“Art is a trifle. I think I can take it too seriously. It will soon be lost in time. I don’t mean the artists are a trifle. What we are doing is of great importance. It’s the art itself that in my mind is of lesser value. Most of us hope and wish that somehow our product will be epic and immortal, and it might be, but I can’t let that be my motivation.”
Many of you are familiar with the name and work of John Lasater…John Porter Lasater the Fourth to be exact. Right now he is on an award winning blitz, winning major awards in virtually every competition he enters. Almost entirely a plein air landscape painter, his works of necessity are rapidly painted, intuitive, and packed with emotion. Show jurors have responded with awards, while fellow artists and the public applaud and admire his efforts.
I had the good fortune of meeting him last month at Southwest Gallery in Dallas during the Outdoor Painters Society premier event, Southwest Plein Air Salon 2014 juried competiton. What was the result of that competition you might ask? Hmm, “Best of Show” and the “Southwest Magazine Award” for Mr. John Porter Lasater the Fourth.
While driving one day, not too long ago, Lasater got this wild, “hairbrained”, insane idea to do something outrageous for his small town and for his career…24 plein air paintings in 24 hours. He partnered with a local frame shop, coffee shops provided food and drink, and people provided encouragement throughout the night. The “event” garnered national attention. He sold all the paintings he produced and has now been asked to bring the experience to other communities…all because of a great idea and the courage to follow through.
It’s with pleasure I bring you this interview with a great guy and wonderful artist.
You worked for Hallmark Cards for a while, what was your job and how did you transition into the fine arts? Long story short, I was misdirected right out of college, and my first jobs in the greeting card business were in sales and marketing. When a day at work slowed down, I would sketch out logos or ideas. Some thought me an odd duck in the department, and indeed I was. Most of the business friendships I developed were with illustrators and designers. God used those friends to call out my destiny, and after a series of crazy circumstances over a 3-year period, I ended up a designer. In the 10 years of design and illustration work I grew by leaps and bounds. The constant daily grind of idea-generating and composing prepared me for the grit I would need to be a fine artist.
Todd Williams, one of those artist friends, invested a lot of time helping me learn oil painting. I was 30 the first time I ever painted. Painting from life intrigued me the most, and I’ve been a student of nature ever since. Six years ago, I stepped out of my job to dedicate myself to painting full-time. The pressures of needing income have given me some of my highest highs and lowest lows, but I’ll never regret the discipline it’s taught me. I love what I’m doing!
What is your role or purpose as an artist? For me it’s an attempt to acknowledge the handiwork of my Creator, the difficulty of which teaches me humility. If the art speaks, I try to stay out of the way.
How did you discover your artistic focus? If you’re like me, you felt called to art because you can draw well. As soon as you demonstrate the ability to paint a figure or face, everyone assumes that’s what you’ll focus on because it gets more attention than landscape or still life. I was confused because there were a lot of things I COULD do, but I wasn’t really sure what I WANTED to do until a good friend Rich walked me through an exercise. He brought out a cup and a handful of pebbles, set them on the table, and asked me to imagine each pebble as one of my abilities. Next he had me take each pebble and put them in proximity to the cup in the order of my desire to do them. Then he urged me to drop a pebble in the cup, deciding what to follow, figuratively speaking. I did it. I followed my heart. Plein air painting was the pebble I chose. It was a life-changing moment.
What advice do you have for artists trying to discover their “voice”? That’s a tough thing to force. I think careful study of reality eventually leads to boredom, and from there a voice develops. It’s hard to just start out with a voice.
My best advice is to learn from a few artists that inspire you. Then shelf the inspirations for a while as you work your butt off. Your work will start to look more unique as you quit looking at everyone else. You may not even realize it’s happening.
Dig deeper with inspiration till you’re in touch with the philosophical reasons you like it. Andrew Wyeth is one of those for me. He inspired me as I thought about how he subtracted until his compositions were a poignant skeleton of an idea. Similarly, living artists like C.W. Mundy and Carolyn Anderson inspire me because they create poetic passages without over-blending, and that has informed the search for my own form of poetry.
You identify yourself as a plein air painter, what percentage of your work is actually done en plein air? Of my landscapes, only a handful are done in the studio. I just don’t have interest in doing studio landscapes right now. It’s bad business practice, but it’s better than burnout. In the winter months, I like to do still life in my studio.
What are three of the most important lessons you’ve learned as a plein air painter? 1) Have a peer that travels with you. You grow so much faster, and it increases the enjoyment exponentially. 2) Waste LOTS of paint and canvas, and ignore how much it’s costing you. 3) Tackle everything nature gives you and make it work. True, sunsets will always take the cake, but if you can learn to succeed, even with an overcast day, you’ve done something spectacular.
