Sunday, August 28, 2016

Where's Your Studio?

One of the first questions an artist is asked, after "what do you do?", is "where is your studio?"  The answer to that says a lot about the artist.  It should: there is a lot that goes into the decision.

I've had several studios.  My first was in the basement of my old house.  It was a bit dank and dark, but it was fairly roomy and had running water, so I was pretty happy with it.  I was in the Navy, so that job came first, but the studio was available whenever I could spend some time there.

My second and third studios were third bedrooms in different homes.  "Studio" is a rather ambitious name for something that was little more than a closet filled with art stuff.  But like my basement studio, they were available whenever my Navy work allowed.

After I retired from the military, I went to UNC Asheville to study fine art.  I set up a studio in our 2-car garage.  Half the garage was for the car and half for me.  It didn't work.  The light was horrible.  Our garage opens to the southwest, so I had sunlight bouncing off the pavement, providing incredible glare.  Every leaf in the neighborhood would blow in whenever the door opened.  It was cold in winter and hotter than hell in the summer.  You can't make any kind of art when you're fighting your environment.

During my senior year at UNCA, I had a tiny studio in the art building.  It was maybe 9'x9'.  A closet, really, but it was a dedicated art space with lighting, heating and cooling, and (best of all) lots of other artists around to trade ideas with.  That's where I did my "Old Times" series of 16 paintings.

After graduating, I moved into a studio in Asheville's River Arts District.  Finally, a professional studio!  It was about 30'x20' and shared with two other painters.  One left after a few months and then Christine Enochs and I shared it for about five years.  It was in an old brick cotton mill built circa 1898.  It had seven large windows, about 8' high and 4' wide, that had all the insulation you'd expect of a window installed in 1898.  It also had 15' ceilings, wood floors, and a bathroom.  And bugs.  Lots and lots of bugs.

But the physical description is only a tiny part of it.  The building was full of other artists: several painters, a choreographer, stained-glass window artist, two potters, a flute maker, textile artists, and a wire sculptor, to name a few.  We had a small community within the building that exposed us to all kinds of new ideas as well as mutual support.  We were in a larger community of artists in other buildings, too.  I could go over to the Clingman Cafe and wind up talking with a woodworker or photographer about things I never would have thought of otherwise.  Being in a community of artists is invaluable, particularly when you're just starting out.  Our building was also open to the public pretty much every day, so there was a slow stream of foot traffic that became a flood during the two Studio Stroll weekends we held every year.

I eventually moved out of this studio when I made the decision to go to Afghanistan.  After I came home, I went looking for a different place.  While being in a community of artists was great, having constant foot traffic did not work well for me.  People would come in, spend 20 minutes talking with me, and then walk out.  Foot traffic worked well for the potters, who had inexpensive items like coffee mugs that sold well.  Paintings and other artworks that could cost up to several thousand dollars did not move.  So I decided that it was better for me to have a studio with no foot traffic and no interruptions.

I found one in Riverside Business Park.  This is another old textile mill that has been converted into a small business incubator.  There are lots of operations here: a coffee roaster, a couple of warehouse-type operations, a few artists, two rafting companies, and so on.  My studio was about 650 square feet with fluorescent lights and heating and cooling.  Later, I also rented the adjacent hallway that didn't go anywhere, along with two bathrooms (good story behind all that), that gave me lots of storage space and running water.  There are no windows, but I installed daylight-balanced lights.  Since this is an industrial space rather than an "artist studio", rent is very affordable.  There's no foot traffic, which is a plus for me, but there's plenty of space for workshops, weekly life drawing groups, and other activities.  All in all, it works out well.

Many professional artists work out of their homes, or in studios built on their property.  I find that it helps me to have to actually go somewhere else.  There's a mind shift: I'm going to work.  When I'm at home, I have all kinds of other things that "need" to be done: go to the grocery store, do some yard work, that sort of thing.  So I'm one of those artists that needs a separate studio that's located some distance away.

