29 10, 2017

The Art of Giving Paintings Away


Half-awake and walking out of my room to brew my coffee, I suddenly jumped at the sight of a frightening mask among the Halloween costumes flung over the back of the family room chairs. The kids, who attended a school party last night, need to tidy up a bit once they awaken. I think I jumped into the next room.

Days are getting shorter, mornings are dark longer, and it’s pitch black outside. The stars are still visible as I quietly make my way to the porch, trying not to awaken my wife in the room next door. The smell of coffee is filling my lungs as the glow on the horizon begins, and it soon brightens the trees with an orange light as morning officially arrives.

Signs of Halloween

Crisp air, and the scent of fall — I’m in the mood for some fresh apple cider. I’ve already started dipping into the Halloween candy (yum!). And last Sunday we made our way out to a local farm that has lots of Halloween activities — face painting, pumpkin carving, corn maze, and so on. It’s funny, the kids are teens and like to act grown up, yet they still love going there.

Football in Texas. Amen!

It’s football weather. Football in Texas is almost a religion, and since our triplets are in the marching band, we’ve been spending our Friday nights at the games to support our kids and their school. Though I’ve never been sports-minded, I have to admit I’m catching the disease. We’re pretty energized because our team is going to the playoffs, and on the way we beat a team no one has beaten in 11 years. Yay, team!

Our stadium was used in the filming of the TV show Friday Night Lights. It’s the first high school stadium I’ve seen with a jumbotron. I have to admit, it’s pretty cool, but a lot different from the rickety, rotting wooden bleachers at Homestead High School in Indiana, where I graduated.

Happy at Home

I’m grateful to be here. Though I love my travels and my responsibilities have taken me to some very interesting places lately, as Dorothy said when she clicked her ruby slippers, there really is no place like home. Yet soon, I’ll head out for a marketing class I’m taking in Orlando because I want to keep my ax sharpened.

In November I’ve got our new Figurative Art Convention & Expo (FACE) in Miami, which I’m really excited about. My two passions are plein air painting and figure/portrait painting. We’ve managed to put people together on stage who are unlikely to ever be together again.

Exciting and New

After the Miami FACE event I head straight to our Radio Forecast conference at the Harvard Club in New York, which is put on by my radio magazine (which is celebrating 25 years at the event). Then I’m off to the world famous Salmagundi Club for an event celebrating the 100th anniversary of its Fifth Avenue location.

That ends my travel for the year. Then I get to stay home with the kids for a week while mama travels to a conference. I’m sure it will be bubblegum, pizza, and cupcakes every night! (I know she reads this, and she’s always concerned about how I feed the kids.) (Smile.)

The year will wrap up with a couple more video shoots in our studios here in Austin. Then I get to stabilize for the balance of the year before the insane travel begins again.

Sometimes when I have a lot of events back to back, I don’t have time to stop and think about them until things settle down. I’m still processing the annual Radio Show convention, plus an event I held at the Wizard Academy, then the Fine Art Connoisseur art tour to Russia, my time painting in Russia, and my Fall Color Week artists’ retreat in Maine, which all came one right after the other. Thank goodness for my iPhone camera so I can remember where I was last week!


Recently at Fall Color Week I was painting next to Barbara Tapp, an amazing watercolor painter from Berkeley, California (where our kids were born). While we were standing there, she struck up a conversation with a couple visiting the area, heard about how the man had grown up nearby, had been gone for most of his life, and finally came back for a visit. The place, Schoodic Point, was just as he had remembered it.

I’m listening to the conversation when Barbara says to the couple, “My painting will be done in about half an hour. If you’ll come back then, I’d like to give it to you. Would you like to have it?”

The couple was deeply touched. “You would do that for us?” Barbara explained that because they had such a deep connection with the area, the painting would be a nice reminder of their old home, and it would be a pleasure to give it away.

She finished the painting, signed it, put it in a nice matte, and gave it to them when they returned. Though they offered to pay her for it, she insisted that it would be her gift to them and that their joy was payment enough.

The Story of Giveaways

Later that evening, during announcements, I asked Barbara to come up and tell the story, and I learned that her goal is to help the world by giving one painting away each day. She has already given away dozens and had stories of others during Fall Color Week in Maine.

Each story was touching.

