How Does Howard Do It? (Or What Serendipity Taught Me)

The 11th annual Scottsdale Art Auction was recently held (http://scottsdaleartauction.com), and the Thursday night before the auction, I had the privilege of spending an evening looking at all of the auction items on the second floor of the Legacy Gallery in downtown Scottsdale. It is truly better art than you will find together in one place almost anywhere, including in most museums. This year was no exception, with outstanding art by a wide range of mostly deceased Western artists.  A notable exception to that is the art of Howard Terpning. Howard is still alive, and his art is incredible to see in person. And as you know if you know much at all about Western art, his works sell for truly remarkable prices for a living artist. This year the selection of his paintings were not his best, but they sold for around $250,000 each.

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The reason that I believe that Howard Terpning is so great is that he has no weaknesses. Nearly all of the top painters today, although usually very accomplished in almost everything, generally have a weakness. It might be color, drafting, composition, brush work, massing, edges, or values, to name the major categories.  Howard is strong in every single one of these areas, and because of his technical excellence, his passion for his subject shines through. "How does he do it?" I wondered as I looked at his paintings in the art auction show. This is something that I have wondered for quite some time.

At about this same time, I ordered a book on the Taos Painters from an online vendor. When it came, it was the wrong book.  Dang!  I hate it when that happens!  Do I want the hassle of trying to return it, or should I just reorder the book I really wanted in the first place? The book that came in the mail turned out to be Masters of Western Art written by Mary Carroll Nelson and published in 1982. After flipping through the book, I decided to keep it. One of the major reasons was that it contained a section on Howard Terpning written when he had only been painting full time for about 5 years. (Prior to that time, he was a  successful illustrator.) 

I read through the 10 pages contained in the book about Howard, and while the biography and photo of his studio were good, what really interested me was the 4-page demonstration of his working method. 

Rough Sketch:  Howard begins with a rough sketch to establish composition and values:

Preliminary Drawing: Then Howard does a preliminary drawing which is later transferred to the canvas before he begins to paint.  In this preliminary drawing, he essentially does more work on the center on interest (the party of Indians) and further developes the foreground.

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Preparing the Canvas: Next, Howard tones the canvas and transfers the preliminary drawing to it using light gray chalk. Look at the bottom right-hand corner of the image below and you will see a section showing this under-painting with some gray-chalk outlines which are barely discernible. 

Blocking In: He follows up the the toning of the canvas by blocking in all of the major sections of the painting with thin paint applied in large brush strokes. This more fully establishes the value relationships and adds a gestural dynamic to the painting:

Developing Large Shapes and Colors: The next stage consists of further development of the large shapes and colors. Notice how he very carefully preserves his original value relationships. The painting is still fairly loose at this point and the large masses are readily apparent.

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Center of Interest: In the next phase, Howard works on the center of interest, the figures and the horses, keeping the values simple and the anatomy correct. The center of interest should be somewhat more developed than the surrounding landscape, but not be over painted.

Development of the Surrounding Landscape: At this point, Howard works on the sky, the cliff, the pine trees and the distant mountains. Again, the idea is to make everything appear structurally correct without overworking anything. 

Finishing Up: Lastly, Howard finishes the horses and figures. The farther they recede into the paining, the more monochromatic and simple they become. He finishes the water and the foreground rocks, not painting individual rocks, but suggesting their shapes. 

Moving Day on the Flathead, by Howard Terpning, 1981, 40" x 58". Winner of the Prix de West in 1981, permanent collection of the National Cowboy Hall of Fame. 

(I apologize for the line on the photo. The finished painting was spread over 2 pages in the book, and this was the best that I could do.)

Part of perfectionism is to know yourself well enough to have a work flow process that anticipates and forestalls errors such as drafting problems, edge problems, loss of value relationships, overworking, etc. I would love to ask Howard if, after another 30 years of painting, he still uses this same working method. My guess is that he does. Having the discipline to do a rough sketch, preliminary drawing, tone the canvas, block in, etc. seems tedious, but the truth is that it is the fastest and most reliable way to a great product in the shortest amount of time. If you have ever started a painting and then lost your way or had to throw it out because you couldn't solve the problems, then you will understand.

WHAT DOES IT TAKE TO BE A SUCCESSFUL ARTIST?

I’ve thought about this question for many, many years now. One of the reasons that I have been so interested in this subject is because art has always been my first love, but I was pushed out of the art program in college because, “No one can make a living in the fine arts.”

