Today’s guest is Kevin Murphy who is co-founder of the Evolve Art Program. Evolve is an online art school that can teach anyone how to paint in oils to a professional level, in a year or less.
Kevin Murphy is an internationally recognized, award-winning portrait painter and illustrator. Kevin created nearly 250 commercial illustrations for such major entities as The Rolling Stones, National Geographic, Lucas Arts and Barnes and Noble.
You can check out the free painting masterclass webinar that will teach you the basics of how to paint in oils by going to https://kickinthecreatives.com/evolvewebinar
Starting to learn how to paint as a child
I grew up in the Bronx. And it wasn’t a very safe area. My parents insisted that I couldn’t sit around, because sitting around gets you in trouble.
I did things like baseball and football, I wasn’t a fan, but I enjoyed art. I wasn’t a serious artist, I enjoyed it and I was mediocre at it. My parents decided they would put me into an art class on Saturday mornings to learn how to paint. But painting was never a big thing in my life. It was just one thing that I did.
When I was around 11 years old, while I was in that art class, my father drove a taxi. Somebody left a magazine in the car. In it, there was an interview with world-renowned illustrator Boris Vallejo. I saw a painting that he had done. There were a few of them in the magazine. But one of the paintings called ‘Wilderness,’ really caught my attention and I just fell in love with it. So there I am with my acrylic paint and my one-inch brushes, trying to replicate artwork done by a world-renowned professional Illustrator. But of course, with a one-inch brush and acrylic paint, there’s only so far you can go.
So eventually I gave up on painting because I had no path to get to where I wanted. I got sidetracked with other things. When I turned 18, I graduated high school and I was working in construction in the city. On my way down to work, I started reading science fiction and fantasy books. One of the books that was given to me contained that same painting, ‘Wilderness’ by Boris. I started to fall in love with not just the genre, but the artwork that was on the covers. So I started painting again. So for the three years that I worked construction, I painted on my weekends a little here and there, trying to get better.
Tracking down an illustrator for advice
One day, I went into work in the morning and I packed up all my tools. I decided I was going to be a professional painter. I was going to do book covers. I’ve never looked back.
The first thing I did was reach out to Boris. I tracked him down. He lived in New Jersey which was only about an hour and a half from where I lived. Today they call that stalking, but back then I was doing my due diligence. I found him and I dropped off my portfolio at the gym he worked out at.
I asked him for some advice. He was nice enough and I still have his letter. What he said to me was, ‘if you’re interested in art as a hobby, that’s great, keep doing what you’re doing. If you’re interested in doing something more with it, then you need to go get some training, you can’t do it alone.’
Art School doesn’t work out for Kevin
Boris mentioned in the letter that his son went to the School of Visual Arts. I figured if the school was good enough for his son, it would be good enough for me. I got into the school. It was expensive, it was the top illustration school in the country at the time. I think it actually ranked number one in the world at the time for illustration. So you would think it’s going to be an incredible programme, but there was no education to be had there, for me at least.
Most people that go to these art schools fail. They don’t get out of the art school with any marketable skills and then they’re led to believe that it’s their fault. It’s all nonsense. Anybody who wants to be a professional artist, if you’re willing to do the work, can be a pro. Anybody.
I had an experience with my painting teacher that would scare anybody away from going to art college. First of all, my painting teacher was an abstract painter so what could he possibly teach me if I wanted to do realistic artwork? Or for that matter, how was he going to teach me real color theory? Here’s a clown, who threw paint at a canvas, and some guy with money decided that he was worth backing at some point in the 70s. He’s a successful artist with artwork in museums, he’s a nice guy, but he’s a total hack.
I asked him what colors would I mix for a basic Caucasian skin tone? He said, ‘you’ll learn that in your third year.’ I was 21 years old at the time and I’d been working in a real job in the real world with adults. I was accustomed to not being treated that way. So I said to him, ‘well, for what I’m paying to be here, it would be nice If you simply gave me the information, and if I can’t use it, well, that’s on me.’ But he just brushed me off. Everybody I know who has gone to art school has faced that.
Finally learning how to paint in oils
After the end of the first semester, I left art school and I tracked down Dorian, Boris’ son. I asked him if I could come out and watch him work. I stayed at his house one day. He helped me do a photoshoot and helped me with the beginning of the first painting. It dramatically altered what I was doing. Just walking into his home and seeing some of the originals drastically altered my perspective.