Well, the next day, this trend had caught on. Rick Wilson and I painted, with permission, on a farm with an amazing view, and the owner was very engaged with what we were doing. But she mentioned that people often stop, walk on her property without her permission to take pictures, and some set up and paint without permission. She was thrilled that we had asked. So Rick said, “When this painting is finished, I’d like you to have it so you know not all artists are going to walk on to your property without permission.” She was so excited that I ended up giving her my painting, too.

Though neither of us liked the idea of giving away a painting we wanted to keep, we both felt very special about making an old woman’s day. We both went back a few days later to do another painting from the same spot, and she already had Rick’s painting framed and proudly took us in to show it hanging in her house (mine was still wet).

Others in the group also brought in stories about giving away paintings. Everyone felt great about their generosity.

Hmm. Maybe We Can Use This to Our Advantage…

The marketing guy in me suggested a couple of lines to use when giving a painting away, so that value is established. I suggested one way to do it is to say, “I’d like you to have this. I normally sell them for $2,500 in my gallery. I want you to have it because I believe every home should have original artwork, and because (your reason here).” Then you reinforce that all paintings are not free or cheap, and that original artwork is a good thing.

Before we knew it, everyone was giving away paintings and had stories about special connections with people. Barbara reports that she hears from most people she’s given paintings, and she’s enriched her life with new friends, visits from people she has met, and a feeling that she is doing something special to help others through her art.

Barbara Tapp may have started a trend.

A Spirit of Generosity

What if we all tried this? What if we all lived with a spirit of generosity? What impact would we have on the world? And how would it affect people getting excited about owning more original art?

Though a giveaway doesn’t have to be every day, what if when you’re out, you do a small piece, knowing that you may encounter someone who needs to have their day lifted, or to have a special memory?

Everything in life cannot be about selling. If you do artwork, photography, something else … why not try it?

My dad, an accomplished photographer, takes a large matted photo with him to every dinner party, every doctor visit, every special event. It enriches his experience with others and makes them feel special.

Giving Creates Gifts to Yourself

Though some will be critical and think giving things away will hurt their sales, nothing could be further from the truth. Giving always results in other benefits more valuable than a sale. Barbara reports some recipients have actually gone to her website to buy something, though that is not her intent.

Is Generosity in Your Future?

What can you do to live generously today? It may not be about a painting, or even a physical gift at all. It may be about listening or helping or just reaching out to someone who needs an ear.

One generous person I got to know on our first Cuba trip is artist Nancie King Mertz, who stayed in the World Famous Artists’ Cabin this week at our house to film a couple of amazing pastel art instruction videos. We were thrilled to get to know her better and experience her generosity.

It’s my wish that generosity will impact your day today. And be overly generous with the candy this Halloween 🙂

The Art of Giving Paintings Away2017-11-17T20:49:24-05:00
22 10, 2017

Teaching 1 Million People to Paint


Dark-bottomed clouds fill the sky, ready to spill out overhead at any moment. How the wind moves clouds at such high speed is a mystery, with the weight of a water tower inside each cloud as they move gracefully across the sky like carefree dancing ballerinas.

My massive backyard oaks are bending to the will of the wind, which just flipped up the carpet under my little covered-porch sitting area, perhaps to nudge me inside before the looming storm. Though I think I’ll stay a little longer to hear the BBs of rain hitting the tin roof overhead. Somehow the racket is comforting.

The chill in the humid air is a reminder that winter approaches and my quiet back-porch mornings may soon require cozy sweaters, jackets, or even lighting the outdoor fireplace to provide warmth and the soothing smell of burning embers.

The rope swing hanging from a winding oak branch is quietly moving on its own, as if an invisible child is swinging in the wind. The neighbors’ horses playfully whinny in delight that the hot Texas sunshine is no longer beating down on their backs.

The neighbors’ cattle — three adults and one baby — are pressed against the fence, curious about my presence and greeting me with a good moo-ning.

A Less-Than-Tidy Mess

Across the yard about 50 feet, my little studio building sits, awaiting a visit from me to tidy up after an extensive video shoot on Thursday.

The shoot was for a project I’m passionate about, a new product, not yet revealed, that will help me meet my personal goal of teaching a million people to paint. It’s rooted in my own bad experience and self-esteem issues.

