Loose Realism

By Kevin Tankersley

Q&A with artist Joel Edwards

Joel Edwards began drawing when he was a young teenager, inspired by superhero comic books. And it was a compliment after he sold his first painting that spurred him to follow that passion and turn it into his vocation.

Edwards, 42, is the artist-in-residence at The Art Center of Waco, where a show of his work, described as “loose realism,” will be on display from January 19 through March 25, 2017. He and his wife of 18 years, Rebecca, have three children: Ella, 11, a sixth-grader at River Valley Intermediate School; and 9-year-old twins Jack and Lucy, who are in third grade at Speegleville Elementary School. Since 2000, Edwards has also worked at GM Wholesale, a firm that deals in granite and marble monuments. He’s the son of Wayne and Sharon Edwards of Waco. Edwards’ work can be seen at JREdwardsStudios.com.

WACOAN: When did you become interested in art?

Edwards: I guess I became interested in art in my early teenage years.

WACOAN: What sparked that?

Edwards: Probably comic books. I enjoyed Batman, Spider-Man, Superman. But the first drawings I sold were a couple of Spider-Man pen-and-ink drawings. The guy who bought them told me I had magic hands. So I guess I believed him. I was probably 13, I guess. I still have the first painting I ever did, which was of Batman in a graveyard.

WACOAN: Why did you put Batman in a graveyard?

Edwards: In the comic books he would go visit his parents’ graves. It’s a horrible painting, but it’s still in my mother’s closet. I don’t think she’ll ever get rid of it.

WACOAN: After high school, did you continue your education?

Edwards: I went to The Art Institute of Dallas. They were more concerned with advertising, which was not really the direction I wanted to go. They did have some life-drawing classes, which I really enjoyed. I excelled there.

After school I found a job at a monument company, and I’ve been working in the monument industry ever since then. I’m kind of doing both right now. We’ve done many war memorials. They’re a pretty popular thing.

WACOAN: What kind of art do you like to do?

Edwards: It’s whatever I see that inspires me. I tend towards more realism. I’m fascinated by mark-making. Whatever the medium may be — pencils or watercolors or oil — they each have their own individual song or voice. Of course, with realism I am trying to move that mark.

I also want the inherent qualities of that medium to shine through. While it is realism, I don’t want it to look like a photograph. I still want you to be able to feel a painting. I’m telling you what the theme is, but hopefully by leaving out excessive detail, maybe the viewer’s own [consciousness] can fill in that detail so that you’re bringing in your own experiences and it may mean a little bit more to you.

I know that some of the landscapes that I have sold, people are drawn to them because of the personal experiences they had there. People have had experiences at Big Bend, or people have had experiences at Enchanted Rock or wherever it may be. I want the quality of the paint to suggest your own memories, if that’s possible. It’s a goal, anyway.

WACOAN: I saw your painting of Big Bend on your website, and it brought back good memories of our trip to Alpine a few weeks ago. My wife and I looked at the painting, and we talked about our trip, and your work evoked our memories of that trip.

Edwards: I’m glad that happened for you. That’s where I’m coming from also. I had good times there too, not too long ago. I think that’s what attracts me to wanting to paint something in hopes that somehow I can share that experience.

WACOAN: I read where you describe yourself as a representational artist. Is that the same thing as realism, or is it different?

Edwards: I’m representing something that you would be able to recognize as opposed to something more modern or abstract.

WACOAN: You talked about the media you use to create art, and you often create digital art. When you’re doing digital art, where does the technology stop and the talent of the artist start?

Edwards: I approach it as I do any other artwork. You’re interacting with the computer through a tablet. I have a pen and a tablet that feeds directly into the computer, and this tablet is pressure sensitive. So you can adjust how much paint you have on the brush.

