Hank Richter is a Western Artist -- painting, drawing, and sculpting the art of the cowboy. Before that, he was very successful in the advertising business and started his own ad agency. During our interview, Hank shared why editing is so important to art, why just putting anything down on paper helps us engage in the creative process, how we can gain confidence in ourselves and share our talents, what qualities are important for an artist, and more.
How did you get interested and start in Western art?
I had an ad agency in Phoenix, Arizona. One of my clients, Read Mullan, the number one Ford dealer in the US, was a major Western art collector. I'd often look in his gallery, where he had numerous big name artists, such as Charlie Russell, Olaf Weighorst, Frank Tenny Johnson, and others. One day as we were talking, I told him I thought I could create a bronze like the ones he had. He said, "I'll tell you what, Hank, you do it, and I'll buy it." So, I did a sculpture of a Sioux head, and when I showed it to him, he said, "Wow! All you have to do now is go to the Heard Museum and have it authenticated as a Sioux Indian." I knew the curator, and when I showed him my sculpture, he placed a Charlie Russell sculpture of a Sioux next to mine and said, "You tell Read that any time he wants to donate one of your pieces of work to our museum, we'd love it." So that's how I got started. Read introduced me to Western art and bought my work. Although I started as a sculptor, I now mainly do paintings and drawings.
Another major collector of mine from Tucson, AZ said he'd love to donate one of my sculptures to a college on the condition that I go back there with him to deliver it. While we were at the college, I was asked if I could teach a sculpture class during the summer. I said that I wasn't a teacher but would give it a try. That was 28 years ago, and I've been teaching sculpture, cartooning, drawing there ever since.
When did you start doing artwork?
I always drew, even when I was a little kid. My mom often said that before going out to play baseball, I would do a drawing. Drawing always stayed with me, and I've enjoyed the talents God has given me. And then, when I was college age, I thought I had to be Leonardo da Vinci to enter an art school. But I learned I didn't. I attended the Philadelphia Museum School of Art, ended up going into commercial art, and afterwards worked for major ad agency companies on the East coast. Then I started my own ad company and am currently doing my own art work.
What do you enjoy about art?
I'm so grateful for my art. It has provided me with a life full of surprises, rewards, recognition, pleasure, and excitement. It is so terrific when any one finds or discovers, even by serendipity, just what he or she loves doing. Then everyday is fun. I feel blessed to have found something that doesn't feel like work. Every time I open the door to my studio, I feel excited. I know that today I have so many different opportunities. Unless I'm working on a commission, I get to decide what I'm going to do that day -- draw, paint, or write and illustrate a children's book or a poem.
Are there any challenges you face with your artwork?
Sure. The artist always has a challenge because he starts out with a blank piece of canvas or paper. Once you put something down, that's the start. Then comes the most vital part of art and creativity -- editing.
Why is editing so important?
I've always thought that editing is one of the most important factors both in art and in human experience. Editing affects and determines the success of everything we do. To prove the true magnitude of editing to students in my art classes, I hold up a blank piece of paper and say, "Isn't this the best drawing you've ever seen?" And that's a big lie because there's nothing on it. You cannot edit a blank page. You have to be brave enough to commit to put something down, and then you can edit it and make the personal decision of YES or NO. We edit all the time in life each time we make a decision. If we're cooking, do we put in more sugar, salt, or spice? Yes or No! If we're writing, do we keep a sentence the way it is or change it? It's black and white.
Art is not generally associated with black-and-white thinking, but instead with subjectivity. Can you explain more what you mean?
You can't have a gray area. Either a line stays or it goes. Place a line on a face: if the line is wrong, and you keep it anyway, it starts multiplying and gets worse and worse. So, do I accept the line or reject what I've done? This is what keeps the creative process exciting. If I reject it, then how do I change it? That's why they put erasers on the end of the pencils. I tell my students, "Don't be afraid to use the erasers. You don't have to stay with something that's wrong." This is true in life, too. We don't have to accept a mistake or let it dictate what we're going to do. We can go with the truth.
Once you accept something, you can make it successful. Chances are if you like it, others will like it, too. The secret to creativity is editing. This makes creativity very simple. My wife, Janet, who has a great eye for color and composition and, fortunately, is also a very sensitive editor, tells me that I always make drawing look easy. It is -- if people would just try it. I try to convince people that they don't have to be afraid to try something. The more you work at something, the fewer corrections you have to make. It's experience.
What made you decide to start your own ad agency?
The ad business was huge in California. It was where everything was happening, even more so than New York. So I wanted to go there. We were really headed for CA but got waylaid in Phoenix. I had my portfolio, which I showed to agencies. They responded with, "I've never seen things like this before." I asked when I could become head art director and was told, "When the other art director passes on." So I started my own agency.
What were some of the challenges?
One challenge was that all I had ever done before were graphics. With my own company, I had to learn how to write radio and TV scripts and ad copy. I could do layouts very quickly, but now I had to come up with a theme for the ads. As it had to be done, I figured I would do it. You overcome the fear that something's impossible to do by doing it. Eventually, we got copywriters and brought in media experts. Also, getting clients and convincing them that we could do the job was a challenge at first. You always have to prove yourself. Well, I was able to convince people that I had the background and talent. My partner had the local contacts. So we were able to get a lot of the big accounts.
Did you have any concerns or fears when you started your own company?
I had a family with three daughters and had to provide for them. But I didn't really have any fear. I had experienced such success back East and had won many awards. I knew I could do it. I just had to have the opportunity to prove myself. But you can't be a braggart either. You have to be able to back it up, and you have to have confidence in yourself.
