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Through the Red Rock Doorway Q and A with Erin Hanson

April 6th, 2014

Through the Red Rock Doorway Q and A with Erin Hanson

Through the Red Rock Doorway: A Q&A With Erin Hanson
By Ann Japenga

Mystical transformations famously take place in a single moment. One minute you’re ordinary and the next “the great door, that does not look like a door, opens,” in the words of Stephen Graham.


That’s pretty much what happened to Erin Hanson when she was climbing in the red rocks near Las Vegas. Yes she had laid the groundwork by studying art at Otis College of Art and later at UC Berkeley (with a detour into bioengineering). But then all at once—as she was hanging onto a rock slab fifty feet above the desert floor–she knew she had to paint rock, and she knew exactly how to paint it.

The result has been an outpouring of robust, textured landscape paintings that seem to soar beyond genres (they’ve been called abstract mosaics). A frequent visitor to Joshua Tree and Anza-Borrego, rock climber and artist Erin Hanson explains the path that brought her to her authoritative style.


Where did you grow up and what was your first experience of landscape (when you first realized it was important to you)?

I grew up as a young child in Silverlake (Los Angeles). Home was very concrete and gray and the nearby hills of Griffith Park were only occasionally perceived through the smog that dominated Los Angeles in the 1980′s.

When my family would escape for yearly camping expeditions, the clear air and crisp greens were like paradise. When I was a little older, we moved to Palmdale and commuted daily over the San Gabriel Mountains into La Canada for school. Palmdale, located in the Mojave Desert, was like being in the paradise of camping all of the time! We were surrounded by empty land and the foothills of the San Gabriels were just a short bicycle ride away. This is where I first decided that landscapes would be the most beautiful thing in the world to paint. I loved the windy desert days, the rolling tumbleweeds, and the colorful sunsets seen through the Joshua Trees, the San Gabriel mountains blushing red and pink in the waning light. I loved that the desert had actual weather, and one year I experienced real Christmas snow on the ground at my house!


You’ve talked about your dad’s role in encouraging you. Any specifics? What did your parents do? Any artists in the family tree?

My parents are not painters, but they are both musicians. Growing up understanding the importance of daily practice to hone your skills, it was natural for me apply that diligence to painting. My dad used to tell me that to become a master painter, I should begin by drawing five life sketches every day. I drew everything around me from the cats to the trees. I remember spending Saturday mornings sitting on the bathroom sink so I could draw my face profile in the mirrored door.

My grandfather was a painter, although I was not close to him. I did inherit his wooden painting box marked “HANSON,” which I still use to this day (along with the wooden easel my father made me for my 10th birthday.)


You graduated in a very left brain field (bioengineering) yet gravitated away from calculus to art. Do you approach art with the eye of a scientist?

People do laugh to hear that I was a bioengineering major in college. To me science and art were never very separate in my mind. Science is just the art of observation, and the technique of art is certainly a science. I won two of my school’s science fairs: one for a year-long naturalist study of a specific valley in the San Gabriels, and one for programming a tic-tac-toe computer game that could never loose. I always appreciated Da Vinci’s equal ability in both fields of art and science, and the book The Agony and the Ecstacy, about Michelangelo’s life, always interested me – especially how he would sneak into graveyards at night to dig up bodies to learn human anatomy. I apply science to all the paintings I create. In fact I have developed a unique method of painting in oils after over twenty years of trial and error.


You seem to have a special affinity for desert places. Did you go to the desert as a kid? What did it first dawn on you that you liked dry, scrubby places?

Living in the Mojave Desert definitely inspired my first love for the desert. I got my own German shepherd puppy when we moved to Palmdale, and most nights of the week I would walk out with my dog deep into the desert. We would wind through the Joshua Trees in the dark and silence; I would collect bones while Rascal chased rabbits.


Tell us about your move to Las Vegas and how you started rock climbing.

After I graduated from UC Berkeley, I started my own business buying and selling retail goods, and I moved to Las Vegas to follow a business lead. On the first day of my arrival, my apartment didn’t have electricity yet, so I camped out at Red Rock Canyon.

