We had the good fortune of connecting with Nick Runge and we’ve shared our conversation below.
Hi Nick, other than deciding to work for yourself, what was the single most important decision you made that contributed to your success?
The single most important decision I’ve made so far seems to be the decision to focus on developing more of a “voice” or style in my personal paintings, and step away from a full time career as an illustrator. Balance between the freelance work and my time for painting what I was interested in has always been something I need to work on. And about 5 years ago, it was becoming a problem. Jobs would inevitably take longer than I expected, with changes popping up and spilling over into the scheduled time for the next project, leaving no time for personal painting. I was happy to have work, but I felt an urge for the first time to start painting more “art for art’s sake” in a much more immediate way. So I just started spending more time experimenting with paint and engaging more with social media. It was stressful for a while. Having to turn down jobs that were good to have more drawing/painting time. I still regret a few of those situations, but I felt strongly then, and I still do, that we have to trust ourselves. Even when it’s not convenient. So once I kept to a regular schedule of painting personal work, posting online, and engaging more with people and galleries, things started really happening.
Let’s talk shop? Tell us more about your career, what can you share with our community?
I focus mainly on portraits and figurative work. My painting approach could be thought of as abstracted or “disrupted” realism. Creating the illusion of realism by building up abstract shapes, which is certainly nothing new in the world of art, but I like to think my way of creating portraits (particularly with watercolor) sets me apart from others by what I choose to leave out. The unfinished, experimental way of preserving the feeling of life in the painting, which is not always found in a finished product, but somewhere between the first brush stroke and what seems to be the obvious “end” when things are too planned out. This was certainly not always the case with my art. And though the thing I’m probably most excited about and proud of now is my simplistic approach to rendering a face, it came at a great cost and many many years of painting and drawing in painstaking details after building a tight structure. I grew up in a creative family, with a Mother and Father in the arts. My Dad was a college art teacher for a couple decades and an accomplished painter. My Mom was a professional graphic designer and is a talented photographer. My brother Alex is a great artist and musician as well, so it’s kind of a family drive to create I suppose. In 2004, I started college in Colorado and began to seek out illustration work little by little, where I could get it. Mostly by traveling to Comic-cons each summer and trying to network with book publishers and surviving on small commissions. Eventually I made some progress in comics and met quite a few influential people along the way who are still good friends. One of them is a top-level comic book artist named Zach Howard. For years I mainly worked on comic covers for IDW and Dark Horse from about 2007-2014. At the same time, around 2010 I was becoming more interested in other forms of illustration and painting. Everything from movie posters to book covers. A particular moment in my transition from being an illustrator primarily to focusing on personal art came back in 2008, during a trip to the Brandywine River Museum of Art in Chadds Ford, PA. It showcases the work of the Wyeth family and N.C. Wyeth had always been a big influence in my illustrative work (along with Drew Struzan) BUT when I saw the contrast between his work and his son Andrew’s art, it struck me that I may actually be more interested in HOW something is painted and not WHAT I’m painting. N.C.’s art is certainly more powerful than just the subject matter he was capturing in his stories, but at the end of the day, one of his big regrets was not being known as more of a fine artist. The stories and professional jobs seemed to dictate his days completely, whereas Andrew Wyeth’s work was more about the act of painting and the mood of the visual image. After that trip, I wanted to start thinking more about what painting meant to me, and why I made art in the first place. I didn’t try to make gallery art and experimental art a career until years after that, but it was a big change in thinking. In 2015, I started to make a real shift in working. I’d saved some money over a couple years of working at a small game company up North in Cupertino and moved down to the LA area in late 2014. As 2015 started, I started putting the word out that I’d be stepping away from the movie poster world and pop culture-related projects, and trying something new. People are very supportive in theory, but tend to not understand “changes” in direction when it comes to turning things down that are going well. I don’t blame them honestly, but that was the hardest thing I’ve ever gone through. Not knowing how the bills were going to get paid, but needing the time to experiment with artistic approaches in order to find more of a voice to showcase and promote. It’s not the jobs that were bad at all, I still do illustration occasionally and always appreciate it, but I think every artist wants to stand out as an individual. A big help came in the form of social media. As much as it presents challenges and complicates the world, artistically it helped me connect with people who I might never have had the chance to meet with in person. In early 2016, a got a small watercolor pad as a gift and just thought it would be fun to start working with watercolor more regularly again. I had for years in the form of studies for acrylic paintings or oils, and even mixed with gouache. But not by itself for the sake of watercolor alone. I decided to post a small portrait in either oil or watercolor each day for a year on Instagram. That was the point that has led me to where I am today. After the first few months, the following started to really grow. In early 2017, I began to give small watercolor workshops in the Los Angeles area and that same year, I began to work with the gallery/art collective NOH/WAVE. Justin and Yoshino were curating art from some of my favorite painters so I was instantly interested in collaborating on anything I could with them. After launching Nohwave Academy in 2019, they’ve help me and a ton of talented artists produce online streaming workshops. It’s been a long road to this point but I also feel like it’s just beginning. So I think the main lesson I’ve learned along the way is to be patient. It’s so hard though. Change never seems to come at the speed we want. Either too slow or all of a sudden. I think the more I tried to force some kind of specific style into my paintings, it never worked. The more I let detail go in my work and embraced what the paint did when I was abstracting, the more rewarding the experience and final paintings became. But slowly, and with many set backs. I just work on something everyday though and it often seems to bring good, unexpected things, that keep me moving forward.
If you had a friend visiting you, what are some of the local spots you’d want to take them around to?
During the pre-Covid days my plan would probably involve a pretty easy going, laid back trip. My apartment is in Korea Town and my art studio space is in Glendale, so I stick mostly to those areas most days. I love getting food from Angel Thai or Mama Hong’s in Burbank. Porto’s Bakery is legendary for pretty much anything they make. I lived in Los Feliz for a while around 2016-2017 so I loved eating at il Capriccio or Alcove. Lucifer’s Pizza is amazing too. Probably during the first couple days we could take a day trip into Venice and explore the Santa Monica Pier. I don’t mind doing tourist stuff in LA since it’s so nice down there by the beach, for anyone visiting. Griffith Park is also cool, the old Zoo and all the trails around it. I’ve definitely seen a couple shows at the Greek in that area too. Of course I would be interested in taking friends to art shows if anything was going on and there are so many great museums here. I tend to enjoy art museums alone though…haha, sounds sad, but I just love taking my own pace and staring at certain paintings forever.
Shoutout is all about shouting out others who you feel deserve additional recognition and exposure. Who would you like to shoutout?
I would like to dedicated my shoutout to the organization NOH/WAVE in Los Angeles and my friends and fellow artists Justin Hopkins and Grant Yoshino. They’ve both helped my immensely in the last few years, to develop my fine art, and network with other artists. They also produced a series of online workshops for my watercolor portraits and still-lives.