Noelle Phares is an environmental scientist turned artist. After leaving her job at a growing startup in silicon valley, she rediscovered painting and started her own business selling her artwork in the form of prints and original paintings.
I had the chance to tour her home studio and discuss her path, work and muses, and got to see her larger-scale pieces hanging at Space Gallery in Denver.
0:13:03 Design first, then medium
0:16:06 Watershed Down and vulnerable landscapes
0:22:50 Why and What?
0:29:31 Evolving into the current style
0:36:44 WG Support Message Break
0:37:42 Adding figures / Observatory I
0:42:27 Becoming pro / Making a living
0:46:21 Brand Collaborations
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Interview with Noelle Phares, Mixed Media Artist
George: Is this your full-time gig now?
Noelle: It is. It’s been almost two years since I’ve been doing this full-time.
Noelle: Yeah. I did not ease into it at all. I, like, one day was working as a scientist for a tech company in San Francisco, had gone undergrad and graduate school for some different things within the hard sciences, and then a couple years ago, just like made this artist u-turn. Didn’t even plan on doing art full-time when I left my last job, but after a few months I was painting every day.
Noelle: I built my website, and I just remembered like the little dream that we all have in the back of our heads, which is like, “What do I want to do when I grow up?” For me, I would always like very much repressed it, I think because I come from a background of a lot of people in medicine, and sciences, and like really no fine arts.
Noelle: Yeah. The little dream in the back of the head for me was this picture of myself and overall slathering paint all over the place as a job, and it just never seemed realistic until I got some really intense business training inadvertently through working for the last tech startup that I worked for.
Noelle: I was leading a product team there. We were an agricultural tech company. My master’s degree was in Environmental-
George: Environmental Science?
Noelle: … Science-
Noelle: … related stuff. I worked in agricultural sustainability from, like a data perspective. We used satellite information, so I led the engineering team that took satellite information, mostly imagery and other spatial data layers.
George: Interesting, okay.
Noelle: Yeah. Combine those together through just various modeling techniques to just better understand how crops use nutrients and water.
Noelle: We were a really small company. It was called Mavrx. We were super small company. I think I was their second or third hire, and by the time I left the company about three years after I started, the company had grown to about 60 people. Yeah. Even as like staff environmental scientist, you start with a tiny company and they’re like, “Oh, you’ve built a product, figure out how to market it.”
George: You see all the different aspects of it.
Noelle: Yes, yes. Crash course, and sales, and the product/market fit, and all these things that I just had no idea about, so when I left and actually, it was my last job, my last I guess employed job not in the arts.
Noelle: I realized I had this business background that gave me a new insight into just what creating a business would look like. Although I’m an artist now, I very much think of myself as a small business owner too.
George: Right. Which if you’re-
Noelle: You know how that works.
George: I mean, if that’s your… even if like, you’re just doing the art and somebody else is taking care of all the business stuff for you, you’re still ultimately a small business owner for yourself.
George: Right. It’s not like you’re an employee of somebody as an artist really.
Noelle: Right. I think you make better art, at least not everyone’s intention as an artist is the same. For me, I want to get the most satisfaction out of, beyond just creating work that is meaningful to me with my science background. We can get into that more, but the most I guess impactful thing on just my own motivation is just seeing people enjoy the work.
Noelle: Right. Not for the money, but like when people buy it, it’s validation that you’re creating something that people like and are hanging in people’s homes. For me, being in touch with who are my customers, what are they responding to, what sales techniques, and all this, all that just like, leads back to creating better artwork for them. The business and art perspectives really feed each other.
George: Yes. Yeah. It makes a lot of sense.
Noelle: Yeah. That’s been an interesting journey.
George: Yeah. Cool.
Noelle: Oh my gosh, when I think about what’s changed the most now versus when I started two years ago, I mean it’s everything of course. One of the hardest things as someone who’s had no experience in the fine arts before. Really didn’t have any connections, or mentors, or role models until a few years ago in the fine arts just diving into it and saying, “Okay, I’m an artist now. We’re going to do t his.”
Noelle: It was really wild to figure out what is the day-to-day look like, what needs to be done the first to be able to build a brand and get into a decent gallery and all that. I think my artwork is evolving for sure, but just my day-to-day efficiency and I think the order of operations in what I do to be successful is getting better. Thank God.
Noelle: Less time spent on stuff that doesn’t return much for me I guess.
George: Right. That’s cool.
Noelle: That’s been really nice.
George: You’ve been doing this full-time for like two years. Were you doing it as a hobby initially while you were still at the tech company or-
Noelle: Yeah, yeah. I’ve always been… I have a twin sister. My twin sister and I were both just really into drawing and watercoloring, which as we were just saying it’s funny that watercoloring is an early paint form for people because now-
George: Yeah. It’s crazy. Yeah.
Noelle: … you realize it’s so technical. It’s like wild to give a kid a watercolor set and… I’m so sorry.
George: Maybe just like least messy maybe.
