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Cottonwood Heights artist shares his gift

Dec 01, 2017 08:00AM ● Published by Jana Klopsch

Robert McFarland. (Robbie McFarland)

Gallery: Robert's paintings [3 Images] Click any image to expand.

By Joshua Wood | joshw@mycityjournals.com    

What started out as a birthday gift from a loving wife to her husband has turned into a career and a gift to art lovers throughout the country. Robert McFarland had always enjoyed art and by his early thirties had become quite proficient in pencil drawing. But he always wanted to paint. For his 32nd birthday, McFarland’s wife, Robbie, registered him for an art class. That one thoughtful gift grew into something much more.

“I got him a watercolor class for this birthday back in 1982. The father of a college friend of mine was a watercolor artist, and I always loved watercolor,” said Robbie.

That first gift was thoughtful, but didn’t work out quite as the McFarlands had hoped.

“I was disgusted with that first class,” Robert said. “I was serious about learning to paint, and no one else in the room was serious.”

So they tried again. Robbie found a second art class, and that’s where things started to take off.

“I had a good teacher, Shirley McKay, who saw that I was serious,” Robert said. “So she started to tailor the class to me. I knew nothing at the time, but she had a broad knowledge. She taught me how to think through the process of painting.”

McKay invited Robert to exhibit in a gallery, and a couple years after beginning to paint, his art started to sell. He got more attention during events like Art and Soup, where he could mingle with fellow artists.

Robert’s first big break came from the Foothill Library. It was a reluctant break, though.

“He had an absolute fit,” Robbie said. “It was hard to get into the library show. You had to get juried in. But Robert said he wasn’t ready. I told him to break the news to the art director, but then I heard him on the phone saying that he would be ready.”

What happened next helped Robert’s art career take off. Almost every painting in the show sold. That helped Robert get more of his paintings out there.

“A former art director of the Springville Art Museum quoted some good advice for me,” Robert said. “He said that hanging onto your paintings is like having an albatross around your neck. Selling your art makes room for you to create more.”

That’s where Robbie comes in. “My job is to get his stuff out there,” she said. Now Robert’s work is exhibited in galleries across the United States and sells online. Robbie builds their social media presence and works their client list.

“The more you do, the more you get known, the more work comes to you,” Robert said when asked for advice to aspiring artists. “I paint every day, except maybe Sunday. If I am not painting, I am doing something related.” That includes building his own frames and biking the Utah countryside in search of subject material.

In addition to building his own frames, Robert is the rare watercolor artist who does not put his work under glass. “I varnish my work. That makes me unique. Not using glass eliminates the glare and removes that barrier. I don’t know of anyone else in Utah that doesn’t use glass and varnishes watercolor paintings.” Robert’s custom frames and varnished paintings have become part of his brand.

When asked for more advice he can give aspiring artists, Robert cites Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000-hour rule. “You have to work at it. There’s no way around it,” he said. “Some people can get there faster, but it takes work. You have to get out there and take every opportunity to show your work. Keep your overhead low, if you want to make money at it. And be prepared for massive amounts of rejection.”

“The rejection never ends,” added Robbie. “But along the way, good things happen.”

Good things continue to happen for Robert. He had two more galleries showing his work in mid-November. With success, though, he remains as humble as the quiet studio behind the kitchen of the McFarlands’ Cottonwood Heights home.

“You have to be yourself and paint what you love,” he said. “If you try to paint like someone else or paint to the market, it won’t work. You have to be yourself.”

Robert McFarland’s work captures the light and shadow of Utah country scenes. Without glass to cover his work, the only glare comes from the sunlight glistening off the snow and rock he gracefully depicts. 

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