An Interview with Colt Prehm

by Trent Aitken SmithPosted on

Colt Prehm is a fine art painter, and tattooist, working out of Santa Fe, New Mexico. His portraits are exquisite and capture his subjects perfectly; proving once and for all that photography (though an art form in itself) is still nowhere as emotive as the paint brush and canvas. Colt’s landscapes and still-lifes are equally as beautiful. But still for me, one of the most amazing of Colt’s talents, is to invoke the feeling in the viewer, the belief you aren’t looking at a 21st century artisan but one of the old masters of yore. I caught up with Colt recently to find out more about the man behind these masterpieces. – Trent Aitken Smith

Before we get into your paintings Colt, can you give us a bit of background on your training and road to becoming a painter?

I love to talk about the journey that I’m on and that has led me to where I am currently at. It all started for me when I was in Iowa and had begun to apprentice as a tattooist. The guy who taught me to tattoo, Bob Parr, was really encouraging me to start art school and to begin taking formal drawing and painting classes. I was currently studying sciences and the switch to art was one of the best decisions I ever made.

The moment I took my first painting class, I knew that I had discovered my calling. I couldn’t get enough! I took every painting and drawing class the university art program offered – some of them more than once just for more excuses to be painting. Upon finishing my BA in painting, I was advised, by a wise professor at the school I was attending, to pursue artistic training in a more traditional, atelier style setting. I began to take workshops with artists whom I respected and admired and one of those workshops was with Tony Ryder.

Tony Ryder soon became my full time teacher and mentor for several years and his impact on my life and art go beyond anything I can express. I believe he is one of the most sensitive, wonderful painters in the world and I consider it a privilege to have been able to work with him. After my time studying with Tony, I moved into my own studio which is where I am working today. It is located here in Santa Fe, New Mexico.

You are one of those painters that seem to hark back to the ‘old masters’; was this a style that came to you naturally or did you experiment with other styles along the way?

I don’t know if that type of painting comes naturally to anyone. It seems like something you have to develop a taste for, much like a good wine. I feel it is important to always consider and evaluate every kind of art you encounter and not be willing to discard a work due to the certain “style” it is associated with. I decided to try to pursue the traditional or “old master” way of painting because I felt a sense of validity tied to it. It seemed like there was a definite path that could be followed there. You learn history, how to draw, how to paint, and then you have started on the road to being a painter.

The thing about that “style” of painting is that it is not a style. The image that is produced is a product of an intense learning experience. It doesn’t adhere to any sort of rules that fit into any category; it actually gives the artisan who is creating the image freedom to exercise the skills he/she has learned in order to best describe the experience they are having. In my case I want to describe the beauty of my subject and the beauty of God.

I know you have very strong beliefs in God, do you find this affects the subjects you paint, or your painting in general?

I find that my belief in God dictates not only the subject matter I incorporate into my works but the works themselves. I was actually just thinking about this today (probably because of this interview) and I was considering the possibility of every single element of my work being related to God and the mission I feel like he has put me on.

Whether I am painting a human being, a still life of rocks or a landscape, it is inevitable that I feel God created it and is, at that very moment, communicating to me what His heart is for what I am painting. My job is to express my appreciation for His creation and to magnify, to the best of my ability, my subjects’ beauty.

I only paint to glorify God. It gets hard sometimes because I think that some people don’t think the pictures I am creating are important or meaningful…and they might be right in human terms. I only paint what I feel and often what I feel has little to do with what people want to buy. That’s probably why it’s hard to be an artist. If you are truly an artist and you are not focusing on creating only what will sell but what you must create, and you may not be “successful” financially speaking. But at the same time I believe the only way to fulfil the creativity that is placed within us is to follow our hearts…and trust me, I know to others it sounds a little silly sometimes.

The most important thing to paint, in my opinion, (and I’m speaking to all you artists reading this) is what is beautiful to you. Beauty has been placed and dwells within us. I do not believe in painting the ugly of life, as we experience enough of that on a day to day basis. Let’s paint something glorious and fantastic! Something that will articulate and express our love for the beauty around us. That might just mean you need to make a painting of your neighbour! I was told once that simple is sophisticated and that the less you say the smarter you sound. It’s better to be thoughtful, quiet and gentle most of the time…and I need to work on that!

I understand you work out of Prehm studios, which isn’t only your tattoo studio but an art gallery as well; do you find the cross-over between tattoo clients buying art and art clients getting tattooed quite positive?

Ahhhh, I am feeling convicted by this question. Often times I try to make out that I am some really successful tattooist and painter. And I am, but not by the world’s terms. I was recently speaking to a painter friend of mine and we were saying, “Why can’t we all just be honest with each other?” Artists often try to create the illusion of financial success but I feel that the majority of visual artists are in the midst of a hard time.

The studio I run is a gallery in terms of people coming in and looking at the works I am creating, I have about 70 paintings and drawings on display. I don’t sell a ton of paintings out of my studio but I feel that has been, and is about to change. In general my tattoo clients collect tattoos and my painting clients collect paintings.

One thing I think that collectors and painters both need to understand is that artists work hard to make an average living. Much like poets, writers, or sculptors, painters require the aide of patrons to make our lives profitable and maintainable. And in my opinion, there are not many pursuits that are more admirable that attempting to live your life to create beautiful things. So on that note, I hope that some of you reading this reside to support your local artisans; either nationally or globally. I for one would be happy to have my work living in more people’s homes.

I believe you are teaching painting and drawing now, how did that come about?

That came about out of realizing the wonderful gift I had received from Tony. It was a new way of viewing the world! I always thought that I would want to teach in some capacity and after studying art for years it became more of a feeling of responsibility.

I have been teaching art for several years now and love being able to share any information I can with people. It is a joy to watch people advance, be able to understand their visual field, and see them gain the ability to express themselves in terms of drawing and painting. Basic, technical drawing skill can open people up to a lifetime of exploration and experimentation and can satisfy the most basic needs humans possess.

The one thing about an art education, regardless of how much you pay for it, is that it is handed to you. This is information that has been passed down for hundreds of years and there is no doubt you are going to have to pay for it; mainly because it requires a tremendous amount of energy to convey. But it is a gift, as is any form of knowledge or education.

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