by Bob Bahr
Rod Lawrence is thorough when it comes to his own art, and accepting when it comes to other people’s process. In other words, he can and will show you exactly how he makes an image, but he does not expect or even encourage workshop participants to copy his approach.
For some workshop-goers, this is a key issue. Skilled artists often find themselves “enjoying” disciples–emerging artists who hang on every word and brushstroke from the teacher. That’s not for Lawrence. “One of the main things I like to tell people at workshops is that I’ve been painting for 40 years but just because I say something doesn’t mean that I’m right,” says Lawrence. “It’s some food for thought, but ultimately they have to figure out what works for them. I hope that what I teach proves to be helpful in some way. Ask me anything you want to ask me.”
Lawrence is an in-demand workshop leader, and the typical SKBer will be thrilled with what he has to offer participants in the Fall workshop in Wyoming. Lawrence is a veteran of wildlife art, having thrived during the peak years of hot-selling animal prints and sold-out mega shows on the circuit. His technical skills are significant … but that’s not all he has. “I’m a detail guy,” he says. “I love painting detail. That can’t be the goal of the painting, obviously. A painting must look good up-close as well as far away. I admire people who are very loose, and that can be extremely effective, but I like to be that effective with detail as well. But overall you must have a strong composition to start.”
The Michigan acrylic painter was an early adopter of computers and software programs such as Photoshop. He uses that image manipulation program to create a collage-like reference photo based on multiple photos in his archive. Manipulated to showcase a desired light effect, and augmented by additional drawings and field sketches, Lawrence composes his paintings first on the computer, and then in paint in the studio.
In some pieces, such as “Hang Time,” it’s clear that the painter enjoys painting texture, even when the texture is outside of the primary subject matter. The weathered wood is showcased nearly as much as the black-capped chickadee in that piece. Details, details, details. It’s one of the ways Lawrence shows how he transcends wildlife art in his work.
Lawrence will demonstrate his method, but the artist is keen to teach outdoors, too, exploring plein air painting and the depiction of habitat. Participants at SKB’s Artists Rendezvous & Workshop, scheduled Sept. 15-20 in Dubois, will get the best of both worlds. Lawrence says that SKB’s unusual format is intriguing.
“I’m hoping to do both because I like to do both, but if a lot of people want to stay in, I will stay in with them,” he says. “But I think plein air painting is really, really important. And, it is an addictive method. I would like to think that people will want to do a little of both. Every workshop is a little different and you learn that you have to roll with things and adapt and change and help them with what they want to do. That’s the main thing. SKB to me is a unique workshop. I was there as a guest in 2004 and did mostly plein air painting, but I’ve called some of the past instructors, including Bruce Miller and Wanda Mumm, to find out more about the format. It’s a little different than what I usually do, but my main goal is to help people. I’ve got a rough idea of what I will do.
“I get as much from a workshop as anyone else. The give and take between artists, and between instructor and students, is a great thing.”
Lawrence seems happy in his mark-making. But it’s also his job. Beyond that, Lawrence said he finds additional pleasure in knowing that his pictures of wildlife—primarily North American animals—also heighten public awareness about the situation facing many wild creatures today. “The wildlife art world has changed dramatically from about 15 or 20 years ago,” he says. “Things made a shift. I adapted by starting to do more workshops and more instructional books for different companies. I thought the market would come back. Especially considering how these animals are losing their habitat–you would think things would change, as people cared more. And it didn’t. But still, my originals market got stronger as the limited edition prints fell off, even as a lot of the shows on the circuit closed.”
“But it’s important to me to give back to the wildlife and nature,” Lawrence says. “Most of my efforts to conserve consists of donating work to conservation organizations. I do pick and choose who I give to based on track record and what I know or learn about them. But all these organizations are all still really important, and important to me.” Even if Lawrence doesn’t raise millions, he does raise awareness. “You like to think you are making some converts,” he says. “You might think most collectors already have those values about wildlife habitat. But maybe someone who doesn’t is struck by your work and it makes them think more about the situation and appreciate it more.”
Lawrence will feel at home in Dubois, as many of his fellow instructors at SKB were (or still are) also on the wildlife art circuit with him. But if you don’t paint animals, you will still learn from him. “I normally like to say you don’t have to be a wildlife artist to get something from my workshop,” says the artist. “I like to show people how I work, but I’m not trying to make converts and have them paint like me. I would rather see them paint than have them see me paint. I’m interested in helping them one-on-one, when possible. I have learned over time that it is helpful to watch someone else paint. I had someone mention how much they learned from watching me mix colors.”
His use of technology gives Lawrence another way to help students. “Back when there was just photography, the process was different, with lots of tracing and photocopies,” he says. “Now it’s all on the computer. I can cut pieces out of scanned photos, change the color, make my own shadows … It makes a better reference for me. I can make it into the painting that I envisioned and print it out as my primary influence.
“There’s an added thing that I think is helpful,” Lawrence continues. “I have been teaching workshops for 35 to 40 years, and when I used to show people something on their work in the past, I had to paint on acetate or on another canvas to illustrate my point. Now, I can put it into the computer and show them what I mean using Photoshop. And then print it out for people to keep and understand what I’m saying.”
Rod Lawrence: Thoroughly, technologically disposed to help SKBers improve their artwork. Come and get it! Ω