By Erin McNutt
New Orleans Canvas Magazine was very fortunate to have the opportunity to interview Terrance Osborne in his beautiful gallery on Magazine Street, located in the heart of Uptown and actively managed by his lovely wife Stephanie.
Terrance has enjoyed the type of success that most artists can only ever dream of. Upon entering his gallery and actually beholding his paintings up close one can see why he has become so famous and so popular with the public.
NCM: How did you get your start as an artist?
Terrance: My mom, my stepdad, and my oldest brother all make art. My mom worked with pastels and was a particular influence. She liked to create serene nature scenes. She introduced me to art and encouraged me to maintain my interest in it.
By the time I got to fifth grade I was drawing a lot. My teachers reinforced my interest in art. I would also seek out other friends who could draw.
My family rented homes and moved around a lot. I was always the new kid at school. I would purposely look for other kids at school who could draw. There was always one. There was always one who was “ice cold”. That’s the one I would find and try to learn everything that I could from him. Then, eventually I would go to another school because we would end up moving. I learned a lot from my peers.
In middle school my teachers encouraged me to get into this program called Talented and Visual Arts. You had to be tested for the program and pass as a talented kid. As part of the program, a practicing professional artist would come visit the school. I would work for an hour twice a week outside of class with that artist. That was a big deal for me because I’d never met an artist who was making a living off of his artwork. That left a very big impression on me. It set a new standard for me.
My teachers encouraged me to go to New Orleans Center for Creative Arts (NOCCA) for high school. There I learned pretty much what I would end up revisiting once I got to college. During my first year at NOCCA, I met a guy named Frederick Johnson. He was such a good artist that I wanted to hang with him and learn from him.
Frederick introduced me to Richard Thomas. Richard is a local artist who has done Jazz Fest posters and has some national recognition. He’s super talented and a wonderful person on top of that. I became Richard’s assistant and he gave me my first canvas and brushes to paint with. I sold my first piece in Richard’s gallery for $55.
Selling my first piece of art was also a big moment. I realized then that people would by my art. Before that I just made just drawings that I would give to family members. I never did it for the money, I was in it for the pleasure and passion of making art. I knew that I wanted to express a language and the more art I made, the more that language became clear. Intuitively that’s what I was chasing after.
When my portfolio would get low, I got nervous. It didn’t feel right. How would people know what I was saying? I needed to create all of these pieces to express that.
NCM: Where did you go to college?
Terrance: I went to Xavier University. I thought college would be pretty intimidating. I lived in this old apartment full of artists and there was always a bit of friendly competition going on. But that competition helped me.
NCM: What genres do you work in ?
Terrance: Expressionism is probably the closest category that I can put my work in. That’s a tricky one for me because whenever I’ve had to categorize my art, I’ve always thought of it as boundless. One of my favorite quotes is, ” Learn the rules well so that you can break them.” I try to push the boundaries of whatever it is that I am creating.
Ultimately, realism doesn’t do it for me. I’m not entertained by just painting a photo. I want to ‘spike’ the photo. Alter and change it so that you can see it differently. To me it is much more interesting that way. So when I paint, it is usually with exaggerated colors with exaggerated expression and movement.
I paint with acrylic on wood. I started painting on wood in college because it was a lot cheaper. I use those big 8’x4′ sheets that you get at Home Depot.
NCM: Whose work inspires you the most?
Terrance: There are four artists I am most inspired by: Richard Thomas was my early influence, James Michelopoulas, Van Gogh, and John Singer Sargent. I would say I am a combination of the four of them really.
NCM: Those are such vastly different artists.
Terrance: Yes, they are! Sargent was such a master at painting Realism, but he had an Impressionistic style. I mean I got something from every single one of these artists, but with him I learned that if you paint a glass, you do it in a few strokes and just move on. He didn’t dwell on it long. He was a master at leaving the brush stroke. It takes a serious understanding of what paint is doing when it hits the canvas.
NCM: Have you always used acrylic or have you experimented with other types of paint?
Terrance: I tried oils when I was at NOCCA and at Xavier, but it didn’t quite do it for me. I need it to dry faster so that I can work on the next layers. Oil paint just takes so long.
Even before I started painting, I was looking at other paintings and analyzing them. For example,let’s say you look at a digital illustration of a blender, and then you pull apart the blender and see all of the mechanical things that are in it and then you put it back together. When I look at paintings, I can see them that way. I can see the way that the artists compiled the layers of paint. That became my technique. And I start by painting the first layer black and slowly introduce light by painting in layers.
Some artists paint the opposite way. They start lighter and then go darker. I think oils work better that way. That’s probably why acrylic makes more sense to me.
There’s a point in the painting where it becomes euphoric to me. That’s usually at around 60 or 70% completed. That’s the zone where everything begins to come together. I know what I’m doing and what I’m going to do. It’s just beautiful. Right at about 90%, I know I’m about done.
NCM: Do you ever have a problem with knowing when to stop?
Terrance: No, because I’ve already finished it in my mind. So I know where I’m going to stop. There are some things that are like little added things, but (for the most part) it just happens.
NCM: Do you have a muse?
Terrance: Yeah! My wife. She shows up in a lot of my work. My daughter is a muse as well. I use both of them. For example, on that Heineken painting over there, I made the face look like my daughter’s face. They are my easy “go to” muses. They’re always available.
NCM: It seems like there are a lot of other artists out there who copy you.
Terrance: I don’t spend a lot of time looking at what other artists do. I don’t obsess over it. I do enjoy asking other artists about their artistic process. I have a high respect for what other artists do. Art is mostly a silent experience. I think of my work as different from that.
