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February 25, 2018

ralph-painting sepia cropped


I’ve written before about my tendency to move often from one art discipline to another, and even between genres within those disciplines. I love to draw and sketch and I love to paint. I love landscapes and portraits and old barns and storybook art.  It is, in some ways, a curse. I suspect this shifting focus has cost me over the years. It’s hard to build a reputation as a painter if you don’t always paint. And it’s hard to build a reputation as a pencil or pen & ink artist if you don’t pursue that work consistently. The admonition “Find what you’re best at and focus on that” certainly comes to mind. The other version of that is “Find what you love to do and focus on that.” It sounds so simple.

Several years ago, my dear wife bought me an electronic keyboard, the musical kind. She rationalized the purchase in her mind by saying “You don’t have many toys.” So I began to play, learning not only the melody lines for songs, but also the chords. Eventually I made a CD of several original improvisational pieces of music. It really wasn’t very good, but when one of Nell’s sisters heard it, she commented “If Ralph would just focus on one thing, he could become pretty good at it.” And therein lies the problem.  I have too many things to focus on and I love every one of them.

The music fell by the wayside as I put more emphasis on painting. The keyboard sat in a corner of the studio and, while I plinked around on it occasionally, I spent most of my time trying to learn to paint. When we became fulltime RVers, the keyboard went to a grandson.

When Nell and I got married, I was drawing, primarily in graphite pencil and occasionally in Prismacolor colored pencil. Our first forays into the world of art shows/markets came with acceptance into the Huffhines and Cottonwood shows in Richardson, Texas. About that time, three of my pencil drawings pulled a blue ribbon and two honorable mentions at the Texas State Fair.  I ultimately did Texas Indian Markets in two cities and a large market in Houston. While there were a few early acrylic paintings in the mix, the bulk of my work was pencil and a bit of pen & ink and it would stay that way for several years.

My sister-in-law’s observation came around the same time I started learning to paint. I don’t know if I took her thoughts to heart or if it was just some sort of raw dedication on my part, but for the next couple of years, I worked 40 to 50 hours on my day job and painted into the wee hours of the night. I chose gouache as my medium and painted religiously. When I finally retired from the day job, the painting hours extended into the daytime. We took my work to the First Saturday Arts Market in Houston.  My traditional, representational paintings were in the minority at the time, surrounded by abstract and decorative art.  We did reasonably well for someone with relatively low prices and art that didn’t exactly fit the average Millennial and Gen-Xers decor.

When sales began to slow down at the Market, we developed Whimsitecture, a collection of miniature artworks that were a collaboration of whimsical drawings by me with bold quirky color added by Nell. Thus, drawing came back into my routine.  The whimsical art had a good run, but the crazy low prices for these tiny pieces of art don’t generate huge revenues. I’m convinced that people who were used to my traditional paintings were confused by this new work, but it’s still a lot of fun when someone buys one of them.

After my heart surgery we took a few 11×14 paintings, a mix of gouache and acrylics, to The Mason Gallery in Mason, Texas. They kept several of them and told me to paint bigger, with an emphasis on the Texas landscape. Experience had taught me that gouache paintings at 16×20 are a bit complicated, so I spent the next roughly three months producing a number of paintings using acrylics, something I had done only briefly some twenty-five years ago. When we carried seven paintings to the gallery, they kept all of them. At their request, I have completed a larger piece at 24×30 and will deliver it in the next few days. Meanwhile, while we wait to see how those paintings are received, I’ve started doing some smaller 5×7 very loose landscape paintings in acrylics, again trying something different.

After twenty-eight years of being married to me, Nell has come to accept that it’s impossible to predict what I’ll be working on tomorrow. She just knows that it is rare for more than two days to go by that I haven’t drawn, sketched, painted or studied art of some kind.

Somewhere along this meandering road I’ve lost the “focus on one thing” idea. From where I sit while writing this, I can see several pieces of art, all mine, done in gouache, acrylics, and pen & ink. There is “serious” work and there is whimsical work. They range in size from 24”x30” to 2.5” x 3”. There is an unfinished book, and there is a note with a dozen ideas scrawled on it. At this point in my life, I’m finding it hard to feel guilty about losing that laser-like focus. Instead, I feel guilty about all those unfinished or yet-to-be-started projects.

Through this blog and Facebook, I’ve had a lot of people around the world say they have gained from watching what I do. Total strangers and friends have paid money for things I have created. At 74, I am still able to do what I love, and continue to be encouraged by someone I love.  When I stop and think about it, isn’t this what an artist’s life is supposed to be about?

It certainly works for me.

12 Comments leave one →
  1. February 25, 2018 6:21 pm

    I am with you, Ralph! I have ranged from painting in many mediums to writing non fiction and fiction to working in clay and polymer clay, with even a little time in blacksmithing. The creative process informs and enriches my life. Such diversity may not work as well in terms of building a dedicated following or making the most money. It works in terms of keeping my interest and imagination. Thank you for continuing to share!

  2. February 25, 2018 10:12 pm

    I also am affected by creative ADD. There are so many wonderful things to learn. Doing only one creative thing over and over would cease to be creative at some point and become merely repetative- in my opinion. I’m currently playing with pigmented ink and watercolor. Who knows where I’ll head next!

    Glad to know I’m not the only one!

  3. February 26, 2018 8:38 am

    Thanks for sharing those thoughts, Ralph. They bring comfort as you’ve described my art life as well. Love your work, particularly the old barn paintings!

  4. February 26, 2018 10:11 am

    Like you, I sometimes move on to other types of art but eventually come back to gouache. Thank you for sharing. You are an inspiration to many of us.

  5. February 26, 2018 11:50 am

    Why limit yourself. It would cut off the creativeness. More fun to try different things.

  6. wejay01 permalink
    March 1, 2018 10:17 pm

    Hi Ralph. I’ve just found your blog while searching for gouache artists and am so pleased you’re still writing. Can’t wait to read all your stories. I discovered gouache about 6 months ago and haven’t looked back… but I still love oils… and ink sketches… and pastels… looking at art… reading art books… I want to do it all! 😊

    • March 6, 2018 7:58 pm

      Hi wejay. Nice to hear from you. Even though I’m branching out to acrylics for a while, I sttll enjoy spending time with gouache and pen & ink.

  7. Jim Cordle permalink
    March 18, 2018 10:45 am

    Glad to see your article Ralph. I think your thoughts mimic those of many others. My perspective is, follow your passions, passions change so we get to move on to other things which bring joy and meaning to our lives. Based on what you have shared with us, I think you are right on target. Glad your well. Looking forward to sharing your next passion!

    • March 18, 2018 12:21 pm

      Hi Jim! I am doing well, thanks. I never know what will tweak my interest next. At the moment, I’m working on some small (5×7, 4×6) mostly acrylic pieces in preparation for a sidewalk thing in a couple of weeks. Thanks!

      • Jim Cordle permalink
        March 18, 2018 1:57 pm

        I am going to try pen and watercolor wash in the same size range. I like the spontaneity it provides. No pressure!

  8. Chris C permalink
    May 12, 2018 10:42 pm

    I am very much like you, it seems. I paint, I draw, I write, I play bass and guitar (and perform), and do several other things. I find that it is nearly impossible to stay focused on any one activity in the long run. Unfortunately, although I’m quite good at all those things, I fear I’ll never be exceptional at any of them because they are always competing for time and attention in my head. But… what can one do? It is what it is and being all too familiar with this particular condition, I’ve learned over the years that it is impossible to fight it. You just have to go with it and see where it leads…

    Your paintings have been an inspiration to me for years. Keep up the good work!

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