When is a vacation an escape from work and when is it an inspiration to work? In the digital age, many people lucky enough to get a vacation have to struggle to keep work at a distance while on holiday. For me, it’s sometimes a tough call, whether to try to capture the experience or just take it all in.
For the busy professional artist, taking time to just observe and absorb can pay off in renewed inspiration. When I was a kid, every summer we would pack up the boat (30’ gaff-rigged cutter Galatea, built by my dad) and take off for two weeks of sailing around Chesapeake Bay. After intensely working in the studio all year, my dad was happy to take a break from painting, only occasionally pulling out his sketchbook. And his father, my grandfather Bjorn Egeli, had a similar approach. Supposedly, the painter Dwight William Tryon (1849-1925) would only fish and sail all summer long, then paint in his studio the rest of the year. There is something to be said for taking the time to simply look and listen and experience.
But the urge to capture some of the magic of vacation is a strong one. I find the process of sketching makes me observe more closely and helps me note some of the feeling of a particular place. Even a quick little doodle in Indonesia lets me bring more of Indonesia home with me than a photo does.
Painters think of the design of things in terms of positive spaces and negative spaces, and this is often how I view my life as a professional artist. The way we spend our non-painting time fits perfectly with the way we spend our working time to create the whole design of a creative life. It’s important that we value both aspects of the artist’s life.
In September I had the rare opportunity to paint on location in a chimp sanctuary. I got to see, up close, the wonderful work being done by Save the Chimps to feed, care for, and provide a wonderful life for 250 rescued chimpanzees. These cousins of ours have incredible stories of surviving horrible experiences, and here they find safety and a chance to heal.
I took my plein air painting kit over on a very warm day and set up painting outside an enclosure housing Nigita. Most of the chimps are housed on large islands, and since they’re allowed to roam and I’m not (humans are not allowed in their spaces for safety reasons), I looked for the most accessible subjects. I chose to paint outside the Special Needs Facility, which provides spacious enclosures for those that can’t co-habitate with the other chimps, either temporarily for medical reasons or more long-term because of trauma or behavior. Nigita seemed interested in me and willing to stay close, so I quickly set up my oil paints and began working to capture a likeness. He sat patiently for a while, but then, like many of my younger human subjects, he grew bored with watching me paint. He wandered off, moving out of my view to see what the other chimps were up to.
So then I moved over to Cheetah, known at the sanctuary for being a prolific artist himself. All these chimps have amazing life stories, and they are posted on the website of Save the Chimps, along with their photos and information about the sanctuary. Read their stories! Cheetah was clearly very interested in what I was doing as I began to paint. He watched intently, and I kept my painting turned so he could see it. When I pointed at it, he nodded and opened his mouth (which I’m told is a very positive reaction). We made chimp sounds to one another, which is fun once you get the hang of it. He loved seeing me mix color, and stayed right with me for over an hour, and would have stayed longer except that I had to leave. It was a magical experience, and one I hope to repeat. Next time, I’m told we can arrange for Cheetah to have his own paints with him, so we can create simultaneously. As you’ll see on their website, he loves to paint, so I’m looking forward to sharing that experience with this wonderful artist.
Please support this wonderful cause!
Artists work largely in our own realm of inspiration and creativity, so gathering with other artists to break the isolation is especially important. This past week the American Society of Marine Artists hosted our first National Marine Art Conference in Williamsburg, Virginia, and it was definitely a great way to “refill the cup”.
I’m honored to be a Fellow in A.S.M.A., a distinguished level of membership that demands excellence and allows (and expects) me to contribute to the Society in whatever ways I can. At this conference, I was a panelist for a discussion titled “Marine Art in America”, brilliantly moderated by Fine Art Connoisseur Editor Peter Trippi. Fellow panelists sculptor Kent Ullberg, painter Len Tantillo, painter Ian Marshall and I had a wide-ranging discussion about the state of marine art today and where it is headed for the future. For another presentation, my dad Peter Egeli and I presented our family biography along with some story telling from three generations of life in both art and maritime interests, including boatbuilding.
There were many excellent demonstrations and interesting (even hilarious) talks from the likes of John Stobart, Kent Ullberg, C.W. Mundy and more, as well as gratifying camaraderie with other members of A.S.M.A. I saw old friends and made new ones, and left Williamsburg full of renewed energy, fresh ideas, and a reminder to always reach for the highest level of creativity and excellence in all I do.
If you’d like more information about the American Society of Marine Artists, including details of our conference and the 17th National Exhibition, please visit our website.
A frequently heard opinion these days is that traditional portraiture is both a dated way to honor someone and a lavish and unnecessary expense. By “traditional portraiture”, I mean a physical likeness of a subject expressed by hand in either paint on canvas or sculpture. My bias is obvious, but I feel strongly that until we have some other suitable and enduring way to honor those who lead us (in either public or private life), portraiture is as important as ever.