A Lucky Break

When I turned 40, Mrs. Rhoads bought me a painting lesson, my first, which went badly when the instructor, Sam somebody, told me, “Just express yourself. Throw the paint on to the canvas.” Perhaps you’ve heard the story.

“But this isn’t how I want to express myself. I want to learn how to paint things that are real … like a still life or flowers or people.”

“That’s old school. No one does that anymore.”

I shrank, left the class with my one colorful masterpiece (not), discouraged and feeling as though there was no hope for my learning.

I had picked up materials at a store, tried to paint, but could not translate what was in my head to a canvas. I had a globby mess. So, after the art class experience, the materials went into a box relegated to the basement. So much for painting.

Taxi!! Taxi!!!

A year later, stuck in a long taxi ride, I chatted with the driver, who was an artist. After hearing my story, he told me about a man who had studied in the lineage of the great masters through contemporary masters in Florence and America.

Once I got up the courage to show up at his class, which was about copying Old Masters, I sheepishly walked in, and I saw the amazing paintings being done in the class — which should have encouraged me. Instead the voices in my head took control, as they often do.

“You can’t do this. No way can you ever get that good. Talent is required, and you have no talent. You can’t even draw a stick figure.”

So I did an about-face and headed out of the room.

An Art Savior

“Yoohoo — can I help you?” said a voice in the distance.

“Oh, well, um, I heard this was a class I should attend, but, well, um, I can’t possibly do this. So I was just leaving.”

After introducing himself, Jack Jackson told me he could teach anyone to paint, no special gifts required.

“Step over here, let me show you something.”

He immediately engaged me in a simple project, where I could see instant progress. Two hours later, he had me working on my first painting.

I’m so thankful he stopped me at the door, because had he not, I probably never would have started painting. His influence brought me my art life today, which has resulted in three art magazines, my work in a few galleries, a couple of art conferences and newsletters, and an art video instruction effort.

Yes, one man, in one minute, saved and changed my life.

Amplify Painting

Therefore my goal is to amplify what he did for me. I want people to learn to paint, and do it well.

I want to catch them, encourage them, and give them tools for instant success so they can begin their lives as painters and experience the benefits. I want them to know they don’t require special talent, and that if they follow a simple process, they can learn to paint.

Critics will say, “Eric, painting isn’t easy. You can’t oversimplify painting.”

Feeling Pride and Progress Fast

How many people drop out of piano class, discouraged with no progress and the boredom of learning scales? Good teachers understand that baby steps, a feel of progress, and the ability to play a simple song is what keeps students coming back.

My friend Calla showed up at Jack’s art class too, but got discouraged because her head told her she couldn’t do it. She dropped out and missed a lifetime of painting.

That should never happen to anyone.

Art Instruction Reinvented

So I’ve developed a new system to make it easy. Though it’s rooted in a process many painters understand, most don’t use it.

I’ve found a way to simplify, a way to help make fast progress, a way to take baby steps. A way to give encouragement to keep aspiring artists interested. And I’ll be offering it up for free, because I want to eliminate barriers.

What is it?

It’s a little soon to say — nor do I want to ever use my Coffee blog for commercial purposes. But it will be revealed soon, tested, modified, and exposed, and I’m sure you’ll hear about it. In fact, I’m introducing it on a worldwide TV broadcast, a show that has well over a million viewers in 11 countries.

Teaching a Million to Paint!

My hope is that I’ll make my first step toward teaching a million people to paint. And if it works, we’ll keep pressing on.

Many of you are already there … you already know how to do it, you already teach. Therefore I’d like your help.

Do You Hear the Clues?

Simply said, listen for clues like “I wish I could do that, but I don’t have any talent. I can’t draw a stick figure.” When you hear that, engage them, help them, teach them, because if you do, you will change their life. And you may be the only chance they ever get, so you’ve got to jump on it fast, encourage them, and follow up.

I Need Your Help

I’d like you to be part of the team trying to teach a million people to paint … then help them progress to a life of continual growth as painters. You see, I don’t need pride of ownership. It does not need to come from me, through my system. It just needs to happen.

Sanity for a Crazy World

You may not have noticed, but our world is pretty crazy at the moment. What impact would we have if 1 million more people started to paint? I think it would be huge. And once we get to 1 million, we can set bigger goals. But let’s start with one person at a time.

