A Crossroads

I’ve been getting a few requests to talk about a change of direction I went through in 1998.  So this is what happened.

Prior to 1998 I was known for my detailed wildlife and landscape paintings. I was in a few galleries and beginning to get a descent reputation for my work.  But something was missing: Passion and energy in the work.  My work was full of detail.  I tried to capture every hair, every leaf and every blade of grass.  It was very tedious work and work that I really didn’t enjoy deep down inside.  This was the way I had been painting and approaching my art since I was in high school (I graduated in 1982).  I thought this was want I wanted. I was also very close to being published by a limited edition publisher. They loved my work but kept asking for more and more detail. So back to the studio I went, to give them what “they wanted”. But it never seemed enough. On one evening in early 1998 I had, what I thought, was the painting they were looking for.  It had all the detail and mood they wanted in my work.  I decided to take it to them to to get their feedback, I was very hopeful. I still remember their response, they really loved the painting but “it needed a little more detail”. How disappointing!

On the way home I thought a lot about what just happened and what I really wanted for my art.  I was tired of “detail”. I was tired of not being happy when I painted (just ask my wife, she’ll tell you.) I was not pleasant to be around.  I needed a change, my family needed me to change, but what.

I was extremely blessed to have a great high school art teacher, Bill Rushton.  He had the ability to teach what ever I needed and wanted to learn regardless of medium and style. For a number of years he had tried to get me into this thing called “Plein Air”. I had no interest at all. Painting that loose never excited me, until now. I was ready for a change and I was at a crossroads. Would I stay miserable and stick with what I knew or would I take risk and head for the unknown? The answer came the day after I received the dreaded “it needs a little more detail” words from the publisher.  When I got home from the publishers I decided to frame the painting that “needed a little more detail” and hang it in my studio has a reminder of what “not to do”. The next day I got rid of all my acrylics, all my little small paint brushes; everything that had to do with this type of painting.  It was all gone. This change was literally taking place “overnight”. It felt like a very risky thing to do.  After all, that style of painting was what I had been working on since high school, I knew nothing else but I also knew I wasn’t happy. I called Bill Rushton that same day and asked if he would take me out to show me how to approach this “plein air thing”.  I also need a list of art materials. I needed everything: brushes, paint, terpenoid. a pochade box (what’s a pochade box?). It was exciting and a little scary to say the least. I was headed for the unknown.

He took me out painting a few days later ( I had never been “out” painting). We went to Half Moon Bay and painted in the little valley that leads out to the coast. We set up and began to paint. He picked out a brush size that he wanted me to use for the whole painting(it was alot bigger than what I was used to). He also gave me a time limit, an hour and a half.  It was a huge struggle. I had to throw away, no, put aside, most of what I had learned over the past few years. I was slopp’in paint around, swatting bugs and trying to keep my easel still in the breeze.  This was all so new. I’ve never had to deal with these issues in the comfort of my studio. I finished the painting about an hour and half later and let me tell you, it looked awful. What was I thinking? Did I make a huge mistake? the detailed paintings weren’t so bad, right? But one thing I noticed that day, I had fun! I felt alive.

I still have that painting today. I pull it out every time I teach a workshop. It’s a reminder to me of a risk I took to feel alive and to feel passion for what I do.  Needless to say that little painting changed my life. I continued to paint outdoors and paint poor paintings but overtime the paintings improved.  Over the past few years I was able to developed the style you see today.  Those days of painting detail were not wasted days. They were an important part of getting me to where I am today.  I still consider myself a realist painter but don’t have the need or desire to show my viewer every little detail.  It’s good for the viewer to fill in the blanks and become part of the story of picture making. Today I still try to stretch myself as a painter, I’ve started painting still lifes.  Yet another risk, I’m known for my landscapes. What will my galleries think? What will my collectors think? I’m not sure, but I know I’m happy painting them. It keeps me fresh. I also have the desire to paint city scenes.  In September of this year I’ll have my chance.  I’ll be traveling with my wife and 2 close friends to New York City to paint Central Park and the surrounding city. I can’t wait to make a mess of it and learn a little something new.