What would I change about my current studio?  Well, it would be nice to have windows, but that can't happen since it's in the middle of the building.  It would also be nice if it was 10 miles closer to home.  Going to work is one thing, but it doesn't have to be a 20-minute drive.  And it would be great to be in a community of artists, with a cafe nearby, that wasn't overrun by tourists.  I'm afraid that combination of factors doesn't exist, though.  So I'm keeping my studio.  And no, you can't have it.

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

An Art Education

I've been asked quite a few times by high schoolers and other young people about an art education.  I see the idea in their eyes that they want to be artists when they grow up, and want to know the best way to go about it.  High school students ask if they should go to college and get a Bachelor's in Art.  College students ask if they should get a Masters degree.  And sometimes they've turned to me for advice.

Well, really, it all depends on what you want to do.

Now, I'm a firm believer in a college education.  I've got a degree in engineering, an MBA, and a degree in Fine Art.  The first got me a career in the Navy, the second advanced that career, and the third got me going in art.  College degrees are wonderful things.  You learn a lot about yourself, you get exposed to things you'd never see otherwise, and if you're lucky, you learn to write a bit better.  But I'll also be the first to tell you that, if you want to be a full-time working artist, a college degree may not be the way to go.

Why is that?  Well, for one, a college education is getting ridiculously expensive.  Most students these days graduate with varying amounts of student debt.  It's not uncommon for somebody to have a diploma in one hand and a bill for $50,000 in the other.  That might be workable if you were going into a high-paying career field like law or engineering.  Art is NOT that career field.  Most artists don't even break even with their art sales.  I certainly don't, and I've had my professional studio for 13 years now.  You can't have a studio, some sort of housing, food, and transportation, while at the same time paying off a student loan, especially if your studio has a negative income.  (There's this pesky thing called "arithmetic" that keeps getting in the way ...)  On the positive side, going to college for an art education will give you new skills and open your eyes to different things.  On the negative side, you'll pay for it.  A lot.

Going for a Masters degree in Art compounds things: more skills, a piece of paper at the end, and a lot more bills.  Granted, if you want to teach art at the college level (this includes community colleges), you have to have a Masters.  If you're looking to be a working artist, you don't need a degree at all.

Let me mention two examples.  One artist friend of mine got her BFA about the same time that I did.  She went on to get an MFA and then moved to New York to be an artist.  She has one piece in the National Portrait Gallery, student loans that she will never be able to repay, and cannot afford to work as an artist anymore.  Another artist friend of mine has never had a class at all.  Not one.  She got started in art by accident, taught herself how to paint, and raised three kids as a single mom on her income from art sales.  She's had some extremely lean years, particularly during the downturn after 2008, and still has lots of concerns over money, but she's still a full-time working artist.  And she's turned out to be pretty damn good at what she does.

Another thing to consider: a great many, if not most, people change their careers after college.  An engineer may become a manager (a very different thing), a teacher may become a consultant, or a soldier may become a medical transcriptionist.  Artists are no different.  Of all those who graduated from UNC Asheville's art program about the time I did, maybe three are still actively doing art.

Okay, so cost is my first and largest issue regarding a college education.  A second issue is, what kind of education is best for you?  In my experience, art is generally taught in one of two basic forms.  In high-prestige art schools, the focus is on art, while just enough other courses (English, history, and math, for example) are added in to meet accreditation requirements.  In other schools, like a typical public university, it's a liberal-arts curriculum with enough art courses to give you a major.  These are two fundamentally different approaches.  One approach teaches you how to make high-quality Art but doesn't give you much exposure to the broader world.  The other gives you exposure to the broader world but the quality of the Art is lower.

Think of it as writing.  For a writer, the two key aspects are having something important to say, along with the technical skills to say it well.  An art-focused curriculum will give you the technical skills while paying scant attention to the message.  A liberal-arts-focused curriculum will give you exposure to the infinite number of messages that need to be addressed, while giving you a very basic set of technical skills.

