Interview with artist Richard Christian Nelson

Posted November 27 2012
Posted on: Sep. 30, 2011 by Kelly Powers

Steven, Oil by Richard Christian NelsonFor an artist, the issue isn't always how to paint, it's how to survive in the marketplace as a painter. And we've hit on this a bit with Aletta de Wal's series, "Busting that Starving Artist Myth," and we try to address it in these interviews. Richard Christian Nelson is a great example of where art meets business. Enjoy.

You didn't get started painting until 25. How did you come to find art and how did you approach it once you realized that's what you wanted to do?

I was playing in rock bands in Michigan and New Jersey, which was actually going pretty well. But I began to think of careers that might have more stability,and realized that I had always drawn. So I tried art school, and was hooked.


What is the importance for you of painting from life? From having a model sitting for you?

You can get some accuracy from photos, but 'life' from life. I'm glad my training was done from the live model, and I continue to do a good bit of portraiture from life. All of my landscape, still life, and figurative work is done from life. I say cameras are 'liars'; our eyes are so much more sophisticated than the best camera. The obvious proof that cameras and projectors often don't make us better artists is that the great work that was done before they existed.

Catawba-Jug-AND-Lily-Pond by Richard Christian Nelson
What advice would you give for someone who wants to work with a model but is nervous about it? What should they know before they approach a model?

Just use common sense and treat them as you would like to be treated. It's good for artists to sit for other artists so they get a sense of what models give us.

After-Lady-Agnew by Richard Christian Nelson
You opened Skyuka Fine Art back in 2010. What made you want to take on such an endeavor? Has owning a gallery changed how you approach your art or your marketing?

My wife Kim and I always wanted to open our own gallery. It's been a lot of work, but it's great to have a platform to show my work, and old and new friend's work, as well as historic work of local art dealers like my friend Nowell Guffey/ Foothills Fine Art. We've had openings, concerts, lectures by local art historian Michael McCue, and we're open to lots of ideas like that. Luckily it has held its own in spite of the present economy. The secret is that if we can establish a stronger collector base, I would feel comfortable inviting friends that I've gotten to know nationally to show, lecture, and teach here.

You have a newsletter, a website and a fantastic blog. How much time do you spend on your marketing?

Thanks for the compliment! It's hard to say. Kim does all the gallery's publicity and marketing, and I just try to get out info on what I'm up to. Once the platform exists it doesn't take all that much time. There are so many things though; communicating with clients and portrait reps, shipping, ordering supplies, planning workshops, scheduling and taking trips to paint or deliver work... and actually getting into the studio once in a while!

Group-of-Four by Richard Christian Nelson
You work across subject matter. Why do you think it's important for a portrait painter to paint still life and landscape?

I was very resistant- for me it was the figure only, but a student/friend Richard Seaman got me to paint landscape or still life one day a week in 2003. It's been a real blessing. I've learned a lot about painting, and it's opened up a lot of roads in terms of new friends, gallery sales, teaching... mostly learning. There's an article on my site about this question: http://bit.ly/RichardCN

Howard-Gap-Rd-5_11 by Richard Christian NelsonWhat is your goal when setting up a still life to paint?

I like to be excited about whatever I'm working on, so I'm looking for shapes, colors, values, textures, things I've not painted before, a bit of history perhaps, such as early 20th Century Carolina Pottery from my friend Nowell's collection. If there is a narrative or theme that can help a lot. But just digging in and trying to capture something that seems as simple as a peach or whatever can turn out to be very interesting. The subjects reveal themselves to you as you paint them. A lot of times I don't see reflections or details or interesting aspects of the light until I'm well into the painting.

You do commissioned portraits for both families and institutions. Do you approach a commissioned portrait differently than you would a portrait that isn't for a client? How much time do you generally spend on a commissioned piece? What strategies do you have for staying fresh under the stress of working for a client and under a deadline?

Often studies from figure sessions or classes are done in much less time, especially if I'm teaching. The commissions are very clear in their mission; capture some essence of the subject. Usually that means a pretty specific likeness. These can take from a few days to a few weeks depending on their size and complexity. The process involves a number of steps; sittings or photos, selecting a direction, a drawing or oil study, and finally the portrait and the delivery. I like to involve the clients in these steps so we know we're moving in the right direction. My contract for oil portraits says a year from the first sitting so it's rare to feel pressured as long as things are progressing. As far as staying 'fresh,' that is not a problem really. It's good to work in the early stages to make each portrait interesting, but in truth God has done all the work! People are so amazing!

   Elizabeth-AND-Carly by Richard Christian NelsonTo learn more about Richard and his work, visit his website , his blog and his gallery