John Schieffer‘s paintings inspire double-takes, as their photorealistic qualities make the images look lifelike. The 42-year-old Goodyear resident crafts colorful works, often modeled after objects he photographs, from dice and jacks, to martinis and toy dinosaurs. Art lovers can view his work at Scottsdale’s Bonner David Galleries, where he is represented and has a special exhibit March 26 through April 6.
Schieffer is also a children’s book author and illustrator, having self-published his book Bearly Escaped, featuring his paintings, in 2012. The book follows escaped circus animals as they interact with the human world and can be found here.
Schieffer talked about what inspired him to be an artist and about his artistic process, and you can hear him name his five favorite reasons for loving living in the Valley in a video.
What brought you to Arizona?
I moved to Arizona in 2006 from Connecticut. I was born in Waterbury, Connecticut and lived most of my life in Prospect, Connecticut. My wife and I had vacationed out here once and saw the great real estate and loved the climate. We were getting sick of the New England winters, which can be pretty harsh.
What’s your first memory of being interested in being an artist?
I remember in kindergarten and first grade loving to draw and getting encouragement to do it. When you’re encouraged, and you see people like what you do, you continue to do it and enjoy it more. I’d draw kids’ stuff – cars, spaceships, animals – stuff like that.
I wanted to be a cartoonist, but as you continue to hone your artistic skills, some of these things aren’t satisfying enough as you explore them. I found I put a lot more detail into my work and found I enjoyed more realism in the work.
I attended Paier College of Art in Hamden, Connecticut. It’s a classical art school where they really focus on realism and drawing and painting skills.
How has your career as an artist evolved?
I worked for artist Mercer Mayer for about three months doing children’s book illustrations. It just wasn’t right for me, so I worked for a plate design company. For about six and a half years before I came to Arizona, I worked for an art restoration studio called Yost Conservation, whose sister studio was in New York City. It was great working in art restoration. You learn a lot about what can go wrong with art over the years and how to fix problems you have. It was something I continued to do when I moved out here, as they’d continue to send me work. I’d paint the parts that were missing and send it back.
I was 33 when we moved to Arizona, a make-it-or-break-it time. I’d been doing so much of my own art on the side, but it’s hard when you’re doing art all day long to go home and do more and get the kind of work you want to have out there. After we moved to Arizona, I started doing my own art full time.
I was represented by a gallery in Connecticut and became represented by Scottsdale gallery Bonner David Galleries three months after moving to Arizona.
My wife and I took a road trip cross-country back to Connecticut and came back through Santa Fe. We went into Meyer Gallery, and that’s when I joined there, a couple weeks later. It was amazing, because the owner had just seen my work in Bonner David.
I’m also represented by Skidmore Contemporary Art in Santa Monica, California, which saw me in a show in Los Angeles, and I’ve moved from Meyer Gallery to Meyer East Gallery. I’m also on Artnet.com through two of the galleries that represent me.
What made you want to pursue painting over illustration and drawing?
I don’t mind meeting someone else’s challenge as you do in illustration, but it takes awhile to get to the point where you get to work on your own ideas. That’s where I was. I always had a lot of things I wanted to explore, and there was a part of me I wanted to share. That’s why I do the art.
How has your art evolved since you’ve become a full-time artist?
When I started, it was really focused on realism. I started doing paintings primarily of marbles and small toys. I loved the translucent effect of marbles and how they play with light. I loved the effect they had, and making that 3D in paint.
Over time, I explored other aspects. With the backgrounds, you find yourself painting fabric and sand and different textures, and you go in and look for other things that are a challenge or something different. I try to work on my ideas to come up with something new and that’s not trite or over-done.
How do you choose the subjects you feature in your paintings?
I always try to pick things that are fairly ubiquitous, commonplace things everybody knows in some fashion, but I try to show them in a different light or way to challenge the viewer. I never want to take an object that is the expression of another designer or artist and just re-do it in paint. I always try to steer clear of that.
I’ve been doing photographic distortions of things, changing colors and moods, and even changing the objects physically to create something new and different.
Why are you drawn toward bright, novel objects, such as toys, and not something like nature?
Nobody does nature better than nature. I love sunsets and take photos of them all the time, and they’re never quite the same as the real thing. I’m not opposed to painting wood surfaces or things like that, but I’m certainly someone who loves the modern and new.
I don’t tend to go toward still life setups, with copper kettles or vases or things like that. I will do glass, but I try to keep it very contemporary or new. I like that sort of place between realism and the abstract. I like that point where they get very close, when you zoom in very close to an object, and it becomes a blend of shapes and values, but you can still sort of see the realism.
Of course, I’m drawn to the art of the object. Whatever I pick, the colors and shapes have to speak to me, and I have to feel an emotional connection – especially to the shapes and colors, not particularly the object itself. I actually never played marbles too much.
How would you describe your work?
I’m not opposed to the term “photorealism,” because I do use the things that occur in photography in the work. The camera is an amazing tool that allows us to capture moments that go right by us in time.
We’re able to freeze time for that moment. We can use it to see what water looks like as it’s flying through the air, where in reality, your mind can’t see all that detail all at once. The camera allows you to explore those moments.
