Elizabeth Robbins and I will be having a special show at the Highlands Art Gallery in Lambertville, NJ., opening the 19th of this month. “He Said, She Said” is gallery owner, Cheryl Macdowall’s, creative way of presenting the obvious differences between Robbins and I. She (female), me (male). She’s young, I’m older. She’s a still life painter, primarily of flowers. I primarily paint landscapes. She has her way of painting, I have mine. She has many colors on her palette, I have just a few. She paints rapidly, me, not so fast. All this will result in a wonderful visual experience that I hope you’ll be able to enjoy. Also, we’ll both be demonstrating our distinctive painting methods on the 19th and 20th.
Robbins, a premier painter of flowers says that the flowers she grows are like very best friends. “I walk out in the morning to water, prune and even talk to them, telling them how beautiful they are. When it’s time to paint them, it honestly feels as if they say to me, ‘Paint me, paint me!’ Roses in particular give me great joy. I have 90 rose bushes in my yard. They bring me such joy and happiness that it is an honor and a pleasure to immortalize them on canvas.”
I would like my paintings to bring feelings of peace and beauty and to express my gratitude for the gifts that God has given us to make this life beautiful.
I’m pleased to bring you this timely interview with Elizabeth Robbins. She has had a lot to deal with in life, but has not given up; instead, she has excelled and prospered. You’ll enjoy and appreciate what she has to say. I hope you’ll come and meet us in Lambertville. We’ll look forward to meeting you, and you’ll get to hear first hand what we have to say.
How did you get started in art and what training did you receive? I grew up in a very talented family. Art was part of our lives and I was always encouraged to be creative. As a young girl of 10, I would dry flowers and put them in shadow boxes and then go around our neighborhood selling them for $5.00. My grandmother taught us how to play the piano, crochet, and needlepoint. As long as I can remember, I was always making things. In college I took some drawing classes just for fun. What they were teaching at the time was conceptual art and it wasn’t anything I wanted to learn. Having grown up in a family that was very proper, I guess I was more drawn to traditional art. It wasn’t until my Mother took a painting class and invited me over to show me what she had done that I picked up a paint brush. I started out in acrylics, then took a few watercolor classes. My first oil painting class was with Mary Jo Leisure who is a Master Decorative Artist. I was hooked. I fell in love with the medium. I studied with her for about 10 years and at the same time was studying with Robert Daley in Pittsburgh, PA who is a wonderful portrait artist.
How did the decision to become a professional painter come about? Necessity and by chance. I had become quite proficient in the Decorative Art world. I had written several books on decorative art and was teaching all over the country and then I found myself single and had to figure out a way to make a living. I started doing wall murals and faux finishing. This was in the early 90’s. Wall murals were all the rage. I was booked six months in advanced and had several interior designers that used me. It was back breaking work and I knew that I couldn’t keep up that pace for long. All I wanted to do was to paint at my easel but that wouldn’t pay the bills at that time. Then God put a wonderful man in my path and we were married. This afforded me the ability to focus on my canvas work.
What did you do to establish your career? When I had several paintings that I was proud of, I walked into a gallery in Scottsdale and asked them to look at my work. The lady that worked there was very complimentary and invited me to show my pieces for a still life show. They sold two paintings opening night. I was ecstatic; then the gallery sold and I was dropped. I was devastated and thought it was because I wasn’t good enough. It took me six months to get up the courage to approach galleries again. I also entered the Oil Painters of America show and received good feedback from my work. This is where I met Howard Friedland, who told Cheryl Macdowall, who was opening a gallery, about me. She was instrumental in the beginning of my career. She loved my work and sold quite a bit of it.
You’re primarily a painter of still life, flowers in particular; how did the choice of subject evolve for you? My grandmother’s loved flowers and I loved my grandmothers. I can remember my paternal grandmother walking with me holding my hand as we walked a mountain path near our cabin in the mountains of Utah. We would pick wild flowers and then press them in a book. I still have that book. My mother also had a rose garden that I was in charge of weeding. I think that’s where my love affair with roses began.
Do you believe love of, and passion for the subject, is necessary for creating great work? I think it certainly helps. There are a lot of great paintings out there but when someone has love and emotion for what they are painting, then that energy comes through. I spend hours with my flowers, caring for them, watering, weeding, feeding, and even talking to them, telling them how beautiful they are. I have a connection with them. You can feel the emotion that went into a painting that was painted from the heart as opposed to something that was painted from the head.
