Ever considered what kind of art speaks to you the most?
As a lifestyle family photographer, appreciating the landscape around my subjects and incorporating it into my compositions has taken some time. It’s not that I didn’t notice the beauty around me—I mean, we live in Colorado, what’s not to love about our landscape? The mountains and lakes, the evergreens and cottonwoods, the stunning clouds all pink and silver-lined as the sun sinks behind a jagged horizon. I just...I just got distracted by faces. I'm just drawn to people and the beautiful connections that bring them together.
But my friend, Don Ruth, sees beauty in landscapes, in old things like barns and trucks, in watercolor paint and the way it bleeds onto the page and brings something unexpected and adds something more than he intended to the composition.
Don reached out to me on Instagram during the heart of the stay-at-home order when I complained about missing collaboration with other artists. I wasn’t expecting anyone to actually respond with an offer, but Don did respond. He offered to paint a photograph of mine if I could find something old and inanimate.
Hmmm….no faces? No human shapes, just something old and interesting?
Needless to say, it took me some time, but I am thankful now for the challenge he offered because it helped me step back from my narrow passion for people and see even more of the beauty around me, not just see it, but actually try to capture it in a meaningful way.
Don has been an artist much longer than I have, and I thought he might have some interesting things to share about his passion and the meaning it adds to his life.
His wisdom follows:
Holly Freeman Photography: How did you discover you passion for art?
I started drawing pictures when I was five and people would say how good they were. Then in junior high, we either put someone in a chair or had to draw a still life, and that’s when I thought, “I can really do this stuff.” I could draw what I wanted, and it looked like what I wanted it to look like. In high school, all my elective classes were art classes, and I was doing a lot of watercolor paintings. I had two art teachers who were watercolor painters, and they really encouraged that passion in me. Les Olson was one—he kept challenging me to do different things with it—and the other one was more critical of my work, helping me to branch out more. Then as I moved on to college and got a fine arts degree, the Art Department chair there was famous for his watercolors. He helped me refine me skills even more. And of course, in college they force you to think about why you’re doing it.
HFP: I guess that was my next question: why do you do it, can you put into words how it adds meaning to your life?
Well, it adds meaning because it’s what I have to do. For a number of years, I was a graphic designer, I designed magazine covers, integrating text with the art to drive the message to the reader, so I transferred my passion into graphic design. But I’m always looking to get a message across, and then I applied this to my paintings. It’s not rocket science; I’m not trying to get into the heart of people and all that, like they want you to do in college, do all that stuff that I didn’t care about.
I like to find old things, or just nature. I like what’s pleasing thing to look at, not photo realistic, not exactly like in the photos. I try to evoke an emotion like serenity and beauty or sadness. Like with old trucks and buildings, I wonder what was going on there when those things were being used? Or if I see an old school house: what were those kids like? Or an old truck: why was it abandoned? Those are the kinds of things I look at. I’m always looking at scenes when I drive.
And then there are happy accidents with watercolor—things turn completely sideways from what you expect. Like some trees in Wyoming I was painting once, the actual picture was of two cottonwood trees in a barren landscape. But after the paint blended with the water, it looked like a golf course with mist, and it evokes an emotion of what’s beyond that mist, like an early morning, cool misty scene. Completely different from the photo I had taken. That’s what’s great about watercolor.
HFP: Tell me about why you would make a painting different from the original photo.
Sometimes I don’t like the sky. I’m always taking pictures of clouds. I have a bunch of clouds at different times of day. And I change the composition if I don’t like it. Then there’s times I like the composition. Mostly, I’m the artist, and I can do what I want, change it how I want, take out buildings or wires, that kind of thing.
HFP: There have been times when you haven’t been able to pursue your art. Was that hard for you?
Yeah, when I was raising kids, I had a full time job as art director, all my creative fuel was funneled into being an art director. Also, I was also running a youth group—I just had no time for painting like I do now. But I found creative ways then too, like as a youth pastor—we would do Christmas plays, my wife and I would do them together, or we would come up with games and do things in creative ways. The creativity just comes out. If you’re an artist, it just comes out.
HFP: What did you imagine this summer was going to look like in terms of marketing your work, before the pandemic hit?
I expected to be at five or six different festivals, two in Montana, and I was going to be in Lousiville, Colorado three times. I was going to be at Taste Of Louisville, have a booth there, but all festivals and art walks have been canceled.
This was my first year I was really going to try to sell more. I did three festivals last summer and fall, and that lead to a few commissions for people in addition to selling my work. I was hoping for more of that from the festivals this summer. I’m sure hoping for festivals next year.
HFP: Any advice to someone new to pursuing their passion for art?
Depending on what kind of art they’re doing, they should take a class. What helped me was teachers, those teachers in college or public schools that pushed me, refined me...they push you to see beyond what you see. I think anyone that wants to get into it—take some classes. There are figure drawing classes around where everyone pitches in for the model. So you can get into drawing, or painting or a watercolor class, whatever. Galleries offer classes, too.
HFP: Don, thank you so much for your time this afternoon.
Don Ruth is a local artist who paints landscapes and the beautiful old objects he finds along the way. He has a passion for watercolor but also does lovely paintings on river rocks that can be commissioned as memorial rocks with the names of loved ones. Visit his website to see more and to purchase his work.
I am not a landscape artist but a lifestyle family photographer, and if you need family portraits this year, please reach out and schedule a session.