The Art of Bruce Miller

Bruce Miller Interview by Carly Koch

Carly is a student at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design and chose Bruce for an interview of a full time artist. Here is the list of question presented.

  • How did you decide what you wanted to major in?
  • How did school prepare you?
  • What did school not prepare you for?
  • Where do you find inspiration, where do you do research for your work?
  • How do you promote yourself?
  • How do you make ends meet, what jobs do you have?
  • What are your present and long term goals as an artist?
  • What were major breakthroughs-exhibitions, publications, jobs?
  • What part do other people play in your practice?
  • How do you get feedback on your work now that you are out of school?
  • What is the etiquette of approaching someone you don’t know like a gallery or employer?

And here is Bruce's response to the above questions:

"As is the case with many talented people, I had a natural direction from the time I was 4 yrs old. Some, in the arts, decide to take advantage of the talent and through discipline  and hard work, maximize their gift and make a living. My schooling ended after 1 yr of college at St Cloud State University as an art major. It was drawing and I got A's, but college wasn't for me.

Looking back, I should have gone to art school. Being self-taught has its pros and cons. Some of the greatest artists who have ever lived did commercial illustration for their early career, and some of the greatest artists that have ever lived were and are self-taught.

I know many artists who went to art school and never made much of a career with their art. A lot has to do with the amount of talent they possess and a lot has to do with the amount of work they do, or the genre they choose to specialize in.

As most will tell you, having a sucessful long-term career as an artist is extremely difficult. And most will tell you not to quit your day job, I have advised young artists not to quit their day job. Usually it has to do with the degree of talent they have, but even mega-talented artists can have a tough time if they don't plan things out carefully.

I knew I wanted to be a full-time artist, but to get there I went through many changes.  Starting with mainly portraits out of high school, to landscapes, abstracts, surrealism, and finally wildlife in the early 80's. To make ends meet, I worked as a pressman, lift operator in Vail, gas station-Estes Park, Colorado - got a job as a laborer on a small construction crew in St. Cloud and learned carpentry.

I started my own small business and worked as a contractor for 10 yrs until going full time into art in 1985. I was always doing art while doing the construction, doing occasional shows (Uptown) and other regional outdoor shows.

In 1980, I was doing surrealism on the side and not getting anywhere, although I did teach myself how to use an airbrush. Talked with a gallery owner in Excelsior who said wildlife art was becoming popular. He encouraged me to try it, I went down to the Excelsior commons, took a few shots of some mallards and did my first wildlife painting in acrylics.

I should mention that one advantage I had, was using acrylics exclusively since age 13. I rarely tried watercolor, never used oils. Was told early that I could get more money for an acylic or oil because the originals don't need glass (confused with prints) and look like "originals". I soon sold the duck painting,  thereafter did a goose painting, it sold quickly and I was hooked.

My goal was to tell people I was an 'artist', not a contractor/artist, or anything else/artist. I was determined to be a full-time artist. It did help that I am an Eagle Scout, spending plenty of time outdoors, and was becoming a very avid hunter and fisherman. So the lifestyle was perfect for doing wildlife painting. Plus there was an expanding market in the midwest and beyond.

My timing was perfect for catching the rise of wildlife art in the early 80's.

The Duck Stamp competition phenomenon was part of the mix.The collectability of these small prints (7x10) were amazing, as was the collectabiliy of paper prints of regular sized wildlife paintings. I feel very fortunate that I hit that market at the right time, I won several of the duck stamp contests and the paper print market was great through the mid 90's, I did very well. Selling paper prints was like printing money because of the low cost of production.

But all good things come to an end. By the mid 90's, the wildlife print market was going down, which is a natural trend through over-saturation etc. It happens in any market with any non-essential product like art.

Wildlife art was becoming 'unpopular' and I knew I had to change. They say an art market will have  on average, a 10 year run. Then it gives way to the new trend. I believe this wholeheartedly, and it will continue to evolve.

Each time the market has shifted, I have used this period for growth. After winning the Federal Duck Stamp contest in 1993, which was the pinnacle of the genre at the time, and life changing financially, I was burned out. Most artists have burn-out periods, I use them to try to improve. In the late 90's I saw the market changing and switched to oils on canvas ,I studied composition, color, edges etc. and started doing impressionistic landscapes.

The market has become almost exclusively originals for the past 5 years. A place I never really wanted to be, because selling originals is hit or miss. But if you can't handle the up's and down's of being artist, you are in the wrong gig. There is no such thing as a steady paycheck, my wife has usually worked to help make ends meet.

In my opinion, I have had a very successful career and have been lucky in many ways. One thing I never compromised on was quality, I have and still attempt to do my best and push myself to improve. Currently I am doing a series of impressionistic, heavily textured landscapes in oil, but wildlife paintings still sell well.

There is no safety net. My son who is very talented, has been advised by me to do something other than art as a profession. Art can always be done on the side, and many talented people chose successful occupations and do their passion of art on the side, and maybe go into it fulltime upon retirement.

If you choose to be full-time, you will have to use (I could definitely improve on this)  social media, internet etc. to help market your work. An artist needs to approach galleries with a body of work (at least 6 pieces of the same genre). It better be your best work!

Be prepared for rejection. If rejected,  try to get info from the gallery owner/manager on what you can do to make it work. Do regional art shows to get a feel for how your work sells to general public.

My advise to want-to-be full time fine artists:

  1. Specialize in a medium, one that can garner good prices for originals i.e. oil, acrylic, bronze sculpture.
  2. Specialize in a genre, (this takes time to figure out what you want to paint. You need to be super passionate about what you choose, don't just paint for the market, but paint with the market in mind).
  3. Talk to gallery owners about trends in the market place, try to figure out how you might configure your style to coming trends.
  4. Be flexible, the market will change, and if you don't change with it, you will be left behind.  And there is nothing wrong with change to keep us fresh.

Oh ya... I forgot to mention the incredible freedom I feel as an artist, I may not be rich, but each day, I enter the studio eager to start or finish a painting. Nature provides all the inspiration I need. I look at life with the eye of an artist, always analyzing nature for a possible painting. Be it hunting, fishing, driving, boating (living) I have a camera with me and am ready.

This morning I look out to a beautiful fall day and think "I better take a walk or a drive this morning, because I know there is a beautiful painting waiting for me to find" and I remember how lucky I am to be a full-time artist!

Hi Carly, I think I got carried away, but I enjoyed telling my story, hope it helps!"