Interview with Watercolorist Sterling EdwardsPosted May 06 2016
At 12 years old, Sterling Edwards teachers told his parents to get him some art lessons. And lucky for us, they did. Edwards has been painting ever since although he wasn’t always a professional artist. He spent 20 years in law enforcement but painted consistently and had work in galleries. In 1985 Edwards got serious about art. He moved from tight realistic oils to loose watercolors, and he transitioned from a profitable hobby to a full time professional artist. Edwards now teaches workshops across the world, has his own line of brushes and palettes and has produced half dozen art instructional workshops including three in his Luminous Watercolor Series: The Wooded Landscape, Forest Waterfall, and Evening Landscape and two in his watercolor technique series, Brushwork Techniques for Expressive Watercolor and Color Techniques for Expressive Watercolor.
Many hobby artists want to make the transition into full time professional artist. How did you know you were ready to make that move and what advice would you give to artists thinking about making the transition? Was there anything surprising about that transition for you?
Making the transition from painting as a hobby to painting as a profession is something that deserves careful consideration. We’ve all heard the saying, “Don’t quit your day job.” Making a full time living as an artist can be a challenge as well as an adventure. Nobody knows your income requirements more than you. It’s important that you be totally honest with yourself and make sure that this is right for you. I can assure you that there will be very good months and very bad months. Depending on where you live, there are laws pertaining to owning a business and tax liabilities that can weigh you down if you are not prepared. I always recommend that you do some research before you dive head first into something.
Another thing that you need to consider is marketing. I have never had someone come to my door asking if I was an artist because they wanted to buy a painting. You need to have a plan as to how you will market your work and how you will advertise yourself. This often requires an artist website, getting into galleries, doing art shows and demonstrations, etc. You need a business card with all of your contact information, a letterhead, a biography, a chronological resume of your accomplishments and background, and some pretty thick skin. It may sound scary, but it can also be very rewarding if you have done your research and have a realistic and workable plan.
Like most artists, I would occasionally sell a painting to a friend or family member when I was learning how to paint. This gave me some extra spending money which I quickly deposited at my local art supply store when I purchased more paint and paper. Before long my hobby was actually supporting itself. As my work improved, I went up on the price of my paintings and began doing some outdoor art shows on weekends. Now I was actually making some income. This eventually led to my getting into a few small galleries which also added to my income. It was at that point that I decided to quit my “day job” and make a living as a full time professional artist.
In 1993 I opened my own art gallery in Winston-Salem, NC. I did not do my research first and soon found that I had bitten off more than I could chew. I had to get a business license, collect and report sales tax, pay rent and utilities, find affordable ways to advertise, purchase expensive light and furnishings, and I had to purchase liability insurance in case someone was injured in my gallery. To help offset my ever growing list of expenses, I began teaching an eight week watercolor class that met every Thursday evening at my gallery. This eventually led to a few weekend watercolor workshops in the area and from there it just grew into neighboring towns and states. Today it’s an international business that is multi-faceted. It took time and dedication to get to this point. Do your research, decide who your customer will be, have a realistic and workable plan to reach that customer, and last and maybe most important, don’t let ego influence your decisions.
You studied with a mentor, Zoltan Szabo. How is having mentor different than taking workshops from a particular instructor? Do you think it’s important for artists to find and work with a mentor? Why? What should an artist look for in a mentor?
I have studied with numerous artists in the last 30 years but Zoltan Szabo was the most influential in my development as an artist. We became good friends after I attended a workshop with him in Asheville, NC in 1987. Zoltan recognized that I was a serious student and we discussed my desire to someday become a full time professional artist. Aside from teaching me the mechanics and techniques of watercolors, he also explained the pitfalls of making a living as an artist, many of which I just mentioned in the previous question. The best piece of advice that he ever gave me was that to be successful as an artist you need to diversify using your talent and find different ways to produce multiple streams of income. We all like to think that everyone is going to rush to our door and buy all of our paintings. In reality, however, you may sell two pieces this month and then not sell another for the next three months. How can you possibly make a living with something as unpredictable as art sales? Actually you can make a living if you can teach others to paint, do demonstrations, write articles or books, jury art competitions, produce videos, etc. Even if you haven’t sold a single painting that month you will still have some income to pay your bills. These things all take time to develop but they’re all doable.
I do think that it’s an advantage for an aspiring artist to have a mentor. I took many Zoltan Szabo workshops where I learned a lot of art techniques. Just as important for me, was that I also learned, by his example, how to teach. Today in my workshops I usually spend an afternoon discussing this with my students. I realize that many of them are hobbyist and have no desire to make a business out of their art. Usually, however, there are at least a few students that are either professional artists or considering taking the plunge and going full time with their art. We don’t always need to reinvent the wheel. Finding someone who is making it work and is willing to share information can be very beneficial. Some artists are more sharing than others so as I stated earlier, do a little research.
