Eric Merrell is one of the most gifted and insightful painters, I’ve ever interviewed www.ericmerrell.com. His observations are right on target and he’s a truly informed artist who has lots to say that may be of use to other living artists. What does he say? Check out our cool chat …
MICHAEL: Hey Eric, Your work is cool. First off, what is it about plein air painting that appeals to you?
ERIC: Hi Michael, I grew up camping with my family, so have always had a great love for the outdoors. I like to visit places and immerse myself in them – I look around a lot and compose mentally while exploring. Often when I’m on a painting trip, I’ll read about the location in the evenings after painting – history, geology, legends. Being on location gives me the opportunity to know the place better and to discover why I’m going to paint. Painting on location continually presents challenges that keep me engaged.
MICHAEL: There's a lot of landscape out there. How do you determine what you'll try to capture on canvas? What's your process?
ERIC: My process evolves into a new direction or approach every so often. Lately, I’m having a lot of fun working from memory – painting in the studio based solely on written notes from when I was in the field observing and experiencing the landscape. Nocturnes lend themselves especially to this. Generally though, I’ll walk around a location with my sketchbook. In that, I make compositional sketches, write about potential ideas and ask myself questions such as, “What do I want this painting to say?” and “What is the light doing?” These help narrow down what I’m going to paint. Often it’s an instinctive decision. Color plays a big role. Sometimes I’ll see two or three exciting new color relationships, and for me, they can be the jumping-off point for the painting. I allow myself freedom to explore and try new things when outdoors. There are no wrong answers, but one way of doing something – a mark, a spot of color – may be more effective for the purpose of the painting than another. My sketchbook is fairly scribbly; some of the line drawings and thumbnails might not make sense to someone else, but they’re enough for me to know what direction the painting will take. I’m not interested in painting landscapes like previous generations of artists (whom I admire), but neither am I rejecting all of their efforts and trying to reinvent the wheel. I want to make my own statement. The common thread seems to be based on the experience of actually being there.
MICHAEL: It seems to me that painting from memory/imagination is much more creative than plein air which must be fun being out in the elements, but isn't that more about replication than creativity?
ERIC: I’ve found that painting from memory opens up more avenues and increases my painting ‘vocabulary.’ But these new ways of working are dependent on and informed by my experiences painting outdoors for nearly two decades. Nothing can replace the experience and knowledge that comes from painting from life; you have to learn the technical skills involved with painting first, whatever the subject. I think when you’re first starting to paint outdoors, yes, there is a strong impetus to copy what you see in front of you. Often these early paintings are dark and muddy in color, because we aren’t used to the bright conditions outside. There is a lot of searching for technical ability, for ‘style’ - and when we come up with a painting that “looks just like” the landscape in front of us, that’s reaffirming. In our basic instinctual level of seeing, we judge things by value - black and white shapes - so initially artists spend more time on rendering these distinctions. But as we grow and evolve as artists, our eyes become more refined and we begin to see color better. As we develop that color sense, that’s where the artistry and poetry really begin to shine. So if a tree trunk used to look brownish when we first went into the landscape, now it might look purplish-blue or orange. Written down that sounds weird, but if the color in your painting is related correctly, artists and non-artists alike won’t question a purplish-blue tree, because the other colors help it to make sense. We all live in a world full of color, not black and white, but it takes time to grasp how that can work into a painting. Once we have that foundation and can control those color relationships, we can start to take liberties that maybe aren’t noticeable outright, but begin to get at the art of the piece. I don’t work from photographs because you’re limited creatively from the outset - only one view of a place that’s already been cropped and with much less color information than our eyes could give us. There has to be some excitement for me in a painting, some reason I want to be doing it. I don’t think I could stand doing architectural renderings; it’s just not in my personality. I would say that working from photographs is more about replication, because now you’re not concerned with the landscape. You’re concerned with the photo. And it’s easier than standing outdoors all day. But outside is freedom – sometimes overwhelming - you have 360 degrees to choose from and an infinite number of ways to make a statement, and so for me, painting on location is just as creative as painting from memory – the art comes from what the painting has to say.
MICHAEL: How does technology enter the picture?
