TCR: I was walking with my 7-year-old son the other day, and he said, “Dad, I think I’d like to be an artist, where do I sign up?” Unfortunately I started laughing, and he said sheepishly, “You don’t sign up, do you?” Hearing my responses, he started to ask questions about whether one could make a living at it and how. When and how did you come to art, and painting specifically, and how do you see art and the creation of it: as a calling, an avocation, or a passion and obsession? I’m curious whether you have people in your life who acted as mentors or conversely those who discouraged you along the way? And, is it possible for you not to paint without it interfering with your well-being?
DCL: I determined to make a living as an artist sometime during high school. That was about 30 years ago. And that’s still my plan. Actually I did make a living at it here and there, briefly as a staff artist for a newspaper and then as a freelance illustrator. But I quickly realized that simply using a skill set to make a living was not the same thing as pursuing a dream. Later I survived off paintings for a couple years but only because I was willing to live well below the poverty line. Now I’ve got a home and family. So I work days. My job started off as a temp assignment and has nothing to do with my art. It provides us with a steady income and health insurance. I paint mostly in the evenings and nights as often as I can squeeze it in. It’s not ideal, but it works.
Part of the reason I initially pursued commercial art was in response to the warnings of my father that, while art may be something I love, I should really acquire some practical tools with which to make a living. I figured commercial art was a perfect compromise. Plus I’m a huge fan of an awful lot of illustration work. But illustration is as tough a business as fine art. I just got burned out on tedious assignments from banking journals and the like that paid $50 a spot. Trying to sell work through a gallery allowed me all the freedom I could ever want. It took me a while to develop the discipline it requires though. There are no deadlines, unless you schedule a show. You can paint whatever you want, but you have to figure out what that is (and that is a lot harder than it sounds). Anyway, I’m still at it.
I don’t think of myself as the obsessive type or even someone with a clear vocation. My interests have always been scattered and wandering. Every few years I seem to struggle through some kind of crisis trying to figure out what it is I want to do with my life. In the mean time, I just keep making pictures, because I don’t know what else to do anymore. Maybe I’m just stubborn. I really would like to making a decent living at this someday. But making it a career is a lot of hard work, the kind that I do not enjoy. Self-promotion. Talking to galleries. Applying for competitions, grants, residencies, etc., stuff I still do not do nearly enough of. Knowing that all this may never pan out, I’ve had to decide is whether or not this is worth doing for it’s own sake. For me it is.
(I’m afraid this answer has a somewhat sour note to it. Not the sort of thing to inspire your son to pursue dreams of glory. But that last bit, is it worth doing for it’s own sake, really is the heart of the matter.)
TCR: Next question in two parts: I was wondering before if you chose your most recent subjects, night scenes and neighborhood ‘landscapes,’ in order to work through the interplay of qualities of light and shadow, but now after your answer, I’m wondering if you paint night scenes because that’s generally when you paint? Can you tell us a little about your choice of subject matter and your methods, for example do you work off memory or ever use photographs in a studio, or do you ever paint en plein air. Recently on your blog, David Carmack Lewis, you had a study of “Three Acts,” in which you showed a progression of your work from sketches to finished canvas. I enjoyed that.
Part two: Also, I have to note most of your newer work (in the last couple years) seems lonely and bereft of the human figure, at the same time that we always feel humanity is present through the viewer, and absence is momentary because of the presence of chairs, pianos, or camp fires, neighborhoods, or machines and it gives you the opportunity to introduce whimsy and a metaphysical dimension through portents and signs in the night sky, or birds or stars painted like interconnected dots or pointing in formation like an arrow, or even a luminous ‘ghost’ rabbit. The momentary absence of humanity seems to offer you the opportunity to introduce the numinous, whimsy, and the fabulous and surreal. How do you come upon your subjects and what inspires you?
