I recently spoke with the multi-award-winning oil painter, Eric Bowman. Eric and I chatted on speakerphone as he was finishing up work for his upcoming solo show. If you listen closely, you can hear him painting, scraping and bumping around in the studio, finishing up his painting titled “The Searchers.”
You might be familiar with his studio landscape and western paintings, but if you haven’t given his work a deeper study, you should. His figure-oriented pieces and plein air sketches are also worth a long look.
See his work online: check out his website at www.ericbowman.com or his instagram, @ericbowmanart. Or if you’re a subscriber of Western Art Collector magazine, you can find a six-page spread of his work in the May issue.
Thank you for listening! If you liked this episode, please subscribe to “Horizons by Western Gallery” and rate and review wherever you listen to podcasts.
Interview with Eric Bowman, Oil Painter
George: All right, well thanks so much for taking the time to talk to me today I really appreciate it especially considering you’re still working on your pieces for your upcoming shows.
Eric: Oh yeah, I’m working while we’re talking.
Eric: But it’s no problem, glad to do it.
George: What piece are you working on right now?
Eric: I don’t have a title for it, it’s a couple of cowboys on the hillside. One guys pointing off into the distance, the other ones working where he’s pointing so they’re, I don’t know, they could be Scouts, or they could be just hunting for cattle, or pointing at some clouds. I like to leave my paintings open-ended, so people can write the finish, figure out what’s going on. So I’ll title this one later when I have some time to think about what I should call it, but yeah it’s about I don’t know 75% done.
George: Would you have any idea where that one’s headed?
Eric: Oh yeah, this is all part of my show I’ve got a one-man show, solo show, it’s my third show Maxwell Alexander Gallery in Los Angeles and opens May 4 and I’ve got 12 new paintings for that show, so this is one of them. This is probably number nine I think.
George: Cool, so you still have more to go following this one then?
Eric: Yeah, I mean I’ve got some that are close to finish that still need some tweaking, but I have probably another three or four that I need to get started, so I’m under the gun here.
George: Well that’s exciting though and then also do you have work that you’re sending to the Briscoe as well?
Eric: Yeah, I’ve already sent those more paintings and those are on my website I believe.
Eric: Yeah, I sold out there last year so that was nice.
George: Excellent, so you’ve got your solo show at Maxwell Alexander in May and the Night of Artists has four new pieces at the Briscoe. And then the last thing that you were showing in, was that the Maynard Dixon exhibit?
Eric: Yeah, I had a couple of pieces in that, in fact, they just sent me the book for that, that’s all been compiled into a book, the show, and it’s actually a book on Maynard Dixon, and it’s just maybe the last 20 pages are images from the show and that piece sold so I was happy about that. It’s a really cool book they had the artists that were in the show each submitted one to two paintings and then a little essay about Maynard Dixon and his influence on them, and then they printed those up in the book. The bulk of the book it’s almost two inches thick, it’s a huge book, it’s all the Maynard Dixon collection that Mark Sublette has pieces that he’s dealt and then he wrote the whole thing too, so it’s a really nice book.
George: That’s on my list to get one of those that look like a great combination as well of the history of Maynard Dixon and then the group of contemporary artists that he put together to, I don’t know, I guess honor him in a way.
Eric: Yeah, I was really honored myself to be a part of that, so that’s pretty special.
George: Well you can see I think in your work why you were included in that group.
Eric: Yeah, he’s definitely an influence along with 100 other guys, but he’s one of them.
George: Right, well do you want to talk about influences?
Eric: Oh I’ve got so many it’s hard to list them all.
George: Do you have any that you go to frequently to study?
Eric: Sure, yeah, there’s like the Taos, several the Taos artists, not all of them but like Blumenschein, Denton, and Hennings, maybe some Victor Higgins. I was talking to a magazine yesterday about the Taos artist and then also Tom Thompson and the group of seven Canadian painters.
George: Yeah, you know I can see that.
Eric: Yeah, both of those groups really just a lot of stylization and they really injected a lot of their own vision and their own style almost fantasy like in the landscape compared to other groups or other individual artists who pretty much painted what they saw the when they saw it with less stylization or less idealization if that’s even a word that the Taos guys and the group of seven did. But yeah, I really like the boldness that they had to take shapes and break them down into simpler geometric forms and then put some really nice color into them and stylized the whole setting, so it’s not fantasy art but it’s not realism either, it’s very stylized realism I guess you’d call it.
George: Yeah, I’m glad you said something about Tom Thompson and the group of seven because I guess I didn’t make a mental connection between them and your work, but I can see some of that influence now that you mentioned that. It’s also interesting to think about you being in the northwest as well.
Eric: Yeah, somebody was just asking me that about how many other Western artists are up here. And I mean I’m doing a lot of Western art now I don’t necessarily want to be pigeonholed into that exclusively. But I don’t know of any other Western artists that are up here and that’s probably because this is just a really a no-man’s land for representational art, Portland in particular maybe Seattle too just don’t have the history of representational painters. 100 years ago painters were moving west from the East Coast they came out here, and I think they just hung a hard left and followed the Sun went down south that way they could paint outdoors and where there was more variety of color and everything wasn’t so green and gray like it’s here. I didn’t move here to be an artist I actually moved here to get into comic books about 32 years ago, and then I became an illustrator. And by the time I discovered fine art, plein air painting, painting outdoors, and painting from life, I was married and starting a family and was pretty well entrenched in the Pacific Northwest. But before that I grew up in Southern California where a lot of my color influence comes from still.
George: Okay, that makes sense, interesting, so I guess talking about the moments where you became interested in fine art following your career in comics and illustration. I know you said there were about 12 years of overlap in your transition and correct me if I’m putting words in your mouth, please. And you mentioned in your recent podcast with Marc Sublette I listened to, I think your years of professional experience as an illustrator gave you an edge in making it into the fine art market, and I was curious I guess if you might be able to outline what are some of those skills, or the professional knowledge, or habits that you think gave you that edge?
