Mormon Artist

Josh Clare

Josh Clare is a young artist from Utah who is rapidly making his mark on the art world. Josh grew up drawing and was rarely without a pencil and paper, but it wasn’t until after he returned from serving a mission in Hokkaido, Japan, and began studying art at Brigham Young University—Idaho that he began painting. Thanks to an incredible traditional art program, some of the best instructors in the nation, and a good deal of the grace of God, Josh was accepted into a major art gallery just weeks after graduating in 2007 with his BFA in illustration, and he has been painting professionally ever since. Harvey Dunn, a golden age illustrator, taught his students that they should thank God every day for “the privilege of seeing the sun cast shadows.” Josh does just that. Website
Photo courtesy Brittany Anderson

How did you get into painting?

I used to draw constantly when I was a kid. I grew up in the golden age of Disney animation; Glen Keane’s work in Aladdin, Beauty and the Beast, Pocahontas, etc., was the stuff of my dreams. I thought my life would be complete if only I could learn to draw as well as those guys could. Vaguely, I imagined that when I grew up I’d be an animator. I even did an internship in high school with an animator who lived near us, but by the time I returned from my mission and started college, John Lasseter and the guys at Pixar had changed the animation world. Digital art left me cold. It felt like my dreams of becoming a genie with a pencil couldn’t be realized anymore in the field of animation, so I started looking elsewhere.

The first time I tried oil painting was as a sophomore in college at BYU–Idaho when I took an introductory class from Leon Parson during the winter of 2004. Until then I’d never visited an art museum or an art gallery, even though I grew up five minutes from the Springville Museum of Art—sad. Anyway, that class changed my life. I still remember very clearly the class trip we took to Jackson Hole, Wyoming, that semester. I saw work by Mian Situ, Pino, Scott Christensen, Dan Gerhartz, Bill Anton, and a bunch of other excellent artists; I reached behind the paintings and pulled out the price tags and it was like the clouds parted and a light from heaven shone down on me as I realized you could actually do this for a living.

I got married about six months later, just before I began my junior year, and I knew it was time to decide what the heck I was going to “do” with art. That’s the classic question you get when you’re an art major; I swear I heard it about a billion times: “Oh! Art. My, my … (awkward pause) … um, what are you going to do with that?” Everyone who has been asked that knows that it’s an indirect way of asking how on earth you plan to make money by making art. I’d thought about that before—of course I had—but getting married gave me a healthy sense of urgency, and I knew I had to figure it out quick.

That semester was a semester of spiritual creation for me. I didn’t take any art classes but one, a course called “Art Readings.” I read, and wrote, and thought, and prayed, and came to clearly understand what I wanted to be and what God wanted me to be: I wanted to be an artist, and I felt God smile on my decision. Over the course of twenty-two years I’d only spent about four months with a brush in my hand (and done a total of seven or eight paintings, mostly of wooden cubes), but in spite of that this otherworldly sense of calm came over me. I knew that I was going to be an oil painter, and that everything was going work out just fine. I don’t tell many people about that experience—it’s something that’s sacred to me—but I think this is a good place to talk about it.

Since then, every time I read the story of the brother of Jared when the Lord asks him how he wants to light the barges, I think of that time. I think there are a lot of decisions we make in life that have several right answers—decisions that the Lord leaves up to us. He knew the Jaredites were going to need light just like he knows we need to earn a living for our families. But because of my own experience, I think in the case of our career choices he just stands back and goes, “Well, what do you want me to do so you can have light in your vessels?” To me this is one of the evidences of his incredible love for us. He lets us choose and then is eager to bless our efforts.

I guess that about sums it up. I decided to pursue fine art as a junior in college with nothing more substantial than a beginning oil painting class under my belt. That semester I set a plan for the next couple of years—that plan was to paint my guts out. And that’s what I did. I wasn’t delusional (or at least I hope I wasn’t). I knew that I was a long, long way from having a shot at being a professional artist and that the only way to get there was to to do a couple thousand paintings. It was a miracle that I got into my first gallery a week or two after I graduated in 2007… But that’s how it started.

Melting. Image courtesy Josh Clare
Ironwood Wash. Image courtesy Josh Clare

Tell us about painting Ironwood Wash.

In 2009 we moved to Queen Creek, Arizona, and lived there for nearly three years. Ironwood Wash was painted just a couple of minutes from my home there at a wash that I found by chance one day. The way I work involves doing a color sketch from life to get correct value and color relationships without the interference of the camera, then to further resolve the design in the studio using the painting I did on location for color and a photo for detail.

