Some of history’s greatest artists died penniless. Vincent van Gogh, Johannes Vermeer, Rembrandt and Jean-Honoré Fragonard rarely saw their art and talent being celebrated in their lifetime.
Richmond artist Christopher Mize, however, asserts that he is not painting for posterity, but for the here and now.
Determined to reap the rewards of his work while he can still enjoy them, the self-taught painter, who is known for his colorful and accessible depictions of wine and beer bottles and other vessels, works with a sense of urgency that could easily be mistaken for impatience.
“There are artists out there that have a lot of training; they paint for the years after they die,” Mize said. “It’s much more interesting to me and fun to paint what people want now,” he said.
Since deciding to make a career out of his art a decade ago, Mize has sold more than 30,000 originals and reproductions of his works, he said. He will show more than a dozen paintings at the RTD Gallery that opens Friday, April 7, at the Richmond Times-Dispatch.
For Mize, who turned 50 in December, the relentless drive to create and sell his work also serves a very practical purpose.
“Struggling as an artist is not an option,” he said during a recent interview at his weekend home in Center Cross, nestled on the banks of the Rappahannock River from where he enjoys a scenic view. “I had to figure it out how to make money of this. People say I am lucky, but I don’t believe in luck. I believe in preparation.”
Mize has another studio at his home in Goochland County, where he lives with his wife, Marianne. The couple’s two children are in college.
Mize’s path to becoming a commercially successful artist was a long, meandering road with many unforeseen twists and turns, leading him to pursue no less than 16 jobs along the way. From washing dishes to working as a staff accountant for a local Fortune 500 company, Mize has worn many hats — but none that fit comfortably enough.
“A lot of people might say, ‘You failed at all these jobs. Why didn’t you stick with one of those careers?’ But the way I look at it, everything that I did in my life is preparation for what I do now,” he said.
After growing up in Richmond’s West End, Mize discovered his creative streak in his dorm room at Hampden-Sydney College, where he studied managerial economics.
“Something in me just said to try this and give it a shot,” Mize said. “So I went out into the woods, I took a canvas and painted mushrooms and a log. Then I went to a bookstore and found a book on (French impressionist painter Claude) Monet, and I thought to myself, ‘You know, you can do this.’ ”
Mize never had formal training in art. His growing collection of art books became his teachers, and spending his junior year at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland allowed for frequent trips to museums in London and Paris.
“I have never been exposed to that in my family, but when I was on my own, I discovered all of that. I taught myself to use texture, how to mix paint, just by copying artists like Monet,” he said, pointing toward his reproduction of a work from one of the painter’s famous haystack series that hangs on his studio wall.
“I painted that two or three times, because it’s one of my favorites,” he said.
Mize also learned to appreciate the works of American painter Wayne Thiebaud, who is widely known for his illustrations of common objects, such as cakes, ice cream cones, pastries, lipsticks and hot dogs.
Thiebaud’s influence helped Mize find his own voice in art when he eventually settled on depicting wine and beer bottles.
“Wine, beer and spirits is something that you enjoy; they go together,” Mize said. “The bottles and reflections are shapes that are pleasing; they are so much fun to paint. I’m a shape painter; everything to me is an abstract shape.”
When he has an idea for a new work, Mize acquires bottles or other vessels from area restaurants or he buys them online. He then sets them up in his studio, moves them around, looking at the reflections, and constantly makes changes until the setting before him matches the image in his mind.
Then he photographs his motif, and with a high-definition monitor, he puts the image on a blank canvas. Using sharpened graphite sticks, he delicately sketches out a detailed drawing before filling in the spaces with oil paint.
“Texture is very important,” he said. “I want people to know it’s always a painting, not a photograph.”
Unlike many artists who approach galleries to show their work but rarely leave the seclusion of their studios, Mize uses a more active approach: He takes his art directly to the customer. And that’s where his business and marketing background comes in handy.
With Virginia being an up-and-coming area for wine in the United States, Mize sets up shop at wine shows in the Mid-Atlantic area, where he is always surrounded by potential buyers of his work.
“I sell a lot, and that’s not by accident; it’s because we found a market,” he said. “I tell people all the time, instead of putting your work into a gallery, you need to get in front of the people. If you like to paint dogs, you got to go to the dog shows or SPCA fundraisers; you got to figure out a way to get in there and show your work, because, otherwise, people don’t know it exists.”
And his direct interaction with his customers provides him with a never-ending stream of new ideas for his craft.
“When it comes to wine and beers, how creative can I get? It’s been a constant search to come up with new paintings,” Mize said.
“But I get firsthand information from my clients; I get immediate feedback. I can’t hit a home run every time, but when it happens, I know by the way people react to it.”