Eric: Well I don’t know, did I say edge? I don’t know if it gave me an edge, but-
George: I don’t know if you said edge actually that maybe my word.
Eric: Maybe the the illustration I was trying to make was that there’s a lot of painters out there today especially the whole plein air movement thing, painters have just jumped right into painting, just wanted to go out and just start painting, and a lot of them don’t practice drawing. So a number of them really suffer from composition and just basic drawing skills that really should hold a painting together at least be the foundation underneath a good painting. And when your an illustrator you’ve got to know how to draw and you draw everyday. And so, yeah, I guess that gave me at least a leg up on putting together paintings that I could take to galleries because I at least had decent drawing skills and it helps of course doing figure paintings too. A lot of people just paint landscapes and some just do figures, and I’m trying to do both together and make a pleasing picture and drawing skills definitely that I learned and developed through illustration come into play and help a lot with that.
George: Definitely, I mean that seems clear that you definitely have the artistic background, and the drawing, and the composition design, and I do want to talk to you about all of that for sure. But I was curious if there were more like business skills or personal skills that helped you get into doing fine art professionally?
Eric: There’s really no manual that comes when you decide you want to do fine art, it’s really a blind path and learn as you go. I’m sure you can talk to galleries or talk to other artists and get a lot of tips on that. But as far as promoting myself I learned a lot of how to do that early on as a freelance illustrator. I did that for 30 years, I didn’t go to school or anything for it so I just had to learn as I went. And yeah, some of that comes into play when you start to work with galleries and you have to really stick up for yourself and learn how to negotiate and it’s hard when you’re when you’re starting out because you’re sort of at the mercy of the gallery for a show that you desire to be in. And if you have any success at all after a while then the galleries are calling you and then you have a little more negotiating power to say what you would like out of the relationship. So I guess business skills, they develop along with your artistic skills as you’re making a living.
George: Sure, so just your general experience across the board I guess?
Eric: Yeah, yeah, as I said there’s no road map you just use intuition and whatever smarts you might have and try and figure out what the best thing is to do in any situation. My policy is I go through doors that are open to me if they make sense, and that’s just how it works. I guess you can go to art school, I don’t know if they have classes now to teach you about how to actually go out and apply your skills and make a living. I think in the past it was just you just learn the skills at school how to be an artist, how to be a painter and so forth, but they didn’t really help you much with the business side of things. So that’s why there’s these cliches about artists falling prey to businessmen who take advantage of them because artists for the most part are not good with money or not good with business, and I don’t know how true that is. I’ve never felt like that, but I know I have been taken advantage of so, it’s a buyer beware, artists beware thing, you got to watch out for yourself out there in the big, mean world.
George: Yeah, I guess that’s true for everybody, you gotta pay attention.
Eric: What do you do for a living?
George: I do web design and development in digital marketing. I have a BFA in design. I did drawing and painting in college, but went right into the first dot-com boom.
Eric: Okay, do you have a lot of success with that?
George: No, I mean average success as far as like getting into a career. I wasn’t an early investor in Yahoo or anything like that. It was the thing like you were saying too like I had all these technical and visual skills to do my work as a designer and then I learned the technical on the job as well as figuring out like how to be an adult after I got out of school.
Eric: Yeah, yeah, that’s sadly the thing I think that’s lacking in a lot of different professional areas where people learn a skill, they fall short when it comes to actually how to apply that in a business model and have success at it. So I feel very fortunate that I’ve been able to make a living for the last I don’t know 36, 38 years, pay for my family and keep a roof over our heads, yeah, because it’s tough… especially around 2008 it got pretty tight.
George: Yeah, and I can only imagine, remind me were you doing mostly fine art at that point or were you still doing a lot of illustration?
Eric: It was like if you picture a set of scales where illustration was weighing everything down on one side and I just stepped, I just started doing the fine art, so the fine art side was way up in the air in around the late 90s early 2000s. And I got into my first gallery around 2005 or ’06 and started selling. And then the scale started to balance maybe around the mid 2000s, and after ’09 everything stopped, I mean everything really dropped away back fine art and illustration. We were squeaking by making a living, but I got to the point where I told myself if I’m going to be poor I’m going to do it the way I want to do it and at least enjoy what I’m working on. And by that time I’ve done everything I could do just about with illustration and was pretty successful with it. And I just had this calling or this passion that was growing inside me to be a real painter, which would mean forsaking the illustration stuff all together and doing it my way doing what I wanted to do. So it was a mixed blessing because it afforded me time with work falling way off because of the recession to put more time into going out and painting.
Eric: And so I started feeding my galleries more painting as I was getting less illustration jobs until back to that scale illustration until the fine art was really weighting down on one side, and so I called my agent in New York and I said I think it’s time to to make a change. I’m going to move on full time to fine art, and so we parted ways and that was like 2013 maybe. So that would be when I became officially 100% a fine art painter, but like you heard before it was a 12 year transition because I was making a good income with illustration and I couldn’t just stop it and step into fine art, we just would have dried up and blown away. So I had to feel like I was secure enough and had enough money coming in from the galleries in plein air shows that I was doing at the time in order to cut loose the illustration work because illustration when you get a call for a job you’re going to get a paycheck, it’s your money. Whereas what I do now I have no guarantee of anything, everything’s speculation, I’m just hoping we’re going to sell, so it was a pretty scary jump to make.
Eric: So again back to the business sense thing I was careful as I could be. That day I called my agent said, “It’s time to quit.” It was still a big chance a big leap to take but like I said it was 12 years before I felt comfortable enough to do that, and that was 12 years of building my skills and quality of work too, not just 12 years of getting galleries and getting used to working with them, it’s like I had a lot … it’s a huge learning curve and I’m still learning I feel like I’m way behind the curve actually when it comes to fine art painting compared to a lot of my peers, so it’s never-ending learning process.
