasized intentional mark making in his painting;
- “Try to get the most out of every stroke”.
- “It’s a painting, not a documentation; does it really matter?”
“Paint a composition, not a picture. Let go of reality, let it be an interesting painting.”
I took a ton of notes and pictures, but honestly who has time to go back and study those? I have to focus on what affected me at the time, and for me that was the idea of being more intentional with the type of mark I am making with my brush; it’s gestural energy, being aware of the fact that in the end I am painting a composition and not a picture, and better utilizing the power of suggestion and understatement when depicting “things”. Another idea that impacted me was that any scene or place can be a starting point for a painting. It doesn’t have to be something spectacular; in fact it’s probably better if it’s not because odds are it won’t live up to the real thing!
It was a tremendous growth experience for me overall, I flew back home with new goals to achieve in my painting, which felt good. I think that was the direction I was looking for artistically, but career-wise there was still some pondering left to do…
As mentioned earlier, every morning at 6am there was a presentation called “Art Marketing Boot Camp”. In my next article; “5 Ways For Painters To Gain National Exposure”, the search will continue as I present the marketing information I learned at the convention, and I will also share with you my career plan and goals as an artist. This includes how I will attempt to gain national exposure as a watercolor painter.
Until next time, thanks for following along and as always please share your comments and ideas below! - Dan
Links of Interest:
“This activity is made possible through a grant from the Central Minnesota Arts Board, thanks to funds provided by the McKnight Foundation.”