Your art business includes selling paintings, writing and making DVDs. How do you divide your time between all the facets of your business? Do set specific hours for each thing each day or are there certain days that are painting days and other days that are marketing days, etc?
I wish that I had the luxury to dedicate certain days for painting and certain days for business but in reality, I don’t. My workshop business keeps me on the road much of my time and when I’m not traveling and teaching I’m trying to find a little time for relaxation, seeing family, catching up on projects, and so on. Usually I only have about a week or ten days before I’m on the road again. I can honestly say that the business end of things takes the vast majority of my time in between workshops. It’s a fulltime business and you have to treat it as one. I will usually try and dedicate several hours at a time where I can get to the studio and work on paintings for galleries. Since in most cases I have just returned home from a workshop where I painted at least one and sometimes two paintings a day for the last week, I sometimes need to get away from painting for a few days. Those are usually the days that I try and catch up on paperwork and marketing. I’m very fortunate that my wife, Diane, is now my full time manager. It would be impossible to maintain a schedule like mine without someone keeping the business end of things moving and putting it all together behind the scenes.
So many artists are hesitant to declare themselves a small business? Why do you think this is? Why would you encourage a change of mindset?
I know a lot of artists that have tremendous talent and a real passion for their art but they have no desire for making it a business. I think that there are several reasons for this mindset. First and foremost, I think that they are apprehensive about putting themselves in a situation where they have to constantly produce works of art to pay their bills. There is a big difference between painting for the pleasure of painting and painting because you have to. Some artists feel that they cannot produce their best work under that kind of pressure. There are also the demands of owning a business such as keeping accurate records of sales and expense, collecting sales tax, paying quarterly income tax, marketing, and so on. All of these things can take a considerable amount of time and energy that they would rather dedicate to creating a piece of art.
Another characteristic I have observed in artists is a feeling of insecurity and lack of confidence. Many of them do not think that their work is good or marketable. I had a student years ago that produced some of the most beautiful watercolors that I had ever seen. She had no formal training other than taking a few workshops from various artists. I can honestly say that she was a natural born artist. In spite of her incredible talent, she was always very quick to point out all of the things about her paintings that she did not like. I was fortunate to have been able to purchase two of her paintings for my own collection despite her insistence that they were not good paintings. There is no doubt in my mind that she could have been extremely successful and made a very comfortable living with her art had she been able to break free of herself and shown the world what she could do.
Each artist has to do some real soul searching and be totally honest with themselves and their spouse or family before making the decision to make a business of their art. There are so many factors to consider. I would never encourage anyone to take the leap before doing the research that is necessary to fully educate yourself as to what you need to do to be successful. You also need to understand what obstacles you are likely to encounter. If you do decide to make your art a business, then put your heart into it and give it 150%.
In an age of internet and instructional DVDs, what role do live workshops play for artists? What do you want your students to get out of your workshops?
I have quite a few DVD’s that teach a wide variety of techniques and subjects. My main objective with my DVD’s is to offer the student a workable plan that, with practice, can assist them in better understanding watercolors and help them achieve a successful painting. In my workshops I teach a wide variety of techniques as well but I also have the opportunity to watch you practice which is something I cannot do with a DVD. In the workshop I can instantly see what you might be doing incorrectly and offer suggestions. Another benefit of taking a workshop is the student’s ability to ask questions of the instructor if they do not understand something. A lot of my students purchase my DVD’s at the workshops as a way to reinforce what they have learned while at the workshop. When they return home the DVD serves as a quick reminder of how to do a specific technique.
In the last few years I have made it a goal of mine to go beyond merely teaching techniques at my workshops and teach my students how to think like an artist. We all begin painting pretty much the same way. We learn how to mix colors, what kind of paper to use, when to work on wet paper or dry, what brushes work for what, and so on. We spend much of this time learning a wide variety of techniques to achieve a desired result. Since most classes are indoors we usually work from photographs. The primary method that we use to evaluate and judge our progress is to see just how closely we can get an element in our painting to look exactly like the image in the photograph. This is an important step in learning how to use the materials and techniques. The only downside to this way of learning is that we become very detail oriented and lose sight of the other aspect of art which is being creative. I first learned to paint in the way that I just described. The more that I could make my painting look exactly like the photograph, the more I felt that I had mastered the materials and techniques. As a result of this mindset I became a photorealist painter for twenty-five years. I have a lot of respect for photorealist because I know from first hand experience what it takes to be successful. Many of my paintings would take months to complete. Even though I was successful I eventually became bored with my art and needed to expand my horizon. I was attracted to loose and impressionistic paintings so I set about finding someone that could get me to think more like an artist and less like a camera. This is when I decided to take a workshop with Zoltan Szabo.