George: That’s the fun of it too though, right?
Eric: Yeah, it is, it would get boring if it was easy to do, absolutely.
George: When you were transitioning like that and you were doing illustration jobs as they came in and painting and trying to get more paintings in galleries, and you’re supporting your family, how did you balance your workloads with also being a father, a husband, and all that?
Eric: Yeah well, you could talk to my wife she’d probably say it’s not balanced. When I was doing illustration oftentimes to meet a deadline I’d have to work really late into the night sometimes pull an all-nighter, and that’s always tough on the family. Fortunately, my studio is on our property, it’s behind our house and so I’m always available. But it was frustrating to get really excited about a painting a fine art piece that I’m working on and then the phone would ring and it would be a job from my agent, and I would have to stop the painting and take the job because the job was sure money. And so it became really frustrating having to shift gears back and forth where I was trying to paint looser with bigger strokes and marks of paint on my canvas paintings, on the easel. And then I’d go back over to the illustration board and be working with a lot smaller brushes. Early on I was an airbrush illustrator and then later as I switch over to oils I was still painting really tight super highly detailed finessed paintings for advertisers where they want all that detail, and not the painting I wanted, so yeah, I became really frustrating shifting gears and going back and forth.
Eric: So the day I quit on the illustration side of things was a big relief because I didn’t have to change gears anymore, I could now just focus full-time on painting the way I want to.
George: That’s great, I imagine that being able to keep that focus and probably made a significant change in the quality of your work?
Eric: Oh yeah, I still search and destroy and hunt and peck and try and figure out where I’m trying to get to when I’m painting. But when I had to do to work in both disciplines, fine art and illustration, you get confused and sometimes I’d end up going too far into a painting with too small of detail and smaller brushes and then I step back and realize I’m rendering this thing now and I don’t render it, that’s real illustration, I want this to be more spontaneous. And yeah, I don’t recommend trying to work in both illustration and fine art painting, but when you got to make a living sometimes you have to do that.
George: Yeah, so you just endured the illustration until you could let it go towards the end?
Eric: Yeah, it became a necessity at the time, I loved it when I first got into it for many years, it was all I wanted to do. And then are you familiar with Tim Solliday?
George: Oh yes.
Eric: Western painter, yeah, well so I met Tim through an illustrator friend and I spent the weekend with Tim and Steve Huston, another painter, and they opened my eyes up to the world of fine art in one weekend. I mean it really turned my world upside down. I went home and realized that’s what I really wanted to do and so that’s when the journey started trying to make the transition, which was another dozen years to pull off, but yeah if I hadn’t met those guys I don’t know if I ever would have gotten into it.
George: Interesting, it’s like almost like a conversion moment or something.
Eric: Yeah, pretty much, I mean I think it was a god thing. I could look back in my records somewhere and probably give you the exact date of when, it was a Saturday that I hung out with Tim, and then Sunday we went over the Steve Huston’s studio. Are you familiar with Steve Huston?
George: I don’t know if I am or not, no, not off the top of my head.
You should look him up, it’s H-U-S-T-O-N. He’s a big figure painter and he teaches now, but he was famous for painting boxers, fighters, he was the original illustrator as well. But hanging out with those two guys for that one weekend changed my life literally, it just took a long time to get it rolling. In fact, Tim told me he said it would take about five years before I’d feel like I had a handle on painting outdoors and he was right, and it took actually six years before I actually got into a gallery, so there was a lot of years they were just practicing just getting down mileage on canvas. And I tell younger painters that knowing that it’s really discouraging thing to hear because we live in an instant world where everybody wants instant gratification. They don’t wait years for something to develop, I didn’t either, but I couldn’t argue with it once I got started. I was so bad at it and had no idea what I was doing. But along the way you meet other artists, you meet other painters, and you form relationships, and you start to trade information, and give each other tips and you learn and grow. It’s a journey and it’s still going.
George: Definitely, it sounds very familiar. I spent time in Nashville writing songs and pitching to artists, and I heard before going up there that it’s the seven-year town to get into being able to really do. And I think it’s probably about what it was, but after about year three or four I couldn’t continue to … I was doing a similar thing as you I was continuing to do freelance design and development work on the side as well as pursuing the music thing, and I couldn’t keep them both going after my wife and I had our first first kiddo up there, and just had to move back to where we were closer to family and do a more steady thing. But it’s inspiring to hear you talk about persevering across that length of time, that is really hard to visualize I think for people who are just getting into it.
Eric: Well part of the equation there too is that I really had nothing else I could do. I mean like I said I didn’t go to school I don’t have a degree in anything. I have no other skills except my passion to create art right, so if fine art had never worked for me I would have had to go back to illustration and I would have also had to have learned digital skills. It’s not like I’m in Estonia, I’ve got Photoshop on my computer, and I tweak paintings after I have them shot, clean them up and so forth, and sometimes I compose things with sketches on the computer to figure out a composition. But had I stayed in illustration I would have had to learn how to actually create digital illustrations and I had no interest in doing that at all.
George: Yeah, it’s interesting how the technology evolves so rapidly it’s really difficult to keep up with especially I guess like that big jump from an analog illustration world to digital, that’s be a tough one.
Eric: Yeah, and expensive too, you’ve got to keep upgrading and learning the software, learning the keyboard moves and so forth, so I’m stuck somewhere probably 10 years ago as far as that goes on my computer, but I know enough to get where I want to get. So it’s a handy tool at times but as far as creating art that way that has no interest for me.
