In my years of doing this blog. learning from, and listening to artists, I occasionally hear them speak of being authentic, or doing work that is honest. I think the only way that can be done is to really know your subject, have a heartfelt connection with it, effectively communicate those things to the viewer through technical skill, and not paint a subject just because it’s a hot seller. The paintings of Don Demers personify authenticity and honesty. There is a truthfulness about his work that is hard to deny, and that makes his work very appealing.
“The desire and motivation to express myself visually began in early childhood. My efforts wandered among subjects, typical of a small boy, but I soon focused on the rural farmland around me and later on the sea. It was the sea, however, that immediately compelled and fascinated me from the moment I was first exposed to it.
“I’ve never been able to explain the sea’s ability to reach deep within me and draw something out; something that speaks of and represents the past and the present and hosts a spiritual sense that is beyond the analytical mind. I don’t view my work as merely visual. My aspiration is to have the visual elements that comprise my paintings embody and represent the human experience of heart and mind, so that I can see it for myself and share that experience with others.”
Don has acquired quite a reputation as a painter of the sea. He is one of the most collected marine artists today. He’s a Fellow of the American Society of Marine Artists, a member of the Guild of Boston Artists, and has amassed a record 15 awards at the Mystic International Marine Art Exhibition. It says something about authenticity don’t you think?
I am really honored to bring you this great interview with the amazing artist, Don Demers.
Why are you an artist? That’s inexplicable. I began drawing when I was just a toddler. It seemed to be an instinctive need for me to see pictures of things and to create imagined images. That desire stayed present and strong throughout my entire youth and naturally evolved into my life’s vocation.
I think art is a need to exalt and or explain our human experiences and condition. I believe it helps us to describe our emotional and intellectual states of heart and mind. It’s certainly a form of sharing. It can also be a form of teaching others and of self realization. It mirrors and explains who and what we are as a civilization.
What do you hope to communicate and accomplish as an artist? My work is focused on a few purposes, beauty being the first I’ll mention.. That’s not the case with all art and it shouldn’t be, otherwise Edvard Munch’s, The Scream would never have been painted. However, for me, finding and expressing beauty, both observed and invented and how it activates the human spirit is what intrigues me. My work is also focused on the human experience. By being fully aware of the experience I am having while painting, especially on location, I hope to be able to share that experience with the viewer. Lastly, my work is often about a narrative. Having a story line in my work is common, particularly while working with maritime subjects; it was of course a very essential component during my illustration career.
Where does creativity come from; can it be taught? Creativity comes from a place within us and outside of us. It’s one of our great mysteries that I am not capable of explaining. I believe it can be taught and cultivated just as sages, mystics and preachers can usher us closer to the divine and the universal. Through cultivation of mind and spirit, we can be awakened to aspects of ourselves and our human condition and find ways to define and express this through our materials. When the creative process is active in me, it’s best for me to immerse myself both intentionally and subconsciously and try to place the conventional perceptions of my world aside and seek a deeper meaning in my subject matter.
You’ve been around the sea your whole life, you’ve been a crew-member aboard several traditional sailing vessels; you obviously know these subjects extremely well; do you think artists should only paint what they know well? That’s an entirely personal choice. I know that many artists, that being visual artists, writers, etc. have made the statement that you should only paint what you know well. I can say that I believe the creation of paintings comes from one of two motives. One is a purely visual motive. Traveling to places one is not familiar with and painting plein air is a good example. You come upon an unfamiliar place not knowing the land or the culture and you rely purely on your picture making skills, i.e. the visual components. The other approach is full immersion in your subject over a long period of time. I would site Andrew Wyeth as a grand example of this approach. Through the intense focus and study of a subject, your relationship with it evolves and expands and psychological and philosophical interpretations emerge. That’s the work I prefer. There is one other requirement in painting certain genres. That is if one chooses a particular subject matter to specialize in, be it marine art, aviation art, equine art, you absolutely have to know the subject matter and how it functions and operates. That’s absolutely essential.
Amazingly, you are predominately self-taught. The drawing and value structure of your paintings are impeccable. What sources were used to help in your growth as an artist? Thank you for the acknowledgement. I had a wonderful high school art teacher who recognized my passion for it as well as whatever natural talent I have. She set me on a path of discipline and hard work studying famous paintings by artists I had a natural liking for. After that, art school was not beneficial, saving the great friendships I made and still have today. So, I think from that point on it was studying from American Artist magazine, which was great back then; buying every art instruction book I could find, especially Watson Guptill books, and practicing for hours on end. I tell my students that the difference between an average painter and a great painter is not that the great painter doesn’t make mistakes, it’s that they can see the mistakes and learn to correct and work past them. Average painters often don’t recognize what’s wrong or they are simply satisfied with their work. I don’t proclaim to be a great painter, but I have developed the ability to see what is incorrect or missing in my work and I think I’ve been able to do that since I was young.
