Interview: Steve Ohlrich - Part One
I’m very pleased to present Studydrawing.com’s first interview. I’m extra pleased that it is with my friend Steve Ohlrich. We sat down to chat at his home in Pasadena on August 11th. I met Steve in Chicago for the first time in 1999, when I visited to interview to attend the School of Representational Art (SORA). I was accepted and began attending in 2000, and Steve was in his third year of the four-year program at the time and became a wonderful mentor to me. SORA offered an Atelier program of classical training in drawing and painting. The interview that follows discusses drawing and the process of learning to draw and improve at drawing. Because of our shared history, we step into the topics of painting, imaginative drawing, teaching, and learning and teaching art in general.
Ben: Thank you, Steve, for taking the time to sit down and chat with me. To start, can you tell us about your background as an artist?
Steve: Sure. I grew up in an artistic family. My mother was a painter. Neither of my parents did art professionally, but my mother still worked and taught. I remember coming home from kindergarten and she was at home with her students. My dad was artistic as well and did a lot of woodworking and carving while having a different professional job. But as a kid, art was all I ever did, and my parents always encouraged it. If I had told them I wanted to be a doctor or a lawyer, they would have said “No” and discouraged me. So the encouragement was always there. I always drew, so it was a no-brainer for me as a career. So at the time, I said to myself “This is what I’m going to do...it’s what I do best.” So I just pursued it.
I got a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree from the University of Illinois at Chicago(UIC) in studio art and did everything there from animation to printmaking to painting. While doing so I decided I was going to go more for painting. I did some time with computer animation for about a semester. That’s when I met Bruno Surdo at the Illinois Institute of Art, and lost my mind when I saw his work. At the time I said “..this is what I want to do.” I joke that Titian is dead, so I couldn’t study with him anymore, so that was a problem. So through a serendipitous route, I wound up finding about a school through an art magazine. The school was called the School of Representational Art (SORA).
I called the school and lo and behold, it was Bruno Surdo’s school and I was surprised. I’d met Bruno through the animation program at IIA, but he never talked about the School and I never knew he had one. So I signed up for SORA and went to school there. In my third year of the four-year program, I started doing some teaching, and I’ve been teaching ever since. The SORA program was really profound. It changed my mind it gave me focus. It gave me the old masters training I always wanted and I’ve been going at it ever since.
Ben: Did you do any formal study of drawing prior to SORA?
Steve: No. When I went to UIC it was much more “contemporary,” more theoretical. When I took a life drawing class, I don’t recall much instruction. I always did well, but I don’t know how I did well, I just did. The anatomy part was basically just getting a xerox of a skeleton and the instructors saying “you should probably know this.” It was a very different approach from classical training and most of the teachers were abstract painters. So I never got any formal training prior to SORA, just little bits in classes as a kid and that’s it.
"You’ve helped me remove the fear of drawing..."
Ben: How long have you been teaching drawing?
Steve: 18 years. I started teaching at SORA in my third year, teaching some of the night classes. As I was leaving the school, an opportunity to actually get paid to teach drawing was presented to me, which was way better than the other side-jobs I’d been working. Over time I began to really enjoy teaching. The feedback I would get was: “you’re really good at this” or “you’ve helped me remove the fear of drawing, you’ve helped me get results.” So I’ve stuck with it ever since.
Ben: What are some of the places you’ve taught?
Steve: I’ve taught at the Milwaukee Art Museum, the Museum of Wisconsin Art, the Sharon Lynne Wilson Center. I taught at Wheaton College for about a semester. I also taught at the Art Institute of Wisconsin in Milwaukee for about three years, and that was a big turning point in my teaching. I worked mostly with animation students and fashion design students, but I really had to take a different approach then. Currently I’m teaching at Pasadena City College.
Ben: What have you learned about drawing from teaching drawing for this long and how has teaching for this long enhanced your understanding of drawing?
Steve: It’s made me much more articulate in terms of how I draw and paint. When I do demonstrations I can explain what I’m doing, why I’m doing it, and how I’m doing it. It’s also pushed my understanding in areas that maybe I knew enough about working on, on my own, but when I actually got in front of a class and had to explain it to people, and on top of that to demonstrate it, it’s made me so much more well-versed in the language of the visual world. All of which has made me a better painter and artist, as a result.
Ben: You mentioned that there was a turning point in the way you went about teaching at the Art Institute of Wisconsin. Can you tell me more about that?