We must never be fearful of change, it’s what takes us to the next level….who knows we might just like it there.

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12 thoughts on “A Crossroads

  1. Kevin, love your story. I went through somewhat the same process, although over a several year period around 2002-2004. I used to paint fairly detailed acrylic landscapes. Now it seems the looser and more painterly I go, the better they are received. If you ever post some of your early wildlife online, would love to take a look…maybe for old times sake.

  2. What a great story. Just a year and a half ago I was painting very realistic acrylic paintings too and then took plein air classes from Karl Dempwolf and never looked back. Glad you followed your heart and went plein air.

  3. I love this story!!

    I’m one of the people who was curious about your change of direction. My friend Sharon, told me about your work which she had seen when she was painting in Carmel last month and I have to agree with her that it is wonderful.

    I’m very glad you had your epiphany… All of us who view your work are better for it!!

  4. A story I am sure many artists can relate to.

    I have only been painting about 9 years having gotten a late start due to being in the advertising business however I did b/w illustration work during that time period. My drawings were very detailed architectural scenes, so the transition to color and paint was very frustrating but liberating at the same time… similar to your experience. A plein air workshop with Don Demers made a huge difference in my approach to painting.

    I have followed your work for some time and admire your technique, color palette, and design sense. It would be great if you gave a workshop in nyc or anywhere in the northeast!

    • Tony,

      Thanks for the comments. I wish you the best in your art. I don’t have any workshops currently planned but if I do they’ll be posted on my website.

      Thanks again,

      Kevin

  5. Kevin, thanks for sharing this, it is so true about asking yourself what it is that YOU want, not everyone else. You will never please everyone, so better to start by doing what you love and your passion will shine through.
    i can really relate to the plein air experience, it can be so overwhelming, so much stimulation and you have to do everything so quickly! I don’t know if i will ever be able to master it but it sure is fun trying!!!!
    Your work is so beautiful and inspiring, thank you for taking that risk, we are all able to benefit from it. : )
    Georgia

  6. Kevin, I’m very happy to see that you’ve got a blog, I’ve been following your work for some time. I’ll second the notion of a NE workshop, how about Albany and the Adirondacks? I’m a working stiff, but I use the internet to find artists like yourself that are able to capture what I hope to capture someday. Bravo, you stand out.
    Have a workshop here! Write a book! Create a DVD! I can’t tell you how starved I am to learn plein air from someone like yourself. How much paint? Color mixing? Composition? Visual memory?… so many questions.
    I’d pay for online lessons if that’s all that would be available!
    Obviously you’ve got to be in the field to create beautiful paintings, but for those of us so hungry to learn, we’re grasping at straws for good instruction. A little bit goes a long way. I look forward to more blog posts. Tips and tricks would be most welcome. God bless. – Pete

    • Hey Peter,

      Thanks for the kind words regarding my work. I’ll try to post some painting tips in the future including my approach to painting nocturnes in the middle of the day. I’m actually coming to New York in September to paint Central Park and the City but no workshops this time (sorry). Maybe I’ll plan a workshop in Central Park some time next year or so. Happy Painting. Kevin

  7. Kevin – I hadn’t seen your blog until today, I’m so glad you posted the link in FB. It was truly wonderful to read your story. I remember your paintings from about 14 or 15 years ago, and I had wondered about your change in direction. This was really inspiring to read, thanks!!

  8. Kevin – I realize I’m leaving a comment 6 or 7 months after you posted this piece but I just discovered your blog (where have I been?) and I was reading the older posts. This one made me smile. I remember many years ago taking my work to a fairly well known gallery in Albuquerque and being told that my work was “Nice but just a little too European” for them. I still don’t know what the heck that meant – ha ha!

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