I’m honored that people would mimic or be inspired by my work, because I’m also inspired by other artists. I’ve been told that my work looks like James Michelopoulas’ work. To that, I’ve always said, “Thank you!” He’s a really talented artist so I’m honored that some can see him in my work. So when I see someone inspired by my work, I’ll cheer them on.
Now there have been a few companies that have used my work without my permission and I’ve had to diffuse that, but that is different. That’s just business.
NCM: What do you think is the most challenging part of being an artist?
Terrance: Probably the business part. I think I share that problem with a lot of artists. Because all you want to do as an artist is create. But you have to pay bills and feed your family. I’m happy that I can survive off of my art and also be successful at it. I feel like I am in the NFL of art and I’m very thankful for my success. In a perfect world, though, I would only create art.
My wife does manage the business, so I do have that luxury. She used to do a lot more, but now we kind of do equal parts.
NCM: Is she your Lee Krasner?
Terrance: She definitely is! She handles a lot and she has taught me some things. Over time she has initiated a lot of my business ventures. Eventually I kind of learned her style. And I was able to take some of the load off of her.
NCM: That’s rare for a couple to be able to work so closely together.
Terrance: It was a trick at first. She would say, there is this job I would like to have. Let’s send these people a proposal and pretend that I am you. Sometimes I would create some artwork to go along with her proposal, and we got jobs that way. That was our first working formula. Eventually we didn’t have to chase after jobs. I was able to pick the projects that I wanted to do. I don’t take everything on.
NCM: Do you ever get negative criticism and, if so, how do handle it?
Terrance: Yeah! I get it. It is rare, but I do get negative criticism. I think I realize the truth about it. My art is not going to appeal to everyone. I used to think that it would appeal to everyone because it was happy and colorful. The truth is that you never know what people are going through. There was one guy that ripped into my artwork and said, “you are borrowing from this person and that person and it’s not original.”
My response to that was that, ” I’m honored that you see those people in my artwork because I respect them highly. And I appreciate your attention to detail.” I’m not interested in the fight. I’m interested in discussing it. Maybe the person giving the negative criticism likes dark stuff. It’s just like the difference between a person who enjoys a movie with a happy ending versus someone who likes tragedy.
NCM: If you had to pick one favorite artwork out of everything that you’ve ever done, could you do it?
Terrance: No, but I can pick two favorites: the tree here, “From Nothing”, has remained a favorite for a long time. And “Lady Mardi Gras” because it has my daughter’s face and my wife’s eyes. Those are my two favorites.
NCM: How do you come up with a profitable pricing structure for your art? That seems to be a skill that eludes many artists.
Terrance: I’ve come up with a solution, and it is a good working solution. I used to worry about losing potential customers, but I also didn’t want to give my work away, so what I do now is play a game with myself.
During one of my first years exhibiting at Jazz Festival, when my originals were going for about $500 (right now they average around $35,000), I painted this piece called “Buck Jumping”. In it there was a lady on a porch with a rag in her hand and she is sticking her butt out. And next to her was a guy playing the guitar. I loved it! I t had all of these blues in them and there was a warm sun casting shadows on the porch. You can see the railings also have long shadows. Lots of blues and golden colors.
I was going to price it at $500 like all of the other originals. But I thought that it was so much better than the rest. I was stressed about it. I wanted to make more so I mentioned it to my wife. She said, “What do you want to price it as?” I said, “How about $800?, which I thought was a ridiculous number at the time. So she said, ” Ok, make it $800!” I said, “No, I’m not going to make it $800! That’s way too much! My other work is $500.” But I got up the courage to do it. And sure enough a guy walks up to the booth and asks, “So why is this one $800 and the others are $500?” I said, “Because I like this one better. I really like it and want more for it.” And the guy says, ” It’s not like you are famous or anything. Why don’t you just sell it to me for $500?” So I said, “Nah, I’m only going to sell it for $800.” And then sure enough the next day at Jazz Fest a woman bought it for $800 without any questions.
That’s become my formula for pricing artwork. Every time I do a piece that I really like, I decide to kick it up to a new price. Then eventually all of the rest of the work follows. That is how I got my work from $55 to $65,000. My two highest selling pieces (so far) went for $65,000.
NCM: What made you decide to represent yourself rather than working with an art dealer?
Terrance: We’ve partnered with people in the past and it never works out. My wife has my best interests at heart and she would say stuff that I knew was true. For example, if the person we were partnering with seemed crooked she would mention it to me. And we would discuss it. And I wouldn’t leave my art with that person. Each time we would partner with someone those relationships would fall apart. Ultimately, we just realized that no one was going to do it the way that we will. No one is going to have our best interests at heart.
I’ve never really been interested in galleries because I couldn’t get over that hump of paying 50%. Now I understand that the galleries have their bills to pay and they are promoting the artists. I respect that, but I could never put my work in there and walk away with half of the profit. It just doesn’t make any sense to me.
I found ways to go around that. I would exhibit at restaurants because it was free. And we’ve only had this gallery for about ten months now. Ten months ago all of this was in our house.
Our kids are getting older now. Our daughter is fifteen, our middle son is seventeen, and our oldest son is twenty-three. We didn’t want to open the gallery early because my studio is at home and we promote the art through our website and social media. We wanted to be available for the kids. We don’t punch a clock, but we are also working 24/7. But I’ll take that if I can be there to raise my kids.
Terrance Osborne’s Gallery is located at 3029 Magazine Street in New Orleans, LA. You can also visit his website and purchase art at www.terranceosborne.com.