I saw the results first-hand many years ago.  I visited one of the premier art schools in the country about the time that they had their annual student show.  I was blown away by their skills.  Their sophomores could put paint on canvas better than the seniors at my school (UNC Asheville).  The troubling thing was, they had nothing to say.  They were all trying to make the most esoteric pieces of ART they could, but there was no "there" there.  At UNC Asheville, my fellow students poured their hearts into the work.  They explored some really deep subjects in great depth.  The resulting work was sometimes crudely executed but had a power to it that could knock you back on your heels.

As you can tell, I put more emphasis on the content of a piece of art than on the technical skills that put it together.  That's my bias.  Deal with it.

There's one more aspect to address.  I have found that technical skills can always be learned.  I'm still learning new stuff all the time.  Having a message, though, comes from your own experiences in life.
So, going back to the original questions, is a Bachelor's degree in art worth it?  Depends.  I'd say the typical high-school grad needs to get some life experiences and figure out what they want to do, both in their life and in their art.  College may be the right place, but that's an expensive route.  Another might be to join the military for a few years.  Get some exposure to the larger world and have a military-sponsored program to attend college when you get out.  The danger there is that you might not ever come back to it.  If that happens, though, then the danger was always that you'd never follow through on an art career anyway, right?  Or you might just take off for a couple of years and work somewhere, or bounce around the country or the world, seeing and doing new things, before going off to school.  The point here: find your message.  Find what drives you.  Then work on the technical skills.

There are lots of ways to learn how to do the kind of art you want to do.  My artist friend, above, never had a lesson or a workshop.  She looked at books, did stuff similar to artists she liked, talked to other artists, and gradually became a really impressive painter in her own right.  I've done workshops, both in-person and online, and have learned a helluva lot from each one.  I still find new artists that do impressive things and then try to copy them.  The copies give me a greater understanding of how they work and also an understanding of how I can improve my own work.  My technical skills today are far beyond what they were when I finished my BFA program.

So think long and hard about going to college to study art.  The real question is: what do you really want to do?  I mean, really?

Friday, August 05, 2016

Art Demonstration

A few days ago, I gave a presentation and demonstration on my plein-air techniques to the Asheville Urban Landscape Project.  the AULP is a group of artists in the Asheville area that get together periodically to make some paintings.  During most of the year, they do landscapes outdoors and, in the winter months, they'll do figure sessions.  They also bring in accomplished local artists to do demonstrations of their painting styles.  I was honored to be asked this year.  Previous artists have included Richard Oversmith and Mark Harmon, so I was in some very accomplished territory.

I chose to do the demo at the Asheville Botanical Gardens.  This is a beautiful park-like area adjacent to UNC Asheville that shows the great biodiversity in western North Carolina.  About 25-30 people showed up.  I set up my French easel, gave a talk about the equipment and materials I use, and then started on a small painting of the gazebo.  I'd paint a few minutes, then talk a bit about what I was seeing, deciding, and doing, and answer questions whenever they popped up.  Some of the topics that we covered:
- using a neutral gray palette rather than a white one
- selecting and using a limited number of colors (one red, one blue, one yellow, along with burnt umber and yellow ochre)
- toning a canvas with a color before painting
- deciding on a composition: where the focus will be, the major light/dark areas, and areas of strongest color
- blocking in the composition with burnt umber
- building on the block-in with muted colors
- accentuating the focus areas with stronger colors
- reacting to changing light that can completely change the focus of the painting
- recovering from mistakes (actually, the whole process is one long recovery period, isn't it?)
- deciding when enough is enough before it becomes too much

The crowd was very engaged and asked lots of questions, which is always a good thing for me.  We had a good back-and-forth.  Here are some photos from the session:

A working artist is quite the fashionista.  Here's my sloppy self talking about the really exciting topic of the advantages of using a gray palette to lay out your paints.

Doing the initial block-in.  I was setting the horizon line in the upper third of the panel and the gazebo at the left third.

 Here's what I was looking at.  A little while later, the sun broke through the clouds and lit up the grass in front of the gazebo.  Changed everything.

And here's how it turned out ...