Noelle: That’s true.
Noelle: Yeah. All you really need is like some water and a little-
George: Yeah. It’s so portable.
Noelle: That’s fair. I’ve only done a little bit of instruction in the arts, but I’ve led a couple of watercolor workshops and you realize really fast how much training it takes to produce a good watercolor. Just in do it like, “Okay, I’m going to paint and you follow my steps along,” and expect everyone to look like mine. Not that I’m an expert watercolor, but relatively experience. Then you look around and like, “Oh my gosh, this is not intuitive to people.” They just don’t look the same. Anyways, I’m sorry, tangents.
George: That’s okay.
George: Yeah. You’re watercoloring and drawing as a kid.
Noelle: Yeah. In college, again, my undergrad was in Biochem, so I was in labs all day, but I still… my college roommates can attest to this, I often have a big canvas just going at any given time. I used to oil paint back then.
Noelle: Really different stuff from what I paint now, but it’s always been backburner for me and I always really loved it.
George: Had you taken classes in that or did you just pick up some oils and some stuff and try it out?
Noelle: Yeah. I’ve never really had any formal training. I don’t even think I’ve been to… I did one short artwork shop when I was maybe in middle school, but other than that, it was all self-taught.
Noelle: Although, the resources online, I’m not going to lie here.
Noelle: Our times when I’m like, I really need to improve on how to capture depth in a complicated landscape for example and I will pull up a video of an expert watercolor. For example, painting and there are times when I’ve also paint along just for practice. That’s been super helpful, especially with some of the more technical stuff, like layered watercolors.
George: Yeah. Well, that’s cool. At least you can… I don’t know, see where you want to improve on things like, giving things to have a deeper appearance and Google that. That’s cool.
Noelle: Yeah. I keep going back to watercolor just because I think it’s interesting to talk about and think about, although I paint more with acrylic these days. So much of watercolor painting is I think a little bit counterintuitive, just in other types of painting. When I’m painting with acrylic for example, I’m typically painting dark to light and you have to do almost, I do more composition planning now, but you have to do very little planning because you can layer as much as you want, right?
Noelle: With a watercolor, you got to keep the light areas light, and so much planning involved. Then, just the spectrum of dry to wet, and working along that spectrum to produce different effects with both the paint, and with the water on the paper itself, I think some of watercolor technique is a little bit counterintuitive. It has been really helpful to get a little more expert training, even via YouTube for that. I’ve seen more progression in my watercolor technique than in my acrylic technique for example, even though I use acrylic more.
George: Yeah. Yeah. I’ll have to check those out because I… I mean, I’ve been doing some watercolor sketches and during the past few, I’ve this like, I wish I’d left some more white for-
George: I don’t know, sky or something.
Noelle: It’s the watercolor’s curse.
Noelle: I always wish that… and there’s a workaround though. Do you know the workaround?
George: You can like scrape it off, right? With razor things.
Noelle: You can, you can get it wet and like blot it off.
Noelle: I’ve never tried scraping it off before. Maybe if it’s a really thick paper, you can almost take some paper off, but-
George: Yeah. I think that a lot of professional watercolors have like a X-Acto on hand.
Noelle: Yeah. That’s reasonable. I can’t say I really tried that, but the other workaround, I think watercolor purists think it’s cheating a little bit, but sometimes I pull in that white gouache or like gouaches.
George: Yeah. White acrylic because I mean-
Noelle: I almost always have a lot of gouache on hand that I just go back and touch up a watercolor with at the end. Some of them, actually, this one that is on the left here, that was all gouache, other than the geometric structure on side were acrylic, but I really love gouache. It’s just such a different effect with the chalky opaque look.
Noelle: It’s been really fun. I think the other thing that I’ve really enjoyed learning throughout, just diving deep on this fine art process in the last couple of years has been having a design in mind is that I want the end product to look like, and getting better and better at knowing which techniques, and what types of paint to use to get there.
George: That’s cool. Yeah.
Noelle: Yeah. I think I used to sit down, a piece of paper, and say this is going to be a watercolor, and just try to force it. Sometimes, I think that’s really good for training, but now often, I’m so much more flexible with saying okay, instead of deciding this is going to be a watercolor, I instead, I’m going to just think about what I want the end product to look like, and I will use acrylic where acrylic is going to be more powerful even on paper.
Noelle: I’ll use watercolor in some areas, gouache in some areas, pencil, chalk, oil pastel, whatever. I just think a lot less about making myself stick to a certain medium, which has been really, I don’t know, freeing I guess as a type of artist.
George: That’s an interesting thing because so many artists I think are just like most comfortable in one medium and just stay right there. They’re like, when they’re thinking about their next painting, they’re not thinking about what do I want to accomplish and what medium would be best to suit this that I want to use like, “Oh, another oil paint.”
George: Which is oil paints are great, but it’s fun to think about all the different stuff.