ERIC: We live in such a technology- and video-based era where everyone has come to believe that the camera lens is truly an objective way of seeing the world, because we spend more time looking at a television or our phones than we do at real life. Nothing could be further from the truth. That belief is then applied to painting and photographic or highly-rendered paintings are judged as the most accomplished. The depth at which Rembrandt observed any of his sitters is so much more piercing than any photographic rendering, and more truthful. A camera lens is only as un-biased or biased as its operator. Just like painting, it can create amazingly beautiful art at its highest level or something as banal as a text message at its lowest, but that’s not how the eye sees. Another idea that I’ve heard discussed within the last few years is that the plein air phenomenon of today encourages different criteria for painting outdoors than was known in the past. Historically, artists went outside to paint and would bring their sketches back to the studio to percolate and possibly use for a larger painting. They sometimes did exhibit these on-location sketches, but the study of outdoor light was critical for their studio work. Many artists today participate in any number of plein air competitions around the country that reward quantity and brevity. I guess I would say that it’s fine when the artistic path of study begins with copying what’s in front of you, but it should eventually lead to more freedom, more creativity.
MICHAEL: I still don't love the concept of plein air competitions or painting competitions in general. Doesn't the true purpose of art get lost somewhere in all of that?
ERIC: I think there might be a few healthy benefits from competitions – creating camaraderie amongst artists and presenting the art form to the public which often hasn’t actually seen artwork being created before. And like in workshops, you learn things from hanging out and talking with the other artists. But I agree that the art often seems to get lost in the competition and novelty of it all and the public becomes more interested in who won an award, as if painting were just like baseball or Nascar, than if anyone truly created something with depth or meaning. I recently saw the Stanley Kubrick exhibit over at LACMA and there was a quote that struck a chord with me – I’m paraphrasing, but he said something about our entertainment-oriented culture where movies are only intended to be watched once, which disappointed him. He hoped people would return to his movies over time and glean new experiences or insights each time. I believe parts of Europe still value art differently than the U.S., but here, painting, film and artwork in general are still considered to be fluff - entertainment and decoration.
MICHAEL: Yes, that’s very unfortunate.
ERIC: Lately, I’ve been pondering (I just returned from a week of painting in the Anza-Borrego desert – a great place for digging deeper into painting and thoughts): How do we get art back to its own place? Are there any other genuine ways for art to be appreciated without having won an award, carrying a huge price tag or that it “looks like a photo?” I think we can judge these criteria on an instinctual level, but I don’t know if it’s possible to put into words. Maybe we actually need painting competitions to bring public involvement into a process that, like voting, should be of interest to everyone? If more people got more involved in art and there are many ways they can even outside of being an artist, they could help in the process of creating in a way and raise the bar. This might go on to another tangent and step on some toes, but if people weren’t afraid to call out the emperor for not wearing any clothes, we might actually start once again to create work with meaning. A lot of stuff in galleries and museums hides behind impenetrable theory and text that not even other artists can parse, let alone the public, so if we can’t say why it’s bad we won’t say anything at all.
MICHAEL: Absolutely. Well said.
ERIC: Duchamp said he wanted to get rid of art, but I believe all he really succeeded in eliminating was creativity.
MICHAEL: Another artist recently told me that he felt today's art world places creativity over craftsmanship and that's partly why art is suffering. Thoughts?
ERIC: I think creativity in many ways has come to mean novelty and spectacle in the art world. We’ve been taught that technical skill is not important, that artworks executed with ability are passé and so, for an artist to stand out in the crowd their work not only has to reinvent the wheel, but they must constantly outdo themselves in the contest to make headlines. The concept reigns king, but when a concept is well designed and executed, that initial concept can be made stronger. Gustav Stickley’s furniture is solidly crafted, but that craftsmanship underlines the aesthetics of the work. It’s odd that craftsmanship is still highly valued in many other creative fields yet the fine art world has decided it isn’t necessary. However, I think this is changing. One has to learn how words and language work before they can manipulate it into poetry. There is quite a lot that can be said with even a simple still life - if you put 20 artists around a table, they will bring 20 different ideas and create 20 different paintings of the still life. Just because something has been done in the past, doesn’t mean that it’s been exhausted as an inspiration; rather, the truly creative artist is the one who is willing to endeavor a little more to find that new voice. Cezanne claimed a carrot, freshly seen and painted, would one day start a revolution. Craftsmanship also implies labor, and hard work is undervalued.