George: Yeah, you mentioned just a second ago using Photoshop for sketches occasionally and I’m curious I know you do some photo shoots for reference material, do you take those photo shoots into Photoshop and chop them up and work with the lighting and stuff like that in there or what do you mean you say that-
Eric: Not so much although I’ll admit I did just do that, I had two different Cowboys on horses from two different photo shoots and I put one behind the other to see how they would look in a composition. But usually I’ll sketch, I’ll just draw from the photographs in my sketchbook and or I’ll use tissue paper, tracing paper, do a couple of different sketches and then overlap those, move them around to see how I could juxtaposition those shapes, and so yeah Photoshop it. But I will adjust lighting and stuff when I first load the photos in the computer before I print them out, so yeah, so that’s handy.
George: How do you document your stuff?
Eric: A good friend of mine who’s really proficient with Photoshop and digital photography, he shoots all my paintings and then I clean them up and then send them to the galleries. Anything that’s small I can shoot like maybe anything 1216 and under I can shoot myself, but anything larger than that, yeah, I take it over to his house. He lives across the river in Washington State, it’s about 40 minute drive, so I’ll take 5 or 6 things at the time. So half of the show, not quite half the show I had him shoot, so when I get these other ones done then I’ll take the rest of the show up there and have them shoot them all, bring them back, clean them up, and then send them onto the gallery.
George: Cool, and don’t feel like I’m trying to put you on the spot here, but as far as like I guess the economics of that like do you pay for all your own documentation or do different galleries pay for that?
George: I’m not trying to put one against the other, but yeah, I’m just curious if there’s a standard?
Eric: No, a galleries not going to pay for that, but like I said this is a friend of mine. He actually does these for free for me.
George: Oh well that’s great.
Eric: Out of appreciation I gave him a painting a couple years ago, but we’ve been friends for a long time and I’ve helped him out with other things and vice versa, so he’s happy to have me. It’s a good time for me or a reason for us to get together and hang out too because I only see him maybe once every two or three months, so we hang out go out and have lunch after we shoot the paintings again. I’m fortunate in that because I don’t have to pay for that, but what I do have to pay for is the frames and that’s a real killer because as you get into better galleries and better shows like these western art shows, you really have to step up with frames and I’m not get too expensive with gold leaf hand-carved frames. In fact, that’s my next big hurdle is to figure out how I’m gonna cover the costs for the frames and all these paintings for my show. And it would be nice if galleries helped with that, but most of them don’t.
George: It seems like it’d be helpful especially if they’re confident they’re gonna sell it at least a certain percentage that they could float you for the frames and maybe to be I don’t know, it seems like there could be a better deal there.
Eric: Yeah, and I’ve heard that there are with some artists that negotiated deals like that. The galleries I’m in are all 60/40 split whereas they were 50/50 when I first got into the business. And I even have galleries that wanted the artist to pay for it for half of everything to put on a show including refreshments, and that’s too much. I mean the artist is bringing the product so to speak created from scratch by the artist with no help from the gallery and then framing it out of their own pocket and shipping it to the gallery’s doorstep out of their own pocket, so that’s when the gallery should step up and put their money on the table to pay for the promotion and selling of the artwork, I think that’s a much better deal, and those are the galleries I work with really good people Bo Alexander, at Maxwell Alexander gallery where my show is going to be in May. He takes a really good care of his artists, and I was told that was the reason that gallery started with his brother and him was they wanted a place where artists could show their work and be treated the way they wanted to be treated.
Eric: And Bo’s been extremely successful with it so I feel really fortunate to be working with people like that.
George: Yeah, that’s great, a minute ago when you said 60/40 split is that artist gallery?
Eric: That’s 60 to, 40 to the gallery, yeah.
George: I assume especially the way you’re speaking about it that’s what you meant but I wanted to be sure.
Eric: Yeah, and even when it was 50/50 I’d tell somebody that and they would be shocked that the gallery would take that much, it’s hard to think of another industry where they take that percentage. And writers, agents don’t take that much, Hollywood actors agents don’t take that much, but I don’t know maybe that’s a remnant of artists being taken advantage of from years ago that started a precedent that galleries still try to enforce up to this day, yeah.
George: That’s interesting, I’ve never thought of it from that way as far as like just going back to some early beginning where-
Eric: Well somebody had to establish that ratio and I don’t know how they got to that, but somebody did and so then when you’re a new struggling artist with a gallery and you bring that up if you even have the nerve to do that the answer is usually well that’s industry standard, so whether it is or not and you really have to work with this gallery, you sort of have to do what they say until you get to a point where they’re selling so much of your work that you then feel like, well now we need to renegotiate and then you have some power to do that because they don’t want to lose you. It’s like anything else in life you got to watch out for yourself and pay attention and make sure you’re not getting ripped off because it’s got a human nature they’ll do that if they have a chance not just galleries, it’s anybody in business, they’ll say, “It’s not personal, its business, right?”
George: Right, yeah, well I was curious about the ratios there too because looking at the economics of running an art gallery, it’s interesting to me the idea maybe that ratio coming about as artists being hoodwinked back in the day or something because when I looked at the economics of running an art gallery, it just does not seem economical at all even with the 50/50.
Eric: Yeah, and let me be clear on this too, even the galleries that I used to be with who took 50/50, they weren’t bad, evil people trying to rip me off. I mean they’re taking a huge risk for themselves because they’re paying for that real estate. And I mean literally the real estate of the building but also the real estate on the wall space. They’re taking a chance by hanging my paintings hoping that it’ll sell; otherwise, they’re raising money and of course, I’m not making anything neither, but yeah, I have to hand it to them for taking that chance because from my perspective I think it’s very hard to make a living especially starting out as a nobody by selling your work online or even through an agent online. Fine art because once you get over a certain price mark people aren’t going to buy it off the web unless they can see it physically sit in front of it and handle it and know they really want to live with it. And that’s why you need these brick and mortar galleries.
George: I think that is definitely true for the most part, though I think that there are exceptions for some expensive works going sight unseen off the web, but usually I think it has to do with collectors that have seen.
Eric: Yeah, they have to be established artists that collectors familiar with.