Noelle: Yeah. I mean, there’s something to be said for that, right? I mean, they say it takes 10,000 hours of doing some task or some practice to become expert. I think if you’re an oil painter, it’s nice to stick to oil because you’re just going to get better and better, but for me, I’ve always been very much driven by new challenges. I have a very hard time wanting to stay in one spot and like, repeat something to get better. I never paint the same thing twice.
Noelle: I’m so much more interested in I guess almost trying something new almost every time. Yeah. I don’t know. I’m constantly being drawn to trying new techniques and there’re just different ways to approach it I guess, right? I’m hoping that my 10,000 hours will be an amalgamation of trying different techniques, and my expertise will be more in producing something that the end product looks like what I want it to, independent of the technique. Does that make sense?
George: Yeah, totally. 10,000 rule thing, which I think is like well, yeah, it means a big number, but I think that like, especially you have all this experience and the business with your startup background. That transfers into like knowing how to be like a professional artist, like those hours count I think. Not towards like the technique.
Noelle: Fair, yeah.
George: The count towards knowing how to like, be a professional, right?
Noelle: Yeah. No, that totally makes sense, right.
George: That stuff transfers I think, which is interesting.
Noelle: Yeah. I appreciate that. That’s very-
George: Trying different techniques like these… okay, so can you tell me-
Noelle: I didn’t only set these ones out, but they are all different.
George: Yeah. Can you tell me like, for listeners, what the titles for three are that we’ve been looking at?
Noelle: Yes. We are looking at three prints right now.
George: Are these prints? Yeah, okay.
Noelle: Yeah. Two of them are prints of paintings that I’ve done in the last month and a half.
Noelle: They’re actually up in a gallery right now and those are titled Watershed Down and Northern Hymnal.
George: Yeah. I like the Watershed Down. I remember releasing that title and like, “Oh, that book.”
Noelle: Yeah. I’m just enchanted with that story and-
George: Is that this one?
Noelle: Yeah. We’re looking at a painting that’s acrylic and gouache for the most part, and this was actually the last painting that I did in a 10-piece run for this gallery show that’s actually up at a gallery called Space Gallery in Denver. I was doing this entire series on landscapes that have been impacted by climate change.
Noelle: Various landscapes and this one in particular is a scene of canyons and running water up in Northern California near my hometown of Paradise, California, which was a small town. The only reason why people know it now is because it just burned down last year.
George: The fire, yeah.
Noelle: That’s my closest firsthand experience with actual serious damage from climate change. PG&E was at the end of the day blamed for it, but really in reality, these fires happen because these landscapes are just parched. They’ve been experiencing serious drought for a long time. There’s a lot of data to suggest that it’s very much been exacerbated by climate change.
Noelle: Yeah. The title Watershed Down was just a play on obviously, the classic novel Watership Down, where these little rabbit residents just had to flee their home looking for something new and that’s really what all of the residents including my own parents have… this area in California had to do.
Noelle: It was sad, but I’ve really enjoyed… I mean, I never actually painted my hometown or the area around it until this fire happened. I’ve painted a few pieces in the last few months and it’s been really fun to just think a lot about home and the landscapes that I grew up with.
Noelle: We’re also looking at another piece called Zenith, which is another topic that’s been… I’ve been painting a lot since I moved to Colorado about a year and a half is a mountain range in Colorado. I’m either painting landscapes that I’ve been to, or that I want to go to, or I have some personal tie to, or of course, there’s a draw towards painting the landscapes that I think my core audience really want to pay attention to, which a lot of my collectors and clients are from Colorado and live in Colorado now. I’ve been painting more and more Colorado scenes.
George: That makes sense, yeah.
Noelle: I try to keep it diverse. The thing that most inspires me when I’m thinking about what I want to paint is thinking about areas of the world that deserve more attention I think from not just art collectors or art viewers, but from people thinking about what is vulnerable on the planet right now.
George: That’s interesting. Yeah.
Noelle: From an environmental science perspective I guess.
Noelle: That’s what really makes it interesting to me to paint them is I typically embark on a little research phase first where sometimes someone will commission me to for example, paint New Zealand. I did a painting of a glacier in New Zealand earlier this year and my process for start to finish, what is this painting going to look like? I typically start off by doing a bunch of research around what makes that landscape vulnerable, and glacial melt in this part of New Zealand is certainly evidence of climate change and of just changing landscape.
Noelle: For me, I try to make some resource that’s imperiled a little bit as the topic of the painting, whether it’s obvious or not the viewer. It’s a fun, but I guess an intriguing talking point when I’m talking to people about the painting because inevitably, I end up selling prints later.
George: Yeah. It serves multiple purposes that way too, like one, some people are buying prints or buying the painting to hang in their home. They enjoy the piece and for whatever reason they bring to it. Also then like, if it’s imperiled piece of nature, you’re raising awareness of that in telling the story of it, but then, also documenting it should it disappear or something-
Noelle: That’s a good way to put it.
George: … or should it change, right?
