April Howland brings joy to the Valley with her gorgeous nature- and wildlife-inspired paintings, as well as the pet portraits and commissions she creates that perfectly display the essence of those depicted. Howland has been artistic all her life and turned to painting full time around five years ago. The 41-year-old Peoria resident is represented in Idaho at Gallery Five18 and by Beals & Co., which is putting on her Friday, June 26 exhibition at Hyatt Tamaya Resort & Spa in Santa Ana Pueblo, New Mexico.
Howland shared where she garners inspiration and why she’s passionate about creating art, and you can hear her name her five favorite reasons for loving living in the Valley in a video.
What brought you to Arizona?
I was born and raised in Sedona and moved down here to go to college at Collins College. I got my degree in graphic design and never left. I love it here.
What has your career evolution been like since you graduated college?
I went to a cosmetology school and worked in the salon industry as a nail tech for about 15 years, then quit that and became a full-time artist about five years ago.
My husband sat me down and said, “You’re being ridiculous. You’re an artist. Go quit your job, and paint full time.” I kind of blew him off and said, “No, I need a paycheck.” He said, “I got this.” A trip to Africa accidentally landed in my lap, and that’s what spurred me to actually quit my job.
My girlfriend and I went to South Africa. It was really awesome. We went with ASU’s business college and did a lot of community work while we were there, and a wine tour. We went to Kruger National Park for a five-day safari, which was amazing. We visited a bush village, and I fell in love with the village and the people in it. One of my first paintings from that trip was an orphan boy with a lady who takes care of him, and they were so sweet. I painted them when I got back and put together a show with paintings from that series. We raffled that painting off, and we built a kitchen for their school.
What’s your earliest memory of being interested in art?
I’ve been drawing since I was 4. I got started because my mom got me books on how to paint cats and dogs at a garage sale. I still have one of them. I used it until I had to staple it together.
I sold my first drawing to a store in Sedona while at Mingus Union High School in Cottonwood, of a mountain lion, which they printed on T-shirts. That spurred me to keep going. My art teacher at Mingus was David Lash, a wildlife artist. That’s why I went to school for graphic design, because I thought I could make some money doing something artistic, but I hated it.
I started taking classes from different artists in town and have been taking classes for more than 10 years. If I get in a rut, I’ll go find a teacher I think is inspiring and take a workshop.
How did you get into painting?
My girlfriend had this dog, Clyde. She showed me this picture of him, and I wanted to paint him. I was taking classes on painting and mixing colors, because before that, I was mostly using graphite. I painted him and showed it to her, and she was in awe. She was like, “That’s my dog.”
I decided to do a little experiment and took it into the vet’s office he goes to. I didn’t tell them and just showed them the painting. They were like, “That’s Clyde!” That’s when I decided to start painting, about 12 years ago.
What’s your painting schedule like?
I have about four canvases going at the same time. I always have three easels up, and I paint when I feel inspired on certain ones. If I get stuck on one, I paint and come back to another one.
Many of your commissions are of dogs. Why are you passionate about dogs?
When I was a kid, we had a dog named Brandy, and she was my best friend, like my sister. She lived to be 21 years old and was a Doberman/yellow Labrador mix. I picked her out of a box when I was 2, and she was mine, and she was awesome.
When I was in junior high, I was bullied really badly for a full year, and she was the only thing that gave me any happiness at all. She would greet me every day and wag her tail and play with me and lay on me and be my best friend, and that’s when I realized how important animals are to everybody, whether they’re wild or domestic. There’s something there that we can learn from.
Where do you find inspiration for your work?
I love wildlife. I travel and view wildlife in their natural habitats, and that inspires me. I often wonder what they think and how they feel. In Africa, I got to view lions, elephants, buffalo, rhinos and giraffes. I get to view wildlife and come home and paint from it, and try to put my own spin on what I see and what I feel.
I went to Alaska last summer and walked with grizzly bears and decided to do a series from that. Grizzly bears are very misunderstood — they’re very peaceful animals. I’m just really inspired by watching them in their natural habitat and how they react with each other.
I always want to paint wildlife. I love to travel and experience things, and there’s always a personal story behind what I’m doing. I can’t paint things I haven’t experienced. I paint people sometimes, but I have to be really moved to paint people.
I went to Salt River not too long ago and chased the wild horses, so I’m going to be working on a lot of paintings of the wild horses I got to meet in person. We had to go find them, and we found them in a pasture. They moved around and ran away, and we followed them for two hours all the way down the river. We saw them fight with another band of wild horses, which was amazingly cool. We had a great morning, and there was no one else out there, so we were just by ourselves with these wild horses in the middle of nowhere.
Do you tend to paint from photographs, sketches on location, or both?
I do both. You can’t really stand and sketch a grizzly bear, so in cases like that, I take a lot of photos and come home and sketch from what I shot and remember. I usually journal on my trips so I can remember things like smells and feelings, and then I’ll sketch in my journals, too.
Sometimes I get ideas in my sleep, and I’ll get up and write them down.
How do you hope your work impacts people?
The pet portraits side, I know it impacts people, because they tell me when their animals pass, they always have something visible to remember them by. Many, many people over the years have told me what a gift that was, and it always feels good to hear that.
I love painting dogs, and I know the relationship I had with mine and the current ones I have now will never leave, but having a visual of them would be awesome all the time, because I know how much I love them. They’re part of our family.
As far as the wildlife paintings, I want people to see what I see in the wildlife I view, because I try to find peaceful moments most of the time. I try to capture some of their essence, because not everyone can go to Africa or go walk with grizzly bears. I think wild animals are beautiful and amazing and love to be around them. I try to convey that in my paintings.
Wildlife is going away. People are killing off rhinos and killing off elephants. These animals are going to be gone some day, and we need to remember them somehow. Documenting them through paintings I feel is very important.
How would you describe the art community in Phoenix?
We have a ton of great artists here, and I find the art community to be really inspiring because I have many friends who are artists, also, and we all push each other forward and inspire each other and really support one another. That’s my favorite part about the art community here.
I think we can use a little more culture and diversity in the suburbs. I think it would be cool to spread that throughout the whole Valley, and not just in Scottsdale and Phoenix. I’d like to see more galleries and maybe some more contemporary stuff mixed with Western in local galleries.
What are your goals?
To keep painting, to keep traveling, and to keep inspiring. I have a dream one day of opening a nonprofit art studio/gallery for teenagers, because that’s the only class I didn’t ditch, and that’s what I was really connected to while I was growing up and what made sense for me. I know it probably saved me from myself and kept me interested in life and connected. I’d like to do that some day for others.
What advice do you have for aspiring artists?
My advice for aspiring artists is to never stop learning. There’s always something new to learn in every painting, every workshop and every person you meet who can help you along the way. Technique is really important to maintain and keep improving as you go. I look at my art from when I started to now, and I can see the changes and growth I have made, and I know how I got there. It’s kind of cool to watch.
As far as the business side goes, take business classes. It is a business, and it’s not easy, but it’s worth it. Business classes are a huge help. Learn spreadsheets, and learn how to make money and not be a starving artist.
I use social media a ton, because art is so visual, and social media is the best way to market and network. I’m also part of a nonprofit, on the board of directors of [pet therapy program] Gabriel’s Angels. Being connected in the community is a huge way to network and get your art out there.
I’ve donated a ton of art to charity, which kind of started my whole art career process by getting me noticed and recognized.
Why would you encourage people to commission a pet portrait from you?
Everybody tells me I can capture the soul of the animal I’m painting. I love that, I think that’s what sets me apart.
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