For centuries, the people with the most power and influence have chosen to honor the people they most felt deserved a lasting tribute, and those were usually men, and usually white. These are the people we see immortalized in oil paint and bronze and stone, in public and private spaces all around us. These are the memorials to power our children see on their school trips and our foreign visitors see when learning about our history. Portraiture says something about who we are and who helped get us here.
In modern times, we are seeing slow, but at least forward, progress toward more diverse leadership. Women and minorities are reaching the highest levels of public and private institutions in far greater numbers than ever before. And yet, just as this is happening, we are deciding as a society that monuments in paint or stone are too costly and lavish, a waste of money where a photograph will do. Photography is indeed fine art, but the highest level of tribute in our world remains the hand-crafted likeness.
Until another medium grants the same distinction, I think we need to make sure portraiture continues to tell the story of today’s diversifying leadership.
Related link here.
In February of 2016 I jumped at the opportunity to travel to Cuba with many other artists on a trip organized by Plein Air Magazine. It was a brief trip, only a week total, but plenty of time to get a taste of the inspiration Cuba has to offer and to reflect on a unique place so close to the US and yet so far.
“Visit Cuba before it changes forever…” was part of the description of what the Paint Cuba Plein Air Invitational would be, and I think all of us who signed up were thinking that. Shortly after arriving it was obvious both that Cuba is a time capsule and that it is potentially on the verge of being launched full speed into modern times. Many times each day I felt like I had gone back in time, whether to horse-powered plantation life or Soviet-era architecture or the1950s heyday of greased hair and bold American cars. It’s hard to imagine these things will change quickly, but the people I met seem eager to prove they can excel on the world stage in modern times.
The maritime life of Cuba was what interested me most. The coastal fortresses and seawalls stand as they have for almost four centuries, and the fishermen ply the rough waters in small boats that have been held together with scarce resources for decades. A fisherman carefully repainting his wood skiff told me it was fifty years old and his engine was forty. Men and women who ply the seas are already known for being tough and resourceful, but in Cuba they take that to another level.
Looking north towards the US from a beach on Havana’s outskirts, I remembered past trips camping in the Dry Tortugas, where sitting on the beach was whatever was the most recent Cuban boat to make it to shore there. Scraps of metal welded together into a somewhat graceful hull, large car engine mounted inside. A vessel covertly yet beautifully made out of scraps and found materials, designed for just one courageous voyage. It was a powerful experience to be standing on the other shore, looking out from Cuba.
I did as much painting on location in Havana and its surrounding areas as possible for a short and frantic week. Someday I hope to return to Cuba, but for now I will let the powerful first impressions of a place frozen in time resonate through my paintings.
There is nothing like experiencing an original work of art in person. A painting has subtle shifts in color and a richness to the pigment and brushwork that are hard to duplicate. Anyone who has been to a museum to finally view the actual painting they’ve admired since hanging the poster on their college dorm room wall has learned this.
But, while only one person (or museum) gets to own the original (and it remains the most valuable, even more so through its proliferation), everybody else who enjoys that painting finds genuine satisfaction in owning the poster. The reproduction of paintings is a great way to share art with more people, at a price that makes it widely accessible.
I’ve long considered whether to venture fully into the world of reproductions of my paintings. Previously I’ve done only three, one of which was a fundraising print for a non-profit, and one was just started last year (On Salty Fields). Recently an exciting opportunity came up that will allow me to offer a variety of prints of the highest quality through a trusted source.
In today’s digital world there is the issue of reproductions being made without artists’ permission and with no compensation. Artists can take back control by offering buyers what they are looking for, in a quality-controlled format that preserves the integrity of the creator’s copyright (a surprising number of people don’t realize that, unless they sign it away, artists retain the copyrights on their work, even after it sells).
I am now beginning to make prints of select paintings available through an online store. An original painting will always be the most valuable and rewarding to collect and enjoy, but I hope these new prints will extend the joy to many more lovers of fine art.
Like many families that carry on traditions of particular professions for generations, my family has a running history of making art as a career. My grandfather Bjorn Egeli left Norway early in life and then settled in the U.S., establishing himself as a successful portrait and marine painter. His wife, my grandmother Lois Baldwin Egeli, was a very accomplished painter. All five of their children pursued careers as professional painters, including my dad, portrait and marine painter Peter Egeli. In my generation at least four of us (that I know of) are working as artists, and I can already see hints that we could have a few more in the next generation who choose to continue the tradition.
It is not unique to have multiple generations of artists in the family, think Peale family, Wyeth family and many others. But it seems to be rare, perhaps because it’s a challenging way to earn a living, or perhaps because there are just many other options for the creative types. Having so many artists in one family has benefits (support and understanding, knowledge passed down) as well as difficulties (defining your own work, not stepping on each others’ toes), but on the whole, it provides a rich setting for an interesting life.