Noelle: Right. I have been thinking a lot about… I’ve just been writing a lot for various purposes, but writing a lot about the work I’ve been doing the last year and always trying to rethink like, why am I painting what I’m painting, what does it mean, what does it mean to people and I keep coming back to… certainly, I have this environmental science background that feeds the topics that I paint about.
Noelle: I also recognize that a big reason why I paint, why I think a lot of artists do paint is just simply because they want to capture something really beautiful. You said it before, right? You’re capturing maybe just a snapshot in time of a landscape that’s rapidly changing. I think that’s important. People are just intrinsically drawn to beautiful things and there’s nothing wrong with that.
Noelle: When I’m thinking about a composition, and a palette, and whatever beforehand, certainly, what comes to mind most for what I want to accomplish is to create something beautiful at the end. It’s not just for the sake of creating something beautiful. It’s so that when someone looks at it and they say, “Oh, this is an area that was impacted by a climate change,” after I’ve yapped about it on whatever platform.
Noelle: I want them to look at it and say, “Oh my gosh, this is really beautiful. Where is this? Oh, it’s Paradise, California,” and realize that that beauty exists or it did exist, and just wanting to preserve it however we can as a society. Even if it’s just for the sake of preserving beauty, I think that’s a really good starting point, right?
George: Definitely, yeah. It’s fun to hear you say that you’ve been thinking a lot about what you’re painting, and why you’re painting it, and putting a lot of thought into that. I was talking to somebody not long ago about understanding your mission or the reason you’re an artist, and it came up that a lot of times as visual people or like, people have learned to express them self best visually, it’s hard to put that into words. Writing about it can be a real challenge, but then if you look at your body of work today, you can start to go in and pick up what you’ve done and why.
Noelle: Right. Find a narrative along those lines.
Noelle: Yeah. I can totally see that, why that would be the case. I think I have come to art from a really different background, where most of what I did before was either actually doing studies, repeatable science, whatever, but so often as a scientist or many other professions, most of your work comes out in writing.
Noelle: I did came from a background I was really used to writing a lot about abstract ideas, which is a scale that served me so well as an artist now because that’s what we’re doing is often writing about really abstract concepts. I always really enjoy reading more, hearing more about the stories behind like truly abstract art because that’s where you really need to hear from the artist to understand what it’s about.
George: Yes, yeah.
Noelle: My fiancé’s mother, her name is Amy Metier, is a professional artist and she actually lives in the Denver area too. She’s been very helpful since I’ve moved here, but she’s a very abstract oil painter. It’s been really interesting asking deeper questions about her process, and learning what art is like to her, who just had a very different path than I have.
Noelle: Her work is really different, and you look at a painting that Amy does, and they’re beautiful, but they’re really abstract. I think to myself or to anyone who is not right there next to her, listening to what this is about? You look at it and you have no idea, but of course, there’s a story behind why she’s painting what she’s painting. Everyone has their own story I guess for what their art means, right?
Noelle: I wasn’t even really into looking at art that much before I started painting.
George: Yeah. That’s right. My next thought is are you a contemporary fan?
Noelle: I mean, I have my favorite artist absolutely, and the deeper I get into this world, the more I enjoy it and the more necessary I think it is to look at other art, but I wasn’t really raised going to art museums. It hasn’t been a big part of my life up until a couple years ago. I was absolutely the person that like, modern art museum looking at the artwork and be like, “God, what is this?”
Noelle: I have a hard time even seeing the art in this, but coming back to it and saying about Amy, now that I understand what my own practice look like and other people’s, now I look back at those pieces that I’m almost used to look at and realize, “Oh my gosh, there’s a long story behind this artwork.” That’s been really cool I think to like, reinvent the way that I look at other art.
Noelle: Hopefully, I think we all do that throughout our lives, but-
George: Yeah. Before I… sorry, posting the pictures on Instagram as western gallery, I had a lot of exposure to like, south western art and then I guess the wider art I guess as well, but for the longest time, I didn’t think about people painting landscapes, or animals, or the pictures of cowboys, or Native Americans is like. Almost like, as a valid form of art, I was like no, this is just like-
Noelle: Why not?
George: … this is like painting a-
Noelle: Just painting right what you see in front of your eyes?
George: Yeah, yeah.
George: There’s not much to it or something, but I don’t know. At some point, I came back around to it, but I think it’s interesting to hear about people who are doing representational art, who have a bigger appreciation for contemporary and other art forms I guess.
George: Because it really helps to connect those dots and I think that I’m not alone in not valuing the western representational art in the same realm as like, big contemporary art, but I think that that’s wrong now.
Noelle: What, what is wrong about that?
George: I feel like it’s wrong to not value it as much or to think that it’s like a different kind of thing.
Noelle: Got you. That’s funny. I came from the opposite side of the spectrum. Before I started doing this, I mean to me, art was the perfectly captured landscape or portrait. Like I said, didn’t spend all the time in museums, but when I did, the artwork that I really looked at, it’s like, “Oh, my gosh, this is amazing,” where it’s like the hyper-realistic renaissance art, which is the layman’s art exposure—you go to the Louvre.
