Sterling Edwards was born in 1951 near the beginning of the baby-boomer era in the United States and has been painting in one form or the other since he was twelve. And now, 52 years later, Sterling is an award winning professional water media artist specializing in transparent watercolor. He is also a popular workshop instructor, the author of the best selling North Light book “Creating Luminous Watercolor Landscapes, a Four Step Process” and is a featured artist in numerous other books by various publishers. He has almost 20 instructional DVD’s in circulation and teaches workshops all across the United States. He works from his home studio in Hendersonville, North Carolina.
We were able to sit down for an hour after his most recent workshop at Cheap Joe’s in Boone, North Carolina and talk about his life and art. What follows is that conversation.
CJAS: When did you first realize that you were an artist?
SE: I have always liked to draw and took a few art lessons when I was twelve and several art classes in college. Art is always something that I have had my hand in one way or the other. Even during the years I was in law enforcement and I painted and had pieces in galleries. During that time I painted very tight and realistic paintings in oils. I used to spend hours and hours painting blades of grass with a one-hair brush until I lost my patience with that technique. About that time I started taking workshops from various artists in order to learn how to paint with larger brushes and more expressively and began to develop a style of painting that really works for me. I opened a small gallery and started teaching classes and was asked to teach a couple of workshops. I never anticipated being at this point in my life right now, it just sort of happened. It is one of those things that fall into your lap and you take the ball and run with it.
CJAS: From photo-realism to what you are painting now. That seems like a night and day scenario.
SE: It really is! What I find is that the more I paint the more I want to learn and it never ends. It is just a passion. The older I get the more I realize that art is really about expression and interpretation. When I did photo-realism the pieces looked exactly like a photograph and while I had success in that I found that there wasn’t much for the imagination of the viewer. With a more stylized and abstracted painting like I am doing now, I use the same skills but now I present the viewer with a painting that they can interpret any way they want. Some people will see a lot and some not as much but it is up to them to interact with the subject matter. In other words the viewer can now become a part of the creative process: I am giving them visual inspiration and they can complete the conversation in their minds. I find that very challenging and am finding that more and more people like this approach.
CJAS: With that thought in mind, what was it that brought you from oil painting to watercolor.
SE: I was an oil painter until 1985 and I went to an art show where there was a gentleman painting in watercolor and he made it look so easy. So I went out the next week and bought some materials and after I made mud on the paper I realized that it wasn’t that easy. So I began the methodical process of learning how to blend colors, lose edges, mix colors and how to work wet and work dry. I finally developed a system that allowed me to do a half decent picture. Then I just sort of branched out from there.
CJAS: During this period, what artists did you gain inspiration from?
SE: Historically one of my favorite artists is Franz Kline an abstract artist from New York. Zoltan Szabo was my mentor for many years and taught me how to paint with large brushes and how to work with transparent pigment. He was a big influence. Frank Webb is a master of design and composition, does incredible work and was a wonderful influence. There are a lot of artists out there who I really look up to and admire; I’ve learned a little bit from every one of them. Although this may sound stupid, I refer to it as throwing vegetables into a wok; you take a little bit of this and a little bit of that and throw it into a wok and it creates its own flavor. So what I try and teach my students is to study with lots of people and don’t lock yourself into a specific pattern. Everybody out there has something to offer and you can pick and choose what you want to emulate.
CJAS: I remember watching some Zolton Szabo videos where he would set up a portable camera and get in front of it and create a teaching video.
SE: He was a magnificent artist and quite a teacher as well.
CJAS: So, what inspires you to keep doing art day after day?
SE: Well it’s a full time job for me. Our business has grown to the point where my wife has quit her job in order to manage it and we are doing 20 to 22 workshops per year coast to coast and internationally as well. Art is a passion for me. I love to paint and I think I will always have a paintbrush in my hand no matter where I am. What I find is that I am meeting more and more people who are just as passionate as I am and thirsty for knowledge. They want to learn how to do this stuff. So painting has grown into a very nice career for me. I love artists and I love to paint.
CJAS: From what I gathered from browsing on your website (www.sterlingedwards.com) it looks like you spend about half a year doing workshops. Does being so busy make you feel trapped?
