Artist Shirly Ambrose - AIC Interview

The natural world is what particularly motivates me to draw and paint. Always desiring to mirror the wonders of sheer creation. "Realism is a challenge that proves God's perfection; we can never quite measure unto. Our desire for perfection provokes endless aspirations that produce ever growing humility." I like to find the beautiful things and unique things and ridiculously try to transcribe them which can often be a challenge if you aim for any form of realism. It is funny how I hate challenge in most things but am fine when it is art.

Question:
When did you realize you had the need to create and develop your skills?
Answer:
When I was around eleven years old and drawing animals and some wilderness scenes....it was all very natural for me and I had been basically drawing on anything I could find since about three years old; I had a very bad reputation around the home as you might imagine at that age. At three, pens were my favorite medium but at eleven colored pencils were. At around seven I wanted to someday create music and at about nine I wanted to paint portraits I specifically recall. Then around thirteen I started sketching with graphite. I rarely worked with paints until my twenties as the school paints were terrible and we could not afford any extra paints at home. So I went out and bought myself some oils and canvas when I was about twenty and never looked back and the acquisition felt pretty amazing. I went into portraits straight away as they were already my thing as I wanted to face the more difficult art early on leaving my later years for artistic vacation. So now because with my style, I use my paint thin, those same old oils lasted me over twenty years while I also continued to work in graphite some.

Question:
How do you know when your art is complete?
Answer:
I usually go through about ten to twelve later stages of thinking it is basically finished and then finally there is that last one or two stages when I know it is as good as I have in me and I am also very happy with it and nothing is annoying or bothering me about the piece....with a few exceptions when I did come back days later and saw it in a slightly different light or frame of mind and tweeked some small detail. That has happened on occassion. There is always that stage though, that when I have left a painting for weeks without any changes....that is it then for sure and I will never see reason to improve it and I know if I did go down that path that I would somehow diminish it . There surely is a time to leave well enough alone and call something complete.

Question:
Where do you gather your inspiration from?
Answer:
Definitely natural beauty in people and animals and the wilds in general....a sunrise or a dramatic storm. The natural world is what particularly motivates me to draw and paint. Always desiring to mirror the wonders of sheer creation. "Realism is a challenge that proves God's perfection; we can never quite measure unto. Our desire for perfection provokes endless aspirations that produce ever growing humility." I like to find the beautiful things and unique things and ridiculously try to transcribe them which can often be a challenge if you aim for any form of realism. It is funny how I hate challenge in most things but am fine when it is art. I loathe challenge for the sake of game or sportsmanship but areas of creativity I am fine with it. I just feel that life is difficult enough and no one needs to add more struggle. Yet art I make my exception. Though I have no real use for competition and I usually only fall into that when up against someone who pushes their imagined superiority and then find myself counteracting them. I just hate it. Ideally, I like to find things I am inclined toward and just focus on doing my best at those no matter what anyone else is doing. Surely I like to prove myself but we can usually prove ourselves shy of competition. I feel that I only have so much time and energy in life and so I like to save it for lasting creativity and not the sordid games. I believe we are better off just doing our very best at whatever we are so inclined without stressing about what others are doing and getting caught in the web of competition. Some would assume that art is all about play but many of us know it can have very little to do with play and in our minds it remains essential and necessary....even without an explanation given.

Question:
Where do you typically create art?
Answer:
For years I have done most of my artwork in my beautiful living room that overlooks a wilderness lake. It is my most comfortable room to be in during waking hours and therefore my best art has been done there also. Nearly all of it to date. With the exception of when I was a girl and the past year when I started experimenting finally in water colors and set up a chair and table near our dining room and kitchen and that is fine for my more carefree art that requires a sink and more water nearby. I find it works for the less intense art. I think one painting was done in the bedroom and no joking about that. I never cared for a separate studio even though I had the space to set it up in more than one room. I am an unusually tidy artist and so I am able to work with my oils and of course graphite in my frontroom without ever ruining the carpets or anything in all three decades, which surprises even myself. One small speck of dry oil paint would even stain a rug as it gets walked on. Somehow I avoided any nightmares. I do not like to make a mess cooking either and with both I never ruin my clothes and I do not even really effort that. Yeah I know....odd and disbelievable to say the least even to me. Needless to say I never have to wear an apron for cooking or art.