Noelle: I feel like I came from a really different side, and I’m learning to put that on one shelf and try and raise up the value to me of like, highly abstract art and like, learning why that’s art too. I feel like, we got to get in front of-
George: Yeah. I know, exactly.
Noelle: … which is interesting.
Noelle: I question that view that I had before a little bit now. I mean, I certainly think it’s… I love hyper-realistic art. I think it’s important, if only just to capture snapshots in time. They used to be the only way that people could capture snapshots in time was painting.
George: Yeah. It’s true.
Noelle: I have played such a different role in past times than it does now.
George: I’ve never thought about that before like, the way the-
Noelle: The documentation on purpose?
George: … contemporary art veered away from representation as the availability of photography and whatever has become-
Noelle: I haven’t really thought about that either, but doesn’t it make-
George: Makes perfect sense.
Noelle: … makes sense? We have better tools now.
Noelle: Yeah. No, it’s interesting. To me now, I don’t necessarily strive to create, have a realistic artwork, but I still think the purpose of capturing a realistic scene serves the same purpose that it did back then. I still want someone to be able to look at a portion of a painting, and it’s rare that like, a whole painting is of one landscape because I like to chop things up.
Noelle: I like to be able to produce a painting where someone can at least point to like, one mountain escape and say, “You know what, I know where that is,” because I think rounds the piece for them a little bit, and it creates a really good starting point to talk about it.
George: When you started I guess exploring painting as you’re thinking about leaving your other job or whatever, were you doing mostly just like, straight representational stuff? How did you introduce the abstraction into it or where did that come from I guess?
Noelle: That’s a good question. When I-
George: Or was it always been like that and just-
Noelle: No. It hasn’t always been like that. I think it’s been about a year and half since I started combining a fracture or architectural geometry.
George: There was one piece that I feel like, maybe it was your turning point, maybe it was just one that I saw-
Noelle: It’s actually the one that you featured in your podcast-
George: The hexagonal, yeah.
Noelle: Yeah. It’s fine or sorry, in your Instagram feed, that’s funny that you were able to pick that out.
George: I think it just really, that was like, the one that came up when I was like scrolling through Instagram. I was like, “Oh, well, this is pretty cool.”
Noelle: Yeah. I’ve looked a lot at your Instagram feed and most of what you feature is so different from mine and really different from that piece that you posted, but well done. That was one of the first pieces I guess that I started exploring this style regime that I’m in now. Oddly enough, it’s still one of my most popular paintings that I’ve ever done. Sometimes beginner’s luck is great, right?
George: Maybe so.
Noelle: I don’t know. I don’t know why, but that’s become like a hallmark of my work, that piece. It’s often that some magazine or whatever wants to like, do some little feature and they’re like, “Oh, this is the piece you want to feature.” I’m like, “No, let’s use a different one.” No. I used to absolutely, my view of artwork was how well can I capture what I see in front of me before I started this as a full-time gig.
Noelle: When I made this switch, I was living in San Francisco. My then boyfriend, now fiancé and I were sharing a one-bedroom apartment in the Mission District of San Francisco, million dollars a month for rent practically, but no, I had a tiny space. Functionally, I did say to myself, “How can I make painting something that I can build into my life?” Even before I quit my job, I recognize that I missed painting.
Noelle: I steered away for a while, so I started watercoloring. As we said before, it’s much easier to contain a watercolor practice than it is a big oil on canvas. I started watercoloring. A lot of my early work that I still sell prints now, but early work from when I started doing this full-time work, objects, natural objects that would watercolor. Not complicated scenes, which now again, the complicated scenes would have depth that watercolor are… they’re more challenging.
Noelle: I think I started with easier stuff, but I, very early on thought a lot about what was the beginning of a business like, and the tech world, and the beginning of the business is you have an idea and then you go out in the world and you see if people have a problem that needs solved, like is there a market for that, right?
Noelle: Very early on in my painting, I was like, “I have to figure out if people want to buy my art.” I have to figure out if my artistic voice is something that people want to listen to or I guess look at. I started experimenting a lot. I knew I wanted to paint landscapes and something in the natural world, but much like the product research you do at first as any other company would. I had to think about what is my niche going to be.
Noelle: I started thinking about what I used to do in the natural sciences that I find to be really interesting, and that I think is an important thing to think about in the world, and that is how is human kind forcibly changing landscapes? One of the most obvious ways is you look around and almost any natural environment you look at is going to be dotted with buildings. It’s going to be dotted with like human footprint.
George: Yeah. I mean, as you were about to say that, I was looking at this big picture window here in your leaving room and just I can see this house across the street from you like, just part of it above the bush there, and behind it like big evergreens and other trees. There’s just like the straight lines, like that’s not something that happens.
Noelle: So true. No, it’s everywhere.