What Can You Do This Week?

Share your gifts that you think others will cherish. And if you’re already drawing and painting, help those you encounter take a step to discover it for themselves. If you’re not drawing or painting and would like to … raise your hand and I’ll connect you with someone to guide you.

Set up in a public place. See how many people say those magic words and listen for clues of interest, then say, “Let me show you. Talent isn’t required. It’s just a process, like cooking or typing. Here, take my brush.”

Though I may never know how many we collectively touch, even one more person who finds painting will be a step in the right direction.

Enjoy your Sunday! Me, I’m gonna go find someone to teach.

Teaching 1 Million People to Paint2017-11-16T20:43:52-05:00
15 10, 2017

“Work” With Deep Meaning


Vibrant red-orange light was about ready to peek over the Atlantic Ocean. Giant granite rocks and rows of majestic pines were silhouetted against the golden sunrise while the upper part of the sky was a deep indigo blue with a single star glowing in the distance.

A gentle mist dampened the grass on this almost-freezing morning, and I was rubbing my hands together to keep them warm. Overhead a bald eagle spread her massive wings and squeaked as if to let me know I was in her space.

My headlamp was glowing on my easel in the pre-sunrise darkness as I hurriedly laid in my shapes with paint, knowing I’ll have little more than three minutes to capture the rapidly moving colors of sunrise.

This morning I’m back in Texas, looking out over my backyard’s own beautiful light, but remembering that just two mornings ago, I was up at 5 a.m. to experience the sunrise on Schoodic Point in Acadia National Park.

Lingering memories are going through my head as I return to reality from my little artists’ retreat where about 60 of us gathered to paint for a week that passed far too quickly.

Memories of lobster, caught that morning by a local fisherman, on our last night together. Memories of a room filled with probably 700 paintings we produced during our week. Memories of endless laughter, silly jokes, dancing and singing to nightly music, and painting portraits on several nights.

Up early each day, we had breakfast together, then set out hopeful of finding a masterpiece or two. Some produced as many as four or five paintings a day, others just one or two, each representing an amazing spot and a memory of that time painting with new and old friends.

Last Sunday I awoke in that place; I had already done a touch of painting and begun developing the friendships that deepened over the week.

A show of upraised hands filled the room when I asked on Friday, our closing morning, how many had developed new and deep friendships that could last a lifetime, though most of these people had never before met.

Of course, there were also many returning “regulars” who connected with friends established in the last two years of Fall Color Week. But everyone, including myself, made new friends.

It was a feeling of mixed blessing. A week of painting was enough, and the anticipation of returning to my family was a joy. Yet sadness filled my heart and those of people around me, thinking of this special week of special moments.

Goodbyes were tearful. Hugs were heartfelt. Some didn’t want to let go, and one woman started crying on my shoulder, knowing she had escaped a difficult time in her life and a looming divorce, and grateful for a chance to occupy her mind with painting and chats with friends for a week away.

Another said, with tear-filled eyes, that last year she had gone home to an ill husband and this year would be returning to an empty house. Still others were just sad to leave those who had been their roommates and friends during this week of escape from their busy lives.

Gushing thank yous pump up my ego, but make me feel that for most, this little break from reality was the medicine they needed. I feel grateful to be placed in a position where I can provide such a gift to others.

It’s a special moment in time, and one that won’t last forever. Though there will be future events (God willing), each one is special, each unique, each serving a purpose.

So many coincidences occurred, it’s as though they were meant to be. One artist told a story of a painting mistakenly sold twice by her gallery and never delivered to the first buyer, whose name she never knew. The artist and original buyer, comparing notes, found one another at this event, though they live far apart.

Others found connections in common interests, and in one case, two people turned out to be distant relatives. All brought together “by accident” at a random event for painters.

Last week I talked about rewarding yourself by getting away. This week, I feel a sense of deep meaning because so many people had what they said was the experience of a lifetime. That encourages me to make sure I’m doing all I can for these folks, my cherished readers and friends.

I want to do more, invent more ideas, put people together in new ways, because it’s important work. Sometimes I feel I can’t do enough, fast enough. Yet it needs to be done. There truly is so little time.

