With plenty of self-awareness and introspection, plein-air painter John P. Lasater IV explores the many challenges of finding his own voice as an artist.
JL: Painting outside on location gives me something to study. Working from photographs just doesn’t give me enough information. For instance, I have a deep love for color. I love seeing the harmonies in color, and to see that, I have to go outside in nature. With photographs, I don’t have all of the options available to me. When I’m outside, I can turn to my right or my left and see motifs in the same light that I can work from. Plus, I just love being outdoors.
JK: Do you paint landscapes in the studio? And if you do, how is your studio work different from your plein-air work?
JL: I usually only do studio work for commissions, and in those cases I’ll work from my studies and my imagination. But I’m starting to do bigger work outside, like 24 x 30 inches. I’d rather do that. That’s what you’re going to see from me. I start lots of larger works on location and then later return to those same locations at the same time of day to finish them.
JK: You’re also known for painting night-time scenes. Tell me why.
JL: Oh, no! If I’m becoming labeled as the nocturne painter, I would run from that. I’m just doing it because it’s new to me and fun to do. I don’t want to be known as the nocturne painter. I want to be a total artist.
JK: Okay, so why is it fun for you? How is painting on location at night different from painting in daylight?
JL: Working in daylight is a lot more difficult because of all the variations. Painting a nocturne is more like painting a still life—nothing moves and the colors don’t change. But then again, there are other challenges to painting at night. You have to be at home in the dark. At night, I get sort of quiet and meditative, and even a little sleepy, but that can translate into the painting in a beautiful way.
JL: Well, in addition to the great exposure and the ability to show and sell my work, I enjoy the camaraderie of other artists. Competitions also give me the chance to travel. I married young and started a family so we didn’t travel much back then, but now I have a great excuse to travel for business and occasionally take my family with me.
JK: Is it a challenge to adapt to each new location? I’ve heard artists talk about how the light is different in different places around the world.
JL: You know, I’ve been up north and down south and even out to Hawaii to paint, and I really think the light is basically the same everywhere. To be honest, I shy away from those kind of romantic notions about a place. I don’t want to make assumptions and look for the special “air” in Florida or assume the water is “more blue” in Hawaii. I just want to respond to each new subject exactly as I see it. I’m preparing to stay pure and be honest in every painting. I want to step into every situation with the eyes of a child and see the basic structure of what I’m looking at without any bias or prejudice.
JK: Tell me the story of how you came to be a full-time artist.
JL: Well, it all started with the crayon… no, I’m just kidding. I started out in advertising, and then went on to become an illustrator, art director, and designer for 10 years. I really enjoyed that job, but in the corporate world I sensed that I wasn’t using my full ability. Meanwhile, I was falling in love with fine art, with painting. So about five years ago, I felt a Spiritual release that I could leave my job. My wife and I agreed that I should quit and devote myself to painting full time, and just take a few freelance jobs from my former employer to help us get by at first. At the time, I knew I wasn’t where I wanted to be, but I was willing to take time to grow into my career, and I knew that working at it full time would help me get there faster.
JL: Yes! The basics of drawing, design, and color appear in all art, so I’ve been able to apply a lot of what I learned as an illustrator to my fine art. Also, as an art director, you have to get good at generating a lot of ideas and knowing how to select the best of them. I have a lot of ideas for my fine art because of that training, and I’ve developed a voice in my head that asks, “Is this the best idea? Have I taken this idea to the highest level?” But you know, we’re afforded a lot of liberties in art thanks to the 20th century, so there’s a much larger world to be nurtured in. Illustration has lost its appeal to me because it’s about pleasing a consumer. I would much rather have a personal standard that is higher than anyone else’s.
JL: There’s a fine line between pleasing collectors and pleasing artists. A few years ago, I recognized that a tighter style was generally more pleasing to collectors, and since a large part of my livelihood revolves around selling work at plein-air events, my work got tighter and tighter. But more recently I started to realize that I wanted to keep growing as an artist, for myself, but also in the eyes of other artists. I also recognized that if I focused on pleasing the collectors, my career would be less sustainable. Basically, you have to choose one way or the other. So, my work has changed a lot over the last several years, and I expect it to continue to change as I grow as an artist. I feel a greater satisfaction with my work now as I find my own voice and search for my own heroes and mentors. I also want to do my part in keeping painting alive as an art form. There are people who say that everything that can be done in art has been done, and in the middle of the 20th century artists pushed painting just about as far as they could go. But now it’s come back around full circle. I want to prop up painting as an art form and to encourage others to do that also. It’s such a good time to be an artist. I see so many great new artists coming up.
