Friday, June 7, 2013

Friday Feature Richard Stephens

"Fishing Village" watercolor by Richard Stephens

It's another Friday, hard to believe.  I'm still in the throes of a move but I'm taking a little time out to post this amazing artists work.  Richard came on my radar when we were in the same Watercolor Artists Magazine, this month's edition, June 2013.  Richard posed the creativity challenge for this issue.  He paints fast and loose, the opposite of my style so I was very intrigued. I then read that he resides in Hot Springs and I told my husband I'm going to have to look him up when we visit Hot Springs.  Low and behold, Richard was scheduled to do the demo for the Mid Southern Watercolor Society's May demo.  I was so excited to get to meet him and see him paint.  Watching an artist paint in a completely different style from my own is invigorating to me and makes me want to stretch as an artist and try new and different styles.  So who knows you might see me flinging paint around sometime instead of meticulously painting with "eyelashes" as Richard calls small brushes:)  

To see more of Richard's work visit his website.
"Two Houses" watercolor by Richard Stephens
How did you get your start?  What’s your artist journey so far?

My professional art journey began right after college. Serving in the Army in the early 70’s, my MOS was that of “Illustrator.” After the Army, I went to work for a small advertising agency/design studio in Little Rock, Arkansas. Of course, this was long before the computer and we produced all our designs, layouts and presentation comps by hand. After three years with the agency, I moved back to my hometown of Hot Springs, Arkansas and opened Stephens Commercial Art. Forty years later, I still do some graphic design work. About 20 years ago I rediscovered my fickle old friend, watercolor, and fell back in love with her. For the past 15 years or so my focus has been on my painting and developing/promoting my workshops. I truly love to teach, travel, meet fellow artists and share my passion for watercolor with my students.

Perhaps an interesting aside: For the past year I have been producing editorial cartoons for our local newspaper. I call them “typetoons,” as I mainly use typography to make my political or social statements. I try to find an interesting “twist” to the wording or even an individual letter that might change or enhance the concept. My first love was cartooning and I have done a lot of it professionally, but I am really enjoying the challenge of using my graphic design background in an unexpected context.

Where were you born?

I was born and raised in Hot Springs, Arkansas. I am the youngest of three sons. Our parents were both schoolteachers. Perhaps that’s why I have such a love for teaching.
"St Johns" watercolor by Richard Stephens
If you could live anywhere where would you live?

At risk of sounding corny, I could not be any place any better than where I am … my hometown of Hot Springs National Park, Arkansas. Our beautiful city was gently placed in a valley surrounded by lakes and mountains. It has a colorful history and of course, the thermal waters that are the namesake of the city. 

Author John Villani ranked Hot Springs 4th in the 2005 edition of The 100 Best Art Towns in America because of the wonderful architecture, an internationally recognized classical music festival and one of the top documentary film festivals in the country. More than 300 artists live and work here: a very high percentage for a small community in the South. We are also the home of one of the longest running “Poetry Nights’ in the country and have observed our First Friday Gallery Walk continually for over 30 years … never missing a night!
I could go on and on, but I would rather folks visit and discover this hidden treasure that is Hot Springs … my hometown.
"Steve Suter" watercolor by Richard Stephens
What’s your favorite thing to paint and why?

I’m not sure I have a favorite. At one time I did a lot of architectural/urban scenes, but I also love faces, figures and landscapes. I will often combine all in my paintings … an architectural scene with figures and organic elements of landscape to complement the man-made structures. When I started teaching workshops, I realized that flowers were a very popular subject for many of my students. I had never painted flowers, but quickly learned and now really enjoy the spontaneity and looseness the subject offers.
I have been part of a weekly life drawing group for over 30 years. To me the figure is the most difficult of subjects. Those few drawings/paintings that really “work” are very satisfying and rewarding. I have painted a lot of musicians over the years. Perhaps as a way to participate in the music … as I have absolutely no musical ability. Though I don’t do a lot of traditional still life paintings, I do enjoy their challenge of design and technique.

Let me say, I probably draw more than I paint. I love to draw. Good drawing is the skeleton of any good painting. I don’t know any really accomplished watercolorist that doesn’t draw well.
"Willie" watercolor by Richard Stephens
Could you talk about your painting techniques?

Don’t try to make it happen, let it happen.”  That pretty much sums up my painting technique.  I realize that is an oversimplification, but it is the mindset I try to keep. The water, brush, paper and pigment can do some wonderful things together if I, the artist, will keep my involvement to a minimum. The important time for me to do “my thing” is before I put pigment to paper. Working out the design and composition of the elements through value sketches, simplification of the subject and shapes, determining the values to ensure there will be areas of high contrast. Basically paying attention to the Elements and Principals of Design.

In terms of actual painting technique I try to create loose, juicy and spontaneous watercolors. To do so I must be willing to take chances, to mess up and learn from the experience without being discouraged. I use the word ”PLAY” a lot in my workshops. I have finally reached the point of going into my studio to have fun and not worry too much about the end result. When I can keep that attitude the end results are often just fine!

I paint very quickly, seldom spending more than an hour on any painting from full sheets on down. I mainly use large mop brushes and paint on an angle to let gravity help the water/pigment mix naturally on the paper. I try to paint from large to small, light to dark while consciously trying to alternate warms and cools. I keep “tricks and gimmicks” to a minimum, but usually include some scraping and discrete splattering. A spray bottle is an important tool for me … helping the paint to run and mix, changing values and adding mystery and atmosphere to the painting.

