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Spotlight Artist – Ron Lemen

We are always excited when Ron Lemen is teaching at LAAFA. Ron is currently part of our full-time program and extension classes.

1. You work in fine art, illustration and entertainment art. How can a student aspire to be such a diverse working artist?

My eclectic background has its advantages and disadvantages. But for me, it’s more important that I remain happy as an artist or designer. I hate to say it, but I do lose interest rather quickly once the problem solving is done and for me, the diversity in my craft is very critical. We are not only diverse artists (Vanessa and I); we are full-time, lifelong students of our craft. My world would not be the same without Vanessa in it, and together we both have very similar desires and interests in what we do, and both of us have been on crazy roller coaster rides to get to where we are.

Logos, catalogs, web pages, portraits, murals, video projects, concept art, story boards, comic pages, illustrations, hard goods, software apps, etc. Personally, I love the creation process, and I am totally supportive of a great product or great idea and am more than willing to do whatever it takes to get it out in the world for others to interact with as soon as possible. What I have found is that once the foundation is established, it can be applied to everything, and that is what I have been doing ever since I could remember, even when I did not have the skills to call myself professional.

With all this said, I also have to add that I could not do anything else. Art is in my blood and I would live in a cardboard box drawing with burnt tree bark if I could not be a professional artist in the real world in some way. I need to do it or I would wither away into the dusts of time.

2. When did you first discover you could make a living by being an artist? Did you have a lot of support from family and friends?

When I was in high school around 14 years of age I was given a chance to work as an artist in a t-shirt screen shop. I think it was called First Impression Graphics. I ended up being the shop manager and the lead artist and was too young to know why I was doing what I was doing but didn’t know any better so I took the jobs. It was a learning curve for sure, but what it did for me was build a great deal of confidence in myself. I knew this could be a career in some way, and sure enough when I was old enough to move out of the house, I had an opportunity to work for one of the biggest skateboard magazines on the planet and I did that on my own, which told me, “I could work, and if I could find the right training, I could make a career of this art thing for sure.”

It did help to be left alone a lot when I was a child. I think it has part to do with why I can get lost in my sketch pad at a party, being shy in crowds. The shyness does make teaching difficult sometimes. But it also explains my freedom to get something on paper, whether copied-inspired, or invented and why I can put a brushstroke directly through a well-rendered face because it needs to be loosened up, brought to life, shaken a bit from the academic pathway that can sometimes lead to a rule-driven piece of art rather than a living, breathing inspired and inspiring creation. True art is not guided by rules; I‘d like to think that art is inspired by the heart.

When the family was around, they were very encouraging to my hobby. Every birthday or Christmas I was given another sketchbook, more pens and pencils, etc. It was more support in ways I did not realize at the time. I was blessed with a family that kept me from political, religious, and public opinion enough to form my own imagination, albeit I also call this extremely sheltered, and not necessarily a good thing. When I stepped out into the real world, the conflict with my prosaic past and the current dark and dismal situations that globally surround us were overwhelming to my senses and I think that is why in my art I try to speak about improving our conditions, whether personal or within our local/global community. I want the world to work ideally but knew this to be too unrealistic, but I can at least conjure up ideas on how to make improvements in my art. The art voice will be louder than the words that could be misconstrued from my mouth and I am putting my every effort into making art now that speaks to all of us, sometimes through special interest, but no less, I am speaking for all of us. I have my wife to thank for reawakening me to see that this is possible, that it is important. I knew this, but lost sight of it as I got caught up in all the clients I was working with.

3. Do you find from your own personal experience that having a solid foundational training has benefited your career in the entertainment art?

I would not be where I am without a foundation. I would not be allowed to work on the projects I have worked on without the trust that I knew what I was doing. I cannot thank the gods enough for pointing me down the proper pathway. If it were not for the foundation I was partly given, partly put together on my own, I would not be doing this interview right now, work for who I have, or instruct as many as I have.

I have hired artists without a foundation, some do very well because they have a built-in faculty to self-educate, while others do their task, but I cannot get much more out of them. So it is not to say that you have to have a foundation, but, I will say, that with one, you will have more to work with and a longer stint in the art world. Limited resources usually thrive during a trend and atrophy beyond that trend.

For the current entertainment world, I think foundation will help, but stamina is the other half of what is needed to compete. Now that projects are turning around so quickly, all the artists involved have to find a faster means to produce representational product which we all know is not easy to do. Stamina means sleepless nights, sometimes sleepless weeks. A younger healthy artist can do this for longer periods of time than not although it is totally and completely unhealthy. Industries do not care about the health of an individual, they are only concerned with getting the product out on time. My advice: In addition to your foundation, learn to balance your lifestyle and fill it with exercise and healthy eating if you are not already doing so.

4. What would be some of the reasons why students should come to LAAFA for their 3-Year Programs?

LAAFA has an amazing diversity of accomplished artists and art disciplines from extreme realism to the best in animation design. I am envious of the caliber and quality of the range of subjects we teach that can all be found under one roof. My pursuits drove me all over to find my training. I would be an expert at everything this school has to offer if I had this school near me back when I was training as a student.