Noelle: I started looking around and it’s funny, now, I still… when I go to an art festival or like, a gallery that has my work in it, a common response from people who haven’t seen my work before is, “Oh my God, your work is so unique. You’re doing this like, cool geometric landscape stuff.” I appreciate that, but my response in my head is like, “Actually, that’s what the world looks like.”
Noelle: Nature is now cut up very much so by these dark geometric shapes, which are manmade and that is what I’m capturing in my work now, even if it’s not clearly a building sitting on a mountain. That is the point for me. The environmental story comes from saying what is this landscape look like alone? I might capture a landscape fragment, like I said a recognizable mountain range or something.
Noelle: Then, I start building in some architectural features or geometric structures, and these three examples are really similar in how I do that, but I have other ways I build that style in. The point for me is I think try to get to a place where people can see that combination as beautiful. It’s interesting that we’re talking together because you focus on artists that capture the west, right?
Noelle: The west in past times was the frontier, for sure, as populations move westward centuries ago. I think there’s this still present notion that the frontier is basically like, where man meats wild and they oppose each other. Really, I think like the most optimistic future for human kind is like, a future in which those forces coexist, instead of oppose each other.
Noelle: We need to think more about the resources in the area and the other life forms when we’re designing new urban structures or whatever. My work is an attempt to let people look at these seemingly opposing shapes together and realize these can be really beautiful together. Does that make sense?
George: Yes, absolutely.
George: Yeah. I mean, I think that’s a great description of what you’re doing. It’s cool.
Noelle: It’s been a journey to like to realize… to think a lot lately about when I’m painting and some of that was deliberate and some of it, any artist, I think you find threads in your work after they’re finished. Even though there’s deliberate design upfront, but certainly, looking back at how the work has evolved, I think that’s a story that really makes sense for me and will keep driving the work as it goes forward.
Noelle: Well, I already showed you this one a little bit, but I started on… I don’t think this is like a style regime that I’m going to stay on for long, but this is one of a few piece… oh, thank you so much, a few piece series. Let me just show you here, that I don’t know. It’s been in departure at like… like I said before, I have a really hard time wanting to stay in the same place. I’m always trying something new. I don’t think this is going to last long, but I’ve started introducing people into it, which I never did before.
George: Before you had the people in there, you’re showing progress shots of this one and I was like, “Oh, this is really architectural.”
Noelle: Yes. I mean, so the goal of this one, it’s called Observatory I. There’s an Observatory II. I think about I’ll go with this for… I don’t know, at least a couple more paintings. These are new so I haven’t mixed both of them to anyone yet, but the point is just exploring the idea of how people experience nature in the modern world.
Noelle: In this piece, there’s very much a sweeping landscape in the background, and then there’s this abstract building, and there’s some little faceless people just like stuck inside this building, just looking outwards of this expansive landscape. It’s a bit of a commentary on how sad it is that so many people experience nature like, through their windows and their screens a little bit.
George: Yeah. You can say the same thing for art.
Noelle: How so?
George: Just like so many people see art through their screens more than towards not to, but-
Noelle: Totally. Yeah. No, that’s an interesting parallel, absolutely. I don’t know. I like it. I think it was a natural evolution for me, just given what we already talked about with somebody like topic story in evolution to introduce people at some point because that’s the tie, I guess back to the whole thing is really for better or for worse. I’m not condemning development or progress at all. I just think sometimes we need to be a little bit more deliberate, thinking about what development means.
George: Yeah. I mean, this is shown separation-
Noelle: People are at the core.
George: Yeah. You were talking about previously how people and nature need to integrate better.
Noelle: Yes. Well put.
Noelle: Sure, I just said that.
George: Yeah. I mean, or-
Noelle: No. I think that’s exactly it. I never want… I had this professor in grad school, who I used to be very much had doom and gloom environmentalist, where I used to write for this like, green bug and you’re just writing in grad school. A lot of the point of at least the master’s program I went to is how do we actually create change, not just let’s do science and understand more about the world. I, very much my graduate school at UC Santa Barbara had the focus of, “Okay, let’s understand the science and also let’s figure out how to change the world with it a little bit.”
George: Like, policy or activism or both.
Noelle: Yes, exactly.
Noelle: Both. I mean, so I went into the private sector and worked for a technology company, where some way of changing the world was we’re building better tools to allow farmers to waste less chemical, pollute less basically. I used to have this professor, who very intelligently was like, Noelle or other students who had the same tendency, it’s like people hate sad stories all the time. If you really want to create change in the world, whether that’s through your writing, or through policy, or through products and technology, people don’t pay attention if you’re doom and glooming all the time.
Noelle: I try to repackage it into a positive statement about whatever the story is. I guess in these series that features people and separation from nature, it’s meant to just be more a reminder of how beautiful the landscape is outside. The dominant scene in this painting and its twin, it’s the landscape. It’s not this section with the humans. Its look at how beautiful this world is that we live in. A little nudge like, “Oh, as if we’re a little separated from it.”
George: You may get closer, yeah.