DCL: I first started painting night scenes in 2003 or 2004 I think. I’m not exactly sure. It has everything to do with the fact that I paint almost exclusively at night, thanks to the aforementioned day job. I often pause to look out the open door of the studio or even take short breaks to walk down to a park half a block away. I’m fascinated at the way the various lights interact. The deep blue of a clear sky, the warm glow of incandescent lights and the weird eerie greenish glow of whatever the hell those other light bulbs are. You know the ones I mean. The kind people put on the sides of their houses to ward off burglars.
I’ve always loved the night ever since I was a kid. I used to lay in bed staring at the branches of a tree outside my window and long to be out there. The daytime just didn’t seem interesting. The night was when magic might happen. So it was natural for all of that to creep into my work, under the circumstances. Also, I’ve always loved fires. When I’m camping it’s a fine thing to turn your back on the fire, let your eyes adjust to the darkness and watch the flickering light play off the trees. When my wife and I were looking for a house I was dead set on it having a fireplace, so of course it doesn’t. When I first started doing the night scenes regularly it was winter. My studio isn’t heated except for a space heater. So I started putting fires in all my paintings. It made for a good dramatic lighting effect and somehow made me feel warmer at the same time.
As for references, yes I do use photographs. Not always, but I prefer to, because it provides me with a certain level of detail that I couldn’t simply make up. And since I work almost exclusively at night, going out and painting from life is mostly out of the question. Not that I would or ever have anyway. I’d be way too self-conscious painting where anyone could just come along and stare at what I was doing and start asking me questions. I’m a bit of a hermit by inclination. Anyway I take photos and occasionally print out images off the web. The images piles up in my studio. The most promising images get stapled onto the wall where I work. When I’m ready to start a new painting I scan around for something to start with. The painting usually ends up quite different from the source material. I’ll often change the perspective, add and remove various details. For example my most recent painting started from a photo I took of a backhoe by the side of the road on my way to work. In the finished painting it is night again, the backhoe is in a forest and there’s bear inexplicably checking it out. I did not, in this case, use reference for any of the other stuff. And of course the lighting, as always, is completely out of my head.
I’m glad you enjoyed the process shots of “Three Acts”. It’s something I’d seen other artists do and I always enjoy being able to see how they develop an image. Unfortunately, that was one of those paintings that barely changed from initial sketch to final image. I think it would be worth doing the same thing again with a painting that goes through a struggle to become, where major elements of the drawing are developed, changed, erased and redone. But then I never know when it’s going to work out that way.
I did not get around to question 2 as this answer got out of control (I may have to chop it down a bit), and frankly my ideas either come from other images I see that subsequently get mangled in my head or (more often) I have absolutely no idea.
TCR: I know at the top of your blog, The Art Out There, you answer this question, but what you don’t say is how you manage to come across these varied and talented artists, to the point it almost seems like they’re out there everywhere, because you have featured so many. Can you tell us a little about your blog, how and why you started it, and how you network and discover new artists to feature? I wonder if you find others using this as a resource and are there other blogs you could recommend to artists looking to discover or network with others?
DCL: I started the blog about three years ago. I just wanted to keep track of artists I liked online. I was putting my own work up on sites like Flickr and other sites specifically designed for artists like Myartspace.com and Bluecanvas.com. I must have put work up on at least 6 or 7 such sites. Most of the work you see posted on these sites is pretty average to amateurish, but there’s also amazing work. It was a way for me to see what other people were doing, figure out what kind of work I liked and why and how that related to what I do. I started writing short positive critiques to help me practice putting all that into words.
I don’t find all the artists on the networking sites anymore. It’s one of my favorite ways because it tells me they’re still struggling to get exposure. But it’s hard to find a lot of stuff there that’s really really good. So I pick up names from other blogs (there are links to those on mine). Sometimes I’ll look through the links on an artist’s websites, or scan through other artists that show in the same gallery as someone I’ve just posted. I occasionally get sent emails from artists asking to me to look at their websites. I’ve posted a few of these. It’s all pretty random. I don’t spend too much time on it frankly, because I do most of this at my day job (shhh… don’t tell anyone).