George: Yeah, they’ve either seen their work previously or they have a piece already and they just know they’re gonna like it.
Eric: Yeah, so someday maybe I’ll get to that point and people will be able to buy stuff just by seeing it online. Actually…
George: I bet that…
Eric: Yeah last year at Maxwell Alexander my solo show they sold I think it was seven or eight pieces before the show opened to people…
George: Yeah, they’re really good about that.
Eric: Yeah, well he’s got a well-established relationship with his collectors that they trust him, even though I’m an unknown with him talking to them and saying, “You really should consider Eric Bowman’s work and then showing it to them online.” That was enough to make the sale, again, that’s why it helps to be hooked up with a gallery who has a good clientele list that really trust them and knows what they’re talking about.
George: Yeah, definitely, well let’s change gears here for a little bit, I realize we’ve already been talking for a while, this is left field, I hope that’s all right. I read an article about a plein area award-winning piece of yours where you started to describe some of your compositional elements of rules like The Horizon and Gravity. I was wondering if you could walk me through how you design your pieces from using those points I guess?
Eric: Yeah, I’ve taught maybe half a dozen workshops so far over the years, it’s not a big passion for me to teach and I really would rather be painting and covering the bills that way. But when I do teach, yeah, I talk about the horizontal plane and the vertical element and how gravity influences everything that grows on the horizontal plane, trees, bushes, and so forth are reaching up. And you have to have a balance between what you see horizontally on the land and what is going upward it could be a cliff or a bluff on a plateau or something in the desert or it could tree trunk and so forth, or it could be people, or buildings, what-have-you. But those things that are going up and down or are governed by gravity I’m talking organic shapes, so that’s the point I try to make and that when we’re looking at a landscape it helps to have it balanced. I mean we’re on Terra Firma, so that’s the horizontal plane that we’re standing on and viewing everything from, and it helps to have a balance to that, a ying yang effect foil of some sort of vertical element in there to break up that horizontal plane.
Eric: I’d have to think more about it and show you visually what I’m talking about, it’s some of the basic nuts and bolts to beginning a composition.
George: I was really curious about the gravity comment, but I guess now that understanding it more especially if it’s got a representational element to it, you don’t want to paint something that looks like it would fall down and have it standing up right, unless that’s the point, but yeah.
Eric: Well yeah, but the main point I about the gravity thing is that with a tree or even a cloud is that it’s being drawn upward or it’s growing upward. So for instance, all the paintings in this new show they all have clouds, they all have skies with clouds in them, and they’re all set in the southwest desert that’s why it’s called under a desert sky. So a lot of the clouds they’re actually the vertical piece because in most of these desert settings you don’t have trees, you could have some big rock boulders or some clips and so forth in the distance. But pretty much all of them so far I’ve used clouds as the vertical element to balance everything that’s happening horizontally.
George: Okay, interesting, thanks for elaborating on that, and then along the same lines I guess aside from just sort of your natural voice that has evolved over the years, are there any tactics you use to help your paintings to stand out from any other work that might be on the walls around them?
Eric: Consciously, probably not. I’m trying to paint the way I want it to look, here’s my real conundrum is that like I said earlier most the time I don’t know what I’m doing. I know where I want to get the painting to and eventually I get there, but there’s always a nagging voice in the back of my head that says there’s probably a better way to do this you just don’t know how to do it. So my process is once I get a composition figured out I get a good strong drawing down on the canvas and oftentimes that gets obliterated by smearing paint over it, and so I’m constantly reconstructing that drawing and then I’ll scrape and destroy the paint and then build it back up again. And while I’m doing that I’m reconstructing the drawing again with a really fine line brush because I’m a drawer and I don’t know if I’m ever going to get away from that because I mean I really admire painters who just take a big brush and they put down these staccato impressionistic bold strokes and marks and make the shape that they want and the shapes that I like to see I would like to see in my paintings, but I don’t have that skill.
Eric: So I’ll put down some big marks but then I might have to come in and box them in or outline some of them just to retain the shape I’m after, so it’s the battle back and forth of drawing and painting and drawing painting.
George: It sounds almost like a layered situation where you draw and then you paint and then you draw more and then you paint on top of that?
Eric: Yeah, it’s not transparent like glazing, but it’s covering over, and over, and over, and over, which helps build texture and which builds more interest. And if I could nail on my palette the exact color and value of a paint that I was after for a shape on the canvas and put it right into where I want it wouldn’t be as interesting a finished piece because it wouldn’t have the history of struggling and failing and then rebuilding over and over until I finally arrived at what I wanted to be in the first place. It’s a goopy formula, but I really don’t want to learn any more technique wise. I struggled to learn just trial and error on my own to paint the way I do, and maybe that’s where anything that anybody recognizes as being “my voice” that’s where it comes from because I’m looking at the dead guy’s from 100 years ago, and probably 100 different painters all contributing a little bit of style into my mind what I’m trying to picture, so this just happens to be the way I go about getting there.
Eric: And I don’t always get there I mean I don’t post all the failures and there’s tons of them all the time, but there’s a lot of ala prima painters out there, which just paint one session wet into wet and finish their paintings like that. And the ones who are good at it are really good and I really appreciate that, but I think others who just bang these things out, they’re missing the joy that comes with the struggle and the frustration of building and tearing down and building up again and having this built-in history to the painting itself regardless of the subject or the story you’re trying to tell, there’s the struggle that the artist had that maybe the viewer isn’t aware of you mean unless they really think about it and examine the painting up close. In my paintings you can see where sometimes there’s some drawing underneath there might be a pencil line or there might be the faint image of a destroyed painting underneath the one I painted over.
Eric: And if there’s enough of a message I’m trying to convey and I’m happy with the results quality wise, it doesn’t bother me if there’s remnants of a failed painting underneath or showing through it here in there, I think that just again adds more interest and it makes for a more compelling overall story.