MICHAEL: Huh, You think?
ERIC: The approach to becoming an artist seems to have morphed into a strange phenomenon. You come up with an idea designed to garner lots of press, sell quickly and make a tidy profit and then you get out. I was always shown that art wasn’t an occupation or a get-rich-quick scheme, it’s a life-long pursuit. All of your decisions and the way you organize your life are designed to keep you creating and painting.
MICHAEL: What would you say you learned in art school that you wouldn't have gotten otherwise?
ERIC: The primary thing I learned in art school was discipline. We were given tons of homework – for one figure drawing class I did over 700 figure drawings during the semester outside of class - but you learned how to manage time and get it done.
MICHAEL: You grew up in Rochester, New York and now live in California? Different climates and terrain. Are certain landscapes more difficult for you than others? Is the desert easier or harder to capture than a lush forest?
ERIC: Well, lately I think I tend to make them harder for myself on purpose, whatever the terrain. Back when I was in school and also now in my workshops that I teach, I often hear the term “flat light” used to describe mid-day or even overcast conditions, situations that aren’t always the most attractive to paint at first glance. That term has always driven me slightly crazy, because it’s not as though the world changes from three-dimensional in the morning to two dimensional and then back to 3d in the afternoon. I also encountered this during a two-month residency in Joshua Tree, where I was faced with some six or so hours of daylight between morning and afternoon that provided no real shadow contrast to work with. So I set about figuring how to tackle this in painting and what I realized was that this can be done with color. Value is one of the first lessons for artists and understanding that is important, so we become naturally drawn to those things in the landscape that create a light/dark contrast. With a value-driven painting, if you’re off slightly with your color, the painting won’t fall apart. But value has limitations, a ceiling so to speak. If everything is in a very high key and you reach your value ceiling, you have nowhere to go. You’ll end up using white paint straight out of the tube to try to make things brighter. If you’re using color though, you can branch out sideways within that same value and actually create a better sense of light by playing with temperature shifts. With a color-based painting it’s a much more delicate balance. If your values or your colors are off, the painting will fall apart.
Different places have a different spirit, a certain quality of light to them, and it takes me a little time to figure that out. I’d like to spend more time on the east coast, places like Maine and Cape Cod that I’ve painted for short periods, but really invest some time there and get to know the light. Maine is a fascinating place. It’s like another planet compared to California.
MICHAEL: I spend so much time chatting with artists like you because it seems to me that living artists are the lifeblood of the art world today. Yet somehow they get the least amount of respect when it comes to the art world and art market. Your thoughts?
ERIC: I think this is a great thing you’re doing by putting together all of these interviews, and it’s helpful to me as an artist to write these ideas down and crystallize certain things. I’ve had to sit with this question for awhile.
In the past, being an artist was a respected profession because it was correctly seen as pursuing something worthwhile – there were ideas, lessons, things to be learned from a life of art. Then at some point there was a sea change in the art world and museums, galleries, and publications began celebrating record sales prices and vapidity over actual ideas and ended up creating their own vicious cycle. Since you could appropriate something and make half a million dollars in an afternoon, why would you spend a month on one painting that would sell for significantly less? The “art” seems secondary now, since it appears that you can be a respected artist just by the fact that you cash checks big enough to get Exxon Mobil’s attention. As artists, we’ll have to work to re-earn that respect.
Most art movements start out small, a reaction against the established popular style of the day. But they too gain in popularity over time and often become entrenched themselves. Nobody wants to give up that seat. You see it all the time in politics. So the conditions set by the art world are already out of whack. But on another level, artists, obviously an intrinsic part of the art world, can also be a huge pain to deal with. It’s a terrible cliché that artists should have messy studios, be emotionally unstable and be unable or uninterested in focusing on the business side of art. Most of the artists I know who are successful are as good on the business side of art as they are at making it or have a spouse that is. Many artists don’t treat their work professionally or don’t bother to present it well. They also don’t seem to understand the depth of a relationship with a gallery – it’s very much like a marriage, so an artist can’t just drop work off at a gallery and then wait around for a check. You have to be involved.