SE: I don’t feel trapped. It’s not like you do the same locations every year. All the travel certainly is exhausting but the upside to that is that there are millions of people retiring every year who are looking for something to occupy their time. Many of these people want to travel, have fun and learn how to paint. Taking a workshop is a great way to learn and have an adventure at the same time.
CJAS: So you inspire them and in turn are inspired by them.
SE: That’s correct. When you get in front of 25 people and you are doing a demo and they begin asking questions you have to be ready to answer them. You can’t answer every one but in doing so it makes you work harder as an artist because it is one thing to take a brush and move paint around in your studio by yourself but it is an entirely different thing to have to explain to a class why you are doing what you are doing in a classroom setting. You are not just moving paint around but creating something which people are curious about. As an instructor you have to be able to break it down in a way they can easily understand the process.
CJAS: What is your goal for your students when you begin a new workshop? What do you want them to learn?
SE: The first thing I tell my students is that I don’t want them to re-invent themselves during the workshop. You can’t do that in a week. If you try, that is a sure fire recipe for disappointment. Everybody has their own way of handling a brush and handling color, drawing and design. What I want them to do is to take what they currently do and try and find a few things during the workshop that they can incorporate into their style rather than trying to re-invent themselves into my style. They can begin to practice that and then when they take another workshop from another artist, they can work those bits and pieces into their painting as well. What I am really trying to get people to do is to venture outside their safe comfort zone and try something new and through trial and error and making mistakes they will learn and become better at what they do.
CJAS: I remember something that Joe Miller told me years ago about art: that the process of making art is healing.
SE: Artists see things that most people don’t see. Driving to work, the average person just sees the bumper in front of them. If they see a tree they may feel that it is pretty but an artist will see that same tree and begin to break it down into in shades, textures, shapes and colors. When an artist looks at that tree they begin to paint it in their minds eye. Last year in France I stood in a wheat field that Van Gogh had painted and it was “just” a wheat field. Then I went to the Musee D’Orsay the next day and saw one of his wheat field paintings and it was breathtaking. He saw so much in that wheat field that I didn’t see and it made me realize that there are masterpieces surrounding us everyday if we choose to see in that way.
CJAS: As we reach the end of our interview, if you were face to face with Sterling Edwards, what question would you most like to ask?
SE: I guess what I would most like to know is what makes you (Sterling Edwards) tick? It is not just about making an income. My art does provide a comfortable living. But dragging all this stuff through airports every other week, flying here and flying there, renting a car and living out of your suitcase can be exhausting sometimes. But what makes me keep doing this, when other people are getting ready to retire? It’s my art and the journey I am on with it that keeps me going. At a time when other people are slowing down, I am speeding up. The feeling I get when I finish a piece is something I don’t get anywhere else. I feel like I am making my mark on the world when that happens.
CJAS: What advice then, would you give the aspiring artist?
SE: You have to really want to make art. When you begin the process it is very easy to get discouraged with all the things that you have to learn in order to be successful. You need to have the drive in order to make it through. You have to be able to say that I don’t care if it takes me the rest of my life I am going to learn how to do this. Once you make that decision which to me is the hardest part, the rest is just learning one little thing at a time. Then you start putting it all together and the next thing you know you have a painting. Then you say to yourself that the next one is going to be bigger or I am going to use different colors or more expressive brush strokes and so on and so forth as your journey continues.
CJAS: In closing I would like for you to tell us about your best memory as it relates to Cheap Joe’s and or Joe Miller.
SE: Cheap Joe’s is a fantastic place and I have been doing workshops here for over ten years. I am very fond of Joe who helped me get my start in this business. Back before the Internet became so popular, I would look at the list of workshop instructors listed in the Cheap Joe’s Reference Catalog. If you were on that list you must be good because I knew Joe was very discerning with whom he brought in to teach. That to me was the gold standard. It was my goal to someday be on that list. Joe was very encouraging to me and I finally made the cut. Once I got my name in that catalog I started getting calls from all over to come a teach. I believe that they thought that if I was at Cheap Joe’s I must be worth the chance because of all the great artists that passed through Cheap Joe’s. That’s really how my career was built.
CJAS: Sterling, it has been a pleasure and we look forward to your next visit to Cheap Joe’s
SE: Terry, thanks.
Sterling will be back at Cheap Joe’s for a workshop May 23-27, 2016 & April 24-28, 2017.