Everyone is in for such a treat today as I interview Shane Koehler, nature illustrator extraordinaire. His work, mostly watercolor-based, explores nature's inspirational beauty and strength, inviting viewers to experience his view of the world around us. Read on to learn all about the self-taught painter and his environmental messages through his artwork.
Hey Shane! Thank you so much for the interview. Let's start at the beginning: What got you into fine arts?
My family has always fostered creative thinking, and as kids, my two sisters and I were always coloring, which turned into following the drawing lessons from the PBS art show "Imagination Station". In school we were encouraged to enter art shows and to practice as much as we could.
Who or what are your main sources of inspiration?
Honestly my greatest inspiration has always been my older sister and her natural artistic abilities and sense about art. Through observing her I began to understand how to think more as an artist. More recently, my twin sister’s background in sustainable design has helped me think as a designer and has led to better compositions within my paintings. My over-arching inspiration is nature, and I strive to inspire and educate about conservation and the importance of nature in every art piece that I make.
Are you formally trained? If not, how did you work up your portfolio for professional work?
My knowledge and ability to make professional art work is primarily self-taught through practice and mindful observation. I have read many books and followed teachers on TV and in school, as well as other professional artists. With each project I spend lots of time researching and collecting reference images and material.
Each morning I attempt to wake up with or before the sun, around 4:00 am, for morning into noon light. This feels like a natural productive time for me and is the best lighting to work with. I am still in the early stages of my professional portfolio but I have mapped out a progression of art shows and series of work that is inspired by the many different facets of the natural sciences. For example, I would like to show different series highlighting ecosystems like coral reefs, tropical rain forest, desert life, etc., and the interconnection of all life on Earth.
What is your creative process like?
Currently I draw inspiration from a mix of modern day artists who work with simple commercial style forms and colors. My goal is to sell online and continue to sell to various shops in order to create an income that will fuel my fine art aspirations.
My process includes sketching out thumbnail ideas and arranging compositions to form images that are both instantly appealing and quick to make. By making the “quick affordable” art I can free myself up to focus on the more intricate and time consuming fine art that will best educate and inspire others.
What media do you use in your work? Is it all traditional media, or do you work digitally as well?
In the last few years I have decided to hone my skills and to focus on watercolors. The best way to learn anything is by hands-on practice, and I am trying various techniques to develop a unique style. The process of using different watercolor paper with typical watercolor paints is considered traditional, but the way I use thick opaque amounts and sometimes mixed with acrylic is not traditional. I’m interested in learning this versatile medium on paper first and developing a unique style with true vibrant colors, and then branching into wood and other mixed mediums.
For how long have you worked professionally? Is your work as an artist your day job?
I have been making and selling artwork since I was in high school, but I feel my true professional career started about two years ago when I decided to make my first official series of work which included smaller, brightly colored, loose abstracts with tighter sea horses interlaced. I then showed them in a Downtown Portland gallery for an event called First Thursday held each month.
Since that time, a Portland store called Bud and Finn has carried them, and they have inspired a larger show in progress titled REEF. At this time, working as an artist is a part-time job until it becomes full-time, but at least I am getting to make art during the week and some is better than none.
What's your typical workday like? What's the typical "day-in-the-life" of a fine artist?
Rather than filling my time with commissioned projects, I’m more focused on my own artwork and creating the images that I feel will best inspire a positive change in others and the world. I try to have one commission per month, which I usually obtain through friends and word of mouth. The process is like most and involves setting up a clear dialog and contract with a client, and then setting a schedule and updating the client along the way until it's finished.
How about your work space? Can you give us an insight into how and where you work?
day I aspire to have the studio of my dreams, which involves lots of natural
sunlight and a fair amount of space to set up large paintings. For now I have a
cozy studio apartment, which is perfect for my current work. Just enough room to
accommodate my 24”x36” and 20”x20” new body of work. I’ve worked at
making my space a sanctuary where I can easily zone into my nature subjects and
be inspired by the prints and originals of other artists I admire.
Your focus in art seems to be environmental/nature based. Tell us about the message you're sending with your work.
The focus of my nature-based art work is to show true representations of scientific concepts while including artistic and fun elements. I can achieve this by creatively placing different wildlife together both in composition and theme. A recent series called "Native" shows this well by encompassing wildlife from Sanibel Island in Florida, where I did conservation work, and grouping the native species together based on similar coloration.
A new large scale work that I am in the process of making will showcase entire ecosystems. Plants and animals will surround the portrait of a keystone species, which are the species that are critical in maintaining the relationships of an ecosystem.
By representing wildlife and making the artwork fun, I hope to inspire positive thinking and therefore positive change in human behavior on all levels that support conservation and preservation of our natural resources.
What has your role as an environmental educator been? Where do you hope to take it?
Since college I have taught as an environmental educator for state and national parks, as well as conservation-based non-profits. With volunteers, I have led community-based art projects like murals and painted benches that depict and educate about themes in wildlife like metamorphosis, plant identification, and bird ecology.
The experiences I have had as an environmental educator are now aiding me in developing artwork that speaks for itself and educates to different viewers at different times. It is this extensive reach that art has that drives me to continue on a path to use art as the catalyst for education and a call to action.
Does Portland play a part in the focus of your work?
Portland is an extremely special place where creativity, free thinking and uniqueness are celebrated. In my experience so far, the people of Portland are very receptive to my environmentally-focused art work. Like most cities there is a disconnect between wildlife and human life, but Portland is surrounded by mountains and lots of plants and animals. Each day in and around Portland is a constant reminder of how important wildlife is for the health and survival of our species both physically and spiritually, and that importance is what I try to convey in my artwork.
What are your goals as an artist?
My goals as an artist include making a livelihood and creating images that are strong, impactful and deeply felt by others. Overall to enrich the lives of viewers and in doing so enrich my own.
What's the story behind your Native series?
The series titled "Native" is a culmination of the wildlife I experienced while working for a conservation organization on Sanibel Island in SW Florida. By grouping realistic representations of the island's native flora and fauna together by similar coloration, it gives the viewer and understanding of what the species look like and is a fun visual way to see and think about wildlife. I like to place marine life with land-based life to surprise viewers and allow for the idea of interconnection within all species and habitats.
The theme of making series based on ROYGBIV colors is also a way for me to provide color therapy to the world, which can relax or stimulate emotions, and paired with other messages can potentially give rise to positive changes in our thinking and actions towards the environment.
What words of advice do you have for aspiring artists?
you are passionate about making art and truly compelled to have a career in the
arts industry, it is important to be realistic with your strengths, where you
need improvement, and how much time projects and things really take you to complete.
Then research what professionals at your level make and charge accordingly—do
not sell yourself short. Last, know your potential audience, always be true to
yourself, and produce the art that represents you the most.
Many thanks to Shane Koehler for taking the time to answer my numerous questions about his work and experience as a fine artist in Portland, Oregon. You can check out more of Shane's artwork at the links below: