Folks reading my blog have commented how much they have enjoyed the many artist interviews I have published here. They have also wondered how I would answer the same questions I’ve asked of other artists. Over time, I will satisfy that request.
Right now however, I will give you a little taste of what’s in store.
A few months ago, Steve Doherty, Editor of PleinAir magazine, interviewed me for an article that appeared in the September issue of the publication. Steve did his usual excellent job in compiling all the material, but out of necessity the interview was culled down to the essence of what was said. So, I thought I’d share with you the complete interview along with some of the images submitted to accompany the article.
What follows is the complete interview, with questions being asked by Steve Doherty.
Please sketch in your background — education, art training, introduction to plein air painting. I grew up in a home in which a lot of music was played but seldom, if ever, did we visit art museums. I began college as a business major (accounting) but quickly realized this was not the correct fit for me. A school counselor helped me find direction by advising that I take industrial arts classes with a few drawing classes tossed in. That’s when I realized I really liked to draw. Advised not to pursue the fine arts, I chose commercial art with a focus on advertising design. It was in my junior year that I committed to becoming an illustrator. Upon graduation from Wichita State University, I took a commission in the Air Force and was stationed in Los Angeles. I used that opportunity to study at the Art Center College at night for three years.
Completing the four-year Air Force obligation, I moved to Dallas and began a 10-year freelance illustration career. Inspired by important illustrators leaving the field to become fine artists, I began that transition in 1982. I quickly discovered that I knew very little about painting. An illustrator friend, who had already moved into the fine arts, suggested I begin painting en plein air. That probably helped me grow more quickly than anything else. In 1993, I won the Steven Jones Fellowship which provided necessary funds for me to study for one semester at the Lyme Academy, in Old Lyme, CT., under the brilliant Deane Keller.
Early in the fine art career, I took workshops from William Earle and Rudy Colao. The rest of knowledge attained has been through personal study and application of principles learned.
Can you give me an idea of how you identify subjects to paint outdoors, whether you look at them through a viewfinder, make a thumbnail sketch, create a color study, take photographs, or otherwise plan the composition? Selecting appealing motifs, when painting outdoors, is a merging of a number of influences including personal background, temperament, knowledge, and taste. Beyond that it’s about contrasts light/dark, hard/soft, large/small, rough/smooth, simple/complex, intense/dull.
I carry a number of pre-sized pieces of canvas or paper with me into the field. Holding these up before the motif, a pre-sized surface is selected that will best accommodate the composition I have in mind. The canvas/paper is taped to a board and painting begins. Photographs are always taken for further reference.
Your plein air pieces have a great deal more detail in them then most 2-3 hour paintings. Is that because you spend more time, work fast and efficiently, or finish in the studio? I like my paintings to have a certain degree of finish. I am not a speedy painter so most of the larger plein air pieces are done over two, even three, painting sessions. I try to keep the refinements made in the studio to a minimum…most often these are limited to accents and a few details.
You often tell a story in your paintings through the figures flags, houses, cars, etc that are either the focus of the paintings or which are added towards the end of the painting process. Do you feel that landscape paintings need that kind of underlying story? Is it because you worked as an illustrator? The gentle narrative found in my paintings evolves as the painting develops. It is a natural, unforced way of expressing the way I wish life was, and the way it could be again. They are “paintings of the America we all love”. They are not a result of my illustration background but a natural expression of childhood memories. There are many ways of beautifully expressing oneself through the landscape; mine is just one way.
Can you provide a list of the supplies you normally work with — surfaces, brushes, palette of colors, etc? And what equipment do you normally take on location — either in a car or a backpack? Brushes: Robert Simmons flat bristles; Rosemary Ivory flats and riggers; a few synthetic rounds thrown in for good measure; palette knives Paint: Winsor & Newton Griffin Alkyd Titanium White; Gamblin and Winsor/Newton Oil Colors: Ultramarine Blue, Cadmium Red, Lemon Yellow. Other reds, yellow, and blues are substituted as needed, but 90% of the time I use just a primary palette. Occasionally, I add ivory black, yellow ochre, and/or chromium oxide green. Supports: Canvas or board Studio easel: Hughes 3000
Plein air: The key for me is to think simple and compact. Everything taken on site is carried in a 9”x 16”x 11” bag. On-site studies are done using an 8”x 10” Open Box M, attached to a compact Bogen tripod. For other plein air work, I use a Soltek easel. In the bag can be found brushes, palette knives, large tubes of paint, container of mineral spirits, palette cups, level, paper towels, masking tape, and assorted items (just in case).
Do you use your plein air paintings as the basis of studio paintings? If not, why? I have two mental approaches to plein air work. Most of the work done on-site I view as studies. These are used to inspire and inform the larger studio works and are seldom sold. The other mental approach is to create stand-alone pieces that are available for purchase.
When you teach, do you simplify the painting process so students have a better grasp of what it is all about? That is, do you suggest they start with a monochromatic underpainting? Use a limited palette? My workshops always focus on the basics of good painting; those things that are constants regardless of subject matter. Although every element taught actually works together to create an affective whole, I try to clearly dissect each individual part: concept, composition, drawing, values, color, and technique. I illustrate these principles as being similar to building a house.
Concept: Kind of house desired; Composition: Floor plan; Drawing: .Foundation; Value: Framing (walls, roof); Color: Siding, trim, exterior appearance; Technique: Interior decorating; Presentation: Landscaping
We specifically analyze each area. Students apply lessons taught to their own work. We first concentrate on concept, composition, drawing, and value. With this knowledge, students create a monochromatic painting using raw umber (no white). I also demonstrate the technique.
The color lecture is detailed and informative. Students are to work only with a primary palette and are encouraged to select color schemes using only specific sections of the color wheel. This challenges them to move beyond just painting the color they see. Once a color scheme is selected (supportive of their concept), color is applied to the monochromatic painting created the previous day. I also demonstrate this technique.
So to sum up the teaching method: instruct, demonstrate, apply.
When did you start writing your blog, and why do you devote so much time to it? My two sons are both self-employed and marketing is a huge part of what they do. My blog is a result of their encouragement and direction. The weekly blog first appeared in October 2010 and featured the creative life of George Washington Carver.
An important purpose of the blog, of course, is to direct folks to my website. I found inspiration for the type of blog I wanted to do from James Gurney and Stapleton Kearns. Both men are extremely talented, knowledgeable, and generous. I did not want the blog to just be about me, for I am convinced readers would become quickly bored.
The artist interviews I do came about quite by accident. My wife and I discovered the work of Australian artist, John McCartin, at Greenhouse Gallery and were overcome by its beauty and excellence. So, I contacted him, just to tell him how much I appreciated his work…and we connected. Wanting to learn more about him and his work, he agreed to answer a few questions and that eventually gave rise to the more than 50 artists whom I have since interviewed or asked questions of.
I enjoy writing and believe I express myself more affectively through the written word than orally. The blog has turned out to be a wonderful learning experience (kind of like teaching). I’ve had the opportunity to correspond with some really great people and blog followers are receiving in depth, informative, educational, and inspirational material. It’s a win, win for all of us. It does take a lot of work but readers have expressed their appreciation and have now begun to offer suggestions for future postings.
Do you sell your paintings through galleries, or over the internet? Most sales come through the galleries that represent me. There are internet sales but these are not nearly as numerous as those through the galleries.
How often do you participate in plein air festivals and what do you think about the pressure to produce in a limited number of days? I do not care for the pressure of plein air festivals or quick draws. I prefer a more contemplative, less pressured environment. I am a signature member of the Outdoor Painters Society. So far, my competitive plein air activities have been limited to their annual Plein Air Southwest Salon.
Do you have a preference about frames for your plein air paintings or does that depend on the subject, region where it will be exhibited, etc? Selecting frames for paintings is as difficult for me as trying to figure out electrical wiring. I trust in my wife, and a couple of good framers. I do not however make a distinction between frames used for plein air or studio work. They are one and the same to me. I just want the best frame for each piece of art.
Can you briefly describe the on-going series of sketch book paintings? The thing about plein air painting that can cause many to procrastinate when it comes to actually doing it, is the hassle of it all. The thought of getting all the equipment together, selecting canvases, finding a location, and dealing with the elements can give one pause. To overcome most of these obstacles, it’s a good idea to simplify, simplify. Reduce what’s needed to a bare minimum. Make it as easy as possible on yourself to pick up and go. My whole approach to working on-site is with that idea in mind.
In 1985, when I began outdoor painting in earnest, I began painting on paper…100 pound rag stock sealed with a coat of gesso. The sheets are 5.5”x 8.5” and the resulting color studies are placed in sleeves and filed in 3-ring binders of the same size. Working small has been a great way to create a lot of paintings quickly and therefore speed up the learning curve. Also, paper is very portable and takes up little space.
Now, almost 30 years later, it continues to be my favorite way of working on site. Using an 8”x 10” Open Box M, I carry a stack of these gessoed sheets pre-proportioned to a variety of sizes. The selected sheet is taped to a board. The prochade box can carry four completed studies. Each study includes: 1) Information on accessing the photos taken of the scene. 2) Location of the scene. 3) Time in which painting was created. 4) Date 5) Direction faced while painting. 6) Palette used. 7) Tone used, if any.
They have become an easily accessible record of travel and are a constant help when needing specific, accurate information for studio work.
Anything I didn’t ask about that you want to mention? Although I’ve done hundreds of plein air paintings, I still consider myself a studio painter. I appreciate the time to contemplate and refine a work that the studio allows. Plein air work is critically important for what I do…that is…to create works that feel natural…like they were painted on site.
John Pototschnik is an Art Renewal Center Associate Living Master
To view his art and bio, please click HERE