Nothing in my career has given me more gratification, more satisfaction, more joy, than bringing artists together and giving them these experiences of a lifetime. It’s a reminder that we all need things like this, and we all have special gifts that need to be shared.

To those who spent the week with me in Maine, my heart aches missing each of you, yet I have a beaming smile on my face as I replay moments from the week.

To those not there: Find something, anything, where you can give to others. I learned this week that there are a lot of hearts in need of someone to step in on their behalf, and we can each play that role.

Enjoy your week.

“Work” With Deep Meaning2017-11-16T20:53:02-05:00
8 10, 2017

Colorful Solitude


Silhouettes of pine trees glow against the deep indigo sky with a waning gibbous moon illuminating the scene. Hints of red are streaking across the nearby ocean as the glow of sunrise is about to blast its color into the atmosphere. Sounds of seagulls whining, waves crashing, and a foghorn seem unusually loud on this quiet Maine morning on Schoodic Point, the lesser-known and more spectacular branch of Acadia National Park.

Rockefeller’s Place

A giant Tudor home with exposed beams, built by John D. Rockefeller, Jr., is my home for the coming week. Though new on the inside, with modern conveniences, the exterior looks as it did when Rockefeller donated the building to the park he loved so much. Here with me in the surrounding rooms and apartments in this former military base are a group of passionate painters.

Sharing our love of painting and the desire to fill our canvases with bright fall colors, waves crashing against the rocks, lobster boats, lighthouses, and quaint fishing villages, we gathered here on Friday night, in time for a full moon and some nocturne painting after cocktails. The air is crisp and cool, the sky is clear, and the weather is expected to be perfect.

Happily on My Own

I’m not sure if it’s the pride of doing something entirely on my own in the midst of my busy life, but this event, which I call Fall Color Week, is my own. It’s just me. No helpers, no staff, no photographers or videographers. Though I love their company, I also love knowing that two times a year I do my own painters’ event for 50 or 100 people with no help. Oh, everyone steps in, but if they didn’t, it would still go smoothly.

This event has become one of my favorites. Each event has its own flair, its own culture, its own regulars. Some attend more than one event, and some prefer the exotic trips to Cuba, New Zealand, or Africa. But at this event, I’m in the exact same boat as my attending friends. In the Adirondacks, I sleep in my own bed every night and am able to kiss the wife and kids goodnight. Here, Facetime or e-mail are my only options.

Rarely Alone

When we held our first event here, I had the realization that I’m rarely alone. I can’t remember a night alone in my own home. Usually, I’m the one leaving. And though I’m with friends all day here, as we have breakfast and dinner together and we paint together all day, after we finish our evenings of portraits or music or jokes, I return to my room and I experience being alone with my thoughts.

Those who follow this Coffee thing know that silence and quiet are worth getting up for before everyone else arises. Even here, though I’ll be walking out to host breakfast in the next hour or so, I awaken early, with the dark outside, the spooky and soothing silence.

Oh, how I cherish my time at home, my family, my busy life, my insane business life, my columns, articles, marketing videos, magazines, and so much more … but they take their toll, and having this respite, before and after our days here, is special time too.

Hard to Leave, Great to Be Here

I have to admit, though I was looking forward to coming here, to being with old and new friends and painting every day, I had a hard time getting on that airplane and saying goodbye to my family after so much time away in my busy season. Last week it was Russia, and I’m probably just getting over the lag. Yet now that I’m here, I can say with enthusiasm that there is nothing like painting all day every day, seeing new and different scenery, painting alongside others, and developing new friendships. It doesn’t take long to bond.

Benefits are like a horn of plenty. After just two days, I’m tuned up and painting well, and by the end of the week, after two or three canvases a day, I’ll return with a fresh catch for my gallery, and I’ll be painting at my best. It’s the inspiration of the place, the people, the color. It’s also the break … time away, time to myself, time with friends, time singing at night and playing music.

Absolute Magic

As much as I write, I cannot capture in words the magic that happens here during this week. It’s one of those “you have to be there” moments. And it’s different each year, with new stories. Much like the movie Same Time Next Year, where a couple meets for dinner and catches up about their year … every year. I am blessed to hear about kids, families, adventures, and of course painting. I feel blessed, and I wish you could have been here to experience it.