The internet is a location for variety of every type, but you cannot beat the live experience. So much is lost in translation over the net, and as an internet instructor, I value the live experience more so, albeit I am reaching a much broader audience. I can tell you anything you need to know about making art, but I can show you how to improve your habits if you are here with me. I can tell you that your pencil is sharpened incorrectly or that your body is leaning into your drawing too much for you to see the big picture of it, etc. I cannot do any of that over the internet. Part of what you learn is tool sets, eye training techniques, etc. But a big part of your training is mimicry and if you don’t watch me work from head to toe you won’t know the mechanics behind the process, and that is where live is super important. Even a video loses much of the important stuff that the personal live experience can offer.

Not to mention, that when you are in a school where the importance is placed on the foundation, regardless of what department you are studying in you will find all the information complementary to each topic and to each instructor. This is something that you rarely see in an art school. Usually art schools have built in factions of artists and their ideas, here, because everyone is a professional currently working, there is no time for this head trip to develop. Therefore the student will actually see the big picture with greater clarity, less confusion and in this environment; Rubens now has just as much influence to the animator as Miyazaki will have on the sculptor.

5. In your opinion, how has representational art changed in the last 20 years?

It took 60 years for art to come back to representation, and I am thankful for this current trend. However, I wish it was not a trend, but a way of working. I do not like to think of myself as someone who rides the trendy waves; I do what feels good to me. But I am super happy that what I believe in, and how I enjoy doing what I do is currently popular. If representational art was not a current gallery trend, I would lean into illustration where realism has never gone away. Hollywood has kept realism alive through storyboarding, comics, graphics, etc. I have no trouble dipping into any form of art so long as I believe in what I am working on. Thus, the eclectic nature of my existence; when I feel good about something, I will help in whatever way I can regardless of whether it is a robot or a mural. All of our material goods were designed, a vision realized. All of which require a representational means to communicate the idea.

My biggest concern is that most today feel that what they learn in art school is what represents the arts. What we learn in school are exercises, and what we do with those exercises outside of the school warrants as something artful. Most of whom I train do very little outside the art school and they are building a body of school work, creating a portfolio based on this work, etc. This is all wrong, in my opinion it is going backwards down the path art should be travelling in but until we step up to the plate and change this, and that starts with the instructors, we will build up these walls (trends) which we pin ourselves into.

I am so happy that we live in a representational day; [but] I am discouraged by where it is going. This trend encourages me to teach differently (not placing so much importance on the finite), to educate my students and inspire them to build things of great importance for themselves and forget selling in a gallery as a motivation for making pictures.

6. What is the most difficult concept to convey to a student while you are teaching a class?

I think “art” is a difficult concept to convey to a student because art is not about the rules, and yet we establish a set of rules and make them out to be more important than life itself. We are the rediscovery generation, and in our findings of the traditional tool sets we have mostly forgotten what art attempts to accomplish. The search for foundation has been such a frustrating endeavor that we forgot what it all leads to. Illustrators are misled into believing that illustration is the contemporary style of today and search out a means to copy it right into a trend, fine artists are no different. Fine art is heading down the path of Portrait, Figure, Landscape and still life paintings done in 3 hours just like in class as art to sell. Galleries reach into the school system to find new trends and praise the work done in schools, support it, sell it, and mislead an audience into believing that the best works done in fine art schools is art. Galleries and magazines are in cahoots with each other to sell artists as trends, commodities, something quick and easy, disposable if necessary to quickly grab another artist and hail them as the best.

Part of the reason I love the internet so much is that it is a place, where if you are tech savvy enough you can advertise yourself however you see fit. You can build your own store, sell your own product, involve yourself with large communities and get exposure otherwise never found before the internet existed. This is the future for us as artists; this is the place where we will set the artistic record straight. If I can educate an artist in anything, it would be to be resourceful with these new technological tools and build your own path, forge your own artistic direction and if it is worthy it will grow an audience.

7. What do you feel is the biggest challenge that artists face today?

Any artist growing up in any generation suffers from the lack of work in the market place. There are only so many jobs to go around. We question ourselves: “What happens when I have developed this set of skills I cannot put to use?” Is it me? Is it what I have learned? Should I have trained differently? But if you talk to 90% of the college graduates, they are also in the same position. Generally speaking there are not enough jobs for all of us to take on.

I believe that it is unhealthy to go to school just so you can get a job at a Company. Put the math to it and first of all, that seat has to open up, that means someone has to quit for that seat to be available. And then, you, along with thousands of other artists are all going to submit a portfolio for this position. The odds stack up pretty quickly and unless you are just truly unbelievable, chances are likely that dream seat will never happen.
We should aspire to invent our own pathway, and I push this more than trying to find the skill sets needed to work at Dreamworks or EA, get into the Forum Gallery or be published by North Light Press. Think beyond that “job” and find what you do best, and cultivate a product, a universe, a franchise from your own ideas. The tools are so available these days, with programs and apps aiding and assisting in the creation process. Computers are easy to learn, programs even easier, so there is no excuse why you could not self publish in any media using today’s technologies. And I find that it is really important to think about this or else you, and 3,000 others are all working slavishly for that 6th seat in the concept pool over at Blizzard and good luck to you getting that position.
If you are good enough to make your own product and it does very well for you, chances are likely that a company is also going to contact you to work with them, and now you have the option in life to take what was once that dream job, or continue to pursue your own path, and how cool is that?!