What techniques do you use to achieve accurate values? This answer is short and simple. I do monochromatic studies and thumbnails ALL the time. I use gray paper, with charcoal and white chalk, gray markers, and at times simply graphite drawings. Most of my large studio seascapes are conceived in black and white studies and I imagine the color while I work on the large painting. I know I also have a well stocked visual memory from all of my work on location while painting the sea, but the monochromatic value studies are essential to me.
There is such care taken with each of your paintings, none of them feel incomplete. I notice your teaching to be of the same intense clarity; do these attributes reflect your personality? You seem to be a natural teacher. Again, thank you for the compliment John. In short, yes there’s a consistent characteristic that pervades my work, teaching, and what I do personally. I have been told by a few people that I obsess over things, and my answer is “what’s the matter with that?” Even as a kid, if I was building a model, I’d raise my focus to try and do it exceptionally. Playing sports from high school up to present (and I’m no natural athlete!) I am always dedicated and insist on doing the very best I can. There’s enough ordinary in the world, so I’m always aspiring to the extraordinary. It’s frustrating as heck sometimes, but it’s better than saying “that’s good enough”. My teaching is just an extension of the considerations I put into my own work. When I teach, all I do is think out loud and say it to the people I’m working with. I have a strong methodology and process to my work. My studio is neat. I know where my equipment is and see that it’s clean. I work with “intention” which is my mantra to my students. Know why you are doing something. Don’t take a stab and hope for the best. If you speak, don’t say “um” and “like” and “ya know”. When you make a mark with your painting tools, do it with thought and purpose.
Do you think being self-taught made it easier for you to find your individuality as an artist? I would say yes. I know that in art school my teachers were trying to turn me into something they wanted to see, not what I wanted to see. I had one teacher tell me that my work was irrelevant. Another told me that I was an “expressionless” painter. So when I got fed up with that, I had enough personal vision to pursue what I wanted to do. Hence my education became my own linear path. The downside to that is that it is linear and I have not explored many forms and schools of art that I may have otherwise.
What are your recommendations for those that haven’t found that individuality yet? It can be as simple as pursuing your likes. What paintings do you see by others that trigger a response in you? What approaches and subjects speak to you? I don’t recommend pursuing a style. That can be an external motive that can land you in the realm of stylistic imitation. Look deep inside yourself and ask yourself what the deeper meaning of your existence is. Look back all the way to your childhood and try to recall what awakened and excited you. The creative process is a self examination. Although we can be activated by the external world, i.e. other artist’s work, our final obligation is to go inside and see what is truly and individually yours and then direct that toward your favored subjects.
It seems you take great care in faithfully capturing what you see when painting en plein air; why is this important to you? This has two functions. One, I referred to earlier and that is to examine something fully. It’s not right or wrong it’s just who I am. When I’m on location and I find myself settling on a subject, whether it’s a moment of great excitement or a more tempered reaction to the subject, I try to see it in it’s totality with it’s first impression upon me. Then I go immediately to the graphic construction of it. I then embark on my painting journey and as I’m working from macro to micro the scale of my marks gets smaller, with implied detail only; and in that process the subject matter reveals itself to me. I get to know it more deeply and thoroughly. I’m not satisfied with an abbreviated process. The second is that working that way supplies me with a great amount of information if I choose to use that painting back in my studio as a source for a larger work. I’ve already spent a great deal of time with the subject and I’ve gotten to know it.
What compositional principles do you tend to always adhere to? Well, I often use the thirds rule and or dynamic symmetry. At times it’s purposeful and at times I do it instinctively. I do use rectangular rabatment at times as well. Beyond that I don’t adhere to too many rules. I break them often. I am not afraid of placing an element dead center on the canvas and then use the rest of the canvas to create asymmetry to give the painting movement.
When I’m working on location, I consider that to be a reactive process. I don’t have preconceived ideas. I approach plein air, with an open mind and spirit and hopefully allow the subject matter to come to me. The studio work is the opposite. The work there is proactive. I preconceive the idea and then go about the process of developing studies until I see my intention emerge.
A lot of your work is based on your plein air studies; does photography have any part at all in your work? Photography plays a very small part in my work. I used photographic reference all the time when I was an illustrator, but when I returned to painting outdoors, I became immediately dedicated to working from my studies and my memory. I didn’t work from a photo for about 15 years. Now that I have all those easel hours behind me, I use a photograph occasionally for reference for a particular element, say a lobster boat that is spinning around a buoy while hauling traps. I’ll grab a photo with my phone just to get the gesture and angle. I’m also a horrible photographer which is an advantage to me, because if I use a photo, I can’t rely on it’s quality, so I’m not tempted to copy it. I only refer to it.
Please explain your painting process. As I stated earlier, it’s either reactive, or proactive. Once the idea/concept is in place I stay totally dedicated to it. As I’m doing a thumbnail or studies I immediately begin to try and visualize the finished painting. I tell my students to start the painting at the end. Not the beginning. It’s a turn of phrase to get them to envision the painting. You’re the director. Don’t start meandering or wandering off. Keep the painting clear in your mind. It’s then a matter of organizing the canvas. I begin with two dimensions and move to three. I organize the spacial arrangement and carefully begin the drawing. I most often use a linear armature to begin, i.e. it’s not a loose block in. I then think about the large masses and value assignments and slowly build from thin to thick.
