Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Put On Your Armor

     Today, I hope you will indulge me, because I’m going to whine a little.  When I first pursued this career, I was having trouble with what I perceived were the injustices of the business, and how hard it was to get into the quality shows.
     After reading an article that renowned oil painter Oleg Stavrowsky wrote in Art of the West, I decided to write him a letter, and sent along some slides of my work.  It was a completely impulsive act and was borne out of sheer frustration.
     Basically, I ranted in one long run-on paragraph:  “I’m a young artist, just starting out and I’m not really sure where to go and what to do…. there appears to be a lot of crap that’s in shows, and some really good art, that never makes the cut.  How do I wrap my head around all that?”
     Imagine my surprise when I received a 3-page letter in return, typed on what I took to be an old Royal typewriter.  (Hint: the letter “g” appeared above the baseline, throughout the entire letter).   Bottom line: he really cleared some things up for me, and I want to share some of his wise advice:

     “Hello, Mark – Just got your note and lovely sampling of your stuff. WOW.  Excellent. I sure like what you do.  Crisp, clean, well drawn and fresh as a new daisy!  You also sound frustrated.  What else can I tell you??!!
     I’ve been turned down so many times for so many unknown reasons to me, that I’ve stopped worrying about it.  But of course, sometimes you really know it’s some political, personality crap and you just boil.  There is an answer:  There truly is.  Don’t steam over it, just go back to the drawing board and work harder.  We artists never really kid ourselves.  We usually know when we do good work and when we do crap!
     The answer is really to work your ass off until you know you’ve done a great job.  Then when some guy looks down his nose at you it simply becomes funny … as long as you’re sure of your position/as long as you know you’ve done something very good.  Sometimes it takes a long, long time to become self-assured. I almost think that’s good.  Because when you are self-assured, you stand on rock solid ground, and you know you’ve paid your dues and have earned that position.  Then all the turndowns and rejections become really funny.
     Oleg then goes on to give me some examples of similar things that have happened to him, and most likely every artist can tell you the same story.  He then gives me some praise:
     “You know you can draw and compose and put the paint down as well as anybody.  Stay with that.  Be your own critic.  I mean tear your stuff apart….find fault with it …. Incessantly.  And then you grow and grow and grow.
     He wrapped up the letter with this recommendation:  “Do the real tough and hard and BEST thing and go to your work place and paint, paint, paint.  That’s always the real answer.  Don’t rest on your laurels whatever they might be.  Consider your work crap and try every thing and anything to make it good.  You do that over and over and sooner or later, you realize that it is really good.  Then you’re home free.  Then nobody can offend you or touch you.  Good work is your armor against anything.”

     I received this letter 15 years ago and I’ve kept it tucked away in my drawing table.  And every now and then I take it out and re-read it.  I treasure it because Oleg gave me a lifetime of art advice and mentorship in one letter….. Put on the armor of good painting and work your ass off!
All content © J. Mark Kohler.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Stepping Backwards To Go Forward

