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Posted on Saturday, September 8, 2018
"Roman's Dream" Oil Painting by Steve Ohlrich

(This continues my interview with artist and teacher, Steve Ohlrich. Click here for Part One.)

Ben: I’ve personally always enjoyed your creative paintings and drawings. How does a student cultivate the ability to draw imaginative ideas, or to harness imagination and turn it into drawing?

Steve: Well thank you. It’s a good question because you’ll read, oh people can learn to draw basic things like a cube, but there’s a part of drawing that’s unteachable, and that’s the creative part. I think it varies in different people. Some people have it and some people don’t and why is that? I grew up in a tumultuous household, and there was mental illness. So I had every reason to escape into a world of fantasy. So there is that aspect of it. There’s also lots of people that just love a good story and who like to take complex ideas and put them together in new ways.

Sometimes a sense of humor helps. I’ve read that a sense of humor is considered one of the highest orders of thinking because you’re always putting these contradictory things together. So that helps. When I studied animation, we always had exercises. They were simple things like “find 3 different newspaper articles, take the first sentence from each one, and you have the beginning, middle, and end. Now construct a story around it” So there are ways to get you started putting things together. I’ve been asked a lot by students lately “hey can you do a class in surrealism?” and I thought that’s interesting. The students said, “listen…we know we have to be able to draw first, obviously, but how would you do that?”

"Whatever you do, be in that world..."

How would I work with someone who is having a hard time coming up with imagery? One thing I’d say is record your dreams. That’s a good place to start. Dreams are weird. It’s your subconscious telling you stuff, and presenting symbols. There’s all kinds of improbable things going on, so make pictures of them as a starting point. Watch sci-fi movies, read sci-fi books, read books on ghosts, or read Robert Louis Stevenson books. Whatever you do, be in that world. For me it just comes naturally to sit and make up stories. That’s what I do.

Ben: That’s good advice on generating ideas, but what do you say to a student saying “hey how do I go about actually learning to draw imaginative ideas better? I’ve got the ideas….I picked up this sci-fi book, and I want to draw some scenes from it as an exercise…” What’s a good way to learn how to take those ideas and turn them into drawings?

Steve: Let’s say you were going to combine outer-space scenery with pirates. To do space pirates, you go through books of pirates, you look at a blunderbuss, their flags, their clothes, the stuff they found. You start to incorporate that into your drawing. Then you watch 2001 space odyssey and fall asleep like everybody does. You start looking at pictures of nebulae and black holes and you say “how do I draw a ship that turns at a 3-quarter angle into a black hole?” It’s researching the actual things.

I did a World-War I scene and I spent a lot of time going through pictures of WWI to get all the details right. Because I imagine some WWI buff is going to see this and bust me on details, I’m not going to let them. Even the treads on the boots, I got those right. The little things that hung from their belts, the types of belts... I wanted all these things to be super accurate, and then I put it into a more imaginative scene.

"Forget me not" Oil painting by Steve Ohlrich
"Forget me not" Oil painting by Steve Ohlrich

Ben: There are a lot people out there, who are adults now and may have gotten some art training, or formal art education, but now they have non- art day jobs. It’s a struggle for them with life and kids and jobs to find time for what is basically a hobby, but they’ve kept that flame alive, that love of drawing and art. What advice do you have to keep the cycle of engagement with the craft alive?

Steve: Take a class. Go to a lecture. Keep a sketchbook. I listened to a great lecture that said people need to do more than one job. You have your job during the day, then you come home and instead of falling asleep in front of the TV, you practice guitar or you study astronomy and take a class in astronomy or something like that. So it comes out of just making the time to do it. And having people around you to support you helps a lot, too. A lot of the students I work with are working professionals, or they’re retired but art has always been the thing they loved to do. I have people that keep coming back for another class and another. I’m happy with that and to facilitate that for them.

