Artist Spotlight: Stephen Lawrence
Stephen Lawrence mixes his pleasure with business, creating paintings of the things he loves most
By Abby Heugel
When Stephen Lawrence starts a wildlife watercolor, he always begins with the eyes. The eyes express the soul of the animal, and if I can not bring life and emotion to them, then the rest of the painting will have little meaning.”
Painting with watercolors and trying to get the detail he puts into his paintings takes a lot of time and patience, as sometimes a single square inch may take him a couple hours to get it to his liking. But it’s that passion that led Lawrence to blend together not only paint for a variety of wildlife pieces, but also a career in law enforcement with his passion for animals and art in any form.
As director for the Kalamazoo County Animal Control in Michigan, Lawrence is able to apply a wildlife degree to learning as much as he can about animals, giving him a more thorough understanding of the things he paints. The result? Realistic paintings often mistaken for photographs, brought to life through intricate brushstrokes and a lifetime of learning.
Paint and Police Work
Lawrence grew up in a family known throughout the south Jersey town of Cinnaminson as the one to bring injured or orphaned wildlife to. They would raise and care for them until they were strong and healthy enough to be released back into the wild. He also found a passion for art through paint-by-numbers, discovering that when he blended the colors, the painting looked more realistic and less like a patchwork of hues.
“Then in high school, my art teachers realized my passion and potential and taught me how to look at light and shapes and how to think outside of the box,” Lawrence said. “The one medium I found I loved working with was watercolors. I loved the transparency of the colors and how I could build color over color to gain incredible depth in a two dimensional media. I also liked the challenge — once you put paint on paper, you can’t paint over it or scrape it off like you can with acrylics and oils.”
After graduation, Lawrence applied and was accepted to the Philadelphia College of Art, spending two semesters there before determining he didn’t want to make art his career.
“I felt that if I had to do my art every day, I would lose my creativity and the enjoyment I had found painting what I wanted when I wanted,” Lawrence said. “I decided to embark on a career in my other passion — wildlife.”
He moved to California and graduated from Humboldt State University with a degree in Wildlife Management in 1984. Because jobs in the wildlife field weren’t plentiful, he moved to Southern California and got a job as a deputy for the Orange County Sheriff’s Dept. For the next nine years he worked in law enforcement for the Santa Barbara Sheriff’s Dept and then the Oxnard Police Dept. All the while, he continued to paint with watercolors, giving his paintings away to family and friends.
In the summer of 1994, he moved to Michigan and began selling his first prints, with a local printer creating lithograph prints of two black and white watercolors he completed on consignment. Lawrence began painting and saving enough of his originals to have a small art show at a local frame shop. In 2008, he found Gamma Imaging in Chicago and began making giclee prints of all the paintings he had, selling some in the frame shop before showing his work at the Ann Arbor State Street Art Show.
“I find the people who purchase my work are looking for the signed fine art and have a passion themselves for wildlife,” Lawrence said. “My prints are all signed limited edition giclee prints, and although the giclee process is more expensive than lithograph, the accuracy of the colors and the detail make the prints indistinguishable from the originals.
“I have painted wild horses, owls, eagles, song birds, seals, whales, bears, deer and elephants,” Lawrence continued. “I love the challenge of creating the various textures of wildlife in watercolor. My style of painting in watercolor is unique, in that I paint with far more detail than is common in watercolor. My painting technique is also unconventional, as I tend to paint contrary to everything I have ever been taught about painting and watercolors.”
But it’s a process that works for him. After he has drawn out a design, he starts with the eye and begins painting in detail. He explained that he doesn’t work on the whole painting at once, only one little area, and continues from that point. When he finishes an area, he rarely has to go back to it, unless he has to lighten or darken the area when the painting is complete.
Make Your Mark
Lawrence is currently working on a painting of a bee in a flower. While it’s not necessarily what most people think of as wildlife, he’s challenging himself to capture new textures, like the cellophane look of the wings and the smooth texture of the flowers. He recently returned from photographing wolves, and hopes to work on a painting of the wolves when he’s completed the bee.
“I enjoy painting because it is the one thing in life that I can have complete control of, and the final results are my responsibility alone,” Lawrence said. “I love the challenge that each new painting brings, and I enjoy hearing people express their desire to display my work in their home.”
Lawrence admits a certain frustration when working on a piece, as he knows in his head what he wants the colors or the painting to do, but can’t get his brush and hand to make it happen. After he walks away from the painting for a while, he usually finds that he’s achieved the effect that he wanted.
“I usually find parts of it that impress me,” he said, “and to be honest, most of the time I wonder how I did it.”
But Lawrence finds the biggest challenge an artist faces is the marketing of their work. Since he began taking his artwork more seriously, the Internet has become more important and the printing opportunities have changed from strictly lithograph prints that generally couldn’t match the vibrancies of the colors or the right hues to the giclee printing process where the colors and the detail are almost indistinguishable from the originals.
“There are tens of thousands of artists out there trying to do the same thing, but there are many people out there who will want your work over all the rest,” he said. “The goal is to find a way to get that specific group to see your work.”
That involves learning how to market yourself and your art so that people know who you are and can see what you do. Lawrence will never sacrifice quality for quantity, as “your artwork represents your commitment to the elusive perfection we work so hard to achieve.”
Perfection found in nature, and perhaps, brought to life through intricate brushstrokes and a lifetime of learning.