Interview with Artist Sarkis Antikajian
Many of us dream of doing art full time. Artist Sarkis Antikajian did just that, spent a lifetime pursuing art, but it happened in the hours before and after a full time job. He understood the importance of making a living and making time for his art. Now in retirement and without the stress of having to support himself financially from his art, he pursues art in whatever direction it takes him.
You do not make your living from your art and never have. Why is that?
In this unpredictable profession, I believe the artist and the marketer are on opposite poles, and in most cases one cannot successfully be in both. Personally I would rather focus on making art.
In my case, assigning a price to and promoting my work has always been difficult. I do occasionally sell artwork at a high price but I do not attribute it to my own initiative. It is sporadic and I wouldn’t say it is a very profitable proposition considering the amount of time and material I spend doing my art, the number of artworks that stay in my studio out of sight, and the large studio assigned strictly to accommodate my art.
Having said this, the perfect scenario for the artist is to have someone else promote their works, and I suspect, that’s the case for many artists of today who sell their art regularly. Even then, I also believe most do not make a living from selling art. In many cases they rely on other means for their livelihood.
Do you think there's a danger in trying to sell your work too soon?
Selling art has changed drastically because of the prevalent ability to sell online and anyone can sell almost anything if the price is right. Having that in mind, it depends on the set goal. If the intention is to take art making only as a serious avocation, then selling the work at a nominal price may be an incentive to stay with it and enjoy the activity.
But if one’s goal is to become an artist–which is a lofty proposition, unpredictable with success vague and rarely in sight–then success in selling art too soon may become a trap. Progress is impeded and the beginner might remain at the avocation level that is often hard to get out of.
For the serious artist, it takes a different mindset along with an astute focus to stay on course in order not to veer off the intended path to artistic excellence.
You worked full time. How did you structure your learning while you worked?
Looking back, I believe I really learned how to paint while I was employed in pharmacy. I was focused then and made use of every hour of my free time—weekends, vacations, and holidays.
I wanted so badly to get out of pharmacy and become a full time painter. But I stuck with pharmacy for 40 years so as to make a decent living and did well as a pharmacist. I was never out of work, but during that time my hope and dream was to be a painter.
At first I painted watercolor, so I took one or two workshops with nationally-known artists. Then I joined the Oregon Watercolor Society. In 1985 I saw a magazine article on the artist Sergei Bongart. His way of painting and colors very much appealed to me. I signed up for his workshop in Rexburg, Idaho, a workshop that changed my life as a painter. He looked at some of my watercolors and complimented me, but he told me that if I intended to become a professional artist I had better paint in oils and strictly plein air or from still life setups.
So I bought oil paints and canvas and painted oils in the workshop. He said once I got good in oils, I would be able to paint in any medium. I took that to heart and when I got back I was painting in oils—three painting a day. I painted everything that I saw around our home, and I painted at locations close to home and also from still life setups. This I did on my days off. In addition I painted after my pharmacy shift was over or before it started.
A few months later I wanted so badly to take another workshop from him since I learned a thing or two about painting and in the oil medium, and I thought this time around I could benefit much more from his teaching. Unfortunately he passed on six months after and I missed that chance.
What about oils makes them a good starting medium?
When I first started my painting career watercolor was my primary medium. When, in 1985, I took a workshop with Sergei Bongart, he told me although he liked what I did in watercolor if my intention was to become a good artist, I had better first learn how to paint in oils. Once I could work with that medium fairly well, I would be able to paint in any other medium. I took his words to heart and oils became my primary medium for the rest of my career.
Later on I realized the reasoning behind his advice. He advocated strict plein air painting for the beginner to learn how to see nuances in color and values in nature that one cannot see easily in photos or by any other means. These nuances are what he said make the painting “vibrate.” This is not easy to do in most other media. Once we understand how to utilize these nuances to make exciting color harmonies we can apply this knowledge to our paintings whether working outdoors, in our studio, or working in other media.
How did your approach to painting change after you retired?
By the time I retired I had some confidence in my technical ability so it was a matter of painting the subjects that I loved to paint and in a way that expressed my feelings. I became more decisive in my paint application. How decisive the artist is what makes a painting look fresh with good paint quality rather than dull and tired looking. I found my interest in painting the figure from life was an important factor in my painting career, and I painted once a week from a model and once a week I drew from a model at the Maude Kerns Art Center in Eugene. I did that for many years. Actually, I started doing that when I was still in pharmacy even when I was first painting watercolor.
How has your style changed over time?
Over the years I tried many different styles from impressionism, German expressionism, abstract expressionism, to modern style painting, but I realized that what comes easier for me is some sort of colorful representational painting—not necessarily realistic. I take liberties in color and exaggerated gesture.
I usually tell my students to do what comes easy for them but always try to do it better. And I follow that advice myself. The reason I say this is that I found out I can paint a lot of things, even abstracts, and I sort of enjoy doing some other styles off and on but I do that as a distraction. I hardly show these pieces to the public because I feel they are not me. I do not feel at ease showing them to the public even though some of what I have done in these other mediums I really like.