 

Perhaps when I was in college this was true. And looking back, I am happy that I didn’t continue through college as an art major because most academic art programs, then and now, emphasize expression over craft. The traditional atelier experience is usually missing from a college setting.

 

Creation without technique is hollow, as is technique without creation. Imagine a musician that never practiced his scales and made technical mistakes all through his performance. No matter what kind of passion he played with, the technical errors would ruin it for the audience. And technically perfect music without emotion is soporific. Art is exactly the same. You must have proficiency in drafting, values, color, edges, composition, design, etc., before you can begin to express yourself creatively as a painter. Self-expression in art has been for many decades an excuse for not mastering the basics.

 

But back to the question at hand: what does it take to be a successful artist? Here are the things that I think you have to have in order from most important to least important:

 

PASSION:

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The most important thing, and really the only thing that will keep you going long-term, is passion. You must love creating your art so much that you are brought back to it again and again. When I returned to painting after years away from art, I felt like I was going to explode because the drive was so strong. The edge is off now, but if I go very long without painting, I begin to have a feeling of impending explosion. I paint because I must.

 

 

 

DISCIPLINE:

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In the art workshops I have taken, I have noticed that most people quit when their drawings or paintings are “good enough.” They can see that there are still problems with their work, but they don’t feel like fixing those problems. In the three-hour workshops that I have taken, many of my fellow students quit after about 2½ hours. If you are a serious art student, then you must have a drive towards perfection and the ability to make yourself work towards it. Come early and stay late. Solve the problems if you want the growth. This is not something that is traditionally associated with artists, but I believe is critical.

 

 

 

EXPERIENCE:

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If you have the passion and discipline, then you will stick with your art long term, and accumulate the experience that you need to be good. Go look at some of the early works of the people who are considered great today. They started out as bad as anyone else. If you look through the images of art works from the great western art auctions, Scottsdale Art Auction, the Coeur d'Alene Art Auction, the Jackson Hole Art Auction, the Santa Fe Art Auction, Altermann Galleries Auction, Bonhams, Heritage Auctions, etc., you will occasionally run into an early work by one of the Taos painters, Russell, Remington, Carol Oscar Borg, Edgar Payne or Maynard Dixon that is just embarrassing. It really takes time to train your eye and learn the skills. “See a million and paint a thousand” (anonymous) is a good guideline.

 

SUPPORT:

 

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There are two parts to this – 1) support from family and friends and 2) professional support. Because it takes such a long time and many hours of practice to become a good painter (time that you could spend cleaning the house, doing the laundry, hanging out with family or friends, etc.), you really need family and friends who support you through all of the years when your work looks horrible and you are agonizing over it. You need people that believe in you and can see that eventually you will gain the ability to express what you see. The second part of this is gallery or marketing representation. Artists are notoriously bad at putting their work out there. Having a gallery or representative that really believes in you and promotes your work is critical. Here’s the irony. A gallery may take on an artist because they really like their work and believe in them. That belief and support in and of itself can make the artist successful long term. I could name several of contemporary and historical artists (but I will refrain) who I believe are or were successful because they were picked up by major galleries and promoted over several decades, but whose work I believe will not stand the test of time.

 

TALENT:

 

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This is the least important of all. My husband and I read recently read a great book by Geoff Colvin called Talent is Overrated. We actually read it out loud to each other and talked about it as we read because we thought it was so profound. His thesis is that is that the greatest achievers succeed through endless "deliberate practice" and that what was traditionally thought of as talent may be the ability to learn something a little faster than others or have the drive (passion?) to keep at something until you have mastered it. No one wants to hear this because it is easier to believe that you just don’t have the talent. Lack of talent is the perfect excuse. I believe it was Richard Schmid who said that artistic talent is the ability to see what is wrong or out of place in a work of art. Of course being able to see what is wrong with a work of art is wasted if you don’t have the discipline to work at fixing the problems.

 

 

DEFINITION OF SUCCESS:

 

INCOME:

 

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My college art professors defined success as being able to make a living with art. I reject that definition as being narrow and petty. Life is far more than survival. However, it is good not to starve, because that puts an end to growth.

 

 

 

 

 

 

FAME:

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Most people when asked would probably say that the successful artists are those, like Monet and Van Gogh, who are known and loved world-wide. (Tell that to Van Gogh who never sold a painting during his lifetime, and was supported by his brother, Theo Van Gogh. How much richer is the world because of Theo’s support of his brother?) But being world-famous is largely due to luck, the current directions of various art trends, and the vagaries of popularity. There are many artists who were masters and lived at the time when representational art was going out of favor (like William-Adolphe Bouguereau)‎ who never became world-famous but are truly great and successful artists.