Every workshop that I teach I see myself in a lot of my students. They have learned to use the materials and techniques but they are still copying a photograph. Many of them are quite happy painting in this style but the biggest request that I get in workshops is; “Can you help me loosen up?” I like to offer an alternative to the tight regimen of realism. Through my demonstrations and discussions, I show how to use the photograph only as an inspiration for a painting as opposed to a blueprint. They are still using the same techniques and materials only now they are seeing various ways to use expressive design and colors.
You have many intermediate and advanced artists taking your workshop. What do you see artists struggle with at that point in their career and what advice do you give them?
I would say that most of my students at workshops are in their 50’s and 60’s. Many of them have been painting for years and feel that they are locked into a specific pattern or style. This is often referred to as being in a rut. You find yourself painting in a safe and predictable style that you know will produce satisfactory results most of the time. It takes a lot of energy to learn new ways of painting and some students will not allow themselves to venture too far from their comfort zone. When you’re used to painting with small brushes and suddenly someone suggests that you use a 3” brush it’s quite intimidating. It goes without saying that you will have a learning curve to work through before you get comfortable with the change. For some artists, especially those who have a following, there is always the insecurity of possibly losing some of their patrons if they change what people are accustomed to seeing. I’m speaking from experience because I went through the same process when I broke away from photorealism. I did lose some of my following but I also picked up a new following which I can gratefully say is larger and more supportive than I had before. The reason is simple. My paintings today are far more expressive and artistic than they were before. Today I’m showing the viewer my interpretation of what I have seen as opposed to a photographic image which they can easily see on their own without my putting it on a piece of paper or a canvas.
My advice to artist, especially those who market their work, is to break free of the crowd and find a style of painting that can readily be identified as yours, even if the viewer cannot read or see the signature. All you have to do is look in the art history books and study the works of the artists that became famous. Almost every one of them stood out from the crowd at the time they were producing their work. I have no doubt that there were hundreds of thousands of other artists producing work at the same time. So why did so few of them become famous? The answer is simple; they stood out from the crowd. The people that really love and appreciate fine art love to see how we, as artists, see our world. They want us to show them something that they cannot see or visualize themselves.
In your video workshops, you do very little drawing but you are clearly working from a deep knowledge of your subjects. How have you gained that knowledge? From your photography? From drawing? From painting thousands of paintings?
This is a tough question because it’s really a combination of all of the above. I constantly study things and make mental notes. I might study the way a tree casts a show on the exterior wall of a building. I’m not just looking at the shape of the shadow but also the angle of the shadow which is greatly influenced by the position of the sun. If I’m at the beach I will study the anatomy of the waves as they roll in. In my mind, I’m deciding how I would paint this or that. I also take a lot of photographs. Nowadays just about everyone has a camera in their cell phone so it’s not necessary to carry around a big or heavy camera. If you see something that intrigues you, stop and take a photograph. We always think that we have to find that perfect scene when we’re in the field. In fact, we become so fixated on finding the award winning scene that we often overlook some of the most beautiful things around us. Take a photograph of overlapping leaves and branches on a tree or the textures on a boulder, for example. I can assure you that there will come a time when these little insignificant photos will provide you with information that you can incorporate into a painting.
I have no way of knowing just how many paintings I have done in my life but I can safely guess that it’s well over one thousand. With time and experience you pretty much know how to paint a tree, a rock, grass, waterfalls, etc. Nowadays when I do my initial drawing on my watercolor paper, I draw only the basic shapes to establish my composition. I make it a very specific point to avoid doing a lot of drawing. When you stand back from a finished painting you will usually not see details but rather the shapes, colors, and values. These are the elements that I use to build my painting. If I do too much drawing I will be tempted to pull out my small brushes and start painting within the constraints of my pencil lines. Instead I begin my painting making large shapes with large brushes. I know I can incorporate smaller shapes into the large shapes later, if needed, either as positive or negative shapes. This process keeps my painting loose and impressionistic as opposed to a tight rendering. If I’m painting something that I am totally unfamiliar with I might do a little more drawing than usual just to be sure that I get the mechanics or anatomy correct.
You talk about the importance of shapes. Why are interesting shapes so important in art and how can an artist train themselves to think in those terms?