Well, coffee awaits, I have to walk to the lodge to get mine. Everyone will be gathered for breakfast. I’ll make some announcements, some folks will have some ideas or painting tips to share, I’ll tell everyone where we’re painting today … and then there will be about 60 of us lined up painting together — aside from some who may go off to their own secret spots.

Treat Yourself

Time for yourself is critical. I’ve said it before … put on your own mask before helping those around you. You need oxygen. We all do. Find a way. Even a quiet corner and getting up an hour before everyone else can be a gift to yourself.

If you happen to be in the area today and you see a row of painters with big smiles on their faces … beep the horn and say hello!

Colorful Solitude2017-11-17T14:55:13-05:00
1 10, 2017

My Watering Eyes in Russia



As I opened the door, I was greeted by the nasty smell of black mold in the air, a smell so thick my eyes instantly started to water and I wanted to put my handkerchief over my nose.

I flicked on the light, and the single fluorescent bulb dangling from a cord began to buzz loudly — and my suspicions of mold were confirmed visually. The once-white walls were black with mold, the paint peeling, and the plaster crumbling from moisture.

An old Soviet-era refrigerator stood guard at the front of the huge room, doors wide open, and the smell of Freon and decades of food gone bad mixed with the smell of mold.

At the back of the room, there was a stained old iron sink, equal to the ones I’ve seen at the worst gas stations, with flies swarming around its leaking water supply.

A door by the sink leads to the restroom. As I step in, the rotting floor gives slightly under my weight and I see the 1970s yellow floral linoleum is water-damaged and peeling.

Formerly beautiful green ceramic tiles barely hang on to the walls of the shower. Many have already fallen and the rest are sticking out, making the walls uneven.

The throne room, well, let’s just say it was beyond disgusting.

The place I’ve just entered is an art studio, with 20-foot ceilings, 20-foot-long walls, a once-trendy 1970s-era vinyl floor, and a row of giant, 10-foot-tall north-facing windows.

The Home of Great Artists

This studio and 26 others like it have been the temporary homes of some of the world’s great master artists, and they are where some of Russia’s most important museum masterpieces have been painted.

“Welcome to your home,” says my host. “We have given you our best.” This is to be my home for the next three nights, but he says, “If not good enough, we can get room in local hotel for you.”

I’m feeling instantly conflicted.

I know these people have made an effort to get me into one of these coveted studio spaces.

I know this is a special place where great paintings have been done and great artists have lived.

I know my host put out his own hard-earned money to have me there.

I don’t want to be ungrateful, and though I love the idea and romance of staying in one of these old studios, I also know doing so will test my limits. But because mama taught me to be kind, no matter what, I say…

“This is wonderful. I’m honored to stay here. Thank you.”

Busted in a Lie?

Have you ever had one of those moments when you knew you were lying through your teeth because you didn’t want to offend someone?

Though I wanted the experience of being there, I could not fathom the idea of breathing that moldy air for three nights.

Keep in mind that I had just been on a luxury trip (our Fine Art Connoisseur Fine Art Trip to Russia), spending 10 days in the finest hotels in Moscow and St. Petersburg.

Stark Contrast

The contrast between the luxury hotels and this studio was massive … the hotels had heated marble floors, thick robes, and beds to sink into that surrounded you like a giant cuddle … versus having to have your shoes on at every moment so your feet don’t touch the floor, waiting 20 minutes for the hot water in the shower, and sleeping on a sagging Soviet era-military cot that wasn’t long enough to stretch out in, with a thin lumpy mattress and hard springs. Plus long nights shivering because of the thin blanket, and needing to tuck my water glass into a ziplock bag so the bugs don’t land on it, and putting my clothes in a plastic bag to keep them from the mold.

This was a mindset moment.

This was a time when I had to rapidly shift my thinking … was I going to be a spoiled American and allow this to ruin my experience?

During that first miserable night of tossing and turning and shivering and waking to the feeling of mold in my lungs and the smell of cigarette smoke and turpentine from the neighboring studio, I convinced myself that I needed to move to a local hotel.

But daylight has a way of changing our perspective.

Once I got through the somewhat difficult task of getting the shower to work, then got dressed and ready in the freezing, unheated room, I could see the light streaming through the giant windows, filling the studio with amazing light.

