Virginian of the Week: Brett LaGue

Welcome to the latest edition highlighting the Virginian of the week. This week, we interviewed Brett LaGue, a Fincastle-based artist. His work can be found on his website, and you can follow him on Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter.

Tell us a little bit about yourself. Are you from Virginia originally?

Born in Indiana, I could see the golden dome of Notre Dame University from my bedroom window, although I was more interested in the woods and wildflowers in the fields between it and our house. We moved to Florida when I was a teenager and that’s where I grew up, attending what is now Ringling College of Art + Design in Sarasota. I moved to Richmond with a friend after graduation, where I started work as a graphic designer.

You live in Fincastle now, correct? What brought you there and what made you decide to stay there?

Fincastle is really an artist’s dream come true, particularly if you love the outdoors. The James River is up the road, as is the Blue Ridge Parkway. The Appalachian Trail is down the road the other direction. Fincastle itself is full of textures, colors and wonderful subject matter, including numerous historic buildings. All surrounded by back roads and farms.

What’s your favorite thing about living there and what are some of your favorite things to do there?

It’s a very relaxed atmosphere where the people are friendly. I can take the dog or cat to the vet or my books to the library and they don’t ask my name, because they already know.

We have a screened in back porch, which is shaded and quiet almost all the time. Going out there with a cup of coffee, a book and the pets is always a pleasure.

You’re a painter. Tell us a little bit about how you got your start and what your trajectory has been.

Towards the end of my career in advertising, it became pretty obvious at meetings that I was more interested in doing sketches than taking notes (though I managed to do both). I’ve always painted, but as the years passed more time was needed to supervise others, work on campaigns and just do my job properly. Becoming a fine artist, eventually, was my original goal. Time-wise, I’d gone about as far as possible in advertising without having to give up art entirely. So I decided being an artist full-time had become a now or never kind of thing. If it didn’t work out, I could always say I’d given it a try. That was 12 years ago.

You might hate this question, but talk to us about your process a little bit — how do you go from idea to finished work?

When you’re painting plein air (painting in fresh air) as I choose to do, the ideas are right in front of you. The goal is capture those ideas so you can share them with others in a way that they will be able to appreciate them too. The more often I paint a specific subject, the more I usually see in it. It’s kind of like getting to know someone better. There are several favorites locations that I visit over and over.

Some subjects I’ve painted continue to stick with me. I will continue to do similar or refined versions long after my initial plein air visit. Eventually, many of those subjects go on to become larger studio works.

I see you’ve done acrylics, oils and watercolors. What do you like about each, what are the main differences, and do you have a preferred method? If so, why?

Whatever medium will get the job done and entertain me will suffice. I’ve taken to using oils for a lot of plein air because it’s a very physical process, spreading the paint around and building up textures, which I like. On the other hand, watercolors really let you move through an image quickly. If it feels like there is almost too much to see and paint in one location, I’ll pull out the watercolors because I can work more quickly while moving around from spot to spot. In the studio, I often use something called Open Acrylics because they can blend like oils, dry quickly like acrylics (when used thinly) and offer a lot of flexibility for working up details.

Improvisation has always been my guide. It’s good to develop a strong tool box so you not only have what you need to capture a subject, but the ability to do it without laboring over it. I don’t generally spend a lot of time on a painting. That can be both good and bad. It’s good that it keeps the image fresh. But you also end up with quite a few unsuccessful paintings, too. Usually if I’m spending a lot of time on small details, it’s because there is a bigger problem that I’ve missed somewhere along the way. I have to stop and figure out what that might be.

What’s the most exciting thing about being an artist?

Never knowing whether the next thing you create is going to be amazing or terrible.

What’s the most challenging thing about being an artist?

The same thing!

What’s something people wouldn’t expect about the daily life of a painter?

Documenting everything, which takes way too much time. Artists would rather paint than take photos of themselves and their work. Cleaning brushes and a paint box isn’t much fun either.

How does your environment or surroundings influence your work?

Honestly, I think my work influenced my choice of environment. As it should be, everything around our town is a painting waiting to happen.

Are there other artists you particularly admire or that serve as inspirations or influences for you?

Abstract Expressionists such as Joan Mitchell, Franz Kline and Cy Twombly to name a few. Manet and Monet of course. As for current artists, I’ve come to know a lot of amazing painters which all influence me in one way or another.

A lot of people comment on the energy in my work, so perhaps, surprisingly, another plein air painter, Stuart Roper — whose paintings seem to overflow with a sense of calm — is a big influence on me.

What’s your biggest piece of advice for someone who is considering a career in painting, or the arts?

Do it if it’s important to you. If it isn’t, there are a lot easier ways to make a living!

Do you have a personal or professional accomplishment you’re particularly proud of?

Painting and drawing is my job. That’s good enough for me.

What do you do when you’re not working?

Pull weeds. I love the outdoors and have always been big on gardening. Nothing makes me happier than playing in the yard. Some things in life never change.

This interview has been lightly edited.