Friday, April 5, 2013

Ten Questions for Eric Rhoads

This is first in an occasional series called "Influentials in the Arts." As we witness the resurgence of realism, plein-air painting, fantasy art, and illustration, most of the attention usually goes to the artists. But these fields wouldn't be where they are without key individuals in publishing, business, academia, teaching, collecting, and the museum world who are working hard behind the scenes to support what we do. 

Eric Rhoads started out in the radio field and now serves as chairman of the board of Streamline Publishing, which produces Fine Art Connoisseur and PleinAir magazines along with multiple websites and e-newsletters. Streamline also organizes the annual Plein Air Convention and Expo, a gathering of outdoor artists, which will take place in Monterey, California next week, where I'll be speaking. Mr. Rhoads resides in Austin, Texas with his wife and triplet children.

James: You mentioned that when you became interested in plein air painting 10 years ago, there was "no sense of community, no focal point. My vision was to create such a focal point, one that could capture, reflect, and encourage the movement." You have certainly done that by creating Plein Air magazine, the Salon competitions, the Plein Air convention and Expo, and various art cruises. Are there additional development areas right now that you see as crucial to giving plein air painting momentum and focus?
Eric: I'm working on exploring the best practices for shows, events, and for groups. The goal is to share these best practices and help them all better one another. I think some collectors think plein air is fast so it can't be good, but of course it's really "this took me 2 hours and 30 years experience." We need to work on our value, our image and reputation, and more importantly we need to put plein air on the radar of collectors who don't know it exists. We are all so close to it that we don't see what they are missing. I also want to develop a program that local painters can use to bring new painters into the fold. I think plein air provides a world of social connections, challenges, the joy of painting, travel, outdoors. Who needs golf! We can bring more people into this family and give them great satisfaction. My goal is to find a way to bring more people in. Not necessarily professionals who sell work, though that's OK too, but people who paint for joy. I don't look at plein air as a hobby, it's a lifestyle. I also am working on more events, more gatherings of our tribe in different ways. My goals are to educate, inspire, elevate quality, help all painters grow as painters and marketers.

 Eric Rhoads & Scott Christensen in Russia

James: What are the top three things that every professional artist can do to improve their approach to the business of art?
Eric: Oh I'm not too big on lists. Probably the most important is to actually just spend time on it. Most artists, being artists, don't want to deal with the business side. Yet if they devote 20% of their time to marketing efforts they will reap huge increases in sales. I teach a system in my marketing boot camp video and at the convention, and there are lots of steps, goal setting, etc. I start by helping them design their life. Most people just get through life without having a design, yet I find that a design gives you the experiences and joy you look for. Its a lot different than goal setting, which also helps. I think its important to change your perspective about the business aspects. Many artists look at business as "selling out" when it's not that at all, it's helping people discover you and when they do, you bring joy to their lives. I teach them how to do that without feeling like they are selling out to "the man."

James: What psychological changes need to happen when a person goes from being an avocational painter to a professional?
Eric: It's a tender area because painting gives us joy and we don't want to lose the joy or the sense that we're painting what we love to paint. I tend to turn my interests into my work, and sometimes that backfires. For instance I love art magazines and used to read them all. Now that I make them I cannot relax when I read them because I'm thinking about business so I don't read them anymore (other than my own of course).

The same can be true of an artist. You have to start by asking yourself why you want to make it a profession. Sometimes we do things because we think we should, because they are the next steps, but when we get into them they are not always as satisfying as we hope. Michael Gerber wrote a book called The E-Myth, which is about craftspeople who love it so much they start a business and find themselves being managers or salespeople and no longer doing woodworking or working on cars, which is what they loved doing. Being a professional artist sounds like a great life (and is for many) but when every bit of food on the table has to come from a brushstroke sold, you have a whole different set of pressures. It can rob you of that joy of painting unless you understand what you're getting into first. Of course most painters I know wanted to get away from a career they no longer love, want to paint, travel and go to openings. Yet every time I've had to paint 20+ pieces for a show and had a deadline, I ask myself why I agreed to do it. I paint to escape pressure, not create it. So, it all depends on being mentally prepared. It's not all romance. It becomes a job and you have to know what to expect and be ready for it. You also can't just paint unless you're lucky to have an agent or a couple galleries who love and sell your work. Otherwise you have to learn to be a marketer.