Your winning painting at Plein Air Southwest Salon 2014 depicts a sunset over Moraine park; you probably had at best 10 minutes before the sun disappeared. How do you tackle a painting such as this when the lighting changes so rapidly? LOTS OF PAINT! Even when I look at the painting now, I laugh. Jason Sacran was painting right next to me, and he’ll testify that I kept musing at how much paint I was wasting. In fleeting moments, I’ve learned to just let emotion take over, and believe me, I’m not successful every time. That’s not to say I depend on luck, it’s just that I have a taste for spontaneity.
What colors are typically found on your palette? Is your studio palette different from your plein air palette, if so, in what way? My brights are Yellow Medium, Orange, Red Medium, Alizarin Crimson, Ultramarine Blue, and Viridian. Earth colors are Yellow Ochre, Burnt Sienna and Burnt Umber; also Titanium White and recently Ivory Black. I use the same palette in both studio and plein air, but limit the piles I dip into to achieve an atmospheric quality.
As a plein air painter confronted with an abundance of material, how do you decide on a concept for your work? It’s such an intuitive process now, but I let shapes guide me first. Then I decide if the idea will come across, and what limited effects to use to pull that off. The fear of failure is my next barricade. After spiritually centering myself, I lose the fear, dive right in and play.
What’s it mean to “see” as an artist? To always give an honest look at nature, and remember how few of the mysteries I’ve really uncovered. As part of my practice, I ask God to open my mind, to give me revelation that will take me beyond my limitations. My latest revelation was that light acts like a sword, piercing the landscape. I would often think of light as circular since it emits from a round sun, but I’m seeing a new aspect that will keep me uncomfortable till the next revelation comes.
Place in order of importance the following words: value, technique, drawing, concept, color, composition, edges, framing. Concept, Composition, Value, Technique, Edges, Color, Drawing (I enjoy when drawing is slightly naïve, that way I know the artist wasn’t using a projector), Framing.
Describe your typical block-in technique. I basically want a clumsy and soft rendering of my shapes as a block-in. To me that’s the best starting place. Without drawing, I splash some shapes on the canvas and judge whether it would be interesting based on the black-and-white of it alone, as if it were a Franz Kline painting.
Do you have basic rules of composition you adhere to? Edgar Payne’s Composition of Outdoor Painting was a big influence. Also, learning about the Golden Section and fractals gave me some nerdy satisfaction. As they say, you have to know the rules in order to know when to break them. I’ve stumbled onto a love for split focal points. The Moraine Park Sunset painting you referenced is one of those. Another interesting challenge is making centric subjects work with asymmetrical design. Eye movement and passages are big for me too. A refined taste mixed with an understanding of the Fibonacci Spiral created boundaries that are satisfying to play in.
As a plein air painter, what tips do you have for us slow painters? Hmmm. For kicks, try a painting where you constantly break edges. Save edges for the last 10 minutes. As soon as you commit to an edge, the potential for fear creeps in. Fear is a left-brain function, and it is a spirit-killer as well as a speed-killer.
Don’t tell anyone, but I actually like slow painting too. That’s what the still life work does for me. I can put 20 strokes down and then go eat a sandwich.
I heard about some crazy guy who did 24 plein air paintings in 24 hours…Oh, I’m sorry, that’s you. Please tell us about that experience. Well, it was the end of a mediocre plein air season last Fall, and I needed to do something outrageous. The idea came to me in the car, and it just seemed to fit. I live in a small town in Arkansas, and the fun of fixing the publicity of this event on my little town seemed equally fitting. Partnering with the local frame shop allowed me to focus just on painting. As I began, I had an experience of a lifetime with friends and family surrounding me, and then as the night hours came, other friends arrived and were with me through the night. The local coffee shops brought drinks and food to me. It was hard when I thought about how many blank canvases were remaining. As I would get into each painting, though, it became a familiar, enjoyable experience. A reception immediately followed my final painting. The pieces were already all sold, so the reception was more of a celebration.
One of the lessons I took away from the event, was how powerful a great idea can be. Combined with the energy of social media, it was electric.
At some point I realized how meaningful the idea could be to other small towns. It has the potential to awaken a fledgling artistic community. A lady recently called me from the State of Washington. She said, “So you’re on tour? Are you touring around the country, and if so will you be passing through Washington?” After a good laugh, I explained that my gigs would probably be around the Midwest to start, but with a significant travel budget, I might change my mind. She came through. The next one is in July in Chewelah, Washington. In the Fall I’m doing one in Carthage, Missouri.