You seem to be a very prolific painter; do you have several paintings in process at the same time? Typically, how many paintings do you create a year? Yes, when the flowers are blooming I am a painting maniac. I’ll start a painting from life and then the next day set up another one and paint as much as I can that day. Some smaller paintings I can get done in a day; larger ones will need more time. By the end of the week I’ll have at least seven paintings well on their way. My flowers bloom in cycles so when they slow down, I go back to my starts and finish them. I would say I probably paint around 75-100 paintings a year but only around 25-30 make it to a gallery.
I start each painting with a rough sketch using my brush. I like to use thin washes of simple shapes that depict the approximate color and value of the shadow. I then simplify each element into two values, ie. light and shadow. Once I have the basic form established I begin adding more temperature shifts and suggestions of detail.
Your business and marketing skills are very impressive; what three things have helped you most in this area? I guess you could say I got my talent from my mother and my business sense from my dad. I’m also the only girl in my family. Being raised in a very patriarchal household I felt I was always trying to prove to my dad that I was just as good as his sons. It made me work hard to prove myself so I guess my determination would be one. I think I also have a good work ethic. I work well on my own; I don’t need someone telling me what needs to be done, I just do it. I’ve owned a business before where I managed all the bills and inventory; having had that experience taught me organization and leadership skills.
You are quite active on social media; how is that an important piece of your total marketing plan? What other things are you doing to keep in touch with your fans, collectors, and followers? Social media is a necessary evil. It can bring you a lot of inspiration and at the same time make you want to throw your computer out the window, but it does keep me in touch with students and collectors. I’ve gained many students through social media and have had galleries contact me for representation. My goal is to inspire others to paint and to bring them joy. I get so many letters from students that express how much they appreciate the videos I do. Being a professional artist can be a very lonely profession especially if you’re single and an empty nester like myself. Social media is like the office water cooler; I can take a break, hop on Facebook or Instagram and see what everyone else is doing. It’s comforting to have a tribe as we do. I also do a newsletter to collectors and students to keep them informed of upcoming shows and workshops.
Do you think it’s important to one’s career to focus on one type of subject rather than several? Yes, I do. I think galleries want to be able to brand you and promote you as a master in one particular subject matter, but that doesn’t mean you can’t explore and try other genres.
What are some major bits of advice you have for those wanting to begin a professional painting career today? How do you get to Carnegie Hall? Practice practice, practice. I’m always amazed that some people think that being a professional artist comes easy. If you want to become a professional athlete, you know you have to work out hard every day. If you want to become a professional pianist, you practice the piano every day. If you want to be a professional artist…paint, paint, and then paint some more. Have thick skin! Being an artist is like living on a roller coaster ride; there are incredible highs, but then there are some incredible lows. Don’t give up. You can become good at anything after 10,000 hours of practice. Paint from the heart. Find a painting friend that is on the same level as you; having that camaraderie is so beneficial to both the spirit and the painting
You occasionally paint portraits and western subjects; does your mindset and approach differ from your flower paintings? I don’t think my approach differs. It really doesn’t matter what you’re painting, it’s all just shapes. I start out generally with a rough sketch right on the canvas and then block shapes in with color and value. I’ve always had a respect for Native Americans. I remember and cherish a story my grandmother used to tell me about how her ancestors traded with the Indians.
You love your garden and grow many varieties of flowers, but once you bring them into the studio, how do you decide on everything else that completes the setting…and how do you determine the color scheme and dominant color? I have 89 roses as of this writing. I’m sure more to come but when I cut them and bring them in the studio it’s more of just a feeling of how I set them up. I don’t think in terms of color schemes such as complementary or analogous, I just start putting items in and “feel” whether it’s working or not. I generally have an idea of either a high or low key painting, but there are times that I set something up with a dark background and get ready to paint then wonder how it would look with a light background and completely change my mind.
When setting up a still life, what are you looking for? Variety of shapes, interesting negative shapes, good color harmony, a rhythm to the flow of light; a connected quality of the lights and darks…something that excites me to paint.
Are you primarily trying to capture the beauty of a flower arrangement, or is there something deeper you want to communicate? Sometimes it’s just a vase of flowers with no deeper meaning, other times I’ve painted a particular vase that represented my grandmother, or a set of roses that symbolized love and loved lost.
