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All Art, All The Time: Exclusive Interview With Tony Thielen

The sage wrinkly one gives us direct eye contact while lamenting, “Advice countless times your Inner Art Yoda has given you.” Drawing in a deep, steadying breath, he adds, “A blind eye countless times you have turned.” Tony Thielen – a righteous representational abstract disciple of the green humanoid alien – offers his mentor a comforting pat on the back while murmuring, “Patience you must have…”

Somewhere along the line I picked up this personality trait where I am either all in, or I am not. There’s no in between. As Yoda said, “Do. Or do not. There is no try.”

Who can blame the pointy-eared Grandmaster for his waning rah-rah spirit? Ever since our souls were first ignited with the spark of creativity, he’s always been there, quietly waiting in the wings. With enduring kindness, he’s reminded us not to squander our artistic gifts. Many a time, he’s nudged us toward the path of creative fulfillment. When we resigned ourselves to adulting rather than creating – as did Tony Thielen – Yoda admittedly lost it. In utter exasperation, he angrily flicked a lollipop out of a two-year-old’s mouth and then threw his three fingered claw-hands up in defeat.

Fortunately, there is always hope. During our darkest moments of indecision, we are better prepared to detect revelatory flashes of life-altering inspiration. As you’ll learn in our interview with Tony Thielen, the creative force is very much alive within him. It may have taken the painter a while, but now he’s hanging on for dear life. We invite you and your Inner Art Yoda to join us while we walk toward the light.

Exclusive Interview With Tony Thielen

You generally embrace a representational abstract aesthetic, however you seem well versed in other visual styles, too. Is marching to the beat of your own drummer a big aspect of your artistic identity?

I enjoy learning and having various tools within my skillset to call upon. I was traditionally trained, but my mindset changed once I graduated. All I wanted to do was break every rule so I could become my own artist.

Is curiosity one big reason why your artistic output looks so unique?

I try not to compare my art to others. However, I channel myself into my work, making it as unique as the life I have lived. Like many creatives, I get bored doing the same things over and over.

Tell us what the experience of being in the creative zone is like for you.

There are times when I totally lose myself in drawing and/or painting. It’s like the outside world doesn’t exist. It’s just me, my thoughts and my art. Sometimes, in fact, the creative urge to pursue an idea is so strong that I have to indulge it before I can return to what I was working on.

What emotion dominates your mind when you gaze at the blank slate of a brand-new canvas? Elation? Anxiety? Maybe a compulsion to make ‘this one’ the best piece of art you’ve ever manifested?

Usually when I hit the canvas, I’ve already given great thought to what I’m going to paint. Elation perfectly describes how I feel when I complete a work of art. I always feel a great sense of excitement and accomplishment.

Are you so driven to refine your artistic skills that you create something every single day without fail?

Absolutely not. I’m a big believer in stepping away and taking breaks. The birth of new ideas come from the moments when you’re not thinking about work.

There are times when I totally lose myself in drawing and/or painting. It’s like the outside world doesn’t exist. It’s just me, my thoughts and my art.

Have you adopted a particular mindset that has positively impacted your growth as an artist?

Not being afraid to fail. Nothing will hold you back more than the fear of failure. Even when I don’t live up to my creative expectations, I am open-minded and embrace learning opportunities. My inner critic is actually a positive influence that keeps me moving forward.

Children often convey their feelings through art. Which type of creative expression did you gravitate toward your younger years?

As a child, I really enjoyed drawing.

Did that lay the groundwork for stronger communicational skills as the years passed?

No. I suck at verbal and written communication. Just ask my wife. I am always getting in trouble for saying the wrong things. Lol.

Were you introverted as a youth, or completely the opposite?

I was a class clown, always seeking attention.

Sometimes we don’t realize that we’re skilled at something until we receive outside praise. Is that how you became aware of your artistic skill?

In my youth, my family was very supportive of my artistic abilities. They definitely complemented me. Also, I recognized that I could draw better than a lot of other kids. My skills developed through regular practice.

Were you the ‘artsy one’ in school or someone who didn’t fit the typical stereotype?

I didn’t fit the artsy stereotype. I was an avid skateboarder. After skating all day, I would stay up all night and draw or paint when everyone was asleep. My artistic output was quite often related to skating. To this day, deck art is still inspiring to me.

I’m a big believer in quality over quantity.

tony-thielen-contemporary-art-the-quiet-shadow

Did you imagine that someday your career path would lead to art?

There was a period of time in high school when I thought about being an art teacher. I liked the idea of being able to earn a stable income while keeping art in my life.

You served active duty in the U.S. Army and then moved onto the New York Army National Guard. Did a lack of familial support for your art aspirations lay the groundwork for your military career?

That’s correct. I received no support, whatsoever – not even from the educators and counselors in my school. I wasn’t even aware that there were schools dedicated solely to the arts. How crazy is that?

Some may find it hard to imagine that a creative-minded person – who typically thinks outside of the box – can still thrive in the military. Was it a positive experience for you?

Absolutely. When I joined the military, I agreed to do what they wanted me to do. In return, the federal government (aka taxpayer dollars) paid for my food, clothing, housing, medical, and educational expenses.

I learned the great value of following through on my promises and holding myself accountable for my actions. If I make an agreement with someone or say that I’m going to do something, I stand by it.

I was traditionally trained, but my mindset changed once I graduated. All I wanted to do was break every rule so I could become my own artist.

Is it true that – after you graduated from high school – you engaged in no form of creative expression for an entire decade?

I would sketch every now and then…and I even gave some people tattoos while I was in the military. For the most part, though – yes – creative expression was absent from my life.

Upon completing your military service, you studied international business. Was that choice connected to familial pressure or did you just resolve yourself to ‘adulting’?