I saw what the original paintings looked like. I had never seen an illustration before. I had no idea just how high the quality was. So immediately the bar was raised for me. I had this idea that the paintings were 36 inches by 48 inches and then you photograph them and you scale them down for the book cover. I assumed that as you scale them down, they tighten up a little bit. But the truth is, the original paintings are exponentially better than the printed version. Until I saw the originals and realised just how far I had to go, I just didn’t have a perspective on it. I didn’t know what was possible. That changed my thinking. The bar moved, I knew what I needed to achieve to be a professional artist.
How to become a professional artist
There’s a couple of things that go into producing incredible art to a professional level. I’ll have students who I know understand how to paint in oils because I’ve taught them. I know they understand, but they still don’t produce incredible work. Then I have another student sitting next to them who knows the same amount of stuff, but who is producing professional-level artwork and is 16 years old, or 14 for that matter.
What’s the difference? It’s attitude. With the student who is not successful, I’ll pose a question to them. I know your potential because you’ve been my student for several years now. I know what you’re capable of. How about we do this, you’re going to start this painting. Every time that you do something, and you accept less than you’re capable of, I’m going to burn you with a hot poker. That sounds crazy, right? I then ask the students, do you think you would produce a better painting with the threat of that? The student says, of course, If you’re going to burn me every time. That’s the difference between those who succeed and those who fail. Not the fear of being burned, but an unwillingness to leave something as just good enough when you know you can do better.
So my attitude was different, and I went from knowing nothing, to becoming a professional artist in about 18 months. I’m not talking about my mother’s friends buying paintings. I’m talking about the top five publishing companies in New York City buying my work consistently.
Having the right oil painting supplies
The oil painting colors you use matter. If you don’t have a comprehensive palette, there are going to be colors you can’t mix so you can’t create shifts and temperatures in your paintings. These are what bring the oil painting to life. So if you don’t have the right tools then you’re not going to be able to do the work. It’s the same thing with a brush. If you’re using a bristle brush, you’re not going to be able to get the same kind of surface that a sable brush is going to give you. If you don’t know the difference, you’re going to struggle. You might be doing everything right, but the tool stands between you and the finished product. It’s a very big thing.
With the Evolve Art Program, we use ‘Old Holland’ oil paint. I’m very particular about that. It’s the finest paint in the world. It’s the oldest paint company in the world by 200 years. That eliminates the paint being a problem in the process.
Students are always told, don’t spend a lot of money on new materials. That’s backwards thinking. The better the material, the easier it is to eliminate the material as the problem in your work. Lower-grade materials open up the door to the paint, the brushes or the canvas being the problem. You could do everything right and still fail because the materials get in your way. You wouldn’t try to race against a Ferrari in a Mazda or Honda. You’re going to get destroyed, the tool simply will not handle the job. That’s not to say go out and just buy expensive stuff. You have to know what you’re buying, and that requires somebody to guide you with that.
Is an artist born with talent or can anyone learn how to paint in oils?
I believe that anybody can learn to paint? I would make the assertion that I don’t have any talent. I work very hard. You would never say that a neurosurgeon is talented. In a lot of ways, it diminishes the work that they’ve done, to get to the level of skill that they have.
I would argue that no artist is born with talent, Michelangelo had three teachers. He worked tirelessly. He was as good as he was because he was relentless in his pursuit of perfection. He did not ever settle for less than the furthest boundary of his skill. As long as you do that your skill constantly improves. I think I would make the same argument for myself. I wanted this so badly, there was no amount of work that would deter me from achieving it. When I first started doing illustration, I was painting 15 to 17 hours a day in front of an easel. I worked and I would go to sleep, I didn’t have an alarm clock, I’d go to sleep when I was done working. I would wake up whenever I was rested, and go straight back to work. And I did that for years.
Why Kevin first started a physical art school
I always knew that I would open up a physical art school. I knew this because there was no way for me to get access to what I wanted so badly to learn. I know so many people who have gone down this road; they want to be artists, they’re willing to do the work, but there’s no place to get the knowledge. I promised myself that once I figured it all out, I was going to share it with as many people as I could.
Because I grew up dirt poor, in a very violent neighbourhood in the Bronx, art has given me access to a world I didn’t even know existed. It’s made it possible for me to give my children a life that I could never have dreamed of. The idea of being able to share it, being a professional artist was a dream fulfilled.
I can’t make a great artist out of somebody. They’ve got to commit to the work. However, I can give them the tools that they need to make any dream they have come true, as long as they’re willing to do the work. And it’s not hard work. It’s just a commitment. It’s a commitment to do the best you can every time you sit down. And if you do that, I can get you wherever you want to be.
Creating Evolve online art school to teach people how to paint
I connected with Mitch Bowler from Pencil Kings via a friend. Mitch didn’t have access to real art tuition where he grew up. He built a career as an animator on his own. Mitch wanted to make it possible for people to get high-quality art tuition, at a price that didn’t bankrupt them, via the Internet. He came and saw me at my art school and suggested we partner up and digitise my art program.