What colors are typically on your palette, and why? I’ve had the same workhorse palette since I was 20 years old. It is one thing I learned in art school. I use Ultramarine and Cobalt blue, Viridian, Green Earth, sometimes Sap Green, Cadmium Yellow Light and Medium, Yellow Ochre, Raw Sienna, Cadmium Red Light and Medium, Alizarin Crimson, Burnt sienna, Burnt Umber, Raw Umber and often a unique color called Greenish Umber by Rembrandt. If I’m using my small box in the field I get rid of all the earth tones except for Burnt Sienna.
You speak of the importance of “visual memory”; how does one develop that and why is so important? One develops it by spending a great deal of time in the field and sharply focused on the subject…drawing it and painting it. You must study it over and over. Practice does not make perfect if you’re casual about it. If you’re engaged and enthralled and working at a heightened level of attention, you are soaking up your subject through all of your senses, not just sight. It’s also a great opportunity to “live in the now” as Eckhart Tolle would say. You get to know your subject. If you sing a song over and over you learn it. If you look at something over and over you learn that as well. The advantage in the studio is that you are now liberated to work independently and to say what is important about the subject to you! You’ve done your own editing by studying the subject without the use of photographs that can take you all the way back to step one.
I define a representational painting as a “two dimensional object that hosts a three dimensional illusion”. If we draw a circle, it’s a flat object. If we envision a light source and what direction it’s coming from we transform that flat circle into a sphere. Light is our source of dimension.
What are the key points one needs to know when creating a true sense of atmosphere? Value range, color range and edges. Although I don’t consider myself a tonalist I often do tonalist paintings, such as nocturnes, foggy scenes etc. In those cases color is subdued, value range is diminished and edges are softened. If it’s a clear winter day, the value range is expanded and more edges appear. If it’s a sultry summer day at the beach I’ll often key the painting up so that there’s a veil of moist air in the scene. If you work on location under a variety of conditions, you don’t have to make this up. It’s there in front of you.
What is the most difficult part of painting for you? I wouldn’t call it difficult, but I would call it demanding, and that includes every aspect of it. I don’t find painting to be casual or easy. I find it engaging and consuming and it never lets me off the hook. If I don’t give it everything I’ve got, I can see its mediocrity. I also get frustrated that I don’t take the time to explore other subjects extensively. I admire painters who have a wide range of subject moving from portrait, to still life, to figure and landscape. I’ve focused on my favorite subjects pretty much over the past 20 years or so.
Who have been the most important artistic influences in your life? Nelde Drumm, my high school art teacher; my mother and my aunt Jean who took me to museums when I was a kid; Winslow Homer, Fredrick Judd Waugh, William Trost Richards, Charles Napier Hemy, Andrew Wyeth, Arthur Streeton, Thomas Hoyne, John Stobart, Tom Bishop, who was my first boss when I was a greeting card illustrator, Russell Jinishian, who has represented my marine work since the 1980s, and Julian Baird, a gallery owner who cultivated my career as a landscape painter. I could name so many other painters buy it would take too long. I have to give a huge thank you to my friends/colleagues that I have painted with and worked with for so many years. Going on a painting trip with my accomplished friends is always so educational, enriching and an incredibly fulfilling way to live life.
If you were beginning your fine art career today, how would you go about it? I’m sure of only one thing, because the market is so different than when I started. There are so many more fine practitioners out there that the balance of creator/collector has changed. It was easier back when. That one thing is to be authentic and dedicated to your work. Work has to be excellent now in order to stand out in a crowded field. Don’t market your work too early, before you’ve developed it sufficiently. I would recommend that beginners, or folks who are straddling the amateur/professional fence, to ask the opinion and criticism of a very accomplished painter and ask them to “give it to you straight”.
As an artist, what would you like to do that you haven’t done? I mentioned it earlier. Go back to some figure work and introduce that element in my paintings. I’d like to have a joint exhibition of painters from the states and abroad. I’ve got a lot of painting friends in England and I think it would be wonderful to have a joint show. I’d like to have an exhibition of my work in conjunction with a musician who would compose music that compliments and lifts the visual experience.
What is your view of art competitions? They’re healthy! We are always in competition with ourselves, every time we pick up a brush; but that’s subjective competition. To put yourself out in public and see how your work holds up out there is a good motivator.
If you were stranded on an island, what three books would you want with you? I could pick so many but I’ll go with three of my favorites, Birge Harrison’s book on Landscape painting. Eckhart Tolle’s The Power of Now and The Boat Who Wouldn’t Float by Farley Mowat.
Thanks Don for a great interview.
To see more of Don Demers work, click HERE.
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