Another thing that is very surprising to me is that most artists do not create any sort of written contract or consignment form to accompany an artwork, and get them signed when they drop work off. They’re content to leave work with the gallery and walk away with a verbal agreement and I’ve heard some horror stories as a result of the obvious disagreements that follow. As an uncle of mine once said, a verbal agreement is as good as the paper it’s written on. Contracts often frighten galleries, but a good contract protects both parties. Artists need to up their game and get involved – work closely with your gallery, plan strategically and treat them well. Figure out at the very beginning who will be paying for what. Use consignment forms so that everything is spelled out and everyone is on the same page. I have a few things that I look for when I’m approaching a new gallery and so I’ll sort of interview them before agreeing to anything – if they can’t or won’t provide those things, I have to walk away. I also try to figure out what they need, and what I can do to make their life easier. If I’m going to commit to something, I want it to be for the long term. Don’t be so hungry to be represented by a gallery that you’ll take any deal they give you, because it’s not going to suddenly make your career.
Maybe partly due to the above, many galleries treat artists like cattle. I’d like to see galleries become more invested in their artists’ work and careers – they’re not just selling a commodity. Do they know what drives the artist? Why do they focus on certain subject matter? What are their strengths? If you look on gallery websites, many of them have 50+ artists on their roster. How can they possibly be involved in every artist’s career with that many artists? And the truth is - the majority of them aren’t. Most artwork in galleries is there on consignment, meaning there is no risk to the gallery if nothing sells. They probably haven’t had to pay out any money or invest anything (unless they’re putting out ads like the better galleries do), but the artist already has many hours invested in the work as well as other costs like frames. Yes, galleries have rent and bills to pay, but so do the artists. If a gallery represents a boatload of artists and some of them aren’t selling at that time, another one will be. So the gallery has many options to covers its bases, but each artist probably has only a handful of galleries that represent them, so they’re absorbing the bigger risk and cost up front. I wonder how many people consider that for an exhibition, it is usually the artist who is paying to frame all of their own work before the exhibition even opens, which can be anywhere from a few hundred to a few thousand dollars. It used to be that when a gallery held an exhibition for an artist, they would purchase maybe a third of the work up front. This way, the artist had some money to continue living and working, and the gallery was now invested in the work and probably more motivated to sell it.
MICHAEL: Eric, I'm totally enjoying this. So given what you've just said, it sounds to me like a new model could emerge from this artist/gallery paradigm. Not every artist can or will be represented by galleries and not all galleries can survive. Do you trust online galleries? Can artists completely go it alone? Do we need more art fairs? What do YOU need? Reaching the public is tough.
ERIC: Thanks, me too. And the more I sit with each question, the more absorbed I become. Speculation in the art market will probably cause the same things that happened in real estate. Those astronomical prices can’t stay around forever.
I think building an art career is a lot like creating a piece of art. It can take a long time. You have to be willing to wait awhile, usually in anonymity. You’re building a brand and everything you do reflects on the brand – your artwork of course, also your website design, fonts, color choices, promotional materials, etc. But almost nothing today rewards patience. Everyone is so keyed in to the idea that faster is better. I guess the thought being that you can get more done. Quantity has taken the driver’s seat, but there is no content and we lack focus. The internet is a vast source that we now have at our fingertips – but can anyone remember what their last ten searches were about? On the positive side, a website can get an artist’s work out to the public very easily and gives them more tools with which to show their work. There are numerous platforms where individual voices can be heard and don’t require vetting by a middleman or a gallery. I remember hearing a few years back that galleries were unsettled by the mere fact that artists were building their own websites. They thought they would be completely cut out of the process and the art-buying public would just buy directly from the artist. But that didn’t happen.
On a side note, the connectivity that the internet creates really has changed the way we see the world, but I’ve found that it has made the opposite – being alone – that much harder for people. I think that’s why I treasure the solitude of the desert so much, because it’s just you and your thoughts and the landscape. I don’t think most people have really had the experience of being alone and it seems terrifying.