We created Evolve, an online art school to teach people how to paint in oils to a professional level. It’s a platform that allows constant interaction between the programme and the students. We have what you would think of as homework assignments. You take a picture of your work with your phone. Every single assignment is checked by somebody on my end, by one of the people I’ve trained. They check your homework. As they’re going through it, they let you know what’s good and bad and what you need to work on. So you’re not alone.
We’ve created an environment that is almost the same as we have in my art school in New Jersey. We have homework rooms and chat rooms, where people will do their homework together. So they’ve all become fast friends. You’re never sitting in your house by yourself, trying to figure out what you’re doing. If you’re stuck there’s always a community around you. My phone chimes every time somebody goes into one of those chat rooms. So I know someone’s in the room. I see two or three people jump in, and even if I’m in the middle of something, I’ll stop what I’m doing. I’ll jump in and see if everybody’s doing okay. If I see one person jump in, and I don’t see anybody else jump in, I’ll jump in and join them just so that they’re not alone. Now, I don’t do it all the time, because obviously, I have other commitments. But I do it when I can. Mitch does it as well, we have a team that does it too.
We also have people in the Evolve programme who have done really well who are further down the road. We allow them to be spokespeople for our program. So they’ll jump into the rooms as well and they organise a lot of the rooms. So if you don’t know something, you’ve got someone in the room who’s absolutely crushed the programme. We’ve worked very hard to build a real community
Why Evolve teaches people how to paint with oils, rather than watercolors
I have a lot of respect for artists who work well with watercolors, as it’s a terribly unforgiving material. People who can manage it beautifully have a serious skill set. I have an enormous amount of respect for them. People will use watercolor because they feel safe because it washes off with water. On a scale of 1 to 10, 10 is how hard it is to work with. You could work for 20 hours on a painting, and everything’s perfect then put down one mark and destroy your painting.
Oil paint, as complex as people think it is, is actually the most forgiving material there is. You’ll almost never run into a thing where you make a mark and a painting is ruined. There’s no such thing in oil paint, but If you don’t have a foundation about how paint is used, everything you do will turn into mud. That’s a typical thing for a beginner. Everything winds up murky greys and browns. But if you know what you’re doing, that will never happen. And so oil paint is the best, most versatile medium there is. We use oil paint for that reason. You can create the impression of watercolor with oil. You can replicate pretty much any medium you want with oil, but you can’t do it the other way around. Oil paint will allow you to work thick, thin or anywhere in between. It gives you a broad range of effects and also allows you to work on any type of substrate, anything from paper all the way up to canvas or burlap. It gives you so much flexibility to be creative, once you understand what you’re doing.
Making oil painting mediums easy with Evolve
The idea of oil painting mediums can be daunting. Less knowledgeable artists think that mediums make or break your paintings, it’s just not the case. The best thing to do is to work with the paint as closely as you can the way that it comes out of the tube. So if you don’t need to put any medium in it at all, that’s the best way to use the paint. Now if you want to thin the paint down, the next best thing to do is to add more of whatever the binder is that is in the oil paint. So if the paint is made with linseed oil, just put more linseed oil in it.
When you’re first learning you don’t need the best oil. But as you get further down the road and you’re charging for your work, you want to make sure that you’re using cold-pressed linseed oil, it is more expensive, but it’s worth the money especially if you’re making paintings that are going to go into other people’s homes. For example, I paint portraits, those are heirlooms. I can’t put anything in those paintings that isn’t going to last for hundreds of years.
Oil painting mediums, for the most part, do one of two things. They all thin the paint down a little bit, but then they either make the paint dry faster or slower. That’s all they do. Evolve students get linseed oil. It will thin the paint and make the paint start to stiffen up. Even though linseed oil is supposed to make the paint stay wet longer, I don’t find that it does, I find that it makes the paint start to get sticky earlier.
Then we have an alkyd from Old Holland and that makes the paint dry fast. So what we do is we mix them. We start off at the beginning with just linseed oil and then when we get into later techniques, we’ll combine the two so the linseed oil will let the paint stay pliable longer. The alkyd in the paint will dry it overnight so you can work on the painting the next day.
Learn about colors, value and edge and you can paint anything
When we go to an art class, the teacher will say, ‘draw or paint this person.’ You’re not painting the person though, you’re creating an illusion on canvas that appears to be the person, because the canvas is two dimensional. However, what you’re seeing with your eyes is three dimensional. You can’t replicate what you see and still have three dimensions, it doesn’t work like that. So you have to have a system for breaking down what you’re looking at.