James: Beyond its commercial and professional dimensions, what are the intangible personal benefits that come from plein air painting? 
Eric: I cannot speak for others, only for myself. I love to paint but once I went outdoors to paint I could see light, shape, color differently and the scene was alive. Photos did not give me that. I was outdoors, had animals and birds around me, the sounds of nature (or the city), was on public display and dealing with people who wandered up curiously, which I like, and I was under pressure in a good way. Usually when painting with others I want to do my best. There is a little friendly competition and that challenges me to be better and more thoughtful. I think we all strive to get a compliment from another painter. For me, its about painting with friends, the social aspect, traveling to pretty places, opening my eyes to light and color I never saw before I started painting outdoors, taking time to study objects I would otherwise not look at. I can take my paints anywhere in the world (and always have them when I travel on business) and rather than sitting in a hotel after a meeting, I'm painting. Plus I have something to show for it. Though I sell my work, I rarely sell my plein air studies because they are memories of my life experiences. 

James: How is the Plein Air movement different from the Urban Sketching movement? Can we learn from their more decentralized, organic form of activity?
Eric: There is no "right" or "wrong" way to do plein air. Urban sketching seems to be more young people and plein air seems to be more baby boomers though there are exceptions to both. Both serve the same purpose though. We're using life and reality as our model. Plein air is not all about pretty mountains and lakes. There is significant beauty in old bricks, rusty industrial plants, and the people in the neighborhoods across America. I personally get as much joy painting a power plant as I do a pastoral mountain scene. Depends a lot on my mood. I do think we have a lot to learn from the urban sketching movement and hope you'll blog about that one day.

James: With the proliferation of plein-air paint-outs, is there a danger of the market bottoming out from too many low-priced paintings of relatively low standards? What can be done about this? 
Eric: Sigh. There is good and bad news in this. I want more people to paint, I want more people to have the experience of shows, I want more events to have success. I'm not sure if there is a danger or not, but I do know quality always rises to the top... top of awards, top of events, top of prices. Some people cannot recognize quality. It takes time to develop taste. I am always growing and what I loved and bought years ago is rarely what I would love and buy today. Though there are exceptions. We are holding the umbrella group meeting at our plein air convention to address this issue. We want to identify and communicate best practices and let people decide if they want to use them. Some will, others won't. 

At the end of the day I think there are always going to be quality paintings and lesser quality paintings. Some are expensive, others not. But I'd rather someone gets a real painting in their house for some amount of money, good or not, than a print. It's an entry point and once you surround yourself with original art you want more and more and you start growing and evolving in your taste. So even the lower priced less refined work plays an important role. Frankly there are not enough expensive paintings out there. Plein air [paintings] tend to be small and therefore prices are lower than they should be. Just painting bigger plein air pieces will get the price up. There is a lot of market out there and lots of people who will buy paintings if they have the money. One thing I teach is that artists tend to have no money and therefore cannot relate to people who have it. The result is insecurity and under priced paintings. I tell a story in my workshop about a guy who had a lady walk away from a painting when she learned it was $4,000 not $40,000 because she did not think it could be good at $4,000. I know people who would not hang a painting in their home that was under $50,000 yet I know painters who could be getting that kind of money for their work if they had the guts to ask.

James: How would you compare the plein air traditions on the east and west coasts, and how do you balance their competing demands?
Eric: They all share a common love for great paintings and the painting experience. Subjects differ, weather may differ, attitude and influences differ but at the end of the day they share the same passion. I guess its why I live in the center of America. Trying to be Switzerland...neutral.

James: In your early editorials for Plein Air and Fine Art Connoisseur magazines, you challenged modernism and contemporary art head on. Why did you later stop doing that?
Eric: Thanks for noticing. There are a lot of answers. I started out being very anti-modern and I have become less firm about those feelings. At the center of it all I realized that being an art bigot accomplishes nothing. As I started thinking about history I realized it was that attitude of "me good, you bad" is what caused so many problems. Though new forms of art were born, which is good, they were born from those who rebelled against dogmatic rules. [William-Adolphe] Bouguereau (one of my favorites) was at Ecole des Beaux Arts setting firm rules about good and bad and breaking those rules was not acceptable. He was a brilliant painter but he failed to recognize that youth always brings their own change, their own style. There were bigots against impressionism, and when modernism hit here 100 years ago this year in NY at the Armory show it was hated with passion by many. 

Today we're seeing the reverse happen. I came out of the box firing shells at modernism and as I've matured I realized I should not be playing the same game and polarizing things. Many modernists tend to be bigoted about what I call the new "high realism" movement because they think it's been done before and it's old school. They fail to see that this is what young people are embracing and they are doing it with modern sensibilities. The modern movement is now 100 years old and considered old school by the new generation. They were the avant-guarde and now the modernists are so repulsed by the realist movement, the realists have become the avant-garde. The pendulum swings the opposite direction every 100 years. I recognize that everyone has a right to exist, that some love modern some don't, and nothing I can do can change their minds. Some may discover high realism and join our movement, others may not. But I've decided not to slam anyone and play the game they are playing. I love realism, I promote it, and I think there is a very strong place for it, but saying one is bad and another is good probably just irritates others and accomplishes nothing. We're being marginalized but marginalizing them in return serves no purpose. I have also realized that the ways of the world and how value is created in that world is not necessarily what we want to have happen in the realism world. I just wrote about that in "Connoisseur" and I suppose that's a long discussion for another time. 