It’s pretty much a standard nowadays that an artist should have an online presence, but I think representation by a good gallery can help out a lot. Artists don’t necessarily need to work with a gallery, but in those cases they’ll be doing a lot more of the legwork and heavy lifting associated with making sales. With platforms like Etsy though, this job is made much, much easier. There are no shortages of galleries, but the trick is finding one who believes in your work and brings that passion to their clients. If they want your artwork on their walls, that’s a positive sign that they will be a good ambassador for you. Even if they’re in love with your work, I would still go through that ‘interview’ process to make sure it was a good fit. Artist-Gallery relationships have honeymoon phases too. If an artist has two or three galleries that are working well for them, they probably don’t need more. There is an unspoken idea that being represented by a gallery lends credibility to your work although it doesn’t matter necessarily who that gallery is, and along with winning awards, this really isn’t a good gauge for what is and isn’t good work. A good gallery is paid their sales commissions because they do all the hard work of selling so that the artist doesn’t have to. And ideally, that’s the reason you want to be working with a gallery and why galleries weren’t cut out of the equation by technology – no artist really wants to spend their time selling, they want to be painting.
I think artists and galleries would both benefit if artists were spending more time developing their work before rushing to get representation and entering exhibitions.
You’re right that some galleries fail and earlier I mentioned that gaining representation by a this or that gallery won’t make your career. Galleries often seem official or knowledgeable just by existing, but you don’t need any sort of certification or training to open a gallery like you do if you work in real estate or as a CPA (at least not in California). I think to be prepared for some of these scenarios you have to approach it with the mindset that only you are going to care about making the work, only you will care how it is presented and only you will protect it. Be prepared to not sell anything for a year – how would you manage that? Because there is a good chance that will happen. If you persevere, I think you’ll find a gallery or rep that is willing to share the weight with you, if you want it. But you also don’t want to become dependent on a gallery. What happens if they suddenly close their doors? What if you were to part ways after a few years and they were your main source of income? Many galleries refuse to tell their artists who purchased their work because they think the artist will go behind their backs and sell directly to the collector, but this keeps the artist dependent on the gallery. In California, there is actually a law that says galleries are supposed to reveal this information, but artists don’t know about it and don’t ask for it. Galleries also often don’t want to represent younger artists because their work, their careers, and their lives are less defined, less certain – and it’s easier to represent an artist who has already spent 40 years building their brand. If that younger artist displayed promise though, it would seem to be a perfect scenario to build a relationship. Every artist wants their work to be seen, but a good gallery will help promote you smartly by getting the work in front of the right audience. If the gallery is a good fit for the artist, the clients should be as well – they know what they’re looking for and the gallery will be able to help them with those questions.
Galleries need to have a physical location, not just an online-only presence. Virtual galleries are red flags for me, mainly because I think artwork needs to be seen in person, but also because it creates the appearance that they’re not really serious. It can cost less than $50 to put up a website if you build it yourself. It’s fine to see work online, but it’s nothing like the actual experience of looking at something in person. I also don’t put much stock in these international art book/catalog/online exhibition “opportunities,” not only because they charge a fee to be included, but because they’ll accept anyone who does. That doesn’t display any sort of knowledge or judgment or quality control about the artwork; at worst they smack of scams, at best a bad place to show your artwork.
I’ll admit it. The business side of art (or of anything) is time consuming and can be highly annoying to those of us who’d rather be exercising our creativity. If you don’t at least think some of these things though, you’re setting yourself up for trouble. Once you develop habits for addressing them, it’s not that big of a deal. I recently answered some questions for a high school senior who has been accepted into a good art school and many of the questions revolved around ‘how do you make this art thing work?’ My answers were simply that there is no real step-by-step process for survival in the art world, but you have to be savvy and pay attention, and follow your instincts. One of my first art instructors gave me a way to judge the paint stroke you had just put on the canvas: either you’re certain you like it, you’re unsure, or you definitely don’t like it. Unless you could answer with certainty that your spot of color felt ‘right’, you fixed it or got rid of it. Trusting your gut is invaluable for creating art, but it’s also helped me with decisions about lots of other things – your instincts won’t fail you. And I would say this is true for collectors too – if you like something and you can afford it, buy it. Don’t second guess yourself, because you’ll probably lose your opportunity.