Question:
Right now, what is your medium of choice and what is your favourite subject matter?
Answer:
Oils have always been my favorite medium and then graphite. And my favorite subjects will always be people and animals but recently I am in need of doing more landscapes as I am so behind there. As well I have required some mountain scenes for my music albums. Though I found watercolors quite forgiving and I am enjoying working with them, I must admit oils are my thing and I finally found some that do not take so long to dry. I do not like venturing into drying agents and spent years waiting weeks for oils to dry in an already dry house. I finally had to buy some new oils and I have found they dry very fast for me. I do not like acrylic paint though I have a ton of it on hand, it would be my least favorite medium to have to work with. I like colored oil pencils very much. Not so much classic pastel. I am venturing into some water soluble oils of late but I have not worked with them enough to properly compare to classic oils. For now I think it is safe to say regular oil paint will always be by far my preferred medium with probably water oils after that once I get more accustoned to them. Graphite will always be an amazing and faithful friend however to take me to more straight forward places with less frills.

Question:
All artists at all stages of their career want to try something new, what other medium or subject matter do you see yourself experimenting with?
Answer:
I went so many years uninterested in branching out to experiment with anything new as I wanted to stay with what seemed to work for me which was the oils after using only graphite. I did almost zero of anything with any other mediums, though I was extensively doing carving and etching and the ilk. I stayed busy with what I knew and could afford. Finally in my forties I started spreading my wings with the paints and tried several new mediums and some of which I love. I was pleasantly surprised how forgiving watercolors actually were and again, I love colored oil pencils. Yet good old oil paint remains my primary medium and now I am starting to use some of the healthier water based oils available.

Question:
Continuing education, do you partake and if so what did you learn?
Answer:
I have never taken any art classes in my life and never will. I am known to do things the difficult way on purpose and also by accident but I also do not like to be adjusted any and especially by modern teachers who would tell us that art is all about the eye of the beholder and never double check their dictionary. I enjoy watching the amazing videos available now and wish we had them years ago. The first art books I managed to buy was in my thirties and some were an asset and some were not. For anyone who wants to learn from instruction in the comfort of their home, the quality videos are the direction to head in with a smile on your face...so enjoyable to watch.

Question:
Have you ever taught a class or done an artist talk? If so, what did you talk about or teach? Can people sign up for your workshops and how?
Answer:
Never...I am so much of an introverted recluse that I would never seriously entertain such a notion....not for me...INFJ personality. That is also why I am only self taught.

Question:
Have you ever painted en plein air? What was the biggest hurdle for you? Environmental challenges, wildlife, people, weather?
Answer:
I have never done so and I have no desire to unless of course I had to....the level of focus I put into my art requires my familiar surroundings and stabilized setting and it takes very little to set me out of my rhythm. I need to be indoors even though I love the wilderness and was raised in the wilds, outside is no place to do my best art and my art dictates to be done out of the elements of wind and rain and flying bugs and various external distractions. I know there are some who do good work that way but I also know many who do it out of fad and their work suffers in the end. It is an experience for them that happens to include their art and does not seem to have the undivided attention that it might well deserve. Continual changing light is also a real problem I would never care to face. They live for the challenge I think.

Question:
Do you do commissions? If so, what is your process?
Answer:
I had my first commission when I was eighteen and I have taken a few over the years but that is not how I work best and I despise deadlines though I have never missed a deadline...I hate it and it is no way to be properly creative. Ideally we create and it may then be sold after the fact with no undo pressure on anyone. A client also sees exactly what they are getting before they pay anything. I am not a business mind though I realize there are a few artists who are but not many of us by nature are inclined toward the business mind of things while still remaining sincerely creative.

Question:
What is your favourite art related quote?
Answer:
Oh I have many I have saved and even some by favorite artists and musicians and they are all so great. I have this list that is about a hundred long but this would be my favorite here, as it has a powerful message and easy to recall: "All art is self expression but most self expression is not art." And yes that is mine that some will recognize and some will love and some will loathe.

Question:
Do you have a favourite artist and what do you like about their art? Have you ever met them?
Answer:
My favorite inspirational artists would be the genius wildlife artist Carl Brenders and no I have never had the delight in meeting him but I own some of his beautiful and inspiring books of art. Daniel Greene is a favorite of course in the world of portraiture. I also admire many of the super realistic artists around these days....mind blowing work and very humbling to see. Of the lesser known artists.... so many greats but a special one who comes to mind is Andrew Tischler from Australia...he is young and well beyond his years.

Question:
Did they inspire you to pursue a career as a professional artist?
Answer:
Not really....though I always aimed to sell my artwork as I was reasonably enabled....I never really related to ever being on that level of commerce or gaining riches from it....I realized it was probably unrealistic and if it happened it happened and if not I would be very content with just creating even with small income....where there is a will there is usually a way and my will has never been very commercial as much as creative; I cannot be divided easily between those two realms.