Eric Rhoads by Richard Schmid
James: You have given many great portrait artists the opportunity to paint your portrait. Have those portraits changed the way you see yourself or the way you see portrait painting?
Eric: I'm not sure I've given them the opportunity. I think they have gifted me with the honor of being painted. Big difference. When I started painting I was doing portraits (I still do) and I love portraiture. In fact I have a local portrait group in Austin called the Bee Cave painters and we hire a model and paint every Wednesday night. We have some brilliant painters in our group.

I love portraiture. I have a portrait my mother did of me at 13, which is probably why I love it. When I was a kid I used to doodle and I was always doing faces. When I started the magazine I wanted to have a portrait instead of a photo and so I mentioned it to Kristen Thies one day and she suggested that her husband Tim should be the first. She said Tim insisted on painting me from life so I flew to their home in Idaho and Tim painted me. I loved the experience and loved Tim. Sadly he passed away a couple years ago. I had never been painted live before. I just thought I'd use that portrait as my photo for a few years but I started hearing from other top painters who wanted to be next in line. I realized it was a great way to highlight and promote portraiture to collectors who I encourage to commission portraits. Many of the people who painted me have received commissions just from appearing on my page in Fine Art Connoisseur.

Have they changed the way I see myself? It's not a Dorian Gray experience if that's what you mean. I see myself aging and of course everyone has a different approach and style and seeing them side by side is fun. The best part is spending time getting to know these great artists. How else could I ever get three or four days with someone like Nelson Shanks, or a day with Richard Schmid or Daniel Greene? I've blogged about the experiences and put photos up of the process. I usually ask them to set up a mirror so I can watch the progress as I sit. 

The problem I have now is that I can't find time to sit anymore. The last sitting was with Alexey Steele two years ago, which was a large portrait which took 5 days. It was worth it but even a day or half day is hard to find anymore and therefore I've not been painted in a couple of years. There are lots of brilliant painters who have offered and who I intend to take up if and when I can get to them and find time. I'm not sure if I see myself differently but I am so honored to be able to be in a position to highlight portraiture. I think people who have been blessed with platforms like mine have a responsibility to help those who support them. This is one little way to do it.

My wife thinks it's a little weird and kind of an ego fest and it's funny to see the reactions of people when they visit and see all the portraits. I look at it as a documentation of how the great painters of our time approach the same subject. I've had discussions with some museums who think it might be an interesting show though I think the subject matter will certainly scare them away. There are already 10 years worth so that's a lot of portraits. 

James: How can plein air painting become better accepted and studied in museums, academia, and book publishing?
Eric: Education. I suppose we have to start by helping them accept and recognize representational painting first. One of my goals is to create a plein air museum. I don't know if I'll ever get it done but I've thought about doing a Kickstarter campaign. There are some great museums with lots of plein air work, like the Irvine Museum. I'd like to see something in New York or in a high visibility tourism area so we can draw people in. I'm also working on idea on how we can all work together in concert with a unified message and mission so we can grow it together. Awareness is the biggest issue.

The other thing I want to do is to document this important time in art history. I am just starting the planning stages for my version of Vasari's "Lives of the Artists." I want to document the artists of our time, starting with those considered elderly so that I capture their information so it will live on for generations. I then plan to document the great living painters of our time, including the young realists, some of who are every bit as good as some of the painters 400 years ago. Its a massive undertaking and I'm trying to find the time to make this important project happen. My plan is to make it a book of text and images and have a video companion. Part of my video strategy with Streamline Art Video is to conduct in-depth interviews with these artists so I've got that documentation. In some cases I go deeper. For instance I not only had Peter Trippi interview Max Ginsburg, we followed him around NY with a camera and made a documentary, went to the Butler show with him and had him walk through the show and tell the story of each painting in his body of work. Plus of course we did the demo. I'm trying to do this with more of the top artists.

Interestingly we sell out almost every issue [of the magazines] in every Barnes and Noble store nationwide. They keep increasing their orders monthly. So we're getting to people who discover us on newsstands and they are buying art out of the magazine. We hear great stories all the time. A man called last week, had picked it up on the newsstand, did not know what plein air was but he saw a story we did, called the gallery and bought four paintings. So it may be baby steps but we're working on it. We're also getting a lot of people who are finding our videos by accident in a google search and are buying DVDs on how to paint plein air. And of course the convention is a great way to get the community together. I think we have people from Australia, New Zealand, Europe, Zimbabwe, Saudi Arabia, South America and pretty much every state. A movement like this can spread the word fast.