Noelle: Yeah. I don’t know. Hopefully, I accomplish-
George: That’s cool. I think so, yeah.
Noelle: … that.
George: That’s great, cool.
Noelle: Thank you
George: I know we only have a couple minutes left, but it’s been really fun talking about your actual artwork. I’m also curious about how did you start… okay, I’m going to ask you three things at once.
George: How did you start selling your work? Was it Etsy or did that come sometime later? Then, I’m curious about your collaborations that you’ve been putting together.
Noelle: Cool. I think that’s two questions. I can handle that.
George: Okay. Cool.
Noelle: How did I first start selling my work? I very much knew as I referenced before that if I was going to be an artist that was sustainable, AKA, supporting myself on art, I needed to make sure that I was painting stuff that people wanted to buy. Actually, it was… and you asked about how I started selling it, but they’re one and the same. When I started even just pondering this possibility, I started my Instagram account that was just for art.
Noelle: Even though that was at the time where just like friends and family that were looking at that, I started really actively maybe putting myself in a vulnerable position, but I was okay with that. Very early on, just posting what I was painting and just looking for some feedback from people that wasn’t my mom or my boyfriend. Yeah. Multiple stages of validation like, is this worth it before I invest a lot of time and money in this? Yeah.
Noelle: I was getting really just good feedback on that. Before I even I think started selling anything on Etsy or at any sort of like an in-person show, just from my Instagram inquiry into the business, I had a couple of requests for commission to paintings from people that I knew in my network, right?
George: Got you.
Noelle: I was like, “Yeah, totally. I’ll do this. We’ll see what commissioning a painting is like.” Those were my first I think like, real sales of full paintings. I didn’t sell any of the large paintings that I did back in college and before. I did a couple of commissions, and for me that was just early validation. The people were really happy with them.
Noelle: I enjoyed painting them under pressure. It wasn’t long after that. A few months after I quit my job that I’d been just really into painting heavily, knowing that I needed to have at least, I think I told myself arbitrarily, but I was like, “I need eight prints to sell on Etsy.”
Noelle: Like, I need eight different pieces-
George: Like you’re like, I’m going to open a Etsy shop-
Noelle: Yeah. It’s like I’m going to open an Etsy shop.
Noelle: Let’s just try it, like I don’t know if strangers are going to buy this stuff. Still, most of my audience was friends and family, but I was like, “Okay, step two. Let’s see if people buy stuff online.” I dove into creating eight, somewhat simply, like works on paper that would translate really well on the print, launched an Etsy shop and yes. That started selling like pretty, pretty early on, I would say.
George: Just to complete strangers or how did they find your-
Noelle: At first… I mean, I think my first 50 or 200 sales were to people within my network, right?
George: Okay, yeah.
Noelle: People that were following me in Instagram, I had started saying like, “Oh, I quit my job and like, maybe painting now, not really sure.” My first… yeah, 50 to 100 sales within… I don’t know, the first month or two were those people, people that already knew me.
Noelle: Then, I just I don’t know, I did a lot of research into what… I saw the value of Instagram for growing a following, and not just the following for likes. It’s like for me, having a big audience on social media is it’s a marketing platform for sure.
Noelle: Now, and I can actually segue this into the branded stuff, the product-related stuff for other companies. Focusing on growing my Instagram following through in-person shows, through gallery shows and through like strategic, I’ve done some of the branded work early on and had some big accounts like feature me. That’s where like my first big followings came from. Organic growth, but-
George: Can you remind what some of those were?
Noelle: Yeah. I did some work for a ski company, a Colorado ski maker last year, Meier. I did some work for like this winery out in Napa. I’ve done a bunch of work for some breweries. Let’s see, I did not necessarily branded work, but there are a couple of like media company, it’s like She Explores that has a decent online following of mostly women, like outdoorsy women, totally my target audience for my artwork.
Noelle: People that resonate with the story behind it.
George: Definitely, yeah.
Noelle: I’ve sent some artwork to them, wrote a story and I was like, “Hey, feature me.” You know what I mean?
George: Okay, awesome.
Noelle: Those kinds of things have been where the organic growth has come from.
George: Did you do a similar thing for the like, the ski company or the winery or are those just like networky things?
Noelle: No, they… those all, they came to me, so I guess… yeah, those all came to me and honestly, most of them came through Instagram.
George: Wow, okay.
Noelle: I’ve been seeing I write something for She Explores or some other. I did send a lot of just literally, like images online to companies that have big Instagram followings, being like, “Hey, you have viewers that want to look at unique artwork, like within your topic space.” Like, “Here’s some artwork,” and we want to make it easy for them to like, want to do something for you is you have to something for them. As businessy as that sounds, it’s just the way it goes.
Noelle: That’s just where my growth has come from.
Noelle: Now, my sales started on Etsy and then I started doing some in-person shows in San Francisco before I moved here.
Noelle: Big group art festival type stuff, more validation, right? These are strangers. These are strangers walking by and being like the people’s faces light up when they see mine versus the next landscape painters. I felt like I was really onto something with the new style that I was starting working with, with it was structural geometry with landscape.
