I recently had a chat with Lewis Lehrman, professional watercolor artist, teacher, author and Halloween painter who showcases his work at his website Haunted Studio. He has created an incredibly rewarding niche for himself, whereby clients send him images of a house they love or have lived in, or describe a vivid scene they remember. Lew then creates a custom spooky painting for them, complete with a haunting backdrop, pets, hidden ghosts, people and decor.
His trademarked phrase is “Painter of Dark”, and that is exactly what he is! We are honored to have Lew for an interview here at Halloween Alliance.
HA: Your first commissioned work was to paint a Halloween scene as your client remembered it as a kid. This looks to be a recurring theme in your work. Does your inspiration come from your own memories as a child? If so, describe your favorite Halloween memories.
Lew: From as early as I can remember, I have always been an artist. Even before my kindergarten and first-grade years, when a very special teacher, Mrs. Levy, encouraged my art. I found approval, and my parents were supportive, and my interest grew as the years went by. When I was in the fifth grade, my teacher took a group of her students to visit her sister, who was a watercolorist and whose home and studio were located high overlooking NYC’s Central Park. I watched, entranced, as she created a sailboat on blue water on a blank piece of paper. I was hooked!
A year later, in 1944 I was 11 years old, and my parents entrusted me to a Pullman car porter aboard The Wolverine Limited, enroute to Battle Creek, Michigan, where I was to meet my aunt and uncle. I spent a month at the farmhouse where they were staying while my uncle was enrolled in a special training program. It was pretty special, but what really stays with me to this day, and directly answers your question, was that night in the Pullman berth, where I spent the night staring out of the window, watching the lights in farm house windows as they glided past in the indigo darkness. There was something in those lonely windows that touched me deeply, and I have never forgotten that night. I can still picture it clearly.
It was years before I was able to devote any serious time to watercolor… Oh, maybe I did three or four paintings a year… high school, then college, then a couple of years in the army, then establishing a business, then a family. By the late 1950’s I had begun a freelance art business, and grew it into a substantial business over the years until 1984, when my wife and I decided upon pursuing a new life (another long story for another day) in which I could become a full-time professional artist.
Through all those tumultuous years, I had always nibbled around the edges of art. And night scenes, some of which were Halloween scenes, were a recurrent theme.
By the late 80’s, I was on my way to becoming a serious watercolorist. We had moved in ’84 to the Berkshires of western Massachusetts, buying and rehabbing a 200 year old Colonial, and turning our barn into a dream studio and gallery. My art began selling well, and when color Xeroxing came in, I made a few prints of a Halloween painting (which I had borrowed back from its purchaser, a friend). I sold a few prints at the Gallery, where Halloween paintings were always popular, but when we decided to sell our Mass. home and move to Arizona, where we’d been wintering, those unsold prints came with me.
Then one day I decided to see if I could sell them on eBay. Each time I listed one, it received a load of bids, and the price shot way up. I knew I was on to something, and so The Haunted Studio was born.
But to anwer your question, which I realize I’ve completely bypassed:
Honestly, though I did enjoy the spectator aspects of Halloween, it was never a big participatory holiday when I was a kid. That was left to the rowdier element of my contemporaries, but it just wasn’t me, nor the kids I ran with. Occasional trick-or-treating with friends, or doing spooky stuff to other kids who came to our house, but nothing more. I don’t think my mother approved.
HA: How does the surrounding environment affect your paintings? Now that you reside in Scottsdale, how does this affect your work?
Lew: We discovered Scottsdale in 1987, when Lola and I decided to get away for a month from another long, cold, snowy Massachusetts winter. Arizona was our choice. And we fell in love with the light, the weather, the arts community, and everything else here. We “snow-birded” for six years, and moved here full-time in 1993.
Though cacti rarely show up in my spooky paintings, I did create a very spooky stand of sahuaros as landscaping for a commission from a fan west of Phoenix. But you’re correct: The great majority of my work shows a strong eastern influence.
HA: Have you always been interested in Halloween? Have you seen a change in Halloween from your childhood to today?
Lew: For people who love Halloween, their interest withstands time, as they’re usually based on a tradition of celebrating this holiday that goes back at least a generation, sometimes two or more.