Steve: When I would teach the Atelier curriculum classes at SORA, often somebody else had already set up the pose, and it was my job to come in and look at a student’s in-progress figure study, or cast drawing, or still life painting. I would look at the shapes, or values, or colors in the student’s work and I would talk to them about that. Versus when I taught at the College I had to design my own curriculum. This was great because it gave me a lot of freedom and just had to hit certain things. I brought a lot of the Atelier experience into that, but again I had to get up and explain to people, for example, what elliptical perspective was or explain to them what exactly is a sphere, or a cube, or a cylinder, or a cone and just be very clear and precise with them. I had to figure out how I was going to deliver that information and cram it all into a 16-week class and still get them to get something out of it. So for three years, it was great. I learned a lot more about drawing and drawing concepts and I became much better at explaining it.
Ben: What in your mind does it mean to draw well?
Steve: For me, especially as a teacher, good drawing is the ability to see the visual world around you and be able to translate that to a two-dimensional surface with a pencil or a piece of charcoal. I could break it down as simply as someone who can look at something and see the values, see the form, figure out the proportions, and see the relationships of everything. They can see the subject in space and translate that in a way that accurately represents what they are looking at. That’s the basis of good fundamental drawing. Then there are artists who take it somewhere from there. They’ll soften things (in the drawing), blur them out, bring certain things into focus, they’ll deconstruct it, but you can see that academic side that comes out and they can really play with it.
I think it’s also just that awareness of what is around you visually and you can look at it and see and talk about it, and point it out and see it, understand intellectually, and with your hand translate and articulate it again on paper.
Ben: So a baseline ability is to just see something and draw it, regardless of what it is. And this would include not just figures but landscapes scenes, indoor scenes, or anything in the world around you.
Steve: All those aspects of the visual world are held together by the same phenomena. Shapes may be different but it’s still a shape.
"It’s important to have a procedure."
Ben: When it comes to the advice you encounter in the art world about how to improve drawing, the thing one always hears is “practice, practice, practice.” While I agree that practice is essential, do you think that some types of practice are better than others? And if so, what do you think is the best use of a student’s time when they are learning to draw or improve their drawing?
Steve: Well definitely practicing with some kind of guidelines as to how you’re going about doing it is important. It’s important to have a procedure. I use the same procedure for landscapes, for still lives, for portraits, for figures, for composition drawings, and it works for all of it. And so as I practice I think about that procedure as I’m doing it and you just get better at it. And then I can play with it. I can start to make decisions, like, if I want to paint like an impressionist. If I want to go totally loose and paint big abstract shapes and color, I can, because it still goes back to the same thing, shapes and values. You’re still representing the visual world, but you’re doing it in a slightly different manner. So there are different directions you can go based on that structure.
I don’t do it enough, but I like to have sketchbook with me. Sometimes if I’m sitting in a dentist’s office, I just draw the lamp. Then I start adding some values. Then I start seeing that there is an interesting triangle of light going to the top, or an interesting highlight. And so again, it keeps me looking visually.
So it is practice, practice, practice. For me, it helps to have a structure. Someone who doesn’t have any kind of formal training can go out and practice, but it may not be as beneficial. You’ll still get something out of it, but when you have some structure to it and you keep building on that I think that you just get more out of it. So when I ask what’s the point of all the practice? Well, it just means I can do paintings faster. But most importantly, when I get in front of 25 people, and now I have to knock out a still life in 2 hours, I can do it. Because I’ve done it so many times and I know where I’m starting and where I’m going. With that foundation, I can tell jokes, and loosen up, and have fun with it, and people love that.
That’s where the practice really comes in. It makes your own work more efficient, because paintings take a really long time. There’s always so many things going on in life, so the more you have going on the harder it is to find time to paint, so there is the efficiency part of it. There’s just also the ability to get up and show people what you do and that relates to teaching. With the solid foundation of procedure I have, I can see right away where a student is at, what they need to do, and I learn a bit about who they are.
Ben: So to capture that, what someone should keep in mind to stay on track towards improving, as opposed to getting diverted or spinning their wheels, is to stick to a procedure. If the way you practice involves repeatedly going through a proper procedure, then you are probably going to progress quicker than if you would otherwise.
Steve: Yes, and do it with a goal in mind. For me, I want to paint like Rembrandt. I may never hit that in life, but a good procedure helps me work toward that goal. When it comes to how to practice, well keep a sketchbook with you, so when you’re in a dentist’s office, do some sketching instead of looking at your phone. If you’re at a bus stop and you have a bunch of cool bungalows around me, draw the bungalows or whatever is around, but make the time to do it.
That’s another thing, because life is not going to stop and say “now it’s time to sit down and draw.” You’ve got to make it happen. It doesn’t always have to be a formal setup in a studio. It can be that, too, but you just keep practicing it. If you are looking at your phone, look up some paintings, look up some drawings. Go on an artist’s blog. Just always keep that in your view. I think by doing all of that you can’t help but progress, and you’ll come up with things you’ve never even thought of.
