Interview with Watercolorist Paul Jackson
Watercolorist Paul Jackson failed high school class and yet earned his membership into the American Watercolor society at just 30-years-old. His passion for painting has taken him around the world a both an artist and as an instructor. (And we are happy to carry his four excellent workshops here in the shop.)
You were honored by the American Watercolor Society with membership at just 30 years old. Have you always known you wanted to be an artist?
I can't say I've always known I wanted to be an artist. There was an evolution that led me this direction.
I failed art in high school, although my high school art teacher was one of the best I had. I left high school early to take advantage of a scholarship after winning awards at the International Science and Engineering Fair, and took drawing and watercolor classes as electives. I fell in love with watercolor in college and abandoned other pursuits.
How did you make the transition from beginning to intermediate to advanced artist? What did those transitions look like? Did you have to focus on different aspects of your craft at different stages?
After college I was hired as art director for a regional magazine. It was a great experience for the three months before the magazine went bankrupt, leaving me with few options. So I started peddling my paintings at art festivals.
I eventually made my way to grad school, which did little for my growth as an artist. The sales I made at art festivals forced me to produce new work constantly, which is where real growth happened. I had to learn the presentation and display aspects of the business to be able to afford framing my work, and learned business skills along the way as well.
What is the biggest problem you see students have who enter your workshops? What advice do you give them?
Beginners struggle if they have not learned to draw and to "see". I can teach you to draw...but that's another workshop. If you want the most out of the workshop, practice your drawing skills at least a little in advance. Draw a little every day and you will eventually get very good at it. Nobody is born with a gift to draw or paint. They are learned skills like cooking or carpentry. You will only improve through practice.
You have served as a judge for many national and international art competitions. What role do you see art competitions having on an artists' personal growth, and what do you think is important for participants to remember when submitting a piece?
Competitions are a very important facet in your personal growth as an artist. You gain exposure to other artists work and are inspired by certain elements that each artist offers. You learn humility and patience through competitions as well.
All judges are different. You learn there is no right or wrong, only one person's opinion. Some days all seems to go your way, other days you feel like the judge is an idiot. Either way you gain from the experience.
I am always baffled when artists enter work that mirrors mine in competitions that I judge. Just because I paint a certain subject doesn't mean I'll appreciate your take on the same subject. I appreciate originality more.
With art competitions you can't bring expectations as a judge because you don't know what you are going to get. What I am looking for is generally a visually dynamic image. Well crafted work tends to get my attention more than slap-dash or sloppy, although I am a huge fan of spontaneity and the appearance of splashed paint...when it is done well. I also love a great abstract, but I don't see enough of them in competitions.
Have you always been a full time artist? How have you survived in the market place? What advice would you give to artists who want to do art full time?
I have only really worked as an artist or art teacher. Initially I made a living selling my work at art festivals. I did 40 shows a year for a decade. I got a lot of exposure and made connections across the country. It's a great lifestyle if you are young and single, but gets tougher as you get older and more committed to family and home.
To replace art festivals as my primary income, I wrote an instructional watercolor book, began teaching workshops, took a lot of commission projects and accepted whatever art-related offer that came along.
If you want to survive as an artist, take the "shotgun" approach and accept every offer that comes along. You might not like them all, but you will gain from the experience. It's not an easy life all the time, and you will always be working, even when you are on vacation. It's not really work if you love what you are doing though. It is, however, all consuming.
Your work has a style range. For example, some of your work has incredibly realistic detail (Release and Pilgrimage for example) while other pieces have significantly less detail (like Rolling Hills). How do you decide how to approach a piece? Do you make that decision before you start painting or does it develop as the piece develops?
I am not always in the same mood, nor are my paintings. I am also not always in the same environment. Some of my studio work can take months to create and can involve great detail. My work in the field is significantly faster because of the constantly moving light source, bugs, tourists and other interruptions. Release and Pilgrimage were both crafted in the studio over weeks. Rolling Hills was also created in the studio, but as mock-up for a large mosaic. It wasn't intended to be a finished painting in itself, but more of a sketch. I liked the way it came out, so I added it to my portfolio.
My workshop paintings are a juggling act of painting as fast as I can while explaining my process to an audience and teaching them to paint while my layers dry. They can be a little splashy at times, but each is a finished painting in the end.
What is your painting process? Do you spend time on studies or thumbnails or do you work directly on the paper? How long does a piece take?
Most of the time I do a lot of homework ahead of a complicated painting. I will work out all of the drawing details on tracing paper first, so I leave no trace of my sketching on the watercolor paper. I always draw at least a little, even when I am out in the field. A little planning typically makes for a better painting.
My workshop paintings take exactly as long as the workshop... 3-5 days. It is a bit tricky to plan the timing so precisely, but I have gotten very good at it over the years. My studio paintings rarely get a time estimate. They happen in three weeks or three months, while I am busy multi-tasking.
You love to travel. How is traveling important? What does it bring to you as a person and to you as an artist?
I am most alive when I am in a new environment. I see and experience things with the wonder of a child. Everything is exciting and inspiration seems to be around each corner. I can take only about six months of studio time before I get bored and tired of what I am working on. I need to refill the reservoirs of inspiration frequently to keep me motivated for more.
Experiencing other cultures is so much fun. Picking up bits of other languages, interacting with local artists and trying new things is what inspires me most. I absorb as much as I can from each adventure so that it can inform and color future paintings.
When you are on site with your camera and a sketchbook, what are you trying to capture in a scene to take back with you to the studio? Is it just shapes or is it an essence as well?
All five senses are work when you are traveling, and a sixth sense that keeps alert as well. What I am trying to capture on location is what each of those senses has to offer. Sometimes the smell of place can help trigger an emotion that will inspire a painting, but I can't paint a smell, so I make notes about it in my sketchbook or on my iphone. (I try to use digital media for writing as much as possible).
I do take a lot of photos to capture specific visual details, but I am generally up for a cool sketch in the shade if time permits as well. I am trying to create compositions to take home, not necessarily finished artwork.
A lot of my sketching is note-taking, but thumbnails and sketchbook paintings are incredibly valuable to help you really become aware of your surroundings. It's easy to take a photo as you pass something, not realizing all that is the scene, but if you sit and observe for a little while, the magic that exists in each place will reveal itself to you.