George: I would agree I think a lot of the work that goes into making a painting has a subconscious effect on the viewer probably.
Eric: Yeah, I think that crosses all lines of art too, I mean that’s in music. I was having a conversation with a friend the other day about older music before the digital age before drum machines and so forth. And there’s a lot of mistakes on hit songs if you listen for them you can hear them, but the effect was more human that way exactly. In fact, when a friend of mine did buy a drum machine years ago he pointed out to me that it came with I guess was an internal software mechanism that was called the human element. And if you set the beat for a certain like a bossa nova beat for a song. He was a guitar player so he needed that to accompany him, and it would skip a beat, or miss a beat, or it hit the symbol partly or something when it wasn’t supposed to. And that made all the difference so it didn’t sound like a mechanical robotic drum beat, it had human element of that fallible mistake there.
Eric: And yeah so that’s another reason I don’t like what I’ve termed to be safe paintings where they’re so figured out and they’re so tightly wound and just detailed to the nth degree that you really hardly see the human element in there. You don’t see the struggle, you don’t see the sloppy stroke here or there. Some of the greatest painters that ever lived like [Siroya 00:38:58], he got away with all kinds of crappy strokes and his paintings but the overall effect was genius, just beauty. But Frank Tenney Johnson, Western painter, he’s got a lot of sloppy faces and body parts in some of his paintings, but it doesn’t matter because the grit, the oomph of the painting just hits you so hard and it’s so realistic that way because it’s portraying muscle, and bone, and dust, and dirt, and everything’s going on out there on the tundra. It adds more impact, more life to it I guess is what I’m trying to-
George: Yeah, no, I think that’s very true.
Eric: Yeah, you could have a sloppy or thick and spontaneous mark on a painting that can say so much more, I mean volumes more than in a cheerfully finessed mark that you make simply because it’s conveying or it’s showing the strength of the artist behind it or the intention of the immediacy of the artist hitting the canvas with that brush and putting that mark down. But it’s hard to control though at times especially when you get a smaller scale, it’s hard to control that thing.
George: Yeah, so along those lines I’m curious recently on Instagram you posted a study and then you posted the finished piece, which was really cool to see by the way. And I was shocked at how much finished piece resembled the study, but I’m curious, I’m not suggesting this is the case in this one, I love them both. But do you ever do a study and then find like … oh which ones?
Eric: Yeah, which painting, what are you talking about?
George: It’s the ones you posted just like last week, mass and monolith, was the finished one.
George: And I’m curious I don’t think this happened again with this one, but do you ever find that after you do a smaller study like that it doesn’t translate to the larger scale with the same passion or … you lose that human element of the first one?
Eric: Yeah, there’s a lot of physics that comes into play. We’re only so big, I’m six foot tall. My arm reaches whatever it is so there’s there’s a ratio there between me and the canvas where I have a comfort zone and the scale of my brushes also factored into that. So when you get to a bigger canvas you can use bigger wider brushes, but after a point you got take several strokes to make a shape that maybe could have been done in one single brush stroke at a smaller scale. And that’s when the idea that works really well at a small scale in the study starts to give you problems on a larger scale. It didn’t really happen this way with that cloud painting you’re talking about, but when I was doing illustration the guys back in the Golden Age when the ratio of what they were being paid compared to the cost of living back then was so much better than it is now, and they also gave them a lot longer lead time to get the painting finished. If Norman Rockwell was doing a cover for the Saturday Evening post, he have several months ahead lead time.
Eric: When I did a cover for The Saturday Evening Post they gave me like a week, and then when you have that sort of time you don’t have as much time to do studies or as many studies as like Rockwell did for a post cover where he works out all of these problems ahead of time on those studies, so that when you finally look at the final canvas it’s pretty much smooth sailing. So there’s a time factor that enters in now, which prohibits me sometimes from doing studies. But every time I do a study I figure things out that I either don’t put into the final painting, or it gets me another step closer to making a better final painting, the more studies I do the painting progresses and usually gets to be a better painting by the time I do that finished piece because I not only worked all the problems out in preliminaries, but I’ve also discovered some things I want to change on that final piece. So that’s why it’s really important to do those if you can afford to do them especially for larger paintings.
George: Interesting, yeah, I guess that makes sense. I think I was going somewhere like in writing songs and then recording them sometimes we get a first take that’s just magic, and then try and do a more polished version and it just doesn’t hold up.
Eric: Yeah, absolutely.
George: But I think if you approach it more of like practicing before a recording or whatever then that makes a lot of sense.
Eric: Yeah, I’ve read before that artist, musicians on their 3rd, 4th, or 14th take they’ve lost their energy and the excitement and that gets lost on the final cut too, so if you want to get that spontaneity and that energy especially if the label who’s paying for the album heard them live and they want to capture that it’s like you can beat that out of them if you take too many takes on a song I imagine. It’s a little bit the same thing because I don’t know how about other artists, I assume a lot of them feel the same way is I don’t like painting the same thing over and over. I was forced to do that a lot of times with illustration, they’d want something changed or they’d want to add something so they’d send the painting back to me and it’s like, “No, I’ve got to look at this thing again.” Yeah, so there’s part of the excitement of painting too is the exploration part and the unknown factor that you don’t know where you’re going with parts of the painting even though you have some of it worked out in your mind you’re on a preliminary.
Eric: But once everything’s figured out you sort of lose that excitement about over doing the painting, and then you’re just going through the moves to get it done, and the end product really suffers.
George: Though I can also see it in a way where in making those studies it’s like continuing with the music analogy, it’d be like working out just the right lick or something like that, and then once you’ve got it …
Eric: Right, there’s something that happened in the preliminary that are completely spontaneous and you couldn’t do it again to save your life. You got fifteen different hues on one brushstroke because you smeared your brush through everything that’s on your palette and you lay that into the painting, and you just get this shape that you love and all the color that’s in it, and it’s something that’s virtually impossible to reproduce, and you wish that was the right painting, but you just can’t get back to that. Yeah, that’s frustrating when that happened.