Noelle: It’s very much been an iterative like, let’s try something new, see how my customers and how strangers are reacting to it, and alter the course accordingly, just stylistically anyways. That’s worked really well. Most of the product-related work I’ve done, which the one I’m really excited about, can’t talk about it too much, but I did some work for Meier recently. The outdoor brand and that’s going to be hopefully, that was a really fun project and probably the biggest brand that I’ve done some work for, but that stuff came to me organically.
Noelle: They saw my stuff on some like, magazine feature or something that I sent them in some artwork and some writing. They liked the story. The stuff just feeds itself I guess. It’s been fun.
George: Cool, awesome.
George: Did you learn about doing some of that marketing outreach stuff with the startup you’re with?
Noelle: Yes. I led a product team there.
Noelle: The products that my team worked on was this very complicated like, spatial data modeling product for farmers. Farmers are… I love agriculture. I think farming is so important, but if you can like, segment big Iowa like, corn and soy farmers out, you’d put a box around them that says not very tech-savvy.
Noelle: Not necessarily progressive, and so this was the audience that I had to learn how to market these complicated products to. A big part of my job was figuring out how to market these really abstract products and a lot of that is through visual like, infographic, graphic design, yada-yada.
Noelle: There was artwork involved in that, but-
George: That answers another question that I was thinking about is like, where does your design ability come from? With no real training, like-
Noelle: Yeah. It was like learn on the fly stuff for previous jobs.
Noelle: I built a website for a biotech company that I worked for in my early 20s. Then, I actually started my own company out of grad school with some colleagues that was in the sustainable agriculture space. That didn’t last too long, but it was a really interesting company. Again, we were a bunch of like, nerdy scientist graduate students that had to figure out how to market a product.
Noelle: I really… like, a lot of it is the same. It really is. It’s like tell a story about your product that people are interested in.
Noelle: Learn who your target audience is and like, spend your time getting your stuff in front of them.
Noelle: Don’t waste time spraying it as far as it can go, be very targeted.
George: Yeah. I mean, that’s straight up marketing.
Noelle: Yeah. Yeah.
Noelle: I’ve been really lucky and that I’ve been able to bring on some almost full-time help too with the last six months. We’ve been talking about how running an art business is like running any other business. That means I probably have at least 40 hours work of… 40 hours a week of work to do that’s not painting.
Noelle: Right. It’s like order fulfillment-
Noelle: … framing, exactly. I’d sell a lot of prints through retail shops, so there’s always like, getting those orders out, coordinating with them.
Noelle: I don’t know. There’s just so much that goes and do it, and I was almost… I love what I’m doing now so much, but it was getting to a point about eight months ago, I was like, “Oh my God, I’m painting at night.” I only can paint at night because I’m spending 40 hours a week like, banging my head against the wall, on the computer and like, packaging prints, and cutting backboards, and shipping orders.
Noelle: I finally just thought to myself like, I have to make this something that is more interesting to me. Like, a bigger proportion of my time needs to be spent on art. That’s where I’m really going to grow, unless if it needs to be spent on the other stuff.
Noelle: It was a little painful at first to start paying out of pocket, for sure for all this help, but I did just a little number crunching and realized my time is worth so much more painting than it is paying 20 bucks an hour to an assistant to do that stuff. It’s been awesome. I have now been like, outsourcing all of that stuff so I can paint 70% of the time, instead of I was probably painting 20% of the time before.
Noelle: That’s been such an amazing change in the last eight months.
George: Yeah, wow. That’s awesome. That’s really-
Noelle: Hopefully, I’ll keep going with that.
George: That’s really like, eye-opening percentages I think for probably a lot of people-
Noelle: Oh my God.
George: … listening like, oh, wow, yeah. I mean, I’ve always had like a metric of like okay, so you spend half of your time doing the thing and then you have to spend half of your time do-
Noelle: Doing all the other things.
George: Well, maybe promoting it, but yeah, and then also like, the administrative stuff or whatever. Yeah. It’s wild.
Noelle: Yeah. I mean, it wasn’t until I really sat down and I actually tried to document where my time was going for a few weeks. It was like west, fall, just I was feeling really burned out and like, why is this happening? I’m not even paying that much. I did it, I crunched the numbers. I was like, “Dude, I can’t afford not to hire an assistant at this point.”
George: That’s good. I mean-
Noelle: It’s been so great.
Noelle: I mean, I’m totally really loving it.
George: That’s great.
Noelle: It was just tough.
George: Cool. Well, Noelle, I know you have to finish up for your Cherry Creek festival stuff.
George: We’ll cut this here.
Noelle: It was great talking.
George: Yeah. You too, thank you so much.
Noelle: Cool. I wish I had time to ask you more about you, but next time.
George: Yeah. There you go, that sounds good.
Noelle: You’ll have to interview yourself sometime and I’ll listen to that
George: Man, that would be weird.