How do you gain confidence in yourself?
You find little successes and build on them, as young children do. You don't expect them to have big successes at the beginning. You help them have little successes. Then they feel more confident and start relying on themselves, which is so important. I use this approach with my students, too. I often walk over to them and ask, "What do you like about this?" If they're honest, they'll give me an opinion, and 99% of the time, it'll match what I would say. They've just had a little success, and I support that. I build on little success, too. I do a drawing every day just to know that I can do it. But then, you have some failures, too. You examine what you've done and see what you can do better. You don't just stay in a rut. You learn from everything you do, apply the lesson, and move forward step by step. It's that easy.
It's obvious you value learning. Why is it so important in art?
Learning is a constant, on-going adventure. You have to be brave to learn. And you have to apply yourself. When I went to art school, and we were given assignments to do, I would do three or four of them. I saw myself as getting much more of an education than others because I'd get three or four critiques to their one. The more you do, the more you retain, the more you learn and advance. When people would come to me for ideas, I'd be able to help. Many people don't do any more than what's asked of them. But going the extra mile is a benefit to you.
You said it's important to rely on yourself. What do you mean?
One of the many Bible passages I like is, "[W]ith God all things are possible" (Mark 10:27). You rely on God and yourself as God's image. God directs and completes every experience for us. This is a gift we need to accept. We also need to acknowledge and be grateful for the many varied talents that we are blessed with and include such gratitude in our daily prayers. I recall that some famous person said, "Each person is an expert in something." I'm so grateful for that -- that we all have talents and can use them in any way that we want. We're supposed to share our talents. Jesus says, "[F]reely ye have received, freely give" (Matt 10:8).
There are many people who think they can't draw and are afraid of it. How do you help them get over their fears?
I've often felt that people let fear get in the way of expressing their talents. I've found that learning and experience help remove the fear of trying something new. But the best way is to know that "God is love" (I John 4:8). Knowing God's love removes any fear: "There is no fear in love; but perfect love casteth out fear" (I John 4:18). I told my own girls, "Don't be afraid to ask for anything because you only have two options: Someone's going to say 'Yes,' or, 'No.' And if you can handle the no, the next time it'll be a yes."
An individual signed up for my class five times and didn't take it because she thought she was going to be compared with others and had to be the best. Finally, she decided to stick with it. When she saw what was possible, she overcame her fear. I told her just to put something down. Then I asked her what part she liked, what part she didn't. I told her to change the side she didn't like to look like the side she did like. It's that easy. Her finished sculpture is now proudly displayed in her daughter's home. This woman came back four other times. It was the tiny fear that says, "I can't do this." And the willingness to do it conquered her fear and gave her confidence. That's why I love teaching. It's so good to see people who are so brave. As God's spiritual ideas -- "image" and "likeness" (Gen 1:26) -- we are so infinitely blessed.
What does an artist need to do to be successful?
Ideas are endless. You just have to grab the ideas and talents you have and apply them. You have to keep comparing. I compare the last painting I did to the new painting, how I painted the sky or the horse. You compare your present work to your own past work. You don't compare your work to someone else's work and notice how that person's work is better than yours. Of course, you can notice what's good in others' works. But you can't be afraid to put something down on the canvas. You can't compare anything or see what needs to be corrected until you've done something. I think the only way you can really be creative is through experiencing failures and successes and building on your successes. Artists also have to be very observant. That's true for just about anyone.
You said ideas are endless, but many people tend to struggle to find ideas. How do you view ideas?
I think a fully explained idea is creativity. I see myself as a receptacle for ideas. It's just a part of my being to think about ideas. I have a book we've self-published titled, LESSONS FROM THE PECAN TREE. It's about the God-inspired ideas I received under my pecan tree. We had a huge pecan tree where we used to live. I'd often be harvesting pecan nuts, and thoughts from God would come to me that I'd be able to use. One day, as I was walking into the sun, it looked like there were no pecans. But as I turned around, and the sun was behind me, I saw all these gold spots on the ground. The pecans were always there; I just couldn't see them. Sometimes you just have to change your perspective. And, if you're open to these thoughts, once they come, you just don't drop them; you explore them. The doors are open so wide, and we just have to take advantage of them: "[B]ehold, I have set before thee an open door, and no man can shut it" (Rev 3:8). The Bible is full of spiritual and helpful inspiration. I just love Isaiah and Psalms. They have so many ideas that help me in my work. One of the great things about studying the Bible is that we can read something over and over and suddenly we'll see it in a new light and gain a completely new insight. We just have to live it. On a side note, I have a Joyful Designs section on my website that shows posters and t-shirts I've designed with Bible passages and ideas. They're just fun.
Where do you get your images or ideas for your art work?
If you live out in the West, you go to rodeos and take trail rides. My library is full of life about the cowboy and ranch work. They serve as research and reference material for my work. I have many first editions signed to me by the authors. Some of my collectors invite me to their ranches. I take my camera and get reference material that way, too. I draw from photos, from experience, and from sketches. But I also draw my note cards from imagination. I've seen so many of the actual ranch activities that I can recall how a cowboy sits in the saddle or what a horse's leg or cow looks like.
You're so full of joy.
I'm very grateful for everything God has brought my way, for the light and life I've been able to give. I'm also confident in my art, and that brings me joy, which I'm able to share. We were not always the wealthiest family on the block, but we always had great fun! My life is very happy. I'm so aware of and grateful for all the blessings God has given me. We have a wonderful statement posted on our microwave. It goes, "Expectancy of good begins with gratitude for the good already received." I really like that!