George: Well it’s interesting to think about, I’ve never really considered the transition between the study and the finished piece like that before. You told Mark that if you weren’t a painter you’d be a musician or some other artist, I was curious do you play any music or …
Eric: No, I don’t, when I was a teenager all my friends were guitar players and they’re in the greatest garage bands in the neighborhood, and while they were learning guitar I was drawing because I was always the class artist, that was my thing. But I’ve always maintained the belief that the artistic gene whether you’re born with one or whether you naturally develop it over time must be a common gene that’s throughout anybody who has artistic talent no matter what the discipline, whether you’re a writer, a musician, a dancer, an actor, an artist, sculpture painter, or whatever. I think there’s some sort of commonality there, so that if I hadn’t channeled all my passion and energy into painting and drawing, if I channeled that into playing a guitar or whatever instrument, I think looking at where I’m at now successful enough to at least make a living, maybe I would be a professional musician of some sort. I doubt I’d be any superstar musician making a really good living, but maybe end up a session musician or something, I don’t know.
George: Yeah, you never know.
Eric: Yeah, I guess you never know these things, but I wish someone would have made me learn an instrument when I was younger. We’ve tried to do that with our daughter, and she’s just not interested. She’d rather write, she’s a writer, you got to have a passion for it.
George: No, that’s true. I guess also I was thinking about it. You’ve more than other artists I’ve seen painted a lot of guitar players.
Eric: Oh yeah, I was really into early blues, acoustic blues, guitarists, and some jazz guitar players too, and I thought maybe that would be a good subject matter to explore. And I just couldn’t get it off the ground with enough interest. I think I’ve sold all of them eventually that I did, but people were telling me you really should go down to like New Orleans or someplace where they have much more interest in that musical genre to promote and sell your artwork if that’s the subject you’re going to paint. Yeah, much harder to sell then Western art.
George: Well I guess I’m curious you’ve got like the mariachis or the Cowboys playing guitar, is that what you’re talking about?
Eric: No, no, this was before I even delved into Western art. Yeah, I was about was painting blues musicians and jazz musicians, and none of that stuff’s on my website anymore, although if you look online-
George: I think I’ve seen a trumpeter or something.
Eric: One thing I hate about the Internet is people will take an image of mine and they’ll reproduce it and they’ll pump up the colors and they’ll just turn it into this garish, god-awful looking image. And then put it up on a website with my name on it and I can’t retract those and get them back, but that’s what happened to a lot of the paintings I did of musicians, so if you search for them you can find, but most likely they’re not very true representations.
George: Yeah, but as far as did you find the same, I don’t know if this is dangerous to talk about like it’s the market for the Western musician paintings to be the same situation or is that different?
Eric: This coming weekend, when is the Briscoe Museum Night of Artists?
George: I think it’s maybe the last weekend.
Eric: Last weekend, yeah, I have two out of the four that are in that show, ones a Mexican guy playing a guitar at night and the other one’s a cowboy playing a guitar out in the field with cows around. So I did sell a cowboy playing a guitar at that show last year, and then the only other one I think I’ve done, I did a senorita playing the guitar, I did another Mexican guy playing a guitar at night, and both of those sold through galleries. So yeah, I I’ll do more of that as long as people respond to it because that combines the two things. I mean I love music, I love guitar, I love classic rock, I love early rock, I love jazz, early blues, that’s the stuff I listened to in the studio. If it influences what I’m painting and if I’m actually going to paint that subject matter I have some passion behind that because I love that music. So yeah to answer your question that’s still on the table, I’m still exploring how far I can go with that.
George: Yeah, because I mean maybe I just haven’t been around enough but I don’t see a whole lot of Western art featuring musicians. I think that’s pretty cool.
Eric: Yeah, I don’t either, so hopefully I can do some more of that and maybe that’ll become something I’m known for if it’s successful or not because it’s easier for a guy to sit down and play a guitar to model for you than it is to have a horse stand still.
George: That’s a really good point, also yeah, the guitar player is probably easier for him to sit down and play guitar rather than just sit there without a guitar too.
Eric: Yeah, it gives him something to do.
George: Exactly, that’s interesting. Do you have any more time?
George: Can we keep chatting for a little bit or do we need to-
Eric: No, I’m fine I’m just sitting here painting while we’re talking.
George: Cool, what visual problem are you trying to solve right now in your painting?
Eric: I’m painting rocks. It depends on what the painting is, this painting, the one I’m working on now is a couple of guys on the top of the hill. The horizon is probably a third of the way up from the bottom of the canvas, so I’ve got some grass and dirt patches, so it might be like springtime maybe on this high hill, there’s some big rocks boulders around them. Two guys, one’s on a horse sitting on his horse, the other guys standing next to his horse in front off the first guy. And then I sort of put behind them are some big heroic stylized clouds that are going up into the atmosphere, so everything’s there. Now I’m just going back and adjusting edges, which is the element of a painting that I always forget to pay attention to until much later in the painting. I’ll start out blocking in the big shapes and juxta positioning different elements and getting the values correct. And then lastly is usually when I come and I start to soften up edges, crisp them up depending on what’s needed, so that’s where I’m at right now it’s just working the edges from the shapes of the rocks. Not really a problem at this point, I’ve got past the problems on this one.
George: Okay, so it’s more just like what you’re working on right now is just getting it done?
Eric: Yeah, fine-tuning at getting it to where I think it’s a finished piece, which needs to happen sooner rather than later because I’ve got to get on to the other piece. My deadline, I’ve got to get stuff done by mid-April because I’ll drive them down myself probably the last week of April I’ll head down to LA. And I’ve got family down there I can stay with, but I got to get the paint guys to the gallery several days ahead of time so they have time to hang him.