The only thing, I think, that it lacks is the art or color mixing. That’s a whole new set of problems when you bring in a real palette of colors. On a computer you can just pick from the 16 million colors that are there. There are some programs that you can mimic mixing colors. There are any number of programs. Photoshop, I use quite often. Corel Painter. There’s a program that’s called ArtRage. Each program has its good qualities and bad. Photoshop is a great program for designing but doesn’t have the realistic approach to brushes. ArtRage and Corel Painter have put a lot of emphasis on real-looking brushes. A lot of ArtRage paintings you’ll see on my site were probably done on the iPad. You can take it anywhere.

WACOAN: So you can go out and not take your canvas and easel and whole toolkit of paint and supplies?

Edwards: Right, and there’s no cleanup and all that. For my personal work I haven’t done digital in quite some time. I’ve really been feeling watercolor lately.

WACOAN: Do you know what causes that feeling, that right now you need to work in a particular medium?

Edwards: I don’t know if it’s so much to do with the subject or the location. It’s kind of an intuitive thing. Whatever I feel like.

WACOAN: Do different subjects lend themselves to oil or drawing or watercolor?

Edwards: I think they would, but I couldn’t tell you why, exactly. I’ve got a landscape drawing going on over there [at my desk]. I’ve got a landscape watercolor, and I’ve got an oil. I don’t really have a rhyme or reason for that. It’s just kinda whatever I feel like.

WACOAN: Do people take digital art less seriously than art made from traditional media? Some people might think that since it’s a computer program, anybody can do it.

Edwards: I think it does suffer from that. You’re absolutely right. I’m not sure if it will ever change.

I know there are some artists out there who do purely digital, and they do very well in certain galleries that are designed for that. If you have a traditional media gallery, you’re not going to get in a print of your digital work. The fact that you can run prints off makes it less valuable. I think what a lot of these guys do is they’ll run off prints and then they’ll manipulate the print somehow. They’ll varnish it themselves, or they’ll put a mark here or there to make it a one-of-a-kind that they can put into a gallery.

The other problem is that Corel, for a while, and they might still be doing this, advertised their program as a photo painting app. You can literally take a photo and paint over it, which doesn’t require as much skill as drawing it from scratch.

WACOAN: Where do you sell your art?

Edwards: Mostly by word-of-mouth. A little bit from social media, and I’m up at Studio Gallery [at 4712 West Waco Drive].

WACOAN: You did a portrait of Dr. Gordon Kidd Teal for the Teal Residential College at Baylor. How did that job come about?

Edwards: Through word-of-mouth. The director there apparently approached the Baylor art department, and nobody was interested in doing it, so he reached out a little further and found me. That was fun. They provided me lots of photographs, and I chose from those.

WACOAN: On one of your social media sites you talked about ‘value studies’ you were doing before beginning work on a portrait. What are value studies?

Edwards: The fundamentals, the basic foundation, of any good painting comes from values, which is how dark or light something is. It can be pretty much any color, but if it’s the right value, your eye will read it correctly, and it will make sense to you. You can have a green face if you wanted, and it would make sense as long as it’s the right value. The most important thing is to get those values right. So a value study is me searching for the right values and the right combination.

WACOAN: With the portrait of Dr. Teal, how long did you work on getting everything right before you started putting oil on canvas?

Edwards: I did probably two or three pencil drawings, and I have another painting [of Teal] no one will ever see because it was so failed. That was a good help, there. It really taught me a lot. As far as time, that’s difficult to say, but there were two drawings and a failed painting.

WACOAN: How long do your value drawings take?

Edwards: Not too long. I usually finish them in one sitting. Several hours, I guess.

WACOAN: And with, for example, the Teal painting, once you put oil on the canvas, how long of a process is that?

Edwards: Probably eight to 10 hours, I guess. A couple of go-rounds. I might stop and work on something else and come back to it.

WACOAN: On your blog you’ve got art that goes back to early 2011. If you were to look at your work from five years ago, would you say your work has changed much?