When you approach a subject, what are you trying to capture from that subject? Does that influence the medium you use?
I like to work fast. I have no patience in beating a painting to death day after day. I look at a subject and right away I can see what makes it interesting to me. I zero in on that, trying to get the gesture and color harmony that excites me as quickly as I can, keeping my enthusiasm at a high pitch. I exaggerate shapes and color to make the painting exciting to me.
In figure painting, I try to get a likeness, but you have to remember that I do these in 2 1/2 hours time. So I have no time to think about what I am doing and it either works or it is a dud. But when it works it does not mean that it is a polished painting throughout or a good likeness of the subject.
There are many young artists who do fabulous finished-looking work and come out with wonderful likenesses. The more sketch-like my work is the happier I am. Now I work mostly in oil. But I love to do sketches in watercolor. These usually are very small (7.5”x11” or 11”x15”). I call these therapeutic because I really enjoy doing them. There is no anxiety involved in doing these watercolor sketches. They are done in very short time and when they come out fresh and exciting and have the beautiful watercolor look, rather than a poor imitation of another medium, then they are very exhilarating.
Do you do any thumbnail sketches or value studies before you start a painting?
I do not do thumbnail sketches or value sketches before painting. I jump right into it and take a risk. I do lots of sketching, especially pen and ink sketching from life, but that is done for my pleasure and when I do this I do not plan on painting from them. If I have too many decisions to make or too many choices as to mediums then it would surely defeat the purpose for me and I would lose interest.
How did you learn composition and color and value and all of those aspects of art? Did you ever focus on any of those exclusively in efforts to get better? Or has all of that come purely through hours and hours and hours painting finished pieces?
I have always tried to do my artwork quickly. First, due to time limitation because of my full time job of 35 years in pharmacy, at which time I utilized every possible hour to learn how to paint.
But there is another reason, and that is my temperament. I cannot dwell on something for long to retain the spark or enthusiasm in doing the work at high pitch. I love spontaneity to show in a painting.
A sketch-like painting is more memorable for me than the exquisitely finished artwork that I may initially admire but soon loses its luster and is quickly forgotten. So in my case, any pre-preparation will stifle that enthusiasm. That is why I formed the habit of painting without preparation knowing some might fail. But through experience and constant doing I learned how to detect most mistakes and how to fix them.
For me, a lot about requirements for a good outcome in a painting, such as composition, color harmonies paint application, edges and others, is a matter of common sense and trial and error and developing the trait to detect what works and what doesn’t. After all, these theories and requirements for producing good art came from the trials and errors of our artistic predecessors.
Do you suggest less experienced artists jump directly into a painting? What are the risks to that approach for less experienced painters? What are the possible rewards?
In my opinion spending hours mulling and contemplating a strategy through meticulous planning isn’t a viable approach for producing an exciting artwork. The beginner eventually may attain a good technical ability. To make exciting art takes more than masterful technical ability. And in my opinion there is nothing better than plunging in and, through trial and error, and constant experimentation, learning how to figure out what works and what doesn’t and achieve the ability to detect mistakes in one’s works and how to correct them.
This doesn’t mean mindlessly painting, simply to put in work hours. Although I learned how to paint quickly, yet it’s never haphazard work. It takes astute focus and vigilance in order to produce a vibrant painting and that takes a lot of practice.
How long does it take you to finish a painting? Do you work one until it is finished or do you work on several at a time. Do paintings sit for awhile before you put on the final touches?
Usually 2-3 hours maximum unless I get into trouble. Then I either spend a little more time or else scrub it. Sometimes I bring it home and decide it needs something fixed that can be done with a brush stroke or two. If the problem is more extensive then I would rather forget about it and scrub it off. Otherwise it would sit there and haunt me. I do not like to touch the painting the next day if I can help it. I lose interest in messing around with it after the session is over.
You paint in gouache, which is a water media like watercolor. How is gouache different than watercolor? How do you use gouache differently than watercolor?
A gouache painting, in my opinion, is a totally opaque painting throughout. Some artists erroneously call their paintings gouache when in reality they are mainly watercolor with minor touches of opaque color.
The technique of painting in gouache is different from watercolor. To work with opaque gouache I mix a good amount of creamy (thick mayonnaise-consistency) paint more than enough for a passage and apply it fairly thickly to the paper or board.
Problematic with gouache is that it is hard to duplicate a color once it’s dry. Also dark colors dry lighter and light colors dry darker than when applied.
What is that you like about gouache? Is there a reason it's good particularly for sketchbooks?
Gouache is an exciting medium and my favorite medium for sketching for a variety of reasons.
First, the equipment is minimal to transport in a plein air sketching activity compared to other media. All that’s needed are a few tubes of gouache of warm and cool versions of the primaries, a green and orange if desired, a couple of synthetic brushes, and a piece of illustration board, watercolor paper, or a sturdy sketchbook.
Second, one can paint dark over light or light over dark easily. As a consequence, whereas in watercolor applying glazes to darken a color or change hue dulls the passage beneath, in gouache the topmost layers in most cases retain their brilliance practically covering passages beneath, assuming the bottom layers are completely dry.