My father, Peter Egeli, has written a wonderful book about his father, Bjorn Egeli. While not an in-depth biography, it captures his life through photos of him, his paintings, his boats (he was also a boat-builder), and provides some context for those of us following in his footsteps.
Understanding the context of how we got to where we are now can give us clarity and confidence and a deeper well from which to draw. I am very grateful for the deep well of creativity in my family history.
And so I believe in building my paintings on a sound surface, whether it’s a nicely stretched canvas or archivally produced panel. Double primed linen is my surface of choice, usually stretched on wood stretchers and secured with copper tacks (I’m not a fan of staples on larger canvases). While I always prefer to stretch my own canvases, the panels I use for much of my painting en plein air are bought from suppliers. The panels are still made with double-primed linen, but instead of being stretched, the linen is then secured with archival glue to a backing of either birch or masonite or foam board (very lightweight for travel). For me, the important thing is to have a high-quality surface that gives me the texture and feel I want while preserving the painting on an enduring and well-crafted canvas.
I’ve been very lucky to have the chance to travel to Italy for a week of painting and exhibiting in June, then to France for the whole month of September, and that’s where I had a chance to write a bit about the experience.
I was selected by Les Amis de La Vignette at the Musee de Yvonne Jean-Haffen to be the artist in residence for September, and in return donated two of my paintings to the museum’s collection. The residency was in the picturesque medieval town of Dinan, on the banks of the Rance River in Brittany, France.
Madame Haffen (1895-1993) was an accomplished painter and a visionary who donated her home (La Grande Vigne) and collection to the town of Dinan, and established this wonderful residency. It offers artists from all over the world the opportunity to live and paint in an incredibly inspiring place, just as she did. I was lucky enough to catch the end of an exhibition of her paintings (and a few by her teacher Mathurin Meheut) at the cultural center in town, which gave me a great overview of her work. More of her work is displayed at the museum, which sits just up the hill from the cottage (La Vignette), all part of the property that was her home.
The cottage had all the comforts of home, a studio equipped with easel and utility sink, and a bicycle in the closet. With my painting kit strapped to the back of the bicycle, I pedaled up and down the Rance River to paint the trees, bridges and marshes of this endlessly inspiring place. I also packed my gear in my car and wandered along the spectacular coastline of Brittany, setting up my easel in fishing ports, sheep pastures, and even on Omaha Beach in Normandy.
I did a couple dozen paintings while in France, some of which are studies for larger canvases I’m starting in the studio, and some are finished paintings I will now exhibit. All of them are part of the experience, the joy of being there and taking it all in. For me, it’s all about exploring, understanding and creating, and as long as I’m doing that I know I’m alive!
Many thanks to Les Amis de La Vignette for a wonderful residency.
Travel has always been a vital part of my life as an artist. The exploration, the discovery, the inspiration that comes from a change in location, all appeal to me. Usually I alternate between the urge to paint familiar surroundings and the urge to immerse myself in someplace completely foreign.
I’m a big believer in letting paintings speak for themselves, I don’t think one should need to read a thesis to be moved by the work. But, there are times when a little of the story behind a painting is interesting, and here is where I’ll share some of those stories.
At the moment I’m between travels. I had wonderful painting trips this summer and fall to Maine, Cape Cod, Maryland’s Eastern Shore, New Jersey, and Virginia. This winter I’ll be painting the Everglades and other parts of South Florida, then in 2012 there are many trips in the works, to be updated later.
My first website went online in 1995, and since then it’s been redesigned and updated many times. Posting images of my paintings along with brief descriptions has made it possible for those interested to see my latest work, even when they couldn’t see it in person. Since the very early days of my career I’ve done mailings to update my collectors and supporters on news and future plans, and now this too is going digital.
In recent years I’ve been considering a way to communicate some of the behind-the-scenes information that doesn’t quite fit into an image with caption, event description, or newsletter. A blog seems to be the perfect venue.
My goal is to share, with my collectors and those who support my work, a little bit more of the story behind my paintings. Perhaps some notes on travels, stories behind paintings, and other items that I get asked about.
I don’t expect to be a prolific blogger (there are many good ones out there), so please don’t check back daily for new posts. Please subscribe if you want to know when I post something, and thank you for your interest!
I am a professional artist and avid global traveler who paints landscapes and portraits both on location and in the studio. I’ve had the great privilege and pleasure of working with many interesting people and traveling to spectacular places around the world during my more than two-decade long career.
For most of the year I live by the shores of the Chesapeake Bay and during the winter I live and work in south Florida. A more detailed biography can be found on my website.