James: Thank you, Eric, for taking the time to answer these questions.


Christian Schlierkamp said...

A most helpful and inspiring interview.
Thanks for doing and posting it, James!

Cameron said...

This is in my top 5 favorite JG posts.

Scott Ruthven said...

Thank you James and Eric, that was a good read.

Eric, you have a unique mix of Artist and Business man and I appreciate your work to bring Plein Air painting to more people. Your comments on the intangible benefits of Plein Air painting resonate with me, and probably most others. Some of my best memories are from paintouts with friends. When painting alone though it is pure meditation for me as I connect with the rhythms in nature. I honestly believe that the birds chirping and the smell of the air show up in my work.
One last note: thanks for the comment about having the guts to ask for the higher price. It's scary to do when you worry about gasps from those who don't recognize quality or not selling works in a show but I will keep you quote in the back of my mind! I guess the trick is also getting my work in front of the right eyes.

Best regards,
Scott Ruthven

Diana Moses Botkin said...

What an inspiring and informative post! Thank you, James and Eric, for the good food for thought here.

Eric, you mentioned that "some collectors think plein air is fast so it can't be good". After doing studio painting for years I tried outdoor plein air work. It was the most difficult thing I'd ever tried doing, with the exception of trying and trying to do a half gainer off the diving board in high school (which I never did get!). Does anyone think it's easy to do world class diving performances because they're fast?

Perhaps there is a way to give the buying public a taste of what it actually means to produce a good plein air painting. Show the various wipe-offs. Give some idea of how many practice pieces it takes to just learn how to paint a tree or an interesting composition.

Take them out for a day, after they've driven 12 hours to the location and have them carry a bunch of paint, panels, water and food for miles. And then let them see how long they last out there in the cold, heat, and wind especially when there are no toilets nearby.

Just the challenge of trying to capture a scene on a small panel before the light changes drastically might be enough to convince them that it takes more than time to make a beautiful plein air painting.

bzyglowi said...

Well, I was interested up until I got to the part where art should always be more expensive and prints are a terrible idea.

I'm a digital artist as well as a traditional artist. Some of my pieces can only ever be prints because they were created entirely in Photoshop. Assuming that you do high-quality prints, there's no reason the piece can't look good. But more importantly-- the lower prices of prints make art more accessible to a wider group of people.

Spending thousands of dollars on a painting... it strikes me as terribly elitist and bluntly, kind of stupid. There are so many better things you could spend that money on. I would rather that a thousand people buy one of my prints rather than one person buy a $15,000 original, because the former means that there are more people enjoying my art and maybe being spurred by that to enjoy other people's art too.

This isn't to say that artists shouldn't be paid well for what they do, because they should. Obviously. I'm an artist, I would like to be able to eat. But... I guess to me the high prices of art in the 'art world' seem to me more about bragging rights for rich people than actually appreciating art, and I can't get behind that.

Robert J. Simone said...

Diana makes a very valid point in her comment. The road to quality and facility in ones work is long and arduous. Even once that ground has been traversed for years putting it all together into a harmonious whole is an enormous challenge. Most of the uninitiated assume good painting just flows out of us. Further more their perceptions are subject driven so they are not always able to tell the more accomplished work from the less accomplished work. On a recent trip wit my wife I wanted to paint along a rocky river lined with fall colors. So we stopped. She expressed a desire to try it so I set her up with supplies on a spot she liked. After two hours she said she had a new found respect for what it is I do. Of course I encouraged her. But she decided that it would take too much time and effort to get decent at it so she decided not to pursue it. Good post, James.

Tom Hart said...

What a great and informative post. I'll be re-reading it more closely soon.

I may have missed mention of this (sorry, if so): is there a site where we can see some of Eric's plein air work?

Anonymous said...

This was a very interesting interview.

I don't know where the art market is going, nor am I an expert. But I'm glad for the increase in exposure to art once again through the Plein Air movement.

Nothing is more fun than being outdoors painting from RL and having people notice you and see for a moment when art is being created. Something many have not experienced.

I remember these two young teens (15-16) rode their bikes by while seeing my easel in front of a lake scene. They shouted, "how cool is that!" and were genuinely so excited as if they saw a mythical unicorn.

While I would say that Plein Air is a critical component of development as a painter, so too is studio painting. They go hand in hand, IMHO.

Plein Air is trending very high. But let's not forget the magnitude higher of painters out there working from their studios doing great works as well.

Anything that gets people and society excited once again about the importance and value of art is a good thing.

So I say let the Plein Air movement continue to educate and excite our culture, creating some great art and some great art appreciation!