So it comes down to just making the time and to commit to something. And really, just take a class. If you feel like, ok, I’ve been studying too much, then start setting up something at home. Find a place at home that’s quiet, that doesn’t have the kids running through, and that’s your meditation space and time. Put it on the calendar…Tuesday nights and Thursdays nights I go into mediation time to make art for 2 hours. Then you get once you get that consistent time, then you get momentum and then you start accomplishing things. Then you’ll say “oh, now I’ve got a finished painting…now let’s do something else…let’s take a perspective class.” That’s how you keep it going.  

So it comes down to just making the time and to commit to something.

Ben: For people in the situation I describe in my previous question, I think they can be more prone to getting stuck on plateau’s with their skill development, while they fight for the time. How do they break plateaus?

Steve: Take a class, watch an online video, go look at paintings. One of the best bits of advice I got from my teacher Bruno Surdo, was, “ok Steve, you need to work on edges, so go to the Art Institute and look at edges on figure paintings and drawings.” And I did, and with that focus, I learned a ton. I came back and I made all the adjustments to what I was working on and, wow…it got me over a plateau right away. So knowing how to go and look at something with focus is important. Now it takes some insight and you’ve got to know you’re on plateau and know where you’re going, because sometimes it’s just a matter of “well I really struggle with skies…my skies never look right.” Well, ok, go look at a bunch of skies. Ask what makes another painter’s sky better than my sky? Take a picture of your sky and hold it on your phone next to Rembrandt’s sky. You’ll start to come up with information, especially if you go there with focus. That makes a big difference.

Ben: So tell me what you think of the following? I think there is some unhealthy cultural baggage attached to art. I think part of it is the pedestal that people put the appearance of talent on. Part of it is people’s experiences with art. If someone says they are going to learn a skill like playing guitar, playing golf, or learning a foreign language, people don’t immediately think you are required to have been bestowed with a ton of talent to be able to acquire a baseline of competency with those. Even if you say “I’m going to take a drawing class, or a painting class” those are pretty accepted things. However, if you say “I’m going to create art.” People don’t quite know how to process that.

Steve: Well sometimes people have stereotypes about artists being freaks and weirdos. If  you’re an accountant those people say ‘you’re not a freak or a weirdo, why would you be making art?” I think humans are very holistic beings and the creative side is there and needs to be nurtured. You have to do something with it, as well as doing left-brained thinking and physical things. Creative work needs to be accepted as a normal part of being a functioning human being. There was probably a time, in the past, where we did more creating because there you had to, for example, build your own fence. It’s creative. Or you had to build a porch or whatever it was you needed, and we’ve gotten away from that. So in some ways it’s easy to get into a mode of ‘you are this and you are that.’

I remember going over to someone’s house, and they were expecting me and knew I was an artist. I just look like a normal dude, wearing jeans and a regular shirt and sneakers. And they were like “where’s all the pins, and the shaved head or colored hair?” So I think there is a lot of stereotyping and judgment, and some people will ask “‘well are you any good?” It’s not about that, it’s about this need to make something. I think some people are very self-conscious about it too, because they expect what they do to be no good. It’s going to be judged.

I have a lot of students who look very sheepish when I come over and look at their work. This is why when I come over, if there’s something I can talk about that they are doing really well, I want to let them know…”hey, this is really working, but this other area is where you need to focus now.” The best compliment I ever got was “thank you for taking the fear out of drawing for me.” So I think there are stereotypes and stigmas. It maybe just goes back to let’s make sure we keep the arts in school and keep them part of everything. Not everyone's going to be good at it, but that’s not the point.

Ben: What motivates you, personally, to this day, as an artist?

Steve: [laughs] It’s all I can do. I’ve worked in retail, I’ve worked in psychology. Art is what I do. The feedback I get is that I do it well, whether it’s the drawing or the painting or the teaching. I’ve worked in other fields, and I knew I was giving something up by not working in art and I was wasting something, something really a part of who I am. So that's what got me back to it and has kept me focused. It helps so much to have a supportive spouse, that is extremely helpful. And then just the support I get from my students, and from people who buy my work. Also it’s what I love to do.

