Frequently Asked Questions
Where do you get your ideas?
I am interested in nature, ecology, and protecting the environment. I love birdwatching and traveling. And I'm fascinated by the collections of natural history museums and evolution of scientific theory. I read a lot about nature and pre 19th century explorers who tried to catalog the living world. I also follow current environmental issues closely and try to express my concern for the natural world with humor and optimism.
Just as important to me are the humor and social commentary of writers like Mark Twain, Kurt Vonnegut, George Saunders, Roald Dahl, and Stephen Millhauser.
I like to work in series, and once I have a general idea about I theme I'd like to explore, I'll create scene after scene until I grow tired of it.
I love painting, printmaking, and drawing of all kinds and love to borrow, steal, and imitate other styles. The example above is inspired by a show of Indian miniatures that I saw at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in Richmond. The colors were much more brilliant than anything I'd used before, and I used the stylized animals, landscapes, and pallette from that show and adapted it to my own story.
What's your favorite medium?
That depends on the mood I'm trying to create. I work mostly in oils, acrylic ink, graphite, and scratchboard. I studied printmaking and especially loved the process of pulling lights out of a dark field in print media such as mezzotint and wood-engraving. My current favorite is scratchboard, because it allows for delicate line work and imitates the processes of these two printmaking methods.
How does one become a professional artist?
The answer is different for everyone, but the most essential quality is tenacity. It's not an easy way to make a living, as you have to make the art AND run a small business, unless you're independently wealthy. And you'll have to get used to rejection and learn not to take it personally. Many talented artists end up working in other fields.
I was fortunate to get my start in the 1990s while living in New Orleans, which was a cheap place to live at the time. I worked part time in the service industry to pay the rent and had plenty of time each day to paint. I spent at least 5 hours a day in the studio, and usually more. American cities and the economy have changed, so it is harder to find affordable housing and studio space. My advice is to live simply and avoid unnecessary debt, so that you can spend as more time in the studio and less at your job. Wallace Stevens worked full time for an insurance company and managed to write all those brilliant poems, so there's no excuse, is there?
It's also helpful to find any art related job possible, so that you're improving your craft while making a living. I've had tons of art-related jobs. I made puppets for someone's productions; illustrated menu covers for special events at Emeril's restaurant; illustrated a home decorating catalog; taken lots of commissions, often for pet portraits inserted into famous paintings; painted murals in homes, restaurants, and nightclubs; and taught art to foster children, troubled teens, Alzheimer's patients, college students, and aspiring artists. I've learned something from each of these jobs and picked up some business skills along the way. It's important to keep track of how long each project takes you and the cost of materials, so that you'll be able to give estimates and decide which jobs are worth your while. And it's important that you clearly outline the terms of your agreement with each client before starting a job so that there are no surprises and disappointments along the way.
Do artists need a degree?
Drawing and painting from life is essential for inventing convincing scenes from the imagination and painting from observation is a challenging and fulfilling practice. Find a teacher with technical skills that is able to help you develop your understanding of perspective, value, and anatomy. There are plenty of great art teachers to be found, and not just in the most prestigious art schools. I've had great teachers at community colleges and rec centers.
Artists also need to be able to write and explain their work and should understand their place in the continuum of art history. Art is an expression of values and interests, and some classes offer the opportunity to explore these interests more deeply. Education is important for the visual artist, but the degree is not usually considered by art dealers. If you want to teach, a masters degree or one in education may be necessary. A bachelor's degree may be useful if you want to find work outside of the studio. I am fortunate to have earned a BFA from the PA Academy of Fine Art and to have studied with the extraordinary painter and teacher, Auseklis Ozols, at the New Orleans Academy of Fine Art (an non-degree/atelier school). And I'm very lucky to have had a family member and partial scholarship to allow me to get the degree.
The last thing an artist needs is debt. The advantage of earning a degree is the chance to take academic courses and improve critical reading and writing skills. However, galleries and art buyers are not generally concerned with whether or not you have a degree.
Artists need time to create and sell work, which is much easier if they do not have to pay off school debt.
Where did you get the idea for your book?
I lived in New Orleans for many years and loved to bike around the rookery at Audobon Park, which was home to dozens, if not hundreds, of egrets and herons. We moved to Philadelphia the year before Hurricane Katrina hit the city. This was, obviously, devastating for many reasons. While listening to the coverage of the storm and its aftermath, I heard an interview with a couple that had remained in the city. They said that one of the hardest adjustments was getting used to the silence in the days that followed- that they trusted their neighbors would come back as soon as possible, but that the birds had flown off when the winds came and hadn't yet returned. I did not know how to address the human tragedy of Katrina, so I focused on the birds. It is fair to say that we have counted on scientists to repair much of the environmental damage we are causing, so I began to draw a catalog cover for a company that made birds to replace the ones that are endangered or going extinct. The colors and shapes were inspired by the extraordinary birds I saw while in Brazil. I worked on the concept for about five years, writing it as the diary of the company founder, then as a sci-fi novella, then as a screen-play, before deciding that the catalog concept worked best.
I brought it to an illustration course and my teacher liked it enough to introduce me to his editor, who showed it to an agent. After some small changes, we found a publisher. Ten years after the idea was born, it was published by Clarion/Houghton Mifflin.
Since then, I have illustrated two books written by other authors and am hoping to find a publisher for a wordless picture book I have created.
Where do you teach?
I teach private lessons and group workshops in my home studio in Maryland, and week-long workshops in Spain and France in the summer. The workshops abroad include meals and lodging and are a great opportunity to immerse yourself in painting in a new and inspiring setting.