We all identify with shapes. If you took a pencil and drew the outline of a Volkswagon on a piece paper everyone would readily know what it is. The same is true of a barn, a tree, a flower, etc. We live in a world of endless shapes. As visual artists, we create shapes on paper or canvas that people can relate to. That is not to imply that all shapes are good, however. Some shapes are just plain boring. A square is a pretty boring shape. All four sides are the same length. What if you extend one of the sides a little further than the others? Now it’s not quite so boring and symmetrical. Another example is a circle. Just like the square, it’s pretty boring because it’s too symmetrical. What if you drew the square and the circle on the same piece of paper but slightly overlapped the two. Now the two boring shapes combine to produce a new shape that is a little irregular and out of the ordinary. Take it one step further and introduce another very symmetrical and boring shape; the equilateral triangle. All three sides are the same length. But if you slightly overlap the triangle with the square and circle you create a new shape that is even more interesting. They can be rearranged any number of ways. Four things make a painting; shapes, colors, values, and textures. When I am designing a painting, I ask myself the following questions; are the shapes interesting? If not I can rearrange and overlap objects in the painting to make them interesting. The same is true with values. I can easily use a little artistic license to make the values more interesting. The same is true with colors and textures. The shapes, however, are what most people will identify with in the painting. If the shapes are not interesting or recognizable, it doesn’t matter how interesting the other elements are. The exception to this is abstract art. When I paint an abstract expressionist painting I intentionally make the shapes unusual to create a sense of drama and mystery. I don’t want them to be recognizable but rather interpretive. It’s amazing what people will interpret from these strange and random shapes.
Artists sometimes feel conflicted about painting in several different styles and as someone in the earlier stages of their career, it can be easy to keep jumping back and forth between styles. Did you find it important to focus on, and be known for, one main style when you were first building your career? Why? How different can styles be before it affects how you approach galleries, collectors and students?
What a great question. In my workshops I teach everything from representational to abstract expressionism. One of my most popular workshops is titled; “Watercolors from A to Z.” We do landscapes, water scenes, a floral, stylized (semi-abstract), and abstract expressionism. As I mentioned earlier, most of my students are in their 50’s and 60’s and many of them have been painting for years. I should also mention that most of my workshops are 20 to 25 students so it’s only natural that there will be a wide variety of interests with a crowd that size. In spite of the fact that some want to paint in a more traditional style while others want to paint in a more expressive or interpretive style, I have developed a teaching process that incorporates certain key principles that enable students to use the same principles and techniques regardless of style or subject they wish to paint.
When I first began marketing my work and making the transition from a hobby to a business, I was painting in a very tight and photorealistic manner. I had a good following and was pretty successful. Over time, however, I became bored and needed to branch out and away from my tight way of painting to a more expressive and spontaneous way of painting. I did lose some of my following because they identified me as an extreme photorealist and rejected my looser and more interpretive paintings. This was a market that I had spent years developing and it was tough to let go of them. Looking back, though, I realize that I had to make the transition if I was to continue making a living as an artist. I had reached the point where painting was no longer enjoyable so I had to reevaluate where I was going with my art and either make some changes or get out.
Today, I have a thriving workshop business because I am able to offer several ways of painting, not just one. If you look at the transitions that many of the famous artists made throughout their careers, you will quickly notice that most of them evolved over the years to reach the point where they were noticed and successful. It’s a natural process for artists. Once you have learned the materials and techniques we find ourselves wondering what else we can do with this information. This is what makes art, art. Otherwise we would all be painting the same things in the same style. How boring would that be?
When it comes to galleries, however, that’s a different story. Almost all of the paintings that I place in galleries these days are abstract expressionist paintings on either paper or canvas. Sometimes I will do a representational abstract which is an interpretation of something that is recognizable but abstracted. I find abstract art to be exhilarating because I can use the same principles that I teach for my representational paintings and produce a totally unique piece of art that is abstracted. All of the galleries where I am currently showing are abstract galleries. I would never approach an abstract gallery with some of my floral or landscape paintings. I would also never approach a gallery that sells traditional paintings with some of my abstracted pieces. If you enter a gallery that has a lot of abstract art, believe me when I tell you, they are selling a lot of abstract art. They know what their clients and collectors want and they are not going to waste precious wall space displaying paintings that they know they have no market for. The same is true for galleries that sell more traditional floral, still life, and landscape paintings. Having owned two galleries, I know how they think.
The bottom line is this; do your research, master your techniques, define just who you are as an artist, develop a marketing plan, and hit the ground running. As my good friend and very successful artist Tim Packer once told me, “To be a successful artist you have to find you own voice and then sing very loudly.”
To learn more about watercolor from artist Sterling Edwards, check out his DVDs: In the Luminous Watercolor Series: The Wooded Landscape, Forest Waterfall, and Evening Landscape and two in his watercolor technique series, Brushwork Techniques for Expressive Watercolor and Color Techniques for Expressive Watercolor.
Learn more about Sterling Edwards by visiting his website.
Kelly Anne Powers is a writer for Creative Catalyst Productions. You can find her working in watercolor (badly) and in acrylic (less badly) at KellyAnnePowers.com/blog