Third, in my opinion, a good gouache painting has an uplifting, matte surface and its unique beauty is surpassed by no other media.
Many artists worry that if they don't develop a recognizable style in a single media they won't be able to sell their art. What's your philosophy about working across subject matter and media?
I have heard someone say that if the artist is to be taken seriously he or she must be proficient in one medium and in one style. This, supposedly, is important for collectors.
Since, fortunately, I do not depend financially on sales, then this theory does not mean anything to me. If you look at the artists of the past they all worked in many mediums. I enjoy working in many mediums and various subject matter. It breaks the monotony and in doing so, my work is energized and stays fresh. As far as style is concerned, I believe if you paint hundreds of paintings, the chances are that you end up with what you really are as an artist.
It is like handwriting. I have bad handwriting and all my life I have tried to have good penmanship. With good intention, I can write one word well. Then if I write a sentence, my handwriting goes downhill. If I write a paragraph, I am back to my horrible handwriting. And that is the way with painting.
You see lot of artists paint just for shows. Actually they are imposing their will on what they can do and many win awards. I would like to see these artists paint one painting after another and do a hundred. Then you can see who they really are as artists. Also if you paint a lot, then chances are that you are not thinking about how another artist would paint that thing you are trying to paint and there is no chance to think or emulate someone else so hopefully your work will be recognizable as yours.
For me I hope it is “a continuity in look” in my work that makes it recognizable as mine and it does not look intentional or forced. I do not worry about style.
Often people say they want to learn to paint but don't have time. How did you find time when you were working fulling time?
It is a matter of priority. A lot of people want to paint, learn a musical instrument, or write. However, it turns out to be too much trouble. They would rather take the easy way out and procrastinate or quit. What defeats students is the expectation of a finished product to hang on the wall.
The idea in learning anything that is worthwhile and becoming proficient at it is to put time in doing it diligently and with much effort and hard work. The student should want to do it above any other more enjoyable activity. I am talking about the intention to become a professional artist and make it a way of life.
Of course, one can take it as a hobby, which is also wonderful, but that is a different matter. Then they can dabble in it but their progress will be limited. All I needed is ask myself what would make me happy and fulfilled for the day. Painting is a way of life with me. If I do not paint I am unhappy and feel I am wasting my life away.
Sometimes I paint for hours and at the end of the day I scrub what I have done and it does not bother me at all. In any other activity, such a mishap would have made me very depressed. I accept it as a hard profession to master.
Is it fun? I do not think so, because it is very demanding and one has to make decisions and solve problems with each brush stroke. And that can be very exhausting. Often I get up in the morning and I say I want to go to a movie today, have fun for a change. But I rarely do. I end up painting instead and the movie is forgotten by the end of the day. The same with vacation time. I do not have real vacations as most people do. I am not a sightseer. Even if I am sitting at the beach I am sort of painting in my mind.
You mention abstract painting in your artist statement. Even though you are mainly a representational painter, what role does abstract painting play in your artistic process? What is the importance of abstract painting?
It is said that beneath every painting regardless what style it is, there is an abstraction. And I believe that. If you forget about what it is you are looking at so far as subject matter. One way of doing this is to turn it upside down and force yourself to forget what you see as the subject. Then chances are, you see an abstract form. I love to do abstracts and it takes just as much know-how as any other style.
The thing is that I do not see myself as an abstract painter in other words I do not want to paint abstracts every day throughout my life in order to feel good about calling myself an abstract painter. I leave it to other wonderful abstract artists. I do enjoy doing abstracts. It helps me keep my eye on good composition, color, and value relationship, which are so important with abstract painting.
By the way I also love to sculpt in clay and sometimes I like what I come out with. But like abstract painting, I would not feel good calling myself a sculptor.
What advice would you give to a beginning painter? How does that advice change (or does it?) to a painter who is trying to jump from being OK to being really good?
It all depends on what the student painter wants to achieve. If the intention is to take painting as a serious avocation then taking as many workshops as one can afford in a variety of styles and media that are of interest. Doing this, devoid of anxiety, sooner or later will garner considerable technical ability to enjoy the ride.
On the other hand, the hardest thing for an aspiring student whose ultimate goal and priority is to become a professional artist (which in my opinion is a lifestyle with no defined level of excellence and wherein attaining that goal seems always unpredictable), then the task becomes enormous. The hardest thing is to have a clear idea what the intended goal means and which path to take to reach it.
Most of us flounder aimlessly wasting many years searching for the best path to take. One solution that hastens the journey is to look at a lot of artwork, not as a casual viewer but as a would-be artist, and define which artwork is exciting, compelling and memorable and why it is so. Then seek and study with the artist whom we admire and wish to emulate, at least for a while, or possibly incorporate part of what they do into our own. From there on, the idea is to plunge into the work wholeheartedly on our own, immersing ourselves totally in a long arduous path and a never-ending learning adventure.
Sarkis Antikajian lives in Cheshire, Oregon and teaches workshops around the state. You can find him at his website and on Instagram.