When I'm making something or painting something, parts of my brain are firing in ways that they don't when I'm doing my taxes, for instance. Endorphins are going off and since it’s natural for me to make up stories and put things together, it just connects with who I am and I'm just happier. I also feel like I've got the talent to back me. Then there’s the world of selling things and commissions and stuff. I get support there too. It all helps, but for the most part it’s who I am and what I love to do. And I can see it in the reactions I get and in the way I feel when I'm doing it.


A photo of Steve Ohlrich's studio
A photo of Steve Ohlrich's studio

Ben: Can you tell me about your latest work?

Steve: Sure. I tend to do a lot of different things, and I’ve gotten back to just doing more imaginative work. I’m really focusing on figures and portraits. Some are a little more standard like my son’s portrait, but then I have to have the flying baseballs in it just to add some whimsical elements. But I’ve been going through sketches and doing figure work that has a sense of humor or a sense of mystery to it. Sometimes it deals with our current times a little bit. It’s all representational, but it’s surreal, and it tells a story and will be filled with symbols. That's my favorite because I love posting my work (on social media) and reading people’s comments. You never know how someone's going to react to something you do. And to me that’s the best part because it gets them out of their everyday life and they can start thinking. It's like maybe they weren't thinking like that until they saw this thing, and if I can help people do that and it takes people to a better place than great. I’m happy with that.

I got away from this and I was doing still lives and doing some landscape painting. I like being diverse in my work. But really connecting back with just being a storyteller in a representational way and asking, how do I combine those? That's where I’m at. Also, I feel like I'm in a part of the country, too, that is the best playground for that. I read a statistic that there are more creative people working in a creative field in the city of Los Angeles than at any other time in the history of modern cities. We took my son to see the Avengers and I’m like yeah, I can just let loose and have fun here. Whereas when I was in Wisconsin, I was like I’d better paint some barns, because it’s more conservative and people want you to paint more about Wisconsin. Not that I didn't find people that like surreal stuff, but there's a bigger audience for it here.

Ben: Can you tell me about any upcoming shows, classes, or workshops?

Steve: let's see, I just had some work in a show in the Arts District at Art Share L.A. I got into another show on museum row, but then it turned out that my painting was too big. That's the problem with doing big paintings, you hear “sorry, we just don't have space…but you'll get into our next show automatically.” And then I have some work hanging at a gallery called McGinty's which is here in Altadena. Whenever I have the opportunity I submit work just to get it out. My goal is to have a solo show at some point and I have a list of paintings to work on, which is the stuff I’m working on now.

I also have two commissioned works on display at Northwestern Mutual’s headquarters in Milwaukee in a show called “Giving Gallery: A Community in Process”. This is a show that will be on display until February, 2019 when it will go on a national tour.

I’m also teaching classes at Pasadena City College. I teach extension classes there and I've been doing that for a little over a year now. Big classes. I have a portrait drawing class. I do a classical drawing class which is drawing basic shapes in charcoal. People love landscapes, I’ll do painting landscapes from photos. Then I have private students that I work with. Quite a few come here and I have them working on various projects.

Ben: Can you tell me about your private teaching?

Steve: I have private students. Some I find through Thumbtack. Some find my work in the catalog for Pasadena City College, or they see it somewhere and then they contact me. In some cases, I go to their home. In most cases, people come here. I especially like it because I have everything here. I do a lot of schlepping, and I get tired of the schlepping and I'm learning how to minimize the schlepping. At Pasadena City College I have a great space. There's lights and everything so I don't need to bring much. I really like students coming to my home because I have all my books, all my artwork is here, all my materials are here, and people like that. They get to come to your studio and get to see “oh this is what he does…” At my home, students get around the clock attention. They are usually here for an hour, and I’m right there with them the whole time. It’s also a great variety of people, in one case it’s kids, in another, it’s a woman who’s a filmmaker who wants to learn how to paint, for fun. In another case its someone who paints and wants to be painting better.

Ben: Well, thank you so much for talking to me.

Steve: Of course. 

Ben: Check out more of Steve’s work at