In the case of Ironwood Wash, I worked larger outside than I normally do—I think it was a 20×20″ canvas. I was inspired by Sorolla to work larger from life but thought I’d take baby steps rather than tackling a 48×48″ or something huge. :)

2013 has been an interesting year for me. I’ve been picking at canvases for far longer than I used to, glazing and scumbling to create interesting textures and effects that you can’t get when you’re working wet into wet. In the case of Ironwood Wash, I came back to it again and again to get it to a point where I was satisfied with it. This way of working is completely foreign to my nature, and quite frankly kind of drives me crazy, but as I’ve studied the work of my heros I’m becoming more and more convinced that letting a painting dry and coming back to it to re-paint and refine things yields a variety of surface that can be achieved in no other way—and that’s worth the pain.

Photo courtesy Josh Clare

Why landscapes?

I grew up in Utah Valley on a “play farm.” My dad had five acres and some animals to keep us kids busy … and it got into me. Being outside all the time, seeing those huge mountains change from season to season was just normal—until I grew up and went away. It didn’t really hit me until the past couple of years that we spent in Arizona. It blew me away how much I missed seasons, and mountains, and, well, home. Sergei Bongart, a Russian artist, said you could never escape the landscape of your childhood—and I think he was right.

I’m in love with nature. It’s a source of constant delight to me. It doesn’t matter what I’m painting, after staring at it for a couple of hours I’m completely amazed at how beautiful it is. I’ve done hundreds of horrible paintings from life, paintings that don’t even approach representing the beauty of what I’m seeing, but being outside and watching the trees and the mountains change color as the sun sets, watching those perfect harmonies, those symphonies of color, seriously makes me want to sing. I haven’t burst out into song or anything like that—but I’ve come close. It’s the most amazing thing. I’ll sit there in front of my failure of a painting and still feel an immense amount of joy because I was able to experience the beauty of God’s creations.

The huge challenge of trying to paint something so flawlessly beautiful is staggering and intoxicating. I’ll never arrive, and that’s what’s so exciting about being an artist. I get closer every day. Every failure is a step towards realizing a bit more truth and a bit more beauty in my own art.

Autumn Hymn. Image courtesy Josh Clare

Who are your artistic influences?

Wow. There are a lot. But I’ll try to keep it short:

Dead guys: The master illustrators of the Golden Age: Norman Rockwell, J. C. Leyendecker, Dean Cornwell, Harry Anderson, etc. The Russian itinerants: Abram Arkhipov, Ilya Repin, Ivan Shishkin, Vasily Polenov, Nicolay Kasatkin, etc. Nicolai Fechin, Joaquin Sorolla, John Singer Sargent, Emil Carlsen, Edgar Payne and the California impressionists…

Living guys: T. A. Lawson, Ruo Li, Mian Situ, Clyde Aspevig, Scott Christensen, Richard Schmid, Daniel Sprick, Bill Anton, Morgan Weistling…

Flowers. Image courtesy Josh Clare

For you, how do the visual arts help in building the kingdom?

It’s funny, but I’m slightly jealous of the musicians. I don’t know if there is a more powerful way to bring the spirit of God to the human heart than by music. Often the musical number in a meeting is the point at which I feel the spirit of God most profoundly.

In the same way I’m kind of jealous of the film guys. They get to combine nearly every creative field to create something that can be massively inspiring—something that can change lives.

But I think the visual arts can do the same thing. I’ve only seen a handful of paintings in my life that have really done what I think paintings are capable of doing—that have reached their full potential—but when it happens, it happens in a big way. With a painting it’s more quiet than with a movie or a hymn, more subtle, but it happens just as surely.

Paintings can change lives and bring the spirit of God to the hearts of men, and I believe that’s what they ought to do. I know that’s what God expects me to do with talents he’s given me and I’m trying my best to do it. I’ve got a lot to learn, a long, long way to go, but if someday I learn that a painting of mine lifted someone who needed lifting, or brought someone to Christ in any way, it will all have been worth it. That’s what I’m after.

Photo courtesy Josh Clare
Ochre. Image courtesy Josh Clare

What are some of those paintings that you feel reached their full potential?