I got to the campground late at night, and I had no idea that I had just stumbled on the most beautiful scenery in Nevada. I had already decided to use this move to Las Vegas as an excuse to get back into painting, so I woke up at dawn the following day and set up my easel at the top of the little hill near the campground. When the sun came out and hit the eye-popping expanse of Red Rock Canyon and Rainbow Mountains, I was excitedly surprised! Later that day, I met my campground neighbors and they invited me to rock climb with them. I was lucky enough to fall in with a university rock climbing teacher and a veteran mountaineer. I loved experiencing the rocks hands-on, and rock climbing was an addictive thrill. The next day we all moved in together and started climbing several times a week.


You are a real student of rock. What can you tell us about painting (or climbing) the red rock of Canyon de Chelly versus the granite of Joshua Tree, and other varieties.

When I moved to Las Vegas, I decided to get back into painting (the last job I had as an artist was working in a mural studio near my high school). Continuing my childhood maxim that practice makes perfect, I decided to create one painting every week. Since Red Rock Canyon was the most beautiful landscape around Las Vegas, and the rocks were the most interesting thing there, that is what I painted. As climbers we were often already hiking before dawn to avoid the heat, and I experienced many colorful sunrises over the red, pink and white striped sandstone. I loved the way the rocks reflected the light around them, as well as their interesting abstract shapes. The rocks were both a challenge to overcome with my hands as a climber and a challenge to learn to paint with the brush. I wanted everyone to see the bold beauty of the rocks as I saw them. After two years of climbing and painting red rocks, I started experiencing other landscapes like Joshua Tree National Park and southern Utah.

With my eye constantly seeking subtle color variations and interesting shapes in the landscape, I truly saw the desert in a whole new light.


Lately you’ve been painting more pastoral landscapes in central California. You have said that you approach the rolling fields somewhat the same visually as when painting rock faces. Please explain.

When I moved back to Southern California and experienced the rolling hills of Paso Robles, I was immediately grabbed by the entirely different landscape and color scheme.

I had hardly ever used green in my paintings (unless a scrubby desert green!). I love a challenge, and I leapt at it. I spent a week driving around the back country roads between Paso Robles and Cambria, taking thousands of photos of oak trees, hill shadows, and curving horizon lines. When I returned home ready to paint, I naturally applied everything I had learned painting rocks and desert buttes to painting oak trees and rolling hills. I treat an oak like a rather fluffy rock, but with the same angular planes and sharp contrasts. Trees and hills reflect light just as rocks do, so I got the hang of it pretty quickly.


Are there painters who’ve inspired you? Other influences in art, music, books?

As a child, I was mostly inspired by the classic Renaissance artists and the impressionists Monet and Van Gogh. To this day my father still buys me art books for Christmas, which always inspire me, including some of my favorites: The Group of Seven, Ansel Adams, Andrew Wyeth and Cezanne. As a professional artist, I speak to a lot of people who encourage me to look up various contemporary artists. I love loose plein air artwork, the classic California impressionists, and abstract expressionism in landscapes. I am drawn to color, simple landscape shapes, and unique viewpoints. Growing up without television, my family read for pleasure every night. I enjoy reading about artists and their unique perspectives. I listen to audio books all day while I paint, everything from English classics to science fiction. Getting lost in a book helps relax my mind and lets me concentrate better on the details of painting.


How do you physically approach landscape exploration and painting? Hike in? Backpack? Take photos or paint on site? Go solo or with friends?

Now that I am a full-time artist, I set aside several times during the year when I travel out into the wilderness to get inspired for months of painting. I often hike solo, waking up before dawn every day to get the best lighting across the landscape. I love monsoon season in the desert, with the lightning and the giant dramatic cloud formations. Lately, I have been going backpacking with my younger brothers, once on a five-day trek across Zion National Park, and once backpacking the eastern Sierras in November.