What’s your painting and photography process like?
It’s very random. I’ll use a tripod, and sometimes I have my finger on the button and drop things into water to get that moment. I certainly could use more time behind the camera to get better photos. I use a lot of natural light when I’m photographing splashing water, because there’s nothing like sunlight. I have a lot of lights I’ll flood an object with inside if I can’t get it to work outside.
I’ll use my various small tables and such to do whatever set-ups I need. I don’t have any one specific spot where I set up everything – I’m not like [painter Johannes] Vermeer who always had his window. I find it’d probably be convenient if I had the lights set up all the time with the camera in one spot, but I also think it might make the work stagnant.
I’ll shoot on the floor, on the back of a painting, on the front of a painting, on different backgrounds. I’ll throw the objects together to see what works and take a lot of photos. Sometimes, I won’t use any of the photos from a photo shoot and scrap the whole idea. That’s the process.
Have you ever thought about presenting a photography exhibit?
After accumulating so many photos over the years, I sometimes think about it. It’s amazing – sometimes I’ll run through some of the photos, and when you take a couple hundred photos of the same object splashing in the water, as you scan through them quickly, it looks like a stop-motion movie where the same thing is splashing many times.
What’s your typical week like?
I’ll work any day of the week if I have the time. If I go running in the morning, I’ll get back and try to start painting as soon as possible. I usually sign off around 5 o’clock to start cooking dinner. If I’m into something, I’ll usually go back to it around 8 p.m. until my eyes get too tired, around 10 or 11 p.m.
Do you ever take time to get inspired?
As for inspiration, I like what Chuck Close said, which is, “Inspiration is for amateurs. The rest of us just show up and get to work.” It is not just a job. I find I have plenty of ideas and inspirations to go with. Whenever I finish a painting, I’m ready to do the next. If a commission comes along, I’ll stop whatever I’m doing and work on that.
How do you determine the scale of what you’re working on?
It’s usually just determined by my mood. Usually, when I get through with anything large, like 4 by 6 feet, I tend to work on something a little smaller. When you get done with a large one, I like the almost-instant gratification of completing an idea in a small work.
I also have challenges with small works, where I can spend two or three times the amount of time I’d normally spend on this size. Other times, I’ll go through it really smoothly and quickly and think, “Oh, it’s done already. Should I do more?”
It also depends on how well the work is received by the public. I see what people are enjoying, the small work or large work. Artists can’t help but look at that and care about what people like. I might explore some of my smaller pieces in a larger format, without duplicating my own work.
What inspired Bearly Escaped?
I created the art for most of that book after college, when I was working on an illustration portfolio. My aunt had found this little statue that had come in a box of cereal, and I liked the pose of the bear and sort of did something similar with the bear in the car in the book, but changing it quite a bit.
I put together the book painting by painting, with a story in mind, but what I wrote wasn’t really a great story. After I had my daughter in 2008 and started reading books for her, I understood so much better what I wanted her to hear in a children’s book. Then, I decided to rewrite it, and it came out so much better. At that point, I didn’t go back to the publishers I had been going to. Instead, I self-published it as an ebook. I published it in 2012.
I love animals, and you hate to see them forced to do the entertaining people see them do in the circus. People go to circuses but don’t see behind the scenes.
I also loved The Far Side cartoons, which have people mixing with animals in strange and unusual situations, like ladies at a cafe, with a bear coming up right behind them like nothing’s wrong. I loved the juxtaposition of people and animals in unusual settings, and things like that.
How do you hope the book impacts children?
I want them to love the paintings and story and enjoy the rhyming and think of it as a fun book. I also want it to encourage their love of animals.
What are your goals?
As an artist, my goal is to always share how I see the world. I don’t try to change anyone’s ideas about politics, but I want to continue to show the beauty around us and what’s good in life. I think that can change people more than anything.
I’m going back and doing a splashing marble painting next, because I love that explosion of color the marbles create in that frozen moment. For new work, I always try to come up with new and different ideas. I love the new idea of using the camera effects and certainly would like to see what direction I can take that.
I wouldn’t be opposed to doing another children’s book. I’ve had a couple of ideas over the years, but it takes quite a bit of time to put together a simple children’s book.
What advice do you have for aspiring professional painters?
Paint what you like, and do the best painting you can. Those are two of the most important things, because if you don’t paint what you like, you might be known for that and have to continue to paint what you don’t like.
How would you describe the Arizona art scene?
It’s great. People are so embracing of color and new ideas and don’t pigeonhole you into one art criteria. It’s not just traditional or abstract. It’s warm and welcoming, and I love it. There are so many not just artists, but art collectors, who come here. It’s one of the reasons I love the Phoenix area.
Learn about other Valley artists:
Learn more about artist Christine Cassano here on Phoenix People.
Learn more about artist Hugo Medina here on Phoenix People.
Learn more about Steam Crow artist Daniel Davis here on Phoenix People.
Learn more about artist Sebastien Millon here on Phoenix People.
Learn more about artist Alexi DeVilliers here on Phoenix People.
Learn more about artist Nicole Royse here on Phoenix People.