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The New York painter, David Kassan said in a lecture I attended, “Art is not about being rich, but about living richly.” And there really is something to this. Being able to do on a daily basis something that you really love is a great measure of success. But there has to be something more than just happiness as well.

 

I think success in art is part happiness, part continued growth and mastery, and part sufficiency. If you have enough to cover your needs (and reasonable wants), are able to grow and produce on a daily basis, and are truly happy in your work, then you are successful. But each artist will have his own definition of success. Enough income to pay for supplies? Enough income for daily needs? Enough income to save for the future? Living in a picturesque location? The ability to travel? Acknowledgment from your peers? Awards in major shows? Whatever your definition of success in art, passion, discipline, experience, support and talent are an essential part. View shared post

Greatest Living Western Landscape Painters (and What I Have Learned from Them)

This is a topic that I have been obsessed with for a little more than a decade, which is approximately the length of time that I have been painting the landscape myself. Who are the great landscape painters of the American West working today? And what can I learn from them?

 

I have studied the work of many great landscape painters; the French Impressionists, the Hudson River School painters, the California impressionists, the Russian landscape painters, the little-known landscape watercolors of John Singer Sargent, the landscapes of painters of the Southwest such as Carl Oscar Borg, Maynard Dixon, etc. But the majority of my time has been spent with the works of today’s living western landscape painters.

 

A word on style: my style preference is a point somewhere between realism and abstraction. Tightly painted works or works that are photo realistic may be technically superb but leave me unsatisfied artistically. Works that lean too far towards the abstract may be emotionally intense but often are lacking in competent drafting, values, colors, etc. I believe the balance to be somewhere in between tightly realistic and wildly abstract.

 

All this being said, it is my opinion (which may or may not be worth much) that the greatest living Western landscape painters of today are Clyde Aspevig (Montana), Ray Roberts (California), and Lem Chmiel (Colorado).

 

Let’s look at works by Clyde Aspevig first. No one does the landscape better than he does. He is a master at balancing detail with innuendo, putting in enough detail to transport you to what feels like a specific time and place, and yet leaving enough out to draw you into visual collaboration with him. I heard him lecture at the Scottsdale Artist’s School when I was just starting out as a painter. One of the reasons that his body of work is so excellent is that he has the discipline to turn finished paintings against the wall for 6 months and then look at them with fresh eyes before letting them out of his studio. I once drove from my home in Arizona to Santa Barbara to see an exhibit of his work at the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History. Of the 29 paintings hanging in the exhibit, not one was bad. They were all either good or great. My husband and son (who went to the exhibit with me) had different favorite paintings than I did, but we all agreed that every painting was worthy of the wall space. I can’t say that about very many shows.

Lake Haiyaha by Clyde Aspevig

Lake Haiyaha by Clyde Aspevig

Aqua Music by Clyde Aspevig

Aqua Music by Clyde Aspevig

Golden Willows by Clyde Aspevig

Golden Willows by Clyde Aspevig

Beaver Pond by Clyde Aspevig

Beaver Pond by Clyde Aspevig

Canyon Lands by Clyde Aspevig

Canyon Lands by Clyde Aspevig

Alpine Lake by Clyde Aspevig

Alpine Lake by Clyde Aspevig

Thunderhead by Clyde Aspevig

Thunderhead by Clyde Aspevig

The Headlands by Clyde Aspevig

The Headlands by Clyde Aspevig

Clyde Aspevig (Unknown Title)

Clyde Aspevig (Unknown Title)

Shades of Ice and Blue by Clyde Aspevig

Shades of Ice and Blue by Clyde Aspevig

Clyde Aspevig (Unknown Title)

Clyde Aspevig (Unknown Title)

Transitions by Clyde Aspevig

Transitions by Clyde Aspevig

The Grand Canyon from Mather Point by Clyde Aspevig

The Grand Canyon from Mather Point by Clyde Aspevig

Painting of Yellowstone falls by Clyde Aspevig (Unknown Title)

Painting of Yellowstone falls by Clyde Aspevig (Unknown Title)

Water Lilies by Clyde Aspevig

Water Lilies by Clyde Aspevig

Clyde Aspevig (Unknown Title)

