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Sunday, April 4, 2010

New beginnings

I had great intentions once before to start a serious blog, and even wrote some opening statements. And then life got in the way, and for a long time I simply did nothing. In fact, so much nothing that I actually forgot how to get to my own blog!

But now I'm back.

So for those who are reading this and don't know me well...

I am a nature artist. I used to say I was a wildlife artist, but although most of my paintings still depict wildlife subjects, I also paint fishing scenes and the occasional landscape. My paintings are firmly grounded in realism, and in the past they could have almost been called photo-realistic. However, in recent years I've begun to paint somewhat more impressionistic. Most people, looking at a painting, would still consider it to be very detailed. But there is less "laborious" detail there than what I used to paint, and more of the illusion of detail in many areas of the painting.

Why have I gone in this direction?

The simplest reason is that I've simply found ultra-fine detail to be less interesting and less of a challenge than it once was. I enjoy doing a little more with fewer brushstrokes. Unlike many art "critics", I have no problem with highly detailed art. I've always said that detail is the icing on the cake. Some people like more icing, some less. But the cake itself is the most important thing. Composition, color, light, are the building blocks of realism. I've always wanted my paintings to look "perfect" from across the room. That, in my opinion, is the true test of good realistic art. But I've also sought to make the paintings hold up when viewed at arm's length, instead of dissolving into "painterly" brushstrokes. Now I'm seeking an ideal balance between the virtuosity of the brush strokes and the illusion of detail.

When you stop to think about it, the real difference between impressionistic and photo-realistic art is simply the size of the brushstroke. An artist who does fur texture showing what appears to be every hair on the critter does so by making a lot of very thin lines, either one at a time, or using brushes and tricks that produce a "patch" of hair with one stroke. The artist who does fur texture that, when viewed from very close, becomes swathes of color and texture that do not depict every hair but give the illusion of doing so, is working with fewer and larger brushstrokes. The most photo-realistic painting looks painterly when viewed through a magnifying glass!

So I am no longer interested in showing my ability to paint every hair on a bobcat, but I still aim to depict bobcat fur, fur that looks as if you could sink your fingers into it. I'm doing so in somewhat different ways than I once did, but my goal in painting animals is to celebrate the animal and its habitat, not to celebrate the application of paint onto canvas, and depicting a bobcat with fur that looks like bobcat fur is part of that process.

Which brings me to why I paint. The first reason is because I can. We all like to do the things that we can do competently. I've painted wildlife since I was a kid copying the Bob Kuhn covers on my grandfather's Outdoor Life magazines, and was selling my colored pencil drawings by the time I was in junior high school. After a seven year detour teaching art kindergarten through 12th grade in a small southeast Missouri public school, I did two very fortunate things--I married my wife Mary, who encouraged me to take the plunge into becoming a "real" artist (not to mention that she was a registered nurse so we knew we had at least one full-time income), and I entered and won the second Missouri state trout stamp contest, which convinced me that I could do well at wildlife art. The most fortunate thing about the trout stamp was actually that I didn't know how little it really meant in the whole scheme of things. I was equating it to a lesser version of the Federal Duck Stamp contest, which at the time was supposedly worth at least a million dollars to the winner each year. Lesser was an understatement--I certainly didn't get rich winning that contest, but it gave me the impetus to quit teaching and start painting full-time, and soon I was actually selling paintings. And since the most money I ever made teaching was something like $12,000 a year (in my last year, 1982-83), it didn't take much success in art to look really good!