I always carry a camera with me, and my eye is constantly roaming for a unique perspective, an interesting tree, or a beautiful piece of light. Even driving in Los Angeles, I find myself getting excited about a sunset sky or a grove of eucalyptus trees. I have transformed Pasadena’s ficus trees into several beautiful paintings.


You now live in Burbank. Where do you go to get near the rock or wilderness?

Yes, I live on the top of the Burbank hills, where I can see the entire valley beneath me. Somehow Los Angeles has almost completely obliterated its smog problem, and I can see clear across to Downtown and beyond most days of the year. I see every morning dawn on the Griffith Park hills across the Burbank valley. I am constantly surprised by how different the light appears each morning. I feel like I could paint these hills every day for a year, and each day would produce a completely different painting. Aside from the natural beauty of Los Angeles, I plan my seasonal escapes into the desert and other landscapes. Last year I visited Texas for the first time, as well as driving the entire California-Oregon-Washington coastline. This spring I am hiking in Glacier National Park (Montana) and the Canadian Rockies. I am always excited to explore new vistas, although I return yearly to some of my favorite haunts, including Zion National Park, Joshua Tree, Borrego Springs, and Paso Robles.


What are the challenges you’re still working out regarding landscape painting? Any places you especially want to get to know in the future?

I am always challenged while painting. I always try to figure out a better way to communicate the light and drama of the landscapes I see. Each new landscape is an exciting new color palette, a new study in composition and perspective. I am still experimenting with painting trees, clouds, grasses, reflections, and, yes, rocks. After a few more decades of painting landscapes, I hope to be able to fully capture those fleeting moments of perfection I discover in the landscape and transport my viewers to the world as I see it: bold and truly beautiful.

Erin Hanson will be appearing at upcoming arts festivals in the Coachella Valley, including the Desert Arts Festival (March 1 and 2, 2014), La Quinta Arts Festival (March 6th to 9th) and the Indian Wells Art Festival (April 4 to 6th). You can find more information, as well as information about her Glendale Gallery (Erin Hanson Fine Art), on her website: www.erinhanson.com

How to Commission a Painting

February 17th, 2014

How to Commission a Painting

How to Commission a Painting from an Artist


Do you love an artist's work but need a special painting for a certain wall in your home? This article will help you work with an artist to create the perfect piece that will make you happy every time you see it.


Most professional artists are willing to create a custom piece of artwork for you, all you need to do is ask! There are different reasons why you might want to ask for a commission, instead of purchasing a painting "off the wall." You might love a certain painting, but it just won't fit the wall you have for it. You may have fond memories of a certain locale and wish the artist to work from photos you have taken to commemorate a special memory. From an interior designer's point of view, you may need specific colors or motifs within the painting to work within a room you are creating.


When you approach an artist, it is wise to have a clear idea of what you are looking for so you can describe to the artist what you like. On the other hand, an artist will usually create better when he has the freedom to do what he thinks is best for the painting. So how do you get what you want and still let the artist create? The most important thing is to communicate to the artist about any specific considerations you have. Also, you will get the best results if you want a painting in the style that the artist is currently working in. It has taken the artist many years (20-30 years, or more!) to refine and develop a painting style, and this is what they are best at. You wouldn't approach a watercolorist and ask for an oil painting, just as you wouldn't ask a realism painter to make you a loose impressionist piece. Taking this for granted, let's look at some of the specifics:


Color

Most artists can adapt their painting to the color theme of your choice. It is always best if the artist can see the space in person before he starts painting, getting a feel for the furniture and fabrics and general theme of the room. You can point out to the artist which elements of the room you would like to tie together within the painting. Alternatively, the artist can work with snapshots of the room or even fabric and wallpaper samples. If you are more flexible with the colors, you can always paint a wall to set off the colors of a painting (more on that later!)