8. Who or where do you find inspiration?

My biggest inspiration is Vanessa. I could not be who I am now without having had her in my life. I could make it as an artist, but to actually wake up and smell the paint; she is heavily responsible for that. We have both worked commercially and personally, and for some reason I feel safer getting jobs from those who need them than believing my own work has its own personal importance. She has peeled back my lids exposing me to the simple truth that I can do this on my own. I see her do it every day, and I am so thankful to wake up every day to a room full of creativity as she has been pouring out lately. It is so great to wake up to something different, deep and powerful to the mind every day of the week. Vanessa, I can’t thank you enough for this wonderful gift.
I also take safe haven in the words of Steven Assael. I really resonate with his work, his work routine, and his subject matter. I was trained with a specific way of seeing color, and at times I feel this has hurt me as a tonalist, something I love so much. Steven Assael is one of those daring enough to embrace both sides of the fence, because white light is a full color spectrum, and the closer one can work with this concept their work will have a greater sense of presence and weight of realism. Steven does this, as Rubens and Rembrandt have as in the past, in my opinion, the other two big names in art that gave us so much diversity, power, and consistently made things that feel so alive and so realistic.

Yimaukun was also a very big part of my transformation, and when he came over here to the U.S. to do a workshop at our studio, he kindly told Vanessa and me to begin our journey as important artists, and forget working for anyone else. We have the power to command our own ways of working and we need to exercise this.

Sebastian Capella is another artist that was huge in how I was able to connect with Steven and Yimaukun. Without him I would not know how color truly works; as well as, how and why painting is what it is. He made me aware of how color works and how someone can be trained to understand it. He made me aware of what artists were doing and how they worked, why canvases were toned the way they were, and why the armatures were so important. He was my first step into the deeper meaning of the craft. Without this knowledge I would not have necessarily made the connections with Steven and Yimaukun.

Steve Huston and Dan Gerhartz were both pivotal in my training and made strong connections in my thinking. Richard Morris, Sergio Sanchez, Robh Ruppel, Scott Robertson, Marshall Vandruff have also been important in my life and how I think about what I do when I paint.

Adrian Gottlieb was also important in helping me make connections with the older techniques of painting, which in turn helped me understand much of what Steven Assael does in his work, or the shorthand of the long form of painting. In other words, all of these artists together have helped me connect the dots in the hows and whys of our craft.

Elsewhere, I find my inspiration in music and film. Directors like Ridley Scott, Julian Schnabel, writers like Neal Stephenson and Hunter S. Thompson; musicians like Claude Debussey, Jimi Hendrix and Amon Tobin tease my senses into searching further out on the wire for new ideas. Comic artists like Greg Tocinni and Yukito Kishiro push the boundaries, and designers like Sparth also grab my attention. Greatness is in everything, and art thrives in every trade and science. The ones that push the envelope really inspire me. Richard Feynman, Ken Wilbur, Porsche, Apple, fashion designer Alexander McQueen, Bernini, and the list goes on.

9. Your wife is also an accomplished artist. What would we find both of you doing on a day off?

Sometimes on our days off we can be found in museums, antique stores and out in strange urban settings shooting photos and video.

Travel is something we are now getting involved with. Owning our studio here in San Diego has pinned us to the wall for so long we have had no time to travel at all. We fuel our vision with diversity, when that is taken out of the routine, tension, stress, and all the other druthers of life take over. One can only travel so far into their art before they realize that when coming back, you are still where you started and the travel was only cerebral.
We also enjoy hanging out with big groups of people. Not having our own children has made social gatherings an important part of our lives where I think family moments would fill them otherwise. We have a house with a yard suited for outdoor gatherings, and in our studio we have 2nd Friday sketch jams where we gather up the masses and have either a band or costumed models pose for the group.

You might also find us at a concert or a Lucent Dossier show or two. We came up in the X generation, and as an X’r I lived as a skateboarder, snowboarder, punk rock music (the real deal, not the whiney music of today), hip-hop and break dancing, rebellious to the latch/key lifestyle I and so many of my friends had. I can’t shake that side of me and whenever I can, I will roll around on my board, or go to a skate park and soak up that vibe, listen to the old music, go listen to a band play, etc. I can’t escape those roots and nor would I neglect them either as they are in part that made me who I am today.

Most importantly you will find us together in our off time since we spend so much time apart teaching. In our studio, we only have one room so when I am teaching she is at home working and vice versa when she is there teaching. Time together is important and more so today than ever before. If we are seen together just sitting watching the wind blow, we are just as happy doing that together than anything else; at least we are witness to something as beautiful as the wind blowing, we are awake, aware, and sharing this beautiful moment, this act of nature together.