AN INTERVIEW WITH BILL DAVIDSON
Written by Kim Weeks from her interview with Bill Davidson
Artists often have commonalities in education, tools, or even subject matter, but the life experiences they draw upon to create their pieces are as diverse as the color palettes they
paint from. Landscape artist and educator William Davidson left a career as a trial lawyer more than two decades ago to become a professional artist. And while he says a law career was ultimately not right for him, he often draws from his legal experience and mindset, both as an artist and a teacher.
“I was a typical guy growing up on the East Coast. I was told, ‘You have to make a living.’ Any semblance of saying, ‘Yeah, I think I’m going to be an artist,’ was smashed, probably. You know it was a different generation back then,” he said. “But I had such a passion for it, and I think as long as that passion is there, and you’re willing to work really hard at it, you can get pretty much where you want to go. Being a lawyer taught me a tremendous amount about discipline and work.”
When Bill began to pursue art, he took dozens of classes and workshops all over the country. He was mentored by other artists and eventually became an artist, teacher, and mentor in his own right. But it took him some time to shake out the confines of his legal brain, maintaining just enough to benefit him on the canvas and in the classroom.
“I wasn’t that good. I had a passion for it, but I was so logical from being in law that it was hard to switch over,” he said. “I think a lot of that logic is good for developing designs and compositions and working with shapes, but at the same time you have to lose some of it. That’s when the real hard part came. So, as an example, I would paint all my trees to look like the pillars of the Supreme Court Building. They were all lined up perfectly, equally spaced, so they had no [visual] interest in the painting.”
But as he learned and improved, Bill entered national exhibitions to see how he compared with other landscape artists. He not only earned numerous awards and accolades, he met and bonded with other artists, confirming that he had made the right career choice.
“It’s a great profession because most of the artists are really friendly, and even though we all need the money, [our conversations centered around] how we can create better artwork. And so it became really a better feel for me,” he said. “The law practice was more about money, money, money. I mean, I would be way wealthier if I stayed in law, but this is really where I needed to be.”
Bill says he learned much of what he knows from being taught by so many different people, but he finds fulfillment and has also learned a great deal from his own teaching. Again, Bill draws from his logical experience to break down and simplify the painting process for his students and for himself.
“When they taught workshops, everyone threw in color and value and everything at the same time, and it’s highly confusing. As I began to work my way through it, I thought, ‘Well, it’s juggling too many balls for people that are learning,’” he said. “I started breaking it down. I needed to do a layout of a the scene, not focusing on color first, and then start using color. Once I had the design and the shapes and values down, I moved on to color. And I think that accelerated me really fast, and I have taught that process for 15 years.”
All artists struggle with their paintings at times, but when Bill finds himself in a quandary with a piece he is working on, he finds it helpful to step back into the teacher role.
“If you really want to learn something, teach it,” he said. “It’s really interesting to me; if I’m out painting and I start to have a little bit of trouble, my first question to myself is, ‘What would I tell my students?’ And that will always pull me out and get me back on the right track.”
Bill also talks to his students about the importance of creating rituals to make sure they are consistently doing their best work. One of his own rituals involves beginning every painting with a black and white perspective and then adding color.
“I use a color called chromatic black, which is a transparent black. And I lay out my design with it before I start messing with any color. And the strangest thing about this is if I skip that ritual or that step, my painting is rarely as good,” he said. “And when I thought about it, I realized that in the older art schools, where they actually taught these skill levels, you couldn’t touch color for the first couple of years. So it tends to fall in line with that type of training.”
Bill has traveled the country and the world, taking and teaching workshops and has painted all types of landscapes, from mountains to oceans. He says the more time he spends outside painting or even just observing and absorbing, the better his paintings will be.
“The best thing you can do is paint from life, so I do a tremendous amount of plein air work. I’m outside. I’m painting, and I’m gathering information. And from all those trips and going to all those places, you get a sense of the reality and you can really start to see the colors,” he said. “The camera may pick up 30 or 35 percent of the color that’s out there, but it can’t pick up those subtle shifts in mood, temperature, and the values that are way, way in the background. And that’s the most exciting thing to do. There’s nothing more exciting than standing out in the scene and painting outdoors on a beautiful day and trying to capture it.”
While Bill has learned and practiced painting forms and other subjects, he feels that, like choosing trial law, pursuing landscape as his artistic specialty is the best way to constantly improve his paintings.
“I’m a firm believer that specializing in one area can be good for you, especially in the market. But if you do [specialize], the other [subjects] are great to do for the learning process and to add something new to your repertoire,” he said. “But I don’t want to do everything. I just want to stay focused on landscapes and try to master as much as I can in my lifetime.”
That is not to say that Bill doesn’t like to try new things. He enjoys experimenting with paint application and brush work, and finds that his methods lend themselves well to plein air landscape work.
“Everybody has their owns tastes. That’s why there are different flavored ice creams. But most artists that are skilled in plein air or skilled in painting these landscape painting are looking for nice, loose, expressive brush work, where the painting has an energy in it, and it just looks like the painter had a great time painting it and didn’t go through a laborious task of laying it out. The only problem is that that’s probably the hardest way to paint,” he said.
A frequent world traveler and resident of Carmel, California, Bill has painted coastlines, seascapes and mountain scenes, and in every finished work he wants the viewers to feel the passion and joy that he felt in creating them.
“I just want them to know that I’m putting as much effort and passion into it to try to make it come out as representative and beautiful as the area out there,” he said. “Most really good artists don’t just copy the landscape. They’re redesigning the landscape and they’re making it better than what they are really looking at, from the perspective of shape and design, but we’re really relying on mother nature for the colors.”
So, with passion as his guide and hard work as his driving force, Bill continues to instruct and inspire the next generation of artists with his workshops, videos, and social media content, all while learning and enhancing his own work. But how does he maintain his passion and drive?
“If I start getting down by working in the studio too much on bigger paintings, I know I have to pack my bags and get back out there again” he said. “You always want to have this feeling that you want to paint as great as you can paint at that point in time. And as long as you keep striving for that excellence, not perfection, I think it keeps you moving.”
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