MICHAEL: How much of your time do you spend engaged with art - whether it's the creative or business side? Do you have interests and activities that have absolutely nothing to do with art?
ERIC: Most of my time is engaged with some aspect of it. If I’m not actually painting, I also make all of my own frames – carving and gilding – or there are workshops or exhibitions to be planning. I’m always brainstorming about ways to make painting on location easier: updating wet boxes to offer more options for carrying wet paintings, modifying LED or book lights for painting nocturnes, or my latest interest, finding a U.S.-based manufacturer that I can work with to create good quality, lightweight and long-lasting artist umbrellas. I’ve been using umbrellas to paint with on location for over a decade and know how they can be made to serve an artist’s needs. The translucent white ones in stores that attach like a sail to an easel are no good for anything other than an even sunburn.
MICHAEL: Haha. I’m sorry to hear that.
ERIC: Often I’m trying to brainstorm about why I’m actually painting and make challenges for myself out of that. I don’t want to paint the same painting over and over, so there needs to be some sort of mental engagement with it as well, some sort of search. For example, I’ve recently been working on a painting of deep purple irises that are blooming in our yard, but it turns out Van Gogh really has a monopoly on those flowers. Try to paint them and not think of his work. So I had to come up with a way to make them my own. I’ve also been working on a sunset for the past week, trying to develop the color more and more subtly. You only get about 15 minutes each evening, so there’s barely time to think.
I enjoy gardening and yard work because it gives me a break from painting, but I can still mull over painting’s questions or consider something I’m working on. That also ties back into my painting in the form of still life which I love to do, and our yard is full of fruit trees and cacti so I have lots of material to work from. I’ll sometimes watch a basketball game to mentally unwind. I also enjoy reading and writing about California art history. I’ve been uncovering the history of the California Art Club for about a decade now too – the CAC was founded in 1909, but over the years a lot of their history was lost. It’s been fun to rediscover details about members, exhibitions, and how involved the Club was in Los Angeles.
MICHAEL: Art clubs really need to make a return. The only other serious one that I know of is the Cincinnati Art Club. We could go on and on, but we should probably wind down here. Finally Eric, what role do you think art plays in our society which is so crammed with other things that capture people's attention?
ERIC: Thanks Michael, I’ve really enjoyed this. I think the arts need to be upgraded from a minor supporting role to something more crucial to everyday life, but it’s going to take a lot of convincing to return to that point. We need influential people like city leaders and educators to promote the arts in schools and show kids that art is just as viable a career choice as math or science. Public buildings used to be beautiful and inspiring, but are now unadorned boxes of listlessness; public art used to show the character or people of a place or tell a story, and now, just like the architecture, are generic replicas that you see all across the country. I think this gets at the heart of what both you and I are trying to achieve, and that is helping to show people how art can be an uplifting influence. Art at its best benefits everyone and I like what you say on your site about how “...people, much to their surprise, can often afford to buy the work of living artists … and it shows that if we invite art into our lives, it’ll feed our own creativity and enrich our lives beyond measure.” Television programs like Antiques Road Show have shown people that collecting and passing artwork on in your family can be more beneficial than purchasing an ‘art print’ from Target, but the show ultimately falls short because it only focuses on the artwork’s monetary value. Art teaches perseverance and problem-solving. It would be fascinating to see how an artwork can change the mood of a family and inspire them in their own creative endeavors.
I’ll end with a quote by the actor Brandon Lee about creativity and challenge: “We reduce ourselves at a certain point in our lives to kind of solely pursuing things that we already know how to do. You know, because you don't want to have that experience of not knowing what you're doing and being an amateur again. And I think that's rather unfortunate. It's so much more interesting and usually illuminating to put yourself in a situation where you don't know what's going to happen, than to do something again that you already know essentially what the outcome will be within three or four points either way.”
MICHAEL: Eric, to put it simply, you are brilliant. Thanks.
Check out Eric Merrell’s work at www.ericmerrell.com.