This Is Truly an Amazing Place

As I walked outside, my first view was of a painter in the distance using a Russian easel, set up next to a quaint old wooden cabin and painting the distant poplar trees, in full fall colors, by the lake.

I quickly forgot my troubles and realized I was in plein air heaven.

“Oh, you speak English?” said a man who was painting as I walked out the door into the warm morning sunlight. “Sergi is my name. I was ship’s captain in America. Now I’m painter.”

My New Friend Sergi

Sergi was from the East of Russia, so far away it took him and his friends longer to get to this place than it took me from America. He quickly introduced me to his friends, all painters. Then he took me into their studio to show me their paintings from the week. Dozens hung on the walls, and all were high-quality.

Moments later I united with my host, a great master painter and instructor from the Surikov institute, part of the Russian Academy of Art, and a friend since 2004. I was there to paint at the Academic Dacha and in the surrounding area as his guest.

What If We Had This in the United States?

Imagine for a moment if such a place had existed in America, where all the great masters would gather and spend summers together. You would have Wyeth, Redfield, Rockwell, Payne, Bierstadt, Cole, and Church. Imagine if they’d had summer cabins nearby, and they lived there much of the year.

In Russia, the Academic Dacha was created by the Artists Union. Because they knew that plein air painting was critical to an artist’s development, they sent their students here to spend summers painting outdoors. These students would be around great masters who were also there to paint all summer. The surrounding cabins were owned by the great masters of Russia past … Repin, Levitan, Surikov, Shiskin … and they all painted on the property where I was staying. This tradition has taken place for over 200 years, in this same place, with every generation of artists.

Did I mention this is plein air heaven?

Among Painting Legends

It’s humbling to know I am standing and painting exactly where these amazing Russian legends had painted summer after summer.

The property, probably about 50 acres, is a postcard view at every turn. It’s poised on a beautiful lake, with a wonderful old bridge going across a small river (Repin did a famous painting there) and a little red house where Repin stayed that later became a small museum featuring all these artists’ work. The trees are changing color and are amazing.

A Home for Royalty

Next to the red house is an octagonal yellow house, built to give royalty a place to stay when traveling between Moscow and St. Petersburg. Inside, there is stained glass so intensely rich in color that the walls were flooded with vibrating hues unlike any I’d ever seen. Catherine the Great came here often. She loved spending time around the artists, I’m told. So did the czars.

Though I dreaded the cold, mold-filled nights (I’m still wheezing), this place was magical. My days were spent either painting or talking with the artists.

Creating Giant Paintings

Inside one studio was a great Russian master by the name of Igor Zeitza, who was working on a canvas that had to be 30 feet long and 20 feet high. “I don’t have room to do this in my studio in Moscow, so I come here to paint,” he said. His last giant painting had dozens of figures and took 10 years to complete.

The one he was working on was of a great moment in Russian military history, with about 10 life-size figures, and he estimated it would take another two years of work. He showed me the dozens of studies he’d painted over the past decade in preparation. All were masterpieces and reminded me of the studies in the Russian Museum that Repin had created for his monumental painting there.

Next door to me was the great Russian master Cederoff, now in his 90s and, like his neighbor, working on a huge painting because his home studio wasn’t large enough. With my translator I learned of his life, his history, and his passion for painting. “All of my paintings are of my life,” he said. “Even the big ones in the museums are memories of my childhood.”

I asked him why he paints, and his answer was unexpected. “I paint to give people encouragement and hope. I try to make everything I paint uplifting to the human spirit.”

He then pulled down two coffee-table books, flipped through them page by page, and told me the story of each painting. The one he was working on in the studio was in the book, but, according to him, “A painting is never really done.” The painting was of a peasant laying out stems from a crop on the grass. Another woman was staring at an orange full moon. “That’s my mother. We were working in the fields and the moon rose, and my mother said it was evidence that God was with us and supported our work.” He went on to tell me the painting was especially important because the crop is used to make linseed oil and the canvas we paint on.

Cederoff had 20 very large canvases stretched. “I have a show in May that I’ve not yet started. I have to make a painting for each of these. After that I’ll start working on my next big show to celebrate my 100th birthday.”

I could have stayed and listened to his stories all day, but I didn’t want to lose my light, so I did a painting of the yellow octagonal house from the bottom of the hill, looking up.