Size

A painting can be created in any size you like. I personally have my canvases stretched on custom-cut pine frames, which can be made within fractions of an inch to any size I need. What size of painting is best for your wall? Well, it really depends on the wall. In a perfect world, the painting would be beautifully equidistant from each adjacent wall, and its vertical center would be at the same height as the vertical center of all the other artwork in the room. However, in reality there are usually light switches, air vents, and temperature gauges awkwardly getting in the way of perfect positioning. Also, it is good to take into the consideration what the painting will look like from different vantage points around the house. You want the painting to be as visible as possible from as many angles as possible. The best solution is to mock up a fake painting on your wall using masking tape. You can measure out a square with four lengths of masking tape placed directly the wall, and then walk around and look at it and make sure it is the correct size.


Lighting

If the artist is able to visit your home before he starts painting, he can take a look at the lighting in your house. Open, natural light always makes a painting look great, but after the sun goes down you will need artificial lighting. Some houses have warm incandescent lighting, others have cool LED lighting, and a painting will change color depending on the lighting around it. Unfortunately most ceiling lights are designed to only illuminate downwards, leaving the walls dark in the corners and near the tops of the walls. A painting will always look better if you can get a spotlight on it from above. These are surprisingly inexpensive to have installed by an electrician. Halogen spotlights will bring out the colors and texture in your painting and make it glow like it's in a museum! So, it is helpful for an artist to know what sort of lighting will be around the commissioned work. For example, if the painting will be in a dark corner, the artist will avoid dark colors or subtle contrasts that will be missed on a shadowy wall.


Framing

Framing is usually left up to the customer, unless the frame is an inherent part of the presentation of the work, like many photographs. For a traditional look, oil paintings can be set off in a beautifully carved and stained or gilted wooden frame with a natural linen lining. I like how gallery-wrapped paintings look in an elegant floater frame, where there is a small space between the edge off the canvas and the frame itself. Personally, I use a gallery-depth canvas (1.5" - 2" deep) and I paint around the sides of the canvas, continuing the image around for a neat three-dimensional look. These canvases look great unframed as well as framed.


Wall Color

You can use the color of your wall to change the look of a painting and draw attention to certain colors within the painting. This optical illusion trick also works with accents in your room, like a rug or throw pillows. Take a look how this same painting below changes when it is surrounded by different colors. Feel free to experiment with a digital image of your own painting on different colored walls, using Photoshop, before you paint!


Contract and Terms

Many artists like to sign a contract with their client before starting a commissioned work. I personally like to arrange the agreement so that neither party has anything to loose, rather negating the need for a contract. I ask for a 50% deposit up front, with the remainder due when the client has the painting in their home and it is everything they hoped it would be. A photograph of the painting is emailed when the painting is completed, and the client can usually tell right away if they like it or not, although the final test is seeing the painting on the wall. If the client doesn't like the painting for any reason, I will give the commission another attempt, after understanding what they like or dislike about the first painting. However, with enough communication up front about your expectations, the painting should turn out right the first time.


Price

The price of the commission should depend more or less on the square footage of the painting, although artists may charge more or less than what they normally charge for paintings off the wall, depending on the project. I have done commissions for less than what I would normally change, simply because I was excited about the idea of the painting.


Helpful Tips

- Go through the artist's portfolio or website with the artist present, and point out which paintings you like or don't like, and what you like or don't like about each.

- Consider a "triptych" or a "diptych" for your home, a painting that continues across two or three separate canvases, giving the art a unique, exciting look. I have even successfully added side panels to paintings that had already been purchased, to give them greater width and add an interesting twist.


I have been creating custom paintings on commission for 20 years, from dog portraits and book covers to giant 2-story acrylic paintings on canvas destined for casinos and cruise liners. For the past six years, I have specialized in a loose, impressionist style of painting that I apply to landscapes that I love. For landscape commissions, I have painted everything from small 8x10 paintings on board to a giant 17-foot oil painting that was installed in a Kaiser hospital. I have painted using images shown to me in magazines, using photographs of beloved camping spots, using a detailed verbal description of an Incan woman carrying pots of water up a steep winding road with an ancient civilization in the background; I have even painted over an acrylic portrait painting to make the woman look more beautiful and lively. And in all this experience, the bottom line is this: you either have a specific idea of what you are looking for, which then must be communicated in detail to the artist, or you just love the artist's work and you would be happy be anything he created, but you would like a certain location painted or a certain size of canvas. Either way, the artist will work hard to give you what you want. The bottom line is that a happy customer is a happy artist!