I guess I better explain what I meant by “full potential.” Art has the potential to invite the Spirit of God—perhaps even to house it—so that everyone who sees, hears, or reads it feels constrained to acknowledge that God has sanctified it. In the prayer offered at the dedication of the Kirtland Temple, Joseph Smith put it infinitely better than I ever could:

And that all people who shall enter upon the threshold of the Lord’s house [who look at the painting, watch the movie, hear the song, etc.] may feel thy power, and feel constrained to acknowledge that thou hast sanctified it… (D&C 109:13)

That’s what I mean by a painting’s full potential—a painting can be holy. I want to add right away that a painting need not have an overtly religious subject in order to be holy, but it does have to be worthy of the companionship of the Spirit. The curious thing about paintings like this (a thing that still baffles me completely) is that when the artist has met those divine requirements and the painting is sanctified by the Spirit, it seems to be bound into the pigment and become an inseparable part of the work itself—so much so that looking at mere reproductions of the image in a giclée or onscreen simply doesn’t produce the same effect. You’ve got to actually stand in front of the canvas loaded with pigment from the artist’s brush and see the marks he made to feel it.

I think this will make more sense to those of you who were able to see the Carl Bloch show at BYU a couple of years ago. If you went, you know what I’m talking about. Seeing those paintings was a revelation for me. You can’t go to a temple or a church building without seeing several reproductions of his paintings, so I’d seen most of his work and I liked it, but what I felt when I walked through that exhibit and stood in front of those canvases was so far and above anything I’d felt previously that it can’t even be compared.

Earlier this year I saw an exhibit of masterful paintings by Golden Age illustrators at Pepperdine University. One of my brothers was there with me, and I asked him what he’d thought of the show and which one of the paintings was his favorite. The show included some gorgeous pieces by Dean Cornwell, J. C. Leyendecker, and Norman Rockwell to name just a few, but he led me upstairs and pointed to a piece by Harvey Dunn. I don’t remember his exact words, but I remember that he didn’t talk at all about how the painting was executed, or how it looked. He just talked about how it “felt.” There was just something about that painting—something beyond values and color and design and technique. Something more. I think that “something more” is just what we’ve been talking about. Something in the way Dunn executed that painting fulfilled a divine law, met a divine requirement, and merited a portion of the Spirit of God.

Photo courtesy Josh Clare
Su Casa. Image courtesy Josh Clare
Afternoon. Image courtesy Josh Clare

What challenges have you run into along the way?

Say the word “challenges” or “struggles” to an artist and you’ll find yourself talking about money pretty quick. But for some reason the Lord has blessed us with miracle after miracle, so money has never really been tight. It’s massively miraculous, because we certainly don’t make a ton—it’s just always been enough. If we have a little more than usual, a car breaks down and we need a root canal or something and we go, “Ah, that’s what that little extra was for.” My wife has never had to supplement our income and she’s been able to be at home with our children—that’s something we really desired, and God really does grant unto us according to our desires.

The challenges I’ve faced in art have been more self-imposed than anything. I’m constantly experimenting. I’ve tried nearly every brand of paint, every medium, every painting surface, and every gesso known to man. Most intelligent students just paint the way their teacher/mentor taught them and then improve upon it. I’ve tried to figure it out myself because I’m an idiot. :) Anyway, it seems like every time I pick up a brush my paint consistency and the surface I’m working on is different, and that’s challenging—stupidly challenging because it’s my own fault for constantly trying something new. But I’m confident that it’s going to be worth it in the end. All this experimentation, though painful, is leading to new discoveries and keeping things fresh. I’m learning how Josh Clare paints rather than being Josh Clare, the guy who paints just like [fill in the blank].

Newton Farm. Image courtesy Josh Clare

Can you talk to us about the story behind your Newton Farm painting?

That’s an interesting one to talk about because I seem to take more liberties in my barn paintings than in my other work. I think that’s because I can find a super nice landscape or a super nice barn, but to find both in the same place is much harder to do. And even when I do, the landscape will look perfect from one angle, and the barn looks better from another. Even though I live in Paradise, Utah, where there is an excess of some of the most beautiful barns I’ve ever seen in an idyllic landscape, I still tend to grab one photo for the barn and another for the landscape. That’s what I did in Newton Farm. The barn was from a classic “drive-by shooting” out of the car window with my little Canon point-and-shoot, and the landscape was from some photos I took on a rainy day in Driggs, Idaho. I just exaggerated the hills. To make a painting like that work, I always do several very small color sketches to make sure my color is harmonious and the values are working together.