Strip away the color from an image so it’s black and white. Now, If you think about zooming in close enough that you can see one shade on our person, let’s say a face, and we look at the forehead, there’s an area on the forehead that’s in the light, and there’s an area in the shadows. So the lightest shade is one value, then the shadow is another value. Then the edge that connects them is either sharp, or a gradient. In grayscale, there’s nothing else. You can paint an entire figure, you can paint a ball sitting on a table or the Sistine Chapel in grayscale, using nothing but those two pieces of information. Shades of Grey, how light or dark something is, then how light or dark something is that’s next to it. And then the edge that connects the two shades.
Then if we add color to that equation, we’re now looking at color value choice against another color value choice and the edge that connects them. But there’s nothing else in the world. Now we need to have the skill to perceive it. Once that skill is developed it’s a process for filtering the visual data that comes in.
What we do is we break everything down based on three components, color and value, which are handled on the palette. We mix a color value, and a color value is just a particular color of a particular value. So let’s say red. Is it a dark red or light red? That’s a color value. Then we make a color value to match what we see in the light areas of an object. Then we mix a color value to match the shadow. We put them both down on the canvas. Then we have to figure out what kind of edge connects them. Is it razor sharp? Is it mostly sharp? Is it a gradient that is a really soft gradient?
If I put a red ball on a table and you tried to paint it, it is made up of color value decisions and edge decisions, right? There’s nothing else, if I put a person in front of you, the person is made up of nothing but color value decisions and edge decisions. That neutralises the subject’s complexity, because we have a tool that we apply equally to any subject.
It can be a little bit hard to explain verbally, but we have a webinar, where I go into it. If you watch a magician do something, you can see how it was done.
Imagine if you could go make anything from a boiled egg all the way up to the most extravagant meal, with three ingredients? Well, that’s what this is, we have value, color and edge, those three ingredients will take you everywhere, from painting a single grey cube on a grey table, to the Sistine Chapel without any other knowledge.
Learn how to sell your oil paintings in the Evolve Programme
Within my art school in New Jersey, I have lots of high school kids that sell their artwork. While their friends are working other jobs, these kids are selling paintings and making good money at it. A lot of these kids are making $20 an hour while they’re 15/16 years old. Basically, they’re being paid $20 an hour to further develop their skills.
In Evolve, we have a couple of students that have recently come in, that have been really serious about selling the work that we’re doing. We have conversations about this all the time. I’m a big proponent of understanding how to sell your work. So we talk about how you build a career, how you sell your work. We have these conversations in Evolve all the time.
We have one woman who paid for the program with the painting she did in block one. She actually sold her course paintings. These are paintings that everyone in the program does, based on photographs. We do work from life afterwards, but the first block is using photographs. Some of the paintings just use grayscale, but they’re big and they’re elegant if they’re done well. And so she sold the last four or five paintings in the first block and made enough money to pay for the program. She’s patient, she’s focused and she’s selling everything she’s doing at this point. She’s not a slick salesperson. She’s just a person making a good product. People see it and want it.
I’ve been selling my art by myself since I was 22 years old. I don’t use agents. I don’t use portrait brokers, I don’t use anything, I do it myself, because I understand how it works, I understand how to find clients. I’m delivering a high-end product,
I had a conversation with about half a dozen of the students in Evolve. I showed them they could make $80,000 a year working weekends using our block five-technique (vacant shadows). When I first said that, they said it’s impossible. By the time I was done doing the math with them they were all sitting there with their mouths open. They couldn’t believe how simple it was. It’s not that hard, but you have to have the skills. If you have the skills, you’ll be confident when you sell.
Beginner to professional artist quality in a year with Evolve
In the Evolve Art Program, If you commit on average, seven hours a week, you’ll finish the first four blocks and be producing professional-level work in one year. That’s the amount of time that you would spend in a painting class in an average college. In an average college, they also send you home with six hours of homework, right? An average class is six hours, and they expect six hours of homework. If you’re clocking, say 14 hours a week, which is what we would want, you would be producing professional-level work at six months. Evolve, education is less than a penny on the dollar of what those schools cost. And we give you all of the materials free.
To find out more about the Evolve Art Programme
- If you want to sign up for the free masterclass webinar just go to www.KickintheCreatives.com/evolvewebinar
- To get a time-sensitive discount to the Evolve Art Program go to www.KickintheCreatives.com/Evolve
Please note that Kick in the Creatives is an affiliate of Evolve. So if you decide to purchase the Evolve Artist Program through our link KITC will get a commission which will help us to continue doing what we do. Thank you for your support.