We all know that building a sustainable career in the creative field is not easy, especially when you discover your passion at a later age. How many times have we heard the question – can a self-taught artist make it in the art world? At Agora Gallery, we have a number artists who have embraced the freedom of being self-taught and done incredible things with their artistic career. We decided to interview some of them in order to inspire those of you that may have apprehensions and fears about being a self-taught artist.
Self-taught artist, Robert Ellison produces both emotionally as well as aesthetically driven paintings by creating a dialogue between the details of realism and the freedom of abstraction. Having discovered his talent at the age of forty, he has had a short and yet incredible artistic journey so far. He believes in the power of art as a form of expression. Using his personal experiences and surroundings as inspiration and his strong artistic intuition as guidance through the art-making process, Ellison paints for the challenge and joy of being able to express himself in a visual form. “My objective as a painter,” he says, “is to express the essence of what I experience.”
Seeking the beauty in the familiarity of the everyday, Ellison produces the most captivating landscapes and still lifes. He has a very distinctive style of painting, one that is driven by intuition and fuelled by his dedication towards the art form. “Blending realism and abstraction, I strive with oil or acrylic, knife and brush to convey my excitement and interest in the subject with bold and often contrasting marks, colours and textures,” he says.
We spoke to him about his incredible journey and how he discovered his talent and passion for art.
You didn’t start painting until you were in your forties. How did you discover your talent? What gave you the push and how did you go about starting to paint?
In 1989 I went as a “non-painting partner” with my wife Barbara on a painting course holiday in France. One morning a tutor gave me a pencil and paper to keep me busy while the painters went off to paint. I believe I drew the nearest wall but it was acclaimed by the tutor and painters as an impressive drawing so I returned to the course two years later as a budding painter.
When it comes to being an artist, do you feel that being self-taught is an advantage or a disadvantage? Do you ever wish you had professional training?
I think being “self-taught” is definitely an advantage for me, but then my late father (also Robert) was an artist and my wife is one too. I have never been to art college and am sure I could not paint as freely had I been impressed with the “templates” of professional training. When painting, I seem to enter a wonderful but challenging wilderness in which tone, perspective etc. feel largely irrelevant to the primary task of expressing what I feel about both the motif and the process of painting it.
In painting, what serves as a source of motivation for you?
My father was offered a scholarship to study art in Rome, but it was around the time of the Great Depression. Things were not easy in Belfast as elsewhere and sadly he had to turn it down. I have a number of terrific etchings by him but he tended to be generous in giving his artwork away and I have only one painting, a beautiful watercolor of a County Donegal landscape, which I hang and admire with pride in my bedroom. I feel a duty to honor him by making the most of my own talent and all the opportunities I enjoy that were unavailable to him – not least in the Digital Age to “export” my artwork to anywhere in the world.
The challenge and joy of expressing myself by somehow saying something about my environment is another motivating factor for me. As Seneca put it: “What is painting but silent poetry?” I am probably more alive – more keenly in the present moment – when I am painting than doing anything else.
Your art style is a beautiful blend of realism and abstraction. How has it evolved?
I recall having been impressed in the pre-digital age by the emerging effects of “parallax distortion” in photographs (i.e. linear distortions towards the edges of photographs). I started using similar and other distortions in my paintings. This encouraged me to break out of realism – particularly any notion of photographic realism – at an early stage of my art career. I have moved slowly in the direction of abstraction ever since, but continue to feel the need for my work to be anchored by a degree of realism. There are some wonderful abstract painters, not least among the American Abstract Expressionists, but I have no ambition to move into total, or even near-total, abstraction.
I think the unconscious mind is itself a kind of a palette – perhaps “the ultimate palette” – in which my visual vocabulary, including a spectrum of intuitive colour values, is enriched by the works I have seen by great artists like Van Gogh, Matisse, Soutine, and Picasso.
Do you paint outdoors or from memory?
Both. Memory, particularly in terms of sensory recall and affirming a sense of place, is very important to my artwork. That said, it is my usual practice to have the motif in front of me, actually in the case of a still life or an en Plein air landscape, or by interpreting drawings, sketches and/or photographic references.
You have a very distinctive color palette. Any particular reason?
I mix and apply paint in colours that I consider might best amplify the beauty and energy of the painting. At times a lot of conscious thinking goes into that process, but often it just seems intuitively correct to use a particular color. I can only assume that my unconscious mind is the main driving force producing a distinctive color palette in my artwork. Indeed I think the unconscious mind is itself a kind of a palette – perhaps “the ultimate palette” – in which my visual vocabulary, including a spectrum of intuitive colour values, is enriched by the works I have seen by great artists like Van Gogh, Matisse, Soutine, and Picasso.
Since starting to paint you’ve participated in a number of exhibitions and won multiple awards. Just a few weeks ago, you took 1st, 2nd, 3rd, AND 4th place in American Art Awards, the Impressionism Still Life category. Seeing how quick the recognition and success had come, do you ever feel disappointed for not picking up the brush sooner?
Only fleeting moments of mild regret – I probably would have “blown” early success as it took me a very long time to grow up! In fact, I consider myself exceptionally fortunate. I am so much better off than the many millions on our planet with innate artistic or other talents that for one reason or another are never discovered or fully realised. I have experienced the sadness of losing best friends to sudden premature deaths. My friend Brian’s widow gave me a very promising painting – perhaps his only artwork – that he had completed at a night class. My friend Adrian’s widow gave me a box of paints he had planned to start using in retirement. So I often think that my artwork is a way of honoring their memory as well as my Dad’s.
At 67, if my luck and health hold, I could still be painting for another quarter-century. (I had the privilege of knowing a very lovely lady who has just passed away at 106 and was still painting at 104!)
You mention how practicing meditation had a positive effect on your art. How do you think an inclination towards spirituality and mindfulness helps an artist?
In my experience mindfulness meditation (with some openness to basic principles of acceptance and so forth) can improve things such as concentration, intuitive intelligence, relationships with others and our general sense of well-being.
Meditation was an enormous help to me during my difficult years. It improved my mental stamina, insight, empathy and equanimity – all of which are also important attributes for an artist in any medium.
What advice would you give to other self-taught artists?
Here is what I would say to a budding artist like me –
(1). Use good quality materials – the best you can afford.
(2). Do not be afraid of “wasting them” by experimental work that “fails”. (Some of my best works were done on top of failed paintings and are all the more energized for that!)
(3). Research the classic tenets and practical aspects of your medium, eg. for painters, rules of perspective, composition, tone, how to vary texture etc – not necessarily to use them much, but to give you extra confidence and strings to your bow if and when you need them! And remember that for painters at least it is generally helpful to practice drawing skills as often as you can.
(4). See as much quality artwork in as many galleries and online sites as you can.
(5). Make sure that you get out and about enough to build up your visual vocabulary and find ideas for future projects.
(6). If you haven’t already done so, open a website and make sure it contains high-quality images of your work.
(7). Use online media as best you can to promote your artwork.
(8). Socialize or interact as best you can with other artists.
(9). To quote a Buddhist master: “Do not fight yourself on any level … but heed feedback!”.
(10). Most importantly, keep painting, sculpting, whatever!
More inspiring stories in our upcoming articles for the Self-Taught Artist series are coming up. We’re going to be featuring more painters, photographers, and sculptors, all self-taught artists that were able to break-through and consider themselves successful.
If you have a topic that you’d like our advice on, please add it to the comment thread below or email us at firstname.lastname@example.org