Meeting Up with Old Friends

Later we walked down the lane where I had walked in 2004, during my first visit, and where I met the great Russian legend Yuri Kugach, who was 91 or 92 at the time. Though he is gone now, his grandson Ivan, another amazing artist, had us in for dinner by candlelight in his grandfather’s house, which is now Ivan’s studio. We talked about art and sampled the local herb-infused vodka for hours. The next day we visited the dacha (cabin) of Ivan’s father, Michael Kugach, which I had visited in 2004. I had a chance to see his studio and the pieces he was working on.

Did I mention I was in plein air heaven?

A Village Like a Movie Set

Later, we drove an hour through the bumpiest and muddiest road I’ve probably ever been on, thinking we would get stuck at any moment. The car was sliding around, the tires were spinning, and rocks were thumping on the undercarriage. At the end of the road was a quaint small village of about 10 dachas, most of which were decorated with bright colors and beautiful wooden carvings. The area was used in a movie, though I don’t know the title.

The village cow wandered around curiously and was followed by her best friend, a sheep. As I was painting the intense afternoon sun on the face of the dacha in front of me, the cow came up to my paint box, took a sniff, looked up in apparent approval, and walked off with the sheep behind her. I’m thankful she wasn’t tempted to snack on my paints.

These are the moments plein air painting is made for. You can’t make this stuff up.

Opportunity Almost Missed

Had I not stayed at the studio at the Academic Dacha, I would have missed the most special moments of sitting with friends, sampling vodkas, eating fish caught earlier in the day and fresh apples off the tree down the road. We talked about paintings, painters, and the life of an artist … which I realized at that moment I was living, if only for a brief couple of days.

Tears were shed by my Russian artist friends and I when I departed for America from the airport in Moscow the following day. We had a wonderful memory in our three days together, did some great paintings, and wondered if we would ever see each other again.

Two weeks in Russia is not enough, and my next trip, if I can ever make it happen, will be nothing but painting … and who knows, maybe I’ll take some friends with me.

My moment of decision to accept my circumstances and not be a spoiled American made my trip a very rich experience. Instead of insisting on a change (and risking insulting my host) to have a better place to stay, I tolerated some conditions that were pretty harsh compared to my cushy life. But I just told myself it’s like camping.

The Spoiled American

I learned a lot about myself on that day and realized how fortunate I am, how spoiled I had become, and how the only things that mattered at that moment were the rich human experiences that can never be repeated. After all, how often do you get to paint with a couple of Russian masters, visit the cabins of some of the greatest living artists in Russia, and just hang and chat with one of the most important artists in the world? It was a great couple of days.

Turns out all 27 dachas didn’t have mold, just the one shared by me and Cederoff, next door. He told me he thought the ceiling might cave in, so he moved his paintings to the other side of the room. It appears there had been a leak in the roof in this old building, and it needs care and money, neither of which is readily available.

In spite of harsh media coverage about Russia, the experience of visiting is rich, not only because of the cultural experiences and the amazing paintings, but because of the warm, welcoming people. Though their nation, like ours, has its problems, those problems affect the people but don’t define them. These are special people, and my friends there share my passion for painting.

A Dream for an American Artists’ Retreat

I can’t help but think a wealthy donor will step up and help me create a special place like this in America, almost a commune of sorts, where we all live nearby and spend our summers painting together and working with students. Hey, it’s a dream. If Russia can have this, why can’t we?

I’m sure I’ll have many stories to share from this amazing trip over the coming weeks. But for now, enough about Russia.

Next Stop, Maine

Next Friday we start the Fall Color Week Publisher’s Invitational in Maine. About 60 painters and I gather to paint the amazing scenery for a week. We might still have a bed or two available, and the accommodations and food are really excellent if you’re feeling spontaneous and crave a week of painting fall color, crashing waves, and lobster boats.

Now that I’m back in my home, I look around, take a deep breath of crisp clean air, and value what I have in my life. They say difficult moments make great memories, and I’ll never forget these amazing days in brotherhood with artists from a different land.

I often don’t stop to appreciate what I have, but my perspective has recently changed. Have a great week.

My Watering Eyes in Russia2017-11-17T15:05:37-05:00