     Stepping Backward….. This is what I think is involved in learning to become a serious artist.  Let me explain.  In teaching my workshops, I’ve come across a wide variety of people, who for lots of different reasons, want to come learn how to paint in watercolor with me.  Some just want to go home with a completed painting as proof of their participation, and let me be clear----that is perfectly fine.
     But those who are serious about perfecting their painting skills, will soon recognize why I “harp” on drawing skills.  I am aware that the primary reason a painting falls short of expectations is a lack of drawing skills.  That’s why I tell all my prospective students, before they even arrive for the workshop, “Be sure you concentrate on bringing a good drawing”…..”Work on making the drawing the best you can do” ….. “Here’s the quality of the drawing I expect.” 
     Even with explicit instructions on how to execute a drawing (designed for those with limited experience), students will invariably arrive with drawings that will not render their desired results.
     So I’m rethinking my approach to conducting classes.  For those who want to experience a laid back weekend of painting in watercolor, it will be status quo.  But for those who want to improve their skills and approach a possible career in painting, I am going to start stressing drawing skills first.  And here’s why
     A well-executed drawing is the foundation of a good painting.  It is essential to begin an oil or watercolor painting with a good drawing, or the painting will fall short in the end.  And here’s the statement that will probably get me in a lot of trouble….. For the past 40 years, I don’t think we have necessarily taught our art students the fundamentals that will help them achieve successful outcomes.  That is why I am excited to see a huge resurgence in the European Academy system, or atelier-based schools.
     I think people are finally realizing that there’s no shortcut to good painting.  It requires fundamentals, such as drawing.  And atelier-based schools are nothing but fundamentals taught over and over again.
     Artists like Jacob Collins and Daniel Graves have driven home the importance of good drawing skills.  Certainly the educated art buyer recognizes the skill.  And even those buyers of art, who may not be able to pinpoint what makes one artist’s work stand out from another, will instinctively see the difference.
     So how am I stepping backwards to go forward?  As an artist, I have been complimented on the level of my drawing skills, but I’m always seeking to raise the bar for myself.  At this stage in my career, I can’t stop and put my obligations and schedule on hold in order to take 18 months or 2 years off to go study with an atelier master like Daniel Graves.
     So I am committed to re-training myself in my daily routine to learn these traditional methods to draw.  In essence, it’s a new way to see and a new way to draw.  The single best thing I have ever done is purchase Charles Bargue’s Drawing Course.  This book includes all the Bargue plates of actual casts of 3-dimensional sculptures.  I am starting at the beginning and re-training myself to draw in this manner.  (See my sketch, right, from Bargue plates).
     You will learn to draw from life with the sight-size measurement system, as well as learn to draw from the flat by measuring from an existing illustration or photograph, and then transferring this to your paper.  It is my opinion that this is the single most important skill you can learn as a painter.  And it will be the best $100 you’ll ever spend to advance your career.
     Study the best draftsmen in the art world today …. Jacob Collins, Jeremy Lipking, Harley Brown, Daniel Graves, Richard Schmid … everything they do in their painting goes back to good drawing skills and measuring.
     And you, too, can achieve success if you’re willing to put in the time to learn how to do it.
All content © J. Mark Kohler Studio.

Monday, June 28, 2010

Soul Window

I am always amazed at the horses that working cowboys will ride.  Most big outfits average forty dollars a day on wages, so the working guys have to make the most of average horses.  This mare belongs to Tanner Bell, a Piute Buckaroo living near Battle Mountain, NV.  This mare is one of my favorite subjects.  Obviously a desert mustang, she is alert and built for endurance.  The horse crowd wouldn’t give you a plug nickel for her, but the working guys are masters at taking an average horse and doing remarkable things with them.  What she lacks in conformation and pedigree, she more than makes up for with heart and try and loyalty.  Look at her eye and tell me that isn’t a window to her soul.  She gives of herself and asks for nothing in return, but a good day’s work and a pat of acknowledgement and mutual respect.

All content and images © J. Mark Kohler Studio.

Why A Blog?

     When I decided to listen to God and embark on this path called Art, I made a commitment to myself that I would embrace the journey and all it entails. So that means not only mastering the skills to become the best artist I can be, it includes studying the “business of art” and above all else, enjoying the process of being an artist.
     After conducting numerous workshops, and talking to customers, collectors and friends, I decided that writing a blog would be a good venue to have a dialogue with collectors and other artists about painting. A lot of people ask me my theories about art or what I like, so this is an avenue and a place to go to talk about all this. Plus I have good stories to tell!
     So, let me start at the beginning for those who might not be familiar with my work or me. I’ve been a full-time artist for the past 15 years, but art has always been a part of my life. My grandfather was an untrained artist, and he started me drawing at a young age. I think it’s safe to say that I was a lousy student, pretty much all the way through high school. But art saved me from being a complete academic failure.
     I went to Southwest Texas Art School and got a pretty good foundation in drawing (you’ll see me expound on this subject later). I realize now, that if I had to do it all over again an atelier-based school would be the way to go (more on that later, too).
     Flash forward to the beginning of my professional career and the genre I decided to pursue. I was really drawn to representational art and the figure. A lot of my friends were cowboys or involved in ranching, and I naturally gravitated towards portraying their stories. Western Art may not be your cup of tea, but it’s my opinion that a good painting will move people, regardless of the subject.
     I’m really looking forward to this, and sharing my thoughts on the creation of art, along with the intimate stories of the amazing people I’ve met. And there will be times I will just blog a train of thought I’d like to pass along. My plan is to communicate with you every day, but there may be times I'm traveling or up against a tight deadline. Then I might miss an occasional day, but it won't be often.  
     The one thing I can promise you is this: I am passionate about everything concerning my craft and my subjects. And I will try to answer questions you have about Art, my work, and the unique lifestyle of the men and women of the West. So I hope you enjoy what stirs my soul. Let’s begin a dialogue!
All content © J. Mark Kohler Studio.