You have a strong faith in the person and work of Jesus Christ and have created a series of thoughtful videos concerning the importance of artistry in the church and to our culture. What motivated this series and what is the primary thing you want to communicate through them? Art exposes us. It creates vulnerability. I love to encourage, and these videos seemed a way to speak to artists about the importance of their God-given desire to create.
My story seemed worth sharing also, since it chronicles the power of faith and prayer. Anyone should have hope after listening to my story.
Both the church and American culture have a long way to go in properly honoring the arts. A favorite quote comes from Les Miserables the book: “The beautiful is just as useful as the useful. Perhaps more so.” The effect of beautiful artwork in our lives may be intangible, but no less important.
On that note, why are you an artist? Simply put, I asked. By that I mean God planted the desire and while it seemed hopeless, I still asked. I waited. God orchestrated circumstances. He moved me in the right direction. I worked hard. Art happened.
What causes someone to be strongly attracted to a particular painting? What needs to be present in both the art and the viewer for that to happen? There is a spirit in each painting that reveals an artists heart. It can expose our humility or pride, our enthusiasm or weariness, our reverence or anger, any number of things. Depending on the viewer there can be an attraction or repulsion to those characteristics. Beyond that, painting sunsets and flowers will get you the most sales. Open cheek, insert tongue.
Can creativity be taught, and if so, how? I don’t think it needs to be taught. Everyone has it. What people need is free time. One particular day my wife and I were sitting on the front porch talking. During a lull in the conversation, I leaned over and picked up a clipping of bamboo off the floor. I blew over the top of it to see if it made a sound. It did. Then I wondered what would happen if I started cutting holes in it. What this taught me is that anything we think of as artistic came from people simply goofing off in their free time.
How would you define “success” as an artist? To stay challenged, to stick with it, to enjoy it.
What distinguishes an artist from a very good painter? My friend Jeff Legg said he is inspired by artists that have the evidence of struggle. There’s something beautiful in that phrase. I see the truth in it, but expect I’ll never figure it out for myself.
What’s the most difficult part of painting for you? Right now surface texture challenges me. Just being liberal with paint isn’t satisfying enough. I want to show the full breadth of what oil paint can do.
If you could improve one thing about your work, what would it be? To be more free in doing it, and be more inspiring to others.
What advice do you have for a young artist/painter? There’s a Scripture that says “Humble yourself under the mighty hand of God, and He will exalt you in due time”. Success will come in due time. Do whatever seems right to you, but don’t forget God who loves you and gave you your gift.
What advice do you have for a first time collector? Don’t fill your walls too quickly. Let your taste develop, similar to the way an artist develops taste. Buy art that moves you.
Who’s had the greatest influence on your career and why? Best friends. Todd Williams and Jason Sacran are my greatest ongoing influences. Community is essential to endurance and growth.
If you could spend the day with any three artists, past or present, whom would they be? Claude Monet, Edgar Payne, and Quang Ho. They each strike me as passionate lovers of art, but not overly serious about it. I imagine they’re fun to watch at work.
If you weren’t an artist, what would you like to do for a living? I hated English class, but I’m starting to like writing.
How do you market your work? My goal is to have a slow-developing presence. There’s a natural flow to the way my career is developing, and the stream turns without me knowing it sometimes. I didn’t expect to be teaching so much at this stage, but I find it even more fulfilling than selling art. National contests don’t interest me that much, but I oblige them once in a while. Apart from that, my work sells at plein air events mostly, and it seems the personal interaction with interested collectors and artists is key.
I can’t exactly tell you where our money comes from. When we get low on income, we pray together as a family. Sometimes it takes till the next week or the next month, but we always have what we need, and sometimes even what we want. There’s no peace like being able to lay my burdens on God.
What’s your typical workday like? I don’t have a typical workday; must be A.D.D. because I like variety. One day I’m making panels, the next I’m filling out a form and writing a blog post. One day I’m painting, the next I’m at a museum. One day I’m leading an adult workshop, the next I’m demonstrating in a high school classroom.
One exciting opportunity the past couple of years has been an artist in residency with a regional watershed organization. I’ve had the pleasure of exploring like a naturalist, and doing a plein air series based on the watershed. It’s caused me to appreciate where I live even more, and gives me a welcome break from the studio often. Spring through Fall I’m travelling quite a bit, and those are long days of outdoor painting, after which I can enjoy a beer and some sleep like no other workdays.
Thanks, John Porter Lasater the Fourth, for a very interesting interview. Now, go win some more awards.
To view more of Lasater’s work. click HERE
John Pototschnik is an Art Renewal Center Associate Living Master
To view his art and bio, please click HERE
Last week to sign up for John’s Atlanta, GA workshop.
HERE are the details.