I have mixed feelings about this as an artist and teacher.
For near 20 years instudio I was adding to, building, and promoting my
growing reputation as a northern midwest wildlife artist. I was one of
Wisconsin's finest by virtue of competitions such as 1984 Wisconsin Wildlife
Artist of the Year; by being a finalist or runner up 23 of 33 entrees
entered in state and national duck, trout, turkey stamp competitions and so
Flawlessness and perfection in hyper photographic realism with irrefutable
knowledge and insight into one's subject, both the outdoors and of wildlife.
In one competition I won...after joyously accepting $5,000....the judges
(which consisted mostly of DNR management and field specialists) came over
to ask as concerned my work if indeed a Hungarian partridge's eye would
close upon being killed by a snowy owl, or might not remain open.
There was this fine line where perhaps the artist might be thought the
greater expert than those studying the natural resources, experts in their
field...yet, where they felt artists likewise might not have done adequate
homework and did error.
The result was that after a couple decades of the wildlife art genre, judges
lost some ability to judge work artistically. They would count to see how
many feathers a bird had and so forth. I know from experience that a brown
trout has at least 170 rows of scales, and a brook trout 240. A duck has
ten primaries, ten secondaries, at least three tertiaries, and your obvious
greater and lesser covert groups of feathers...on and on.
I actually did and still yet today speak to groups such as conservation
groups about wildlife such as deer and so forth or to sportsman groups.
Such expertise that in fact I once was on a television program aired in 29
states interviewed to offer valid reasons against the destruction of marshes
across the country where the Mississippi valley alone was losing 500,000
acres of flooded timberland per year wreaking havoc on shorelines, causing
great floods and so forth.
I did though (yes this story comes around to point to an end) like so many
artist peers, tire not of the enormous task for perfection but that our work
as fine art was often misunderstood. Instead of taking it in from seven
paces away and enjoying the work as a whole....everyone shot straight up to
look at the work from six inches away.
Perhaps they were looking for imperfections. Judges were, because this was
their most effective way at choosing works to eliminate down to the last
final top three entrees.
Roughly seven years ago I did something most with a reputation would never
do. I walked near completely away from it all.
I took my easel out of doors...and decided I would learn to paint all over
I had seen the work of Richard Schmid in Jackson Hole, Wyoming that had just
won the Arts for the Parks competition. I hated it at first. I had seen it
from only a foot or two away when I came around a divider and it was a
chaotic thickly painted abstract joke! That is...until I walked about seven
to eight paces away and took one more disgruntled look back at it. Suddenly
all that chaos had turned to a breathing, moving most enchanting waterfalls.
You could nearly hear the water roaring down across the rocks.
I spent the next 30 minutes walking up to and backing away from that
painting in disbelief, one...that no human could possibly paint such a thing
with intent to do such a thing. I hated that work for six months...but it
forced a change upon me. I later spoke with Schmid about that and he had a
good hearty laugh at my expense.
So...outdoors painting plein air is what I've been doing.
I don't set out to paint loose, but the elusive nature of the sun and the
challenge of capturing the drama before it disappears tolerates no other
impression but that which is spontaneous.
Today...I see the hyper realistic works...and I know they are the product of
great labor. It is unfortunate in a way for me because I would like to
enjoy them more, but after 20 years of it there is no more any mystery nor
secrets but long laborious effort done to create and hold to a reputation.
I do not look for flaws in art to enjoy its being made by human hands. I do
look for genius and mastery. Paintings that are more spontaneous in effort
to capture life from painting live have a spark that other works simply do
not have. A spirit of realism that the stagnant instudio works do not
generate...so, the more painterly works appear more realistic to me because
I can imagine myself standing on the scene more readily.
There is a reason too, if the few of you will allow me to rant on...and
something you might find useful to know. I'll refer back to the Christ who
told parables. He was very elusive in his answering of questions. Instead
of directly acknowledging someone was a sinner and should rightfully be
stoned, or on many occasions, he'd go off with something like, "there was
once a son....."
In our age of over communication where you have 30 seconds of commercial
time to get your message across to viewers to make spending $30,000
justifiable to think of someone who purposes to do everything but directly
answer a question seems ludicriss.
I had a professor once that would require us after announcing a new design
problem for us, to come up with ten solutions and write them down. Then, he
would thereafter rule that we would not be allowed to use any of them. This
would force us to dig deeper for answers and not rely upon the first things
that came to our heads. He called our tendencies to accept first things as
pond scum. You know...you are thirsty, so you bend down near a pond and lap
whatever is on top. Instead, to get at the good water, you have to motion
your hand back and forth to spread away the pond scum and there beneath is
the good and healthy stuff.
Well...this was part of the mastery of the communication of Jesus. He knew
his audience for one. The Jews had a love for the law...so He'd speak in
terms of scriptures...but the gentiles and Greeks had a love for story, so
he'd give them stories. More than that though...his answers were elusive.
Only those whose hearts would be truly ready in His estimation would commit
to walking away trying to solve the mystery or riddle. Perhaps about a
block away they'd experience this "ah-HAH! I get it!"...and in that process
the lesson would have been received at a deeper conscientious level. A
place so deep that the truth of it could likely effect change or
How the heck does that have anything to do with painting you might ask?
Well, I could let you walk a block away thinking about it now couldn't I?
hahahhah...okay...I won't do that to you, I'll over communicate.
I have found that a painterly work that suggests detail rather than paints
it, invites the viewer to participate with the work. A hyper photo
realistic painting asks no such thing of the viewer but simply to receive it
at face value. The latter invokes awe and respect for the painter, but the
painterly work instead engages the viewer's mind. The viewer actually
begins to think they are seeing more than is there. They begin to read
between the lines so-to-speak and the more they look, the more they see.
The painterly realist with experience masters the move of the brush, a bit
of value or color here, an impasto impression there to evoke mystery to
where the viewer supplants from their own memory pool of experiences details
of their own for which the artist would otherwise not have access to. In
the end, the viewer makes the painting part of themselve. They actually
help to finish the work and become in a sense a co-creator with the artist.
The painting is a journey.
Now...some types are too impatient. The Joe Fridays of the world...."just
the facts maam, just the facts!" They are the ones that want every jot and
tittle, every detail before they will recognize and see artistic excellence
and talent. For them, this is more important than what it is the artist
wants to say. From experience though, this group of people are more
impervious to penetrate your aesthetic message with.
Like those that would walk away from hearing Christ's stories with nothing
but anger for being treated like a child for his not making an answer more
plain, that measure of the public will not understand plein air works that
appear messy and unfinished.
I have found though...that many more people having made the dialogue of the
painting personal are likely to loosen their wallets to bring the work home
with them. There is great joy for me that such people have made the work
personal. That I have helped to take them on a journey...and have shared
the spirit of a place with them, and it has touched them so.
I try and transfer a sense now of all this to my students.
I think my passion as an artist, for life, for expressing my feelings
...sometimes in this macho logging community culture is a real oddity to
With all that passion though...there are yet good story tellers and I can
assure you a poor story teller will take no one anywhere. So, I don't
encourage imperfections for the sake of imperfections themselves. The thing
is...most work will not but help to show its having a creator. More
importantly is that a person pours their heart and soul into it.
Next...that they understand it takes about 120 bad paintings to learn
something about painting...and thus, should see it as an act of celebration.
A dance of life...and let the understanding, the control, the excellence
develop on its own. Do your best...knowing the next one will be better
still, yet make it your goal to enjoy each work as though a sacred
opportunity. Dignified. Passion...