Question:
What is most challenging to you when starting a new project?
Answer:
Gaining my focus when there is nothing much to focus on yet.....once the drawing starts to develop some, it makes it easier and easier to continue working. Despite my extreme ability to focus...I can find my focus difficult to initiate sometimes. Once I am into a piece it is very hard to pry me away and I often forget to eat and can go work upwards of thirteen hours straight without hardly getting up....though that is my record....commonly I might stay down for seven to nine hours. I get into my groove and then I get stuck in my art groove you could say.

Question:
What advice would you give to an artist starting out?
Answer:
If you are more interested in realism as I am.....then paint precisely what you physically see and not how you THINK it should be. Inaccurate perception is the worst downfall and got me into trouble every single time. And guard against your preferences like slimming people down or adding some weight on them without hardly realizing you are doing it. This is if you do not bother with doing grids. I never use grids. I had a subconscious and annoying habit of rounding faces out slightly and all because I wanted my own face to be rounder and like that on many others as well...but I was doing it mostly without knowing until my portrait was about done and it was kind of too late to remedy. Most of my people ended up five to ten pounds heavier in my early years and I still battle that one and always will I think. You can avoid things like that if you try really hard to stay aware of it always.

Question:
What keeps you going forward with your art in this very competitive industry?
Answer:
Just the sheer innate drive to create...it is all about natural need to express in these certain ways...when you stay focused on what you love then you can ignore any competitive realm. ..and when I die I want to know I did what I was designed to do for the most part and that I never got caught up where I could not belong with my blood sweat efforts. And my regret will be that I did not manage to do even more of what I love but we can only do our best in what providence allows and provides.

Question:
In your studio, right now, what is your most important tool that you would be lost without?
Answer:
I want to say my hands and then my brush...as I even paint with my fingers sometimes and obviously I require hands to hold even my brush. I guess I must say brush to be fair here. I have about three sizes of brushes I find invaluable no surprise and no surprise that quality is pretty important.

Question:
What is your favourite piece of work you have created, thus far?
Answer:
Probably my portrait of musician Dan Fogelberg that took me seven years to finish with things in life interrupting me continually; some good interruption mind you as well, including marriage. Yet it is a tie with my large multi portrait I did of my husband Douglas and that I waited ten years to finally start with things in the way and then when I did, it was my largest portrait and also the fastest one all considering (fifteen months) I ever did which was very unusual since I was not rushing it. So the one that took me the very longest and the one that took me the least time...though that would not be my reason for being partial to them....just a part of their storyline.

Question:
What is the most well received piece of art you have created?
Answer:
Probably the oil portrait I did of my father when I was in my early twenties, as it has hung on my wall for 25 years and been seen by more people than anything I have done I suppose. It was my second painting in my life and remains one of my very best ones to date because of the subject matter and I poured my everything into it as a labor of extreme love. Then probably some of my graphite collage portraits come after that and some of them are more public. For the most part however, I have never found people that generous in feedback of any kind. Only a few. I have had some purposely ignore my work on a local level for what appears to be their own insecurities and contorted alliances. I am glad that I have never received any negative feedback however, locally or internationally. Artists know that it can be a solo life but that is firstly who we are and how it must be to focus on what really matters.

Question:
Do you have a favourite gallery or museum that you visit?
Answer:
Not especially and not where I live but I have enjoyed the Anchorage Art museum and managed to make it into the Louvre years ago after standing in line three hours....then it was so late in the day there was small time to see or enjoy much. I have seen several museums throughout Europe and Museum Island in Berlin was one of the best. I like how you can revisit some places 'virtually' that you were once rushed through and even see more now. Quite often and more times than not, the best art in the world is never found in museums but often on the street corners and in the alleyways. And if I may, this is just a sampling of a few more of my favorites art quotes including by some of my favorite musicians who where visual artists as well: "The true work of art is but a shadow of the divine perfection." - Michelangelo  "The highest art is always the most religious, and the greatest artist is always a devout person." - Abraham Lincoln  "Art is a collaboration between God and the artist, and the less the artist does the better." - Andre Gide  "There is a great correlation between music and images." - Graham Nash "Coming out of college with a degree in fine arts and painting isn't worth much any more."- musician & painter Dan Fogelberg "Once you decide that it is the art that is important and not how popular and well received you are, you no longer have an albatross." - Stephen Stills “Art serves as a catalyst for us to see ourselves. It might be the art of Michelangelo’s David, which puts you in touch with your own spirituality, or it might be hearing a song and recognizing that you never really let go of that woman you divorced some years ago. They work on different levels but they have the same intention. One’s art isn’t for everybody but in front of art you can’t help what comes to the surface and what comes to the surface is you, who you really are. You can play games all you want and put on any face you want, but when confronted with a work of art, you’re going to confront yourself, and you’re most likely going to show yourself. If anybody’s watching, they get to see who you are.” - John Denver