George: Yeah, and you got to get him photographed and all that before that probably?
Eric: Yeah, right, there’s drying time, and photographing, and varnishing. Fortunately, the framer I’m using, Ryan Olson Framing in Orange County, California, great framers, doing the same thing I’ve done the last couple years where I’ll drive the paintings down unframed and I’ve already have given him the specs, so he’s making the frames, so by the time I get there we just popped the paintings in the frames and I load them back up in my car and turn around drive back up to LA, drop them off at the gallery, which saves me … yeah, since I’m going to be down there anyway if it saves me shipping charges of having the frames shipped up to Oregon, which is completely unnecessary, so that works out well.
George: Yeah, plus the time.
Eric: Right, so that’s another thing to allow time for when I go down there is another extra day getting over there and getting them framed up and then taking them back up to LA.
George: Yeah, how much lead time do you like to have for a gallery show, say a solo show maybe in one instance and then maybe a group show in another?
Eric: Oh as much as they’ll give me. I just got contacted by a gallery up in Central Oregon, Mockingbird Gallery to do a group show with Russell Case, and Eric Jacobson, and the fourth guy, I can’t remember who the other guy was, but that’s set for I think September 2020, so that gives me plenty of time. Yeah, and it’s not that there still won’t be pressure because in between that time there’s going to be other projects and so forth. But yeah, the rule of thumb is the more time the better. I made the mistake a couple years ago of doing my solo show and then I was pressured by another gallery into doing a two-man show with another artist, and it was too much. I’m not a fast enough painter, I can get once I have an idea design figured out I can get most of the painting on canvas in a day, but then I’ll spend another week, week and a half, reevaluating, and tweaking, and getting it to where I’m happy with it.
Eric: And you have to do 10, 12, 15 of those for a show, that’s a lot of time. And if I’m rushed to do that then obviously the paintings suffer and then career suffers.
George: Exactly, don’t want to be in that situation.
Eric: No, but it happens because there’s always scheduling snafu’s and having a teenage daughter there’s a lot of drama around our house. And a lot of things cut into my time when I’m supposed to be out here focusing on creating artwork, life happens.
George: Yes, always does, one other off topic question, I had you mentioned changing scales can be tricky if you get too big due to simple mechanics of anatomy I guess. But I was curious you were talking about your studio and it sounded like you have a really big studio in the back of your house?
George: And I was curious if you have any mental designs on doing really large-scale work at any point?
Eric: Well yeah I mean as far as mental designs and I’m definitely mental so I think about a good friend of mine who was a framer not a picture framer, but a builder. He helped me and he did most of the work, remodeled the inside of this building so that I have a wood shop workshop on one side, one corner, and a bathroom and storage unit on the other side and then there’s a loft that bridges of the two, that’s my office upstairs. And below that where the library is I’ve got a double-door entry and I purposely made it double door so that I could at some day in some point bring huge canvases in here to work. But to date I haven’t gone any larger than a 48 by 60, which is huge-
George: I would say that’s pretty big.
Eric: It is, big, yeah. But I could work three times that size in here. And I’ve talked to Beau at the gallery about this and that’s something that collectors eventually like to get. You don’t want to start out that big. Yeah, it’s something you got to work your way up to and often those are commissions too. So I’m not opposed to working big, I certainly have the space to do it, but for now I’m trying to stay in my comfort zone not going larger like the biggest painting in this show is probably going to be that Nash and monolith cloud piece, which is only 34 inches high-
George: Right by 30.
Eric: Yeah, 34 by 30. I’ve got some others 24 by 30, 30 by 30, that seems to be a good decent size, and it’s not too exorbitant price wise.
George: Right, it’s more of a collector friendly size.
Eric: Yeah, especially for Maxwell Alexander does a Black Friday sale every year. You have small scale paintings designed specifically to appeal to and be manageable for younger collectors that have smaller budgets. So where my price points are now they’re more on the lower end compared to the guys I was showing with at the Autry show. Some of those guys have huge prices, and they’re their big name artists, they’ve been doing it a long time. But I’m the new kid on the block so my prices are relatively much lower. They’ll move up over time, but for now I think the medium large is still pretty affordable as far as my works go, and the small stuff are really pretty cheap. So if I’m getting 60% of that, it’s still a good chunk of change if I sell a number of pieces in a show.
George: Definitely, that’s good.
Eric: Yeah, anything that gives me enough money to pay the bills and keep me going in this career I’m very grateful for. I don’t need to be a rich guy, I’m not trying to make a million bucks doing this, I just want to feed the passion and do the best painting I can and pay for my family, and then I’m very happy.
George: Great, yeah, I was going to address the collectors who might be listening to this and say get your Eric Bowman while you can.
Eric: Yeah, it’s nice and cheap so get one now because who knows what they’ll be in another couple of years. 😉
George: Exactly, that’s great.
Eric: The main thing is what comes before what I’m thinking about price-wise is I’m just trying to be the best painter I can be. I have such a long way to go compared to what I have in my head that that’s the focus, it’s not about how much money I’m going to make off of a painting. It’s just trying to reach that elusive level of work that I’m after. For some artists that’s what it is all about — making a living, making the money. And you see some guys painting the same thing over and over because it was a big seller or they’re chasing after the flavor of the week because it’s selling really hot in their gallery with some other artists, and I don’t want to fall into that ditch.
George: Right, no, I think your passion for doing and I think comes through, and I’m sure some of what makes your pieces sought-after.
Eric: Well I hope so, yeah, that’s the point, I mean the intention.
George: Yeah, well Eric, thanks for chatting today and I really appreciate the time you’ve given to talk and doing it while you’re painting?
Eric: Yeah, no, I enjoy it, thanks a lot George.
George: All right.
Eric: We’ll talk again.
George: Sounds good, Eric, take care.
Eric: Okay, you too, bye-bye.