As one of my fans told me, “It’s the only holiday that’s pure fun! You don’t have to buy gifts. You get to dress up in a crazy costume and go out and scare people! You go to fun parties with friends! And there’s all that candy!”
HA: That perfectly describes Halloween! Also, each of your paintings have a backstory, which really brings them to life. Do you think of a story first, and paint the scene, or is there another “kernel” that inspires you? A single scene, an emotion, a mood, a dream?
Lew: Sometimes there’s a story I want to tell, but more often, the painting tells me all I need to know. It’s strange. I may start with an inspiration because I’ve seen a spooky photo, or maybe a painting or a photo with peculiar lighting I’ve encountered in a museum or gallery. It could be a poem, or a photo and story a fan has sent me. Or I might select a picture of an old Victorian, or a castle, or some other resource from our travels, and start painting it to see what develops. Or maybe just to express a mood, like “The Last Witness” or “Phantoms.”
“What’s going on here?” Is a question that’s always in my mind as I work on a painting, so it’s not always under my control. Sometimes, in a way, the painting paints me.
HA: “The painting paints me” – I like that. What painting techniques do you use to create the “Gothic feel” in your works?
Traditional watercolor, for me, is a very intellectual and controlled medium. I plan, and execute, each painting in a very specific way that has been used by American and European watercolorists for centuries.
Then there is an Oriental-based approach I learned from a master of the technique a dozen years ago, and which is much more emotionally satisfying. It requires a risky entrusting of what emerges to the vagaries of water on paper . It’s very exciting, with an element of happenstance that appeals to me. I don’t usually know how the painting will look until I’m finished, though I’m never disappointed. And I love the look.
HA: How do you create a work of art for a client? I imagine most describe what they are thinking of. When listening to clients describe what they would like to see in a painting, what cues and techniques do you practice to render what is in their imagination?
Lew: Most commissions begin with a fairly detailed email, or a package in the mail, describing what makes my client emotional about Halloweens of his/her own childhood, or of his or her experience with their own children’s Halloweens. Or of their own love of decorating the lawn and having great, fun parties. Sometimes it has nothing to do with Halloween at all – they just want to see their home as a spooky, haunted, maybe ramshackle wreck at some time in the future. Some people are quite specific. Some have no idea.
Other than Halloween, each commission seems to tap into deep feelings for the occult, or personal memories, or a personal vision they’d like to see brought to life. It’s my task to bring out their wishes, desires, and images, and express them in paint. With over 80 completed commissions, I’ve never yet failed to excite – providing a treasured heirloom, and in many instances, I believe, the only original painting they have ever purchased.
A commission I am currently working on began with my client being stuck between having me paint his present home or the home he grew up in. When he seemed unable to get off dead center, I suggested, “go with your memories!” He quickly agreed, and began to dig out photos of his long-gone childhood home, and photos of his family in Halloween costumes. There followed pages of reminiscences – many of which would not be expressable in paint, but which evidently had tapped into a mother lode of memories. Thus far I have only sent him a preliminary pencil sketch to verify details that were indistinct in his photos. The following is a direct quote, the first sentences from his long and amazingly detailed response:
You’re killing me here! I now understand what others mean when they get choked up over the project! I’m setting here at work and all of the sudden, I’m taken back to my childhood!! I love it!
HA: That must really give you a great, satisfied feeling!
Lew: You might think I’d grow tired of doing these, but no two commissions are quite the same. I’m currently working on four spooky houses, and an occult setting for two characters from the author’s successful series of novels of the occult. Just this morning I responded to a subscriber to The Halloweenist, my free monthly newsletter, who wants to know if I could create a sinister painting of the ’65 Chevy he’s restoring. “Let’s explore that,” I replied. I can already see it in my mind!
The Haunted Studio
Thank you, Lewis! I myself am a long-time subscriber of Lew’s newsletter, The Halloweenist, so I can see all the new paintings he has done. Do you have a favorite memory of Halloween, or a house you remember that Lewis can paint for you? Feel free to contact him by visiting his website, The Haunted Studio!