"The object isn't to make art, it's to be in that wonderful state which makes art inevitable."
Sloshing through my backyard in nearly knee-high snow, I head to my atelier, or art studio; call it anything but a man cave. This is the same lawn I mowed when the grass was nearly knee-high six months ago. The path is slippery, but it's time to work on what some call my creative side.
I don't think making good art has as much to do with creativity as it does with constant discipline after an initial education. You need that discipline to deal with often-extreme conditions.
In the summer, my studio can easily simmer in the 90s (115 degrees was the record). But it's cold now - almost as cold as it is outside. I draw and paint year-round, in all kinds of temperature extremes. My studio is little more than a shed, and it lacks insulation. So into the warm house go watercolor tubes, to keep them from freezing in the winter, or oil-based underpaintings that take forever to dry in the humid summer. But a certain amount of preparation comes with the profession. At least that's what I tell myself.
Once I'm inside, I remove the wet boots and switch on the propane heater. It's time to work.
After I graduated from Hussian School of Art in Philadelphia, I stayed in touch with most of my classmates. We were all proud of our portfolios and swore that soon we'd all be working as full-time artists and designers, illustrating children's books or storyboarding commercials. Now, a couple of decades later, those of us who still pursue the arts have to deal with carving a studio or workspace out of what's available. One friend has made her dining room her workshop, another has a drawing table "buried under laundry somewhere." Still others rent studio space. But I got lucky - an art studio in my backyard.
The previous owner was a retiree who did woodwork. My studio is spacious with a high ceiling. Twice it has served as a small dance floor during parties. It's close to the comforts of home, but far enough away that my wife doesn't hear the colorful words I let loose when I overwork a watercolor.
I make a living as an artist; I create graphics and illustrations for The Press. But what drives me is the the desire to explore a consistent and confident style. Or to put it another way: to have a body of work that looks like someone was paying attention when they were taught.
Being comfortable when you pursue this is essential. Having everything you need when you need it saves time and frustration. I may not use an orange Prismacolor pencil or an image projector for five years at a stretch, but I know where they both are. Working in one-room apartments for years taught me that everything should have a place. I do leave about 10 percent of the space in my studio for decoration: old LPs, an out-of-tune guitar, a deer skull, and gifts from people long gone from my life. Even nostalgia has its place.
Organizing your tools makes any job easier. That's one of the lessons I've learned from more than 20 years pursuing the life of an artist. Here are a couple more:
1. Don't trust your eyes.
A few years ago I took a cellphone photo of a painting I was working on of a little girl holding a tea cup. The next day I looked at it while running some errands and noticed she had an extra finger on her right hand.
It was an easy fix at the drawing table, but it made me recall an art class where we were instructed to do blind contour drawing exercises, in which you draw a subject - a chair, your hand - without looking at the paper. This trains the eye and hand to work as a unit and forces you to see the details of the subject and not rely on memorized drawing symbols.
Finding a new way of looking at your subject is essential for any artist. No, I'd never enter a contour sketch of my foot in a juried show. They're not good drawings. But looking at things in a different way helps solve many problems. I often look at a drawing in a mirror or hang a painting on a different wall in the house. What needs to be corrected becomes more obvious in a different setting.
2. It's all about preparation.
I learned this lesson from working outdoor art shows. While waking up very early, loading your car for a 10-hour day and sitting in the sun just hoping to sell something may not seem the path to prosperity, it can pay off in many ways.
My first show was more than 20 years ago: several pencil drawings, poorly matted, laying on an uncovered table, blowing away in the wind. But year after year I learned to polish my craft and hone my approach to shows.
You have to be prepared to answer the same questions: "Where do you get your ideas?" "Did you go to school for art?" "Did you know you have a gift from God?"
You must also be prepared for extremes: If it might rain, bring a clear tarp to cover everything. On windy days, bring weights to keep your canopy from flying off. If you're doing a summer show, freeze gallons of water so you have a cool drink all day (the bottles also makes good weights).
I'd see the same artists at many of the shows, all with new work to display. I never felt like we were competing with each other. If fact we'd watch each others' booths when we needed a break. Many are still my friends today. And after I arrived home from a show, I always made sure to put everything back in its place.
Just as on this cold winter day, when, after the anatomy books are returned to the shelf and the brushes are cleaned, it's time to trek back to the house. The sun is gone and the snowy path has become slippery as it ices over. The artist's path sometimes is slippery as well. I just have to stay on it.