Clyde Aspevig (Unknown Title)

Clyde Aspevig (Unknown Title)

Clyde Aspevig (Unknown Title)

Clyde Aspevig (Unknown Title)

Clyde Aspevig (Unknown Title)

Clyde Aspevig (Unknown Title)

Clyde Aspevig (Unknown Title)

The Joy of Winter by Clyde Aspevig

The Joy of Winter by Clyde Aspevig

Clyde Aspevig (Unknown Title)

Clyde Aspevig (Unknown Title)

Storm at Freezeout Lake by Clyde Aspevig

Storm at Freezeout Lake by Clyde Aspevig

Glacier Park Mtn. Henkel by Clyde Aspevig

Glacier Park Mtn. Henkel by Clyde Aspevig

Tumble Weeds by Clyde Aspevig

Tumble Weeds by Clyde Aspevig

Clyde Aspevig (Unknown Title)

Clyde Aspevig (Unknown Title)

View at Telescope Peak by Clyde Aspevig

View at Telescope Peak by Clyde Aspevig

While Clyde Aspevig is amazingly versatile in subject matter, I believe that his very best landscapes are of mountain subject matter. This is not surprising for an artist living in Montana.

Next is Ray Roberts. I have posted some great works by him. I was privileged to take a week-long workshop with him at Scottsdale Artists School. I learned how he thinks about the landscape and how that understanding forms the framework that underlies his paintings. His strength comes from his understanding and manipulation of value. He taught me that “value does the work but color gets the credit.” His paintings begin with value drawings. He blocks in the shadows with a medium neutral color and leaves the white canvas to show through for the lights. Then as he begins to build his painting, he makes sure that all of the shadows stay close to each other in value and that likewise all of the lights stay close to each other in value. This “squeezing of the values” into light families and shadow families brings punch and drama to his work. See if you don’t agree.

Ray Roberts (Unknown Title)

Ray Roberts (Unknown Title)

Ray Roberts (Unknown Title)

Ray Roberts (Unknown Title)

Ray Roberts (Unknown Title)

Ray Roberts (Unknown Title)

Ray Roberts (Unknown Title)

Ray Roberts (Unknown Title)

Ray Roberts (Unknown Title)

Ray Roberts (Unknown Title)

Ray Roberts (Unknown Title)

Ray Roberts (Unknown Title)

Ray Roberts (Unknown Title)

Ray Roberts (Unknown Title)

Ray Roberts (Unknown Title)

Ray Roberts (Unknown Title)

Ray Roberts (Unknown Title)

Ray Roberts (Unknown Title)

Ray Roberts (Unknown Title)

Ray Roberts (Unknown Title)

Ray Roberts (Unknown Title)

Ray Roberts (Unknown Title)

Ray Roberts (Unknown Title)

Ray Roberts (Unknown Title)

Ray Roberts (Unknown Title)

Ray Roberts (Unknown Title)

Ray Roberts (Unknown Title)

Ray Roberts (Unknown Title)

Ray Roberts (Unknown Title)

Ray Roberts (Unknown Title)

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Ray Roberts (Unknown Title)

Ray Roberts (Unknown Title)

Ray Roberts (Unknown Title)

Ray Roberts (Unknown Title)

Ray Roberts (Unknown Title)

Ray Roberts (Unknown Title)

Ray Roberts (Unknown Title)

Ray Roberts (Unknown Title)

Ray Roberts (Unknown Title)

Ray Roberts (Unknown Title)

Ray Roberts (Unknown Title)

Ray Roberts (Unknown Title)

Ray Roberts (Unknown Title)

Ray Roberts (Unknown Title)

Ray Roberts (Unknown Title)

Ray Roberts (Unknown Title)

Ray Roberts (Unknown Title)

Ray Roberts (Unknown Title)

Ray Roberts (Unknown Title)

Ray Roberts' greatest strength is undoubtedly in painting seascapes. If you recall, he is a California painter.

Len Chmiel; an authentic nature

Len Chmiel; an authentic nature

Lem Chmiel is an acquired taste. It took me awhile to appreciate and enjoy his painting style because he is fairly minimalist and his composition is usually unconventional. Once you see enough of his work to understand the risks that he is taking with his compositions, it is thrilling, sort of like watching a high wire act at the circus. Will he fall or won’t he fall? And most of the time, at least in the works I have seen, he does not fall. But the balancing act is mesmerizing. If you haven’t read the wonderful new book about him, Len Chmiel: An Authentic Nature by Amy Scott and Jean Stern (published in 2012), get it and read it. His compositions are totally unlike anyone else. While I tend to like pretty much everything currently being painted  by Clyde Aspevig and Ray Roberts, I do not like everything being painted by Lem Chmiel. I like the vast majority of his works, but in my estimation, some of them fail by being too chaotic. But having the guts to paint what he paints earns him extra points and puts him in my hall of fame.