A little of both. A business degree was the safe decision. Choosing an international concentration was more personal. I love traveling to other countries and experiencing different cultures.

If art was always your first love, did your early career path make you feel as though you were sleepwalking? 

Working as a project business manager in the telecom industry was a real snooze fest. I got really tired, really quick of the good ole boys club. Then I got downsized, and ended up receiving a nice severance. I made the most of that opportunity by returning to school.

You ultimately shifted from a very left-brained profession (business) to an entirely right brained profession (graphic design). Did you experience a weird adjustment period or did you feel as though you were finally ‘home’?

I was ready for change. Returning to the art world – even if it was commercial art – still made me excited. Getting to the point where I am today really required a slow risk-averse transition.

Spending 15 years in commercial art is a sizable commitment. To some extent, you must have felt creatively fulfilled, at least for a while. Why did you spend so much time in that field?

I really enjoyed being an art director and graphic designer. Unlike the work I was doing in the telecom industry, commercial art forced me to push my creative thinking skills. However, as I advanced in my career, I spent a lot more time managing and attending meetings. The days became really repetitive.

Elation perfectly describes how I feel when I complete a work of art. I always feel a great sense of excitement and accomplishment

Ultimately, why did you abandon graphic design?

While working as a Creative Director, I enrolled in Watts Atelier of the Arts, which is an online drawing program. For three years, I woke up every morning at 4:00 in order to work on my art assignments prior to heading into the office. At that time, I was just having a great time honing my draftsman skills.

Then one day on Instagram, I saw Michael Carson mention a workshop he was teaching. I had no painting experience, but I immediately signed up. In the six months leading up to his workshop, I took every oil painting class that I could. To this day, I haven’t stopped painting.

You call yourself a recovering ad man. Are you finally in a place where whatever ‘brain damage’ you were afflicted with is now completely behind you?

It’s a quirky play on the 60s ad man stereotype–too much smoking, drinking, and sleeping around. Essentially, I’m just saying that I feel grounded. My past is in my past.

In what way do you think that your graphic design experience has positively or negatively impacted your approach to fine art?

My design skills have positively impacted my ability to cohesively bring colors, values, shapes, patterns and textures together. In the past I was more methodical in planning compositions. Now that I’m adding more abstraction into my paintings, it’s often intuitive and built up through trial and error.

Did it take you a long time to retrain your brain to take more creative risks?

Yes and no. I took a lot of creative risks when I was a designer. It was often the client who would reel things back in and dumb down the ideas.

I learned the great value of following through on my promises and holding myself accountable for my actions. If I make an agreement with someone or say that I’m going to do something, I stand by it.

You use various types of art mediums, but oil and acrylic appear to be in heavier rotation. What makes them so appealing to you?

They both have their pros and cons. I’ve only been using acrylics for about a year and half now. The way I am currently painting enables me to build up layers quickly. I could do that with oils, but it would just take too long for each layer to dry. Acrylics, however, force me to paint fast and loose due to their quick drying time.

You channel so much time and effort into creating your hand-embellished giclées. It almost seems as though it might be easier and even faster to create one-off works of art! Do you prioritize the quality of your artwork over the financial reward?

I actually get more money for my giclées due to the extra work that I put into them. I’m a big believer in quality over quantity. Think about the vast difference between a microwavable burger and homemade burger that you spice/grill yourself. They’re just two totally different things, each of which have their own audience.

What art hack do you use that is so brilliant that you want to share the love with others?

Let’s leave the art hacks to Bob Ross.

Where did your work ethic and attention to craftsmanship come from? The military? Your upbringing? Or did it emerge once you finally pursued art full time because you were finally chasing after your passion?

You know, I have no idea. Somewhere along the line I picked up this personality trait where I am either all in, or I am not. There’s no in between. As Yoda said, “Do. Or do not. There is no try.”

I try not to compare my art to others. However, I channel myself into my work, making it as unique as the life I have lived.

Is your gravitational pull toward art as strong today and it was when you were younger?

In a way, art appeals to me just like it once did. It’s always felt fulfilling to manifest artwork from a blank canvas. I’m not a class clown anymore, but I still enjoy the attention that it can garner. As an adult, though, I have a better sense of how I can translate my comprehension of the world into my visual output.

Creatively, please let us know what we might be able to expect from you in the year ahead. Are you planning to move into even more experimental territory?

I’m going to continue creating portraits and figures this year, including multifigure compositions. However, I’m going to focus more on merging abstract and representational art.  

For the past 18 years, it seems as though you’ve steeped yourself in an all art all the time frame of mind. Do you think that the growth of your artistic practice and aesthetic is due to your commitment to ongoing education, or is it something else entirely?

All art all the time is absolutely correct! I am obsessed. Lol. I think it goes back to my personality and what Yoda would say. I’ve committed to doing it and being the very best that I can be at it.

Let’s just say that it’s been a particularly rough day. While sprinting after your beloved puppy Boris – who completely disappears into the distance – your cell phone slams onto the sidewalk screen-down. You console yourself with an ice cream cone but your second lick dislodges two scoops, which haphazardly skid down the entire length of your leg. If – upon returning back home – you engaged in a little art therapy to lift your spirits, what material would work wonders on turning your frown upside down?

I think charcoal and paper would be fine :)

tony-thielen-mixed-media-portrait-woman-hat

Tony Thielen Social Media Accounts

Website | Instagram | Facebook

About Author

Longtime eco-journalist, art wordsmith and creativity connoisseur. Anything that hovers in the right-brained spectrum or is born out of unbridled imagination elevates my spirit. I probably revere mother nature's ever-changing shazaamy brush strokes more than the average humanoid. Technicolor art supplies make me weak in the knees, as do wet-nosed luvvies.

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