But, there are many more important (to me, at least) reasons why I paint--and why I paint nature. Mary has often asked me if I really have a passion to paint, like the romantic notion of the driven artist. She usually asks me this after I've spent a week fishing and then two days straightening my studio instead of actually getting any painting done. And I must admit that in the past, painting has sometimes become something like real work, rather than a passion, or a calling. But that WAS in the past, when I was "painting for the market". Back when limited edition prints were the big thing, when most wildlife artists made most of their income selling prints, most of us were forced to paint only subjects that were likely to be popular with the print-buying crowd. I was fortunate enough that I really liked painting the "charismatic megafauna" that sold as prints--had I wanted to paint beetles or fruit bats I would have really been in trouble--but there were times when I felt pretty limited in what I could paint, and times when I got tired of painting wolves. The demise of limited edition paper prints as a huge market, and the availability of licensing opportunities, combined to allow me to pursue the subjects and explore the techniques that I really want to do. So in recent years, and especially in the last couple of years, I HAVE become more driven to paint, although I'm not sure "driven" is the correct word. I simply love going into the studio and producing artwork. I wake up most mornings eager to get to work. How many people can say that about their "job"?

So, part of why I paint is the simple enjoyment of painting; the challenges, the decisions, the satisfaction when something goes right and the joy when it goes even more right than I expected. In a very real sense, painting is fun. And the more competent one gets at it, the more fun it becomes. There is true happiness in watching an image that starts out in your mind come alive on canvas. At the same time, even for the best of us, nothing ever goes completely right. There are always problems, and overcoming them is a perpetual challenge that keeps things interesting, to say the least. The artist works first for himself. If he isn't happy, chances are his clients won't be, either.

Ah, those "clients", the audience that views the work. They are the other undeniable reason why we paint. Everybody likes "strokes". When someone likes something you do, it makes you feel good. When LOTS of people like it, you feel better. And of course, if somebody loves it enough to pay good money for it, you feel REALLY good. Art is a solitary pursuit, but eventually we all need validation from the audience.

And there is more to it than just compliments and income, at least for me. In my opinion, good art should have a message, and the more people that view and appreciate it, the more the message gets out. The underlying message in my artwork is the beauty, wonder, and power of nature, and by depicting the natural world I strive to convince people of the value of wild country, wild rivers, and wild creatures. There are concrete ways in which my art has benefited wildlife; the fund-raising prints for various organizations, for instance. But I also hope to make my audience realize the importance of protecting the places and animals I paint.

Which brings me to licensing. For many years my artwork has appeared on licensed products, from useful items like t-shirts and coffee mugs to decorative things like collector plates. Some artists, and probably some of the movers and shakers in the art world, look down on such uses of art. Marketing to the masses seems to be antithetical to the true artist in their opinion. Yet, I think that such an attitude reeks of elitism. It's almost as if they are saying that the fewer people who see and appreciate a piece of art, the better it is. For make no mistake, when you license a piece of art on a popular product, or produce the art for the cover of a mass market catalog, a LOT of people see it. Relatively few of them think they "know" art. But they know what they like, and who is to say that what they like has less validity than what those with an education in "art appreciation" like? If art has a message, and you wish the message to reach people, it seems to me that the more people you reach the better.

There are differences between art produced for licensed products and art produced as "fine art", to be viewed in galleries and museums. I feel that I do both, and sometimes the two overlap, other times they remain separate. It depends upon the individual piece. I don't expect a lot of my t-shirt designs and Bass Pro Shop catalog covers to ever make it into a museum. Yet I lavish as much effort and care in them as I do the original oils. The techniques are often different, but the message is much the same.

Please visit my website, www.alagnew.com, and see some of my work, both fine art pieces and licensed products. In the future here, I plan to talk more about my art, and also about the other passions in my life from fishing to basketball. I'll be showing some of my techniques and painting processes, and sharing more of my thoughts on art, nature, and life. I hope you'll come back and visit often!

1 comment:

  1. OH what fun, you've started a blog! You can't sit here in blogland without a comment, I bet folks just don't know you're here yet.
    What lovely insights into the early days of your career. I can tell you that perhaps you were teaching in the wrong area . . . there is a whole series in the paper lately about teacher salaries where we live and the average at the high school is $92,000 annually . . . but if you'd stayed in teaching we wouldn't have your beautiful artwork and that would be a loss, so I guess its just as well!