Ben: What, if any, counterproductive ideas have you seen out there in terms of advice on how to learn to draw well.
Steve: I’ll hear things from students like “well...I studied with this guy and he said you should never erase.” Ok. Well, you’re trying to draw a pear, for example, and your pear drawing looks nothing like the pear you are trying to draw. So to get it to look like the pear, you’re gonna have to do some erasing, and it’s totally ok. I love erasing and scraping. It gives you a little sense of power, because it’s easy to feel powerless especially with oil paint. But if you can just take a knife and scrape it out or wipe it out, you’ve taken your artwork back. And that’s what you do with a bit of a mission or focus. It’s your work. I hear stuff like that (“don’t erase”), and I say I don’t agree with it.
It’s little things like that I’ll hear every once in a while that I think can be counterproductive. Sometimes I’ll hear things like “well..if you are formally trained, you lose your creativity.” I don’t agree with that one either. I have no problems coming up with ideas and being creative and putting different things together. I just do it in a representational way. So sometimes I’m a little on the tight (rendering) side so I have a hard time leaving my Teutonic Dutch roots where I want everything to be nice and clean-edged. So to push a looser style, that takes extra effort for me, but I don’t think I lose anything creatively because I combine all these different elements and there’s a story. So that is another one I’ll hear sometimes that I don’t agree with.
Ben: What mistakes have you seen novices themselves make pursuing drawing.
Steve: Trying to finish it with the first stroke, and getting hung up. They may be drawing a cylinder, and they’ll spend 3 hours trying to get upper left contour perfectly straight. I say….just get all the pieces in there, do it loosely and sketch, and you’ll get there. So I think it’s the need to do it right the first time that is counterproductive. You grow up, you go to school, you’ve got to get that answer right or it’s wrong. With drawing, it just takes time. Start with something that’s loose and sketch and we’ll tighten up over time. People go for the details right away. Because there's so much information coming at you visually, where do you start?
"Going out and drawing is like 100 kids throwing snowballs at you. You need to know how to organize the information."
Another example is in drawing portraits. I see people putting in values when the features are grossly out of proportion. So when they don’t have any kind of procedure, or know what areas to finish up before going to the next step, they can make these mistakes and it becomes very frustrating to them. They lose morale. They get tired. So I think that’s it, and you just don’t know what you don’t know. Going out and drawing is like 100 kids throwing snowballs at you. You need to know how to organize the information.
Ben: Is there anything in common that you’ve seen among the students that learn to draw well and progress the most rapidly? What kind of mindset should a student bring this process of learning to get the most of it?
Steve: Sure, some people do come with some innate talent. Where it comes from I don’t know. Genetics, past lives, who knows? They come with that, but there’s also ones who come with that plus the discipline and the resiliency to be able to be told they’re wrong and that (shape) is too big or that’s too small. Plus, they’ll have a desire to hit a certain goal which is to improve their drawing, and also to be able to put any kind ego issues aside. Some people will come and try and prove something. You just try and tell them the nose (in their drawing) isn’t the right shape, and they don’t want to hear it, and they’ll argue. It’s rare, but it will happen every once in a while.
So there are also some people that have some drawing ability already, but they’re open, and they’re like, ok, I looked at your work I like what you do, so help me get to that. They have the resiliency of being critiqued and the patience. Patience is huge because some people see a work of art, and it’s this amazing thing and they get their emotions going. But there’s just a lot of plodding through it. There’s plateaus, and nobody wants to plateau, because you’re just going straight for a long time, then suddenly you move up. But you’ve got to be able to go straight for a long while. It’s like anything in life, even like driving from point A to point B, and sometimes people get halfway through it and say ‘this is taking too long, are we ever going to get there?” But you have to keep going, and you eventually get there.
Ben: What are your favorite non-class resources for learning to draw that you would tell someone to engage with?
Steve: When we go to the art museum, I’ll ask my students “what are the paintings you magically go to, that you can't stop looking at?” Get books on those artists. Go online and go on Youtube and google landscape painting demonstrations, you’ll see a ton of really good ones. A lot of people on there do it and do it really well and there is so much information out there. So I direct people to Youtube a lot. I direct them to galleries, or to look at artists online, sometimes just google still life paintings, seek out the ones that you like, the ones that you respond to, and research them. Chances are living artists out there have videos, or they do Youtube videos, or they have their own class online. That information is out there. If you have access to an artist who lives near to you, and teaches, study with them. A lot of it is finding and knowing yourself and what you connect with, and then pursuing that.