Seven Years of Art Festivals

February 17th, 2014

Seven Years of Art Festivals

After seven years of selling my original oil paintings at art festivals, I would love to share some of my experiences with new and aspiring artists. Art festivals are the perfect way to take your art career into your own hands, gradually building your collector base until you can support yourself entirely on your fine art sales.

I am a big believer in gradient rises to success, the small early triumphs building a firm base to stand upon later. With art festivals you may take advantage of small gradient changes to your lifestyle, until you are a full-time artist and fully confident in your ability to sell enough work every month to support you and your family. The more festivals you do every year, and the more pieces of art you sell, the better and more confident you get as an artist, and the more resources you have to re-invest into your career. Working with art galleries, placing advertisements for your work, putting on solo shows, and other means of furthering your career come naturally as you advance forward.

I decided I would become a full time artist about eight years ago. I had been painting in oils since I was ten years old, and had worked in a mural studio as a teenager, but I was never taught how to make a living as a fine artist. I would like to share my experiences with you now, hoping to inspire you to take the first steps towards becoming a full-time artist.

My first step was to decide to paint one painting every week. While holding a full time job and rock climbing in my spare time, I still created the time to paint every week. I instinctively knew that painting diligently was most direct way I could start my career. By the end of 2006, I had painted 50 paintings during that year. I began advertising my work through Craigslist and earned a few small commissions. Also through Craigslist, I found a call for artists at a local church (image left), and from there another artist told me about an art festival over in Boulder City. I was able to submit a late application and I did my first art festival at Art in the Park, October, 2006.

Driving my cadmium orange 1970 pickup truck, and armed with about $500-worth of metal gridwall paneling and a pop-up tent, I set up my first art festival, knowing little of what to expect. My work was smaller then; my largest painting measuring 36x24. I sold several pieces at the show, which was very heartening, and the passerbys’ responses to my work was encouraging. With the $500 booth fee and $500 of equipment purchased, I was able to double my investment in painting sales. I learned a lot in two days about how viewers reacted to the presentation of the work, as well as the work itself.

The most valuable things I learned at the show, however, were from my fellow artists. Artists at the shows have always been eager to help me and offer me advice and resources on what has worked and hasn’t worked for them. I am indebted to my first neighbor for introducing me to the Art Fair Sourcebook. This book seemed to me overly expensive at the time, but what it has saved me in show fees and travel expenses has more than paid for itself. I still buy a new copy every few years to keep up-to-date with the latest show statistics. The Art Fair Sourcebook gives a detailed breakdown of every major art festival in America, including application deadlines, show fees, commission rates, contact information, demographics of buyers, range of art shown, and, most importantly, the average sales of the artists. This book allows you to determine ahead of time which festivals will match your art niche.

Through the Sourcebook and by talking to my new artist friends, I discovered several show promoters who were recommended for beginning artists. I realized that there was a whole world of professional artists here who all held their careers in their own hands and sold their work directly to their collectors. I was of course intrigued and set about to sign up for my next shows.

In 2007 I participated in four or five art festivals, upgrading from my old pickup truck to using my mom’s minivan when I did a show, hauling the seats out of the back each time and storing my supplies in the garage or in a storage unit. By 2010 I was starting to travel further to go to festivals, driving as far as Los Angeles to Las Vegas. I had a painting delivery to make in Vegas for some oversized paintings, and I decided to take the money I was going to make from the paintings and bought an old (cadmium yellow, this time) Ford 350 cargo van with nearly 100,000 miles on it. I put almost another 100,000 on it before I sold it a few years later. It was one of the best investments I ever made, since I was suddenly able to store all my festival supplies permanently in my van and I stopped forgetting key things like a chair, or my tarps. This van also allowed me to eventually make the jump from gridwall to Propanels, the professional carpeted panels that are used in displays. These panels are seven feet long and it's ideal to use a cargo van to transport them around.