What is the most difficult part of painting for you? The finish. I love the starts and middle of paintings. Finishing the painting is another story. I start to second guess myself. I’m always wondering how I can make it better and not really knowing if it’s finished. It can be very frustrating. Also, coming up with names; how many ways can you name roses in a vase? LOL
Do you have compositional guidelines you always adhere to? I like to think in terms of papa bear, mama bear, and baby bear, meaning you have one large mass, a middle mass and a smaller mass. I do tend to like paintings that read from left to right.
What colors are typically on your palette? Why these? Titanium White, Cadmium Lemon, Cadmium Yellow Pale, Cadmium Yellow Deep or Cadmium Orange, Cadmium Red, Cadmium Red Deep, Yellow Ochre, Indian Yellow, Raw Umber, Transparent Oxide Red, Alizarin Crimson, French Ultramarine, Viridian, and Ivory Black
Please put these words in order: color, framing, composition, values, drawing, technique, and concept. Concept, composition, value, drawing. Color isn’t as important as temperature, but I guess you can say temperature is color. Technique can be cliché and predictable. I try not to start a painting the same way every time. I don’t like to paint as if I’m on an assembly line. I’m always trying to push myself to try something new. A good frame will always bring a painting up, a bad frame will bring a good painting down.
What’s a typical workday look like? A cup of coffee, answering emails, followed by a couple of hours in the garden weeding, deadheading, watering. Painting for 5-6 hours. Thinking about painting while I work in the garden some more. Computer work such as editing videos, answering more emails, working on my website. Editing photos, coming up with names for paintings. Scrolling through Instagram to either be inspired to paint or give up painting. Walk over to Shanna Kunz’s home and see what’s she is painting. Take a walk to clear my head. Walk back into my studio and realize I wish my assistant hadn’t gone back to school.
Who have been your major artistic influences? Living: Robert Johnson, Daniel Gerhartz, Quang Ho, Sherry McGraw. Deceased: Sargent, Henri Fantin Latour, Hovsep Pushman, and Frans Mortelmans
How much does your work reflect your personality? Well, I guess it depends on who you ask. LOL. I am a warrior in spirit. I am trying to fight the good fight. In fact, I once changed my profile picture to the image of Sara Connor from Terminator 2, where she is all muscle and holding a rifle preparing to protect her son and humanity from the forces of evil. Perhaps my paintings reflect what I want life to be like, calming, peaceful and beautiful. I have to say that I always believe that art should inspire and be beautiful. There is so much ugliness in the world that I just want to bring a little piece of what’s in my heart to the world.
Please tell us about Bella Muse Productions, its origin and mission. I had previously filmed two instructional videos with Johnnie Liliedahl, when she was alive; I felt it was time for me to do another one. I had hired someone to film me and edit the video but wanted to be hands on so I sat with him during all the editing. Next thing I know, I’m filming Shanna Kunz and then my friends, Howard Friedland and Susan Blackwood. Before I knew it, Bella Muse Productions was born. After filming a few more artists, I realized that if I was going to be able to make any money from this venture I’d have to film and edit myself. YouTube videos are a great way to learn something. I spent hours and hours watching videos on how to edit. One thing I pride myself on is that I can figure out just about anything.
You’ve been with Highlands Art Gallery since its beginning; what do you look for in a gallery? I want a personal relationship with my galleries. It’s an equal partnership. I also want a gallery that believes in me and loves my work. Cheryl has done that for me since day one.
If you were stranded on an island, what three books would you want with you? Can I have four? The Highly Sensitive Person, Richard Schmid’s, Alla Prima, any book on survival, and any Jack Reacher Novel.
What are your future artistic goals? Just keep getting better and continue to inspire. I’d like to do more figurative work as well. At the end of the day I’d like my tombstone to say, “Elizabeth Robbins: Wife, Mother, Friend and an inspiration to those seeking beauty.”
To see more of Elizabeth Robbins work, click HERE.
Click HERE for details of the show Elizabeth and I are having at the Highlands Art Gallery.
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I’m pleased to announce the release of my latest teaching video and book. The video and accompanying book, shown here, along with my first video, “Limited Palette Landscape”, include everything I’ve taught in my workshops. You can now take my oil painting workshop right in the comfort of your home, and for a lot less money than physically being present. (Click image to learn more)
To own an original painting from the book, please click HERE
John Pototschnik is an Art Renewal Center Living Master. To view his art and bio, please click HERE.