JK: So you mentioned heroes and mentors. Who are some, and why are they important to you?
JL: You know, I’ve spent a lot of time studying the work of other living artists, but now I’m really ready to go back and create a personal lexicon of deceased artists in order to refine my own style. I want to start copying paintings and learning from them. Rather than painting as an act of homage to living artists, I want to treat it as an act of homage to those who have gone before.
JK: So who are you talking about specifically?
JL: Right now I’m looking at Degas. I’m really interested in the way he thought about perspective and form. I’m also studying Corot, particularly his outdoor paintings from Italy. The first ones I saw I didn’t like, but now that I’ve been to Italy and seen the places he painted, it’s clear he was way ahead of his time. I have looked past so many styles of art but now I want to go back and learn all I can. A great example is Italian Renaissance artists like Piero della Francesca and others who were incredible designers. It’s surprising to me, now, how many artists in Western art history harkened to Renaissance influence.
JL: The very first thing for me is design—the placement of the shapes and the creation of interesting shape-patterns. For me, that trumps atmosphere and color. Design has more to do with shadow and light, and I love strong structures.
Something else that I’ve been thinking about lately is this notion of “finish.” There is no finish in nature or in life, so we should drop this idea in art. Life is all about beginnings. But there is such a thing as completeness. I want to start out every painting with a complete idea or at least the potential of one. I sometimes like to challenge myself by resolving the design as I paint. And I’m always looking for new design structures because I don’t want to rely on a set of existing design structures. Either way, I want each painting to have a complete idea, and to be resolved in a way that pleases me, not just what I know collectors will like.
JL: I want them to be willing students, to use a workshop as a learning experience. I want them to just try what I’m saying and demonstrating, and maybe they’ll have added some new things to their toolbox by the time we’re done. We discuss things like design, color hierarchy, value hierarchy, movement, line, and the “flow” of painting, and there is usually lots of critique time so they come away with plenty to chew on. The feedback has been great—humbling really. All upcoming workshops can be viewed on my website at http://www.lasaterart.com/workshops.
JL: Hmmm, I know that whatever you fix your mind and heart on, it comes through in your art. I hope the condition of my soul comes through, and that they can relate emotionally with it.
This is actually something else I’m wrestling with a little bit. On this quest to become a better artist, I don’t want to become so heady that I lose people. I want to bring people along with me. I want to raise the level of sophistication of the collector.
JK: Is there anything else you’d like people to know about you and your work?
My work is going to keep changing, and I’m having a lot of fun. I believe that every person has art in their spirit, which is why artists need to be the most welcoming of all circles. To keep painting alive, we have to educate, and we have to welcome people in. I believe the plein-air movement does that, so I’m never going to be caught trying to tear down this wonderful explosion of interest in art.
John P. Lasater IV will be participating in two plein-air painting competitions this month—one in Laguna Beach, California, and the other in San Angelo, Texas—and is already scheduled to appear at several other competitions in 2017. To see more of John’s award-winning art, or to learn about his workshops and DVDs, please visit his website at www.lasaterart.com
[From top: Paintings by John Lasater ]
Elkhorn Avenue, oil on linen, 18 x 18
Rainy Day, Frederick, oil on linen, 18 x 14
Long Shadows on the Pass, oil on linen, 20 x 24
Ephraim View, oil on linen, 11 x 14
Evening Marina, oil on linen, 16 x 20
Radiant Light, oil on linen, 12 x 12
Lahaina Glow, oil on linen, 12 x 20
Jennifer King is a marketer, artist, writer, and entrepreneur. A long time student of art marketing and the fine art industry, she currently provides art marketing services and coaching to visual artists through her company, Connect Artist Marketing. Learn more at www.connectartistmarketing.com.