Selling your work at festivals isn't always a happy weekend on the green grass in the park. Aside from difficult setup conditions, snide comments from passerbys, rickety ladders, and setting up at 5am on frozen ground, there is the one worst enemy to art festival artists, the enemy we all dread and whisper about in hushed voices - The Weather. Palm Springs weather 2012.Rumors spread like wildfire through the artist network at a festival at the slightest hint of winds over 20 mph, as we all madly check accuweather for hourly updates and debate on wind direction and cloud formations. Facing sudden, unexpected winds blowing 140 mph through Palm Springs, with Texas tornadoes and monsoon season, we protect our work the best we can with hundreds of pounds of weights, cross-braces, dog ties, rebar pounded three feet into the ground, sand bags, concrete-filled PVC pipe, ratchets and rope. The rain is the milder enemy, easily confronted with a vinyl tent (such as Trimline or Showoff) and vinyl sidewalls. Our worst fear is The Wind. Every artist has their stories of canopies lifting twenty feet in the air, of human bodies being lifted off their feet, of propanels carousing through the air and landing in palm trees. The worst wind storm I ever experienced was in Palm Springs, spring 2012: every single tree in the park was torn up by the roots (one tree falling on a van parked two feet away from me, where I was crouched trying to hide from all the blowing glass), trailers blew over, propanels did indeed fly through the air, and every single pop-up tent was destroyed. The next day, when a few of us artists struggled our bent and dusty gear out of our vans and set up again for Sunday, sans our tents, we saw that there was only one tent left standing from the day before, and that was a Showoff canopy. While the artist's entire collection of pottery had been blown away and destroyed, his tent had outlasted all of our weakly popups. Needless to say I bought my own Showoff a week later. There are other ways to outlast the wind, even if you don't have a two-thousand-dollar tent. One artist told me in confidence, his voice low behind his hand, that he always carries a battery-powered hammer drill with him, and when the winds pick up he starts bolting his canopy into the pavement.

There are so many stories and advices I could give on this subject, but the bottom line is that you CAN control your own art career, and art festivals are a fantastic way to do it. Meeting your customers in person and developing relationships that last for years will give you the bedrock you need to expand further. And the best way to learn how to do art festivals is just to do them. You will learn the most about what works and what doesn't by trying a few dozen festivals and then seeing where you are at. I am still tweaking my display and improving my setup. I just upgraded my Sprinter van to the new Ram Promaster and spent an entire week building the interior in carpeted plywood to handle all those annoying problems I had with my last van. I did thirty festivals in 2013, and I enjoyed every one of them. There is something very satisfying about mocking up your very own mobile art gallery. I wish you the very best success, and my email doors are always open if you need help getting started.

What is the Best Lighting for My Painting?

February 17th, 2014

What is the Best Lighting for My Painting?

Your painting will look different depending on what lighting you have for it. Natural ambient light will create a nice feel for your painting during the day, the colors subtly changing as the sun rises and sets during the day. At night, however, you will be fully reliant on artificial light. Have you ever noticed how great paintings look in a gallery setting? Art galleries will use warm or cool-toned spot lighting to bring out the colors in certain parts of the painting, intensifying the light on the painting's center of attention, for example. You can imitate this effect in your own home by installing halogen directional spot lighting in the ceiling above your painting. These lights are surprisingly inexpensive to install (an electrician can install them in a few hours), and if you wish you can purchase the fixtures yourself online. There are lots of options for low-wattage spot lights, as well.

Many houses are already fitted with some sort of recessed ceiling fixtures. These can be adapted to directional spot lighting with minor handyman work. Even without direct lighting on your painting, however, the artwork will still look good with nearby incandescent lighting. The one thing you want to avoid is hanging your painting behind a hanging chandelier, which will cast a direct glare spot in the middle of the painting, without highlighting the natural colors and texture of the painting. A light that is angled from above, or even from the side, will allow you to see the thick brushwork, see each subtle variation in color, and truly enjoy the painting in a whole new light.

A good website to look at directional spot lighting is Lighting Direct.