Mariah. Image courtesy Josh Clare

How does community affect your work? Both community in general (neighborhood, ward, etc.) and the arts community.

I’ve noticed that I grow most as an artist when I surround myself with people who are better than me. I love to paint next to somebody whose work I really admire. When we left Arizona and were deciding where to move, that was something I considered to be very important. There are a number of excellent artists here in Cache Valley and I’m excited to be motivated by their work and their examples.

How does the gospel influence your work?

It saturates my work. My choice to paint things as I see them is directly related to my beliefs. There is a reason why a majority of the major players in representational art believe in God; the western art world is filled with believers, and it’s surprising how many of them are Mormons. When you believe that God created all things and you see nature as the workmanship of his perfect hands, it’s hard to avoid trying to emulate him in your art as well as your life.

In addition to everything God is, he is also the perfect artist—and all of creation is his art. To depart from nature seeking to create beauty beyond or apart from the beauty of the visible world is as foolish as it is impossible. Every secret to that mystery we call beauty is there in his perfect work, but they’re not easily discerned or cheaply discovered … they’re uncovered only by those who sincerely desire to find them and who ask. So, yeah, the fact that I’m trying to paint and draw what I see is a result of the gospel influencing my work. But it goes much deeper than that.

I was just talking to another artist friend of mine, Mike Malm, about this. He told me that there in the back of his mind he is always wondering if he’s using his talents the way God wants him to. I wonder if all LDS artists feel the same. God gave us these talents; they are his, not ours—are we being good stewards? I think about that all the time. In any creative endeavor there is the strong temptation to create in order to please men. You write a song or a book, you paint a picture or sculpt a figure and you think, “I wonder if people are going to like this.” You hope they do. You want it to win the major awards and you want to be recognized as the bomb-diggity artist and you want five hundred people to line up hoping to be the lucky one to spend a fortune on it, and it seems like if that just happened then life would be sweet—then you’d be happy. But I think that’s exactly what President Packer had in mind when he talked about LDS artists climbing and climbing to reach the top of the ladder only to find that it’s leaning against the wrong wall. I’m constantly taking my ladder off that wall and leaning it back against the wall that I want to lean it against; I have to constantly remind myself that there’s only one opinion that matters, one opinion that counts—and it’s God’s. I want to paint for him. I want to please him. I don’t want to care about the applause or praise of men. I just want him to say, “Well done,” someday. This is a constant battle that I fight—I imagine all LDS artists do—but I’m sure that my desires, and even this struggle, gets into the paint.

November. Image courtesy Josh Clare

How do you recognize when your ladder is up against the wrong wall, and how do you get it over to the right wall?

Excellent question. If I’m happy and at peace, it’s up against the right wall. If I’m worried, anxious, bummed out or depressed, it’s up against the wrong wall. If I’m thinking about how the painting will be received, what people will think, or if it’s going to sell or not, it’s up against the wrong wall. If I’m full of gratitude for the “privilege of being able to watch the sun cast shadows” (Harvey Dunn said that), it’s up against the right wall. If as I paint I search my heart to find that my sincere desire is to create something good—something beautiful and uplifting that glorifies God and blesses his children—it’s up against the right wall.

How do I get it over to the right wall? By moving it back over there every single stinkin’ day. I’m amazed at what a weakling I am. For some reason going to bed and waking up again seems to start me back at square one. It’s like that awful movie Groundhog Day—I wake up and the ladder’s against the wrong wall. A curse of mortality, I presume, unless I’m the only one who this happens to. I need to refill my spiritual cup every day.

Elle. Image courtesy Josh Clare

President Eyring said, “Great faith has a short shelf life.” It takes great faith to keep your ladder on the right wall, and great faith takes a lot of work. So doing the simple things that make all the difference is the key: daily scripture study, daily personal prayer—that’s how you get your ladder back to where you know it ought to be.

I absolutely believe what President Benson said, that “men and women who turn their lives over to God will discover that he can make a lot more out of their lives than they can.” I believe that when we seek the kingdom of God and his righteousness first, all these things will be added unto us. I believe all that. In fact, I know it’s true—but it absolutely kills me how slow I am to hearken, how often I fall short. I have to constantly remind myself that God didn’t send me here to become a good artist—he sent me here to become a good man. I pray that he’ll change, mold, and sanctify me—that he’ll make me into a “man in whom the spirit of God is” (Genesis 41:38) … because I really, really desire to make beautiful things, and making beautiful things starts there. ❧

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