I think, like most painters, my technique is always changing, morphing into something different. We try new materials, a new brush or unique colors. But there is one very important constant: that is design. I strongly feel that good design will go a long way to make up for average or maturing technique. But great technique WILL NOT make up for poor design.

"May Flowers" watercolor by Richard Stephens
Do you have go-to paints/colors, what are your favorites?

Besides the usual variation of the primaries, I do have some colors that are an important part of my palette. Quinacridone Gold seems to find a place in all my paintings. I love its intensity and transparency. I usually use Alizarin Crimson and Winsor Blue to make my darks, leaning toward the warm or cool as needed. Turquoise is often an unexpected addition to my paintings. Seldom as an actual local color, I will use turquoise to enliven an unexciting area in a painting. The same can be said for a bright orange or a pumpkin color. I am also very candid about the fact I always have a tube of White Gouache handy. I will use it to reclaim tiny highlights or even to mix with transparent colors if it will help “save” the painting. I consider myself more of a value painter than colorist. If I get the values right the colors will work. I do try to always be thinking warm/cool - light/dark during my painting process.

Do you have a favorite artist?  Who has been your biggest inspiration?

There are so many American watercolorists I admire. I would have to name Andrew Wyeth, Winslow Homer, John Pike, Edgar Whitney, Charles Reid, Frank Webb, Don Andrews, Carla O’Connor, Fred Graff, Dean Mitchell, Stan Miller, Thomas Schaller, Iain Stewart and many, many others. Tony Couch has produced some of the best instructional material for beginning watercolorists I’ve seen. He is a great “designer” of paintings.

Internationally, I love the work of John Singer Sargent, Alvaro Castagnet, Joseph Zbukvic, Robert Wade, Eugen Chisnicean, and Dave Taylor, plus too many others to name.

I truly think my students are my biggest inspiration and motivation. They keep me learning, wanting to grow and get better, both at painting and teaching. I don’t want to get stale and predictable. I challenge them, they challenge me.

What have been some of your crowning achievements?

That’s an easy one. I am most proud of the fact that I have been able to spend my entire life and career as an artist in a small (but special) town in Arkansas. I have made a living doing what I love, being my own boss and basically being in control of how I spend every day. That is my crowning achievement!

A minor achievement would be a certain amount of recognition for my work by my fellow artists through awards and publication. A not so minor reward is in knowing I helped start a few of my students on a serious path with watercolor. And then there is always the paintings themselves. We all have a few that will always be special for various reasons. I have either kept those paintings or given then to close friends, so I get to visit them once in a while … the paintings and the friends.
One of Richard's "Typetoons"

What are five things you would like to happen in your life in the next five years? Dream big here:)

  1. That I am granted the health (eyesight) to continue painting for years to come.
  2. That my workshops take me to locations and people that I find educational, fun and challenging.
  3. I have never had a painting accepted into an AWS or NWS Show. That would be nice.
  4. I would love for my “Typetoons” to be syndicated.
  5. Read number 1 again!

"Eureka Springs Chef" watercolor by Richard Stephens

What is your advice for other artists who are just getting started in their career?

In my opinion, this word “talent” is greatly overused. When I was a very young kid I loved to draw. So I drew a lot, a whole lot actually. I drew all the time, so said my parents. It was fun; I loved it … so I drew even more. Other kids were doing other things, music, drama, dance, sports (I did that too), academics, working on cars … whatever. Well, by the time I was in junior high, I was “the artist”, the “talented one.” Years later I realized I didn’t have any special talent; I had just worked at it more, much more, than the other kids. They had worked at, and became good at, what they loved and enjoyed. 

So my advice is recognize that THE TALENT IS HAVING THE PASSION. Without that, go do something else you care about, something you enjoy. Becoming a good artist is about working, working, and then working some more at it. There are no shortcuts. You can’t learn it by reading about it, by watching DVDs or live demos, by taking workshops, or by creating the perfect studio space and having the best of supplies and materials.  You get good by doing it, by working hard at it, by failing and making tons of mistakes and by learning from those mistakes, then trying again. That’s how you become “talented”!
"Fountain of Light" watercolor by Richard Stephens

What is the best advice that you have received as an artist?

Years ago I took a workshop from Alvaro Castagnet and stood right at his side as he produced about 10 plein air demos. That opportunity had a great influence on my work. Now that influence is a much quieter part of my painting voice … but it’s still there. 

On about the fourth day, Castagnet took me aside, looked me straight in the eye and said, “Richard, you can be as good as you want to be at watercolor. But it has to be totally important to you and you must be committed to the work required. It’s up to you.” Then he walked away.

Well, to say the least, that was pretty powerful advice!

Richard and I
Chocolate or vanilla?
Twisty Combination

Your dream vacation spot?

Book or movie?

Favorite author?
James Lee Burke

Favorite movie?
Of late, Lincoln

Romance or comedy?
Comedy, with a dash of Romance

Favorite dessert?
Ice Cream…really any flavor

Night owl or morning person?
Whoot me?

Thank you so much Richard:)


  1. What a wonderful interview, Carrie!. Richard Steven's work is outstanding....I love "Steve Suter"...I can hear the music!! Thank you for sharing his work...I'll have to visit his blog.

  2. I love seeing the work of other artists on your blog on Fridays, Carrie. Thank you for doing these!

  3. Wow - that really is powerful advice! great interview and wonderful work :0)

  4. I love his loose, brilliant, brushstroke-filled landscapes! Thanks for doing such excellent interview again Carrie!