Edwards: I hope so, yeah. I’ve definitely gotten a better understanding of how to draw. It’s never easier, but you do get better at it.

WACOAN: I know some writers who sit down at a blank screen or blank paper, and that blankness is so overwhelming that they’ve got to get something on it to get started. Do you face that when you sit down in front of a blank canvas?

Edwards: It used to be somewhat overwhelming. Once you gain experience, there are certain tricks that you can do, that I do, before you start drawing. Warmups, if you will. I may make a circle on the paper somewhere, or I may draw a three-dimensional cube. Just kind of get things going. It’s always a struggle, it’s always a fight going on. With watercolor, especially, you can’t just put down a stroke because once it gets on that paper, it’s stained. Drawing is a little more forgiving. Oil is very much more forgiving. You can just wipe it off and start all over again.

WACOAN: I assume digital can be really forgiving?

Edwards: Oh, yeah. You’ve got the undo button. But you don’t have that in the real world, especially with watercolor. You have to have it planned out as much as possible.

I do have an idea in my head, a picture in my head of what I want it to look like, and it never quite lives up to that, but nobody else knows that.

WACOAN: Is that frustrating, knowing exactly what you want it to look like, but it doesn’t quite come out that way?

Edwards: It is, but then I remember that no one else knows that. Sometimes you can be disappointed in a painting so much that you turn it against the wall and set it aside. A couple of weeks or days later you come back and you say, ‘Oh, it’s not quite that bad.’ It’s kind of like the vision you had fades, so you see it fresh with new eyes: ‘That’s not so bad. I can continue with it and maybe move in a new direction.’

WACOAN: Do you ever look at work you’ve completed and think, ‘I could have done this better?’

Edwards: Sometimes a painting takes on a life of its own, and things start happening. With some drawings I did, I look up, and it’s been three hours, and sometimes the marks just start coming out. And it’s like I’m just there as a pencil holder. Those are rare times, but I think those are the best ones.

Yes, you come back and look at the painting and say, ‘Yes, I could have done that better.’ Sometimes you go back and you look at a painting and there’s no other way that mark could have been. It’s like that mark was meant to be. Those are the ones that I’m the most proud of and probably the ones that people are going to see. There’s a lot that people don’t see. I have lots of failed paintings.

WACOAN: Where do you work?

Edwards: Out of my house.

WACOAN: What kind of studio space do you have there?

Edwards: Not much. [Laughs.] I did have space for a while, then we had children, and all that got moved out. We had to make room for kids.

WACOAN: Your wife has some really beautiful photographs on her Facebook page. Is she also artistic?

Edwards: She’s very creative, very artistic. I think she’s a wonderful photographer. And she has poured herself into those children, which I’m very thankful for.

WACOAN: On one of your sites there was a beautiful group portrait. I’m not sure if it was a drawing or a painting. Did everybody pose for you at once?

Edwards: We did a little photo shoot, and I took the best from various photos and put them together. That’s usually the easiest way. It’s hard for people to have time to sit down for an hour or two.

WACOAN: Does anybody sit for a portrait anymore, or do they send in pictures?

Edwards: I think the culture we’re in, it would have to be a special [occasion] for someone to come in and sit, which I’m certainly not opposed to. I think it’s just the ease of using pictures. And I prefer to take my own pictures. Therefore, it’s more original all the way from me.

WACOAN: You’re the artist-in-residence at The Art Center. How long of an appointment is that?

Edwards: I only started on July 20. Not very long now. It should last through next June.

WACOAN: What is required of you as the artist-in-residence?

Edwards: They would like a couple of workshops and classes. We’ve got those coming up probably in October, early November.

WACOAN: And what will you be teaching in those?

Edwards: I am going to start out with drawing because I believe that is the foundation of all good realism.

WACOAN: Those are the requirements of being an artist-in-residence. What are the perks?

Edwards: The exposure. And the space. The space here is excellent. The views are great. I really enjoy it.