The blog doesn’t have that many followers and I’ve never worked at trying to get it much exposure. Most of the comments oddly, come from this one woman in France. But I have made some nice connections with a few of the artists whose work I’ve posted. In the end it’s mostly a personal exercise.
TCR: One thing I’m curious about, and this could be a question I suppose, is if you had to pick a handful of ten or fewer paintings, which would you pick as representative of your best or most successful work personally satisfying or artistically?. I know what I like, but I’m wondering what you like, and maybe why?
DCL: As for personal favorites it’s an interesting question.
First of all it changes over time. I’ll often finish a painting with a great deal of excitement about it. Can’t wait to stretch it out and hang it on the wall. Take photos and post it online. This excitement about a new piece can last for quite a while, but then suddenly, say a month (or two or three) later I find myself utterly unimpressed. Sometimes I’m downright dejected about it. How could I have thought it was so good when it is quite clearly a work of pure unadulterated mediocrity. I’ve found that none of this has much in common one way or another with what other people like. The paintings that I like a lot and continue to like over time, often reflect an exploration of a new visual idea. Sometimes that first exploration of a new image is part of what makes it work, the excitement and energy that goes into it is sometimes hard to match in later paintings. Much more rarely I fall in love with one of my own paintings long after, as if seeing it for the first time. It sure would be nice if that happened more often. At any rate here’s a short list of some of my favorite pieces from the last 10 years with short notes. You’ll notice that most will be more recent. As my body of work changes it becomes harder and harder to remain attached to older pieces but a few manage to keep their grip on me. Ultimately though I find all of my work a little disappointing, even my favorites. I’m not nearly as good at this as I’d like to be. I guess that’s part of what motivates me to keep at it. It sure isn’t to pay the bills.
“study” 2002 – Everything just worked for me in this piece and it summed a lot of what I’d been trying to do during that time period with figures, oblique symbolism, references to iconography and maybe 2 or 3 other things.
“Second-hand Stories” 2004 – for similar reasons as the piece above but also because this is where the night really started taking a hold of my work and the figure soon vanished. This is also the last painting I ever did that was very much intended to be a kind of self portrait, even if you can’t see the face.
“Terminal” 2007 – My first piece with water at night. And maybe my first really good capture of the feel of a part of the Pacific Northwest.
“Either/Or” I’d actually done one other painting with a starry sky like this and it obsessed me so much that I knew I had to do one painting where the stars were almost the entire painting. One of the few that I liked from the beginning and still do.
“Crescendo” My use of fires as light sources shifted to making fire the subject (on a big scale). My wife actually suggested the subject matter. I think she thought I burned that bridge I’d stop painting fires.
“The Fox” I’m not sure why this one worked, but it’s my best capture of that feeling you get on a lonely road at night.
“Linden Tree” This was the first time I used a head on light source without needing to explain what that lightsource was. It just seemed to flood out from the point of view itself. Or maybe it’s a car. And are those lamp posts in the background? House windows? Or people with flashlights looking for a body? I liked all the questions I could get out of a simple painting of a tree.
“Performance” or “Rehearsal” I’m not sure which of these I prefer yet, but I think these ornate public space interiors hold a lot of potential for more work down the road.
TCR: I felt like I needed to ask you more about what drives you as an artist, why you paint figures with halos, bridges and trains and campfires, almost like archetypes, and the attraction you have to narrative and storytelling–maybe something about technique, and what makes your work unique, but I think some of that may be unnecessary or obvious. I’m really grateful that you agreed to participate with me on this, and it’s been a lot of fun.
I’m also wondering if you would be interested in working together with us in the future. This could mean something as little as you being a resource for new and interesting artists for us to pursue and feature in upcoming issues or it could mean that you became art editor for the journal, handpicking artists and specific artwork to be featured in upcoming issues and working with the editorial team.
DCL: Thanks, I’d love to discuss the art editing sometime.