Indications of Spring by Len Chmiel

Indications of Spring by Len Chmiel

Consider an Eagle's View by Len Chmiel

Consider an Eagle's View by Len Chmiel

Rock Solid by Len Chmiel

Rock Solid by Len Chmiel

Len Chmiel (Unknown Title)

Len Chmiel (Unknown Title)

Len Chmiel (Unknown Title)

Len Chmiel (Unknown Title)

Thin Air by Len Chmiel )

Thin Air by Len Chmiel )

Len Chmiel (Unknown Title)

Len Chmiel (Unknown Title)

Fresh Start by Len Chmiel

Fresh Start by Len Chmiel

Limelight, North Piney Creek by Len Chmiel

Limelight, North Piney Creek by Len Chmiel

The Pink House in Ranchitos by Len Chmiel)

The Pink House in Ranchitos by Len Chmiel)

Len Chmiel (Unknown Title)

Len Chmiel (Unknown Title)

Glow in the Dark Canyon by Len Chmiel own Title)

Glow in the Dark Canyon by Len Chmiel own Title)

Len Chmiel (Unknown Title)

Len Chmiel (Unknown Title)

Layers, Vermillion Cliffs by Len Chmiel

Layers, Vermillion Cliffs by Len Chmiel

Len Chmiel (Unknown Title)

Len Chmiel (Unknown Title)

Len Chmiel (Unknown Title)

Len Chmiel (Unknown Title)

Slow Motion by Len Chmiel

Slow Motion by Len Chmiel

Len Chmiel (Unknown Title)

Len Chmiel (Unknown Title)

Cliff Hanger by Len Chmiel

Cliff Hanger by Len Chmiel

Hoar Frost Harmony by Len Chmiel

Hoar Frost Harmony by Len Chmiel

Len Chmiel (Unknown Title)

Len Chmiel (Unknown Title)

Len Chmiel is also pretty versatile in subject matter, but his all-time best paintings, in my opinion, are his snow and water scenes. He lives in Colorado, of course.

So the question is, which came first, the chicken or the egg? Did Aspevig, Roberts and Chmiel move so that they could live near the natural scenery they were most drawn to, or did they become best at what they most often saw?

 

As a side note, there are several other landscape painters who I believe are a close second to these great painters: Matt Smith (Arizona), Josh Elliot (Montana), John Taft (Colorado), and Mark Haworth (Texas). I have posted a painting for each of them for comparison. These, and several others like Peter Holbrook, Arturo Chavez, Glen Dean and Kathryn Stats I hope to feature in future posts.  This post has already grown beyond all reason!

Matt Smith (Unknown Title)

Matt Smith (Unknown Title)

Josh Elliot (Unknown Title)

Josh Elliot (Unknown Title)

John Taft (Unknown Title)

John Taft (Unknown Title)

Mark Haworth (Unknown Title)

Mark Haworth (Unknown Title)

 

So what have I learned from Aspevig, Roberts, and Chmiel? I have learned to have the discipline to edit my work with fresh eyes from Clyde Aspevig. From Ray Roberts I have learned to build the structure of my painting on values, and from Lem Chmiel I have learned to have the courage to try unusual compositions, to look at nature in unusual ways and attempt to capture that.

 

There is something else that I have learned from these exceptional landscape painters. The overarching reason that all of these painters are great is that they have no weaknesses. Michael Heywood, a good friend and a world-class graphic designer (now retired), has said it best. “A painting is only as strong as its weakest element.” Clyde Aspevig, Ray Roberts, and Lem Chmiel have no significant weaknesses. That doesn’t mean that every single painting is a home run, but it does mean that they are masters who have worked on every aspect of their art until they no longer have any problem areas.

 

Awesome Art by Arcimbolo

If you haven't seen some of the work of Giuseppe Arcimbolo, now is a good time to give it a look:

 

What makes his work so amazing his how he got away with something so abstract in the sixteenth century by painting ostensibly representational work (portraits) and then working on another level (abstract objects and shapes heaped on the canvas).