Interview by Patricia Gomes
Brush of Autumn...
An Interview with Artist Lewis Lehrman
by Patricia Gomes
spent three decades in commercial art before escaping in
1984 to become a full time watercolorist. In the two decades since
then, he has also been an instructor, author of six books on art, and
an avid traveler. In 1999, Lehrman founded The Haunted Studio©,
creating art and fulfilling commissions for watercolor paintings for an
unexpectedly large and continually growing year-round audience of
haunted and Halloween art aficionados.
* * * * * *
PG: I've been
familiar with your work for nearly a half-decade now, but give Lily's
readers a little background on the artist, professionally known as
Lewis B. Lehrman, if you please.
LL: Well, I
remember creating art as early as kindergarten, believe it or
not. I will always remember Mrs. Levy, who saw my interest,
and encouraged me to create a "project" in the
classroom. Though I can no longer remember what it was, it was
obviously enough to keep me enthused about creating art. I regret
that Mrs. Levy, and all the other teachers who helped guide my growth,
never knew how much they meant to me. Mrs. Kreisberg, who taught
me through 4th and 5th grade, took me (along with several of my
classmates) to her sister's apartment in Manhattan one snowy
day. Her sister was a professional watercolorist, and I watched in
awe as she created a painting right before my eyes. That was
it! I was hooked.
In high school, I learned perspective drawing by the book. It's a
skill that has served me well ever since, and I don't think it
scarred my creativity one bit. I went to Carnegie Institute of
Technology (today Carnegie Mellon University) for my undergrad degree
in Graphic Arts, and took a few more art courses there.
After a stint in the army, I got a job with a publishing house,
and started taking as many fine arts courses as I could cram into my
after-work day. These classes were at New York's famous Pratt
Institute art school. I'd rush from work several evenings a week,
bringing my passion to find out what being an artist was all
about. I did this for over 4 years. Couldn't care
less about a degree, just wanting to gather all the insights, pick
up all the skills I could.
In 1958, I started a freelance graphic design
business. Jack-of-all-trades, I designed, illustrated, and
produced all sorts of printed materials. My firm (later in
partnership with my wife, Lola) became the leading designers of printed
graphics for the Hotel and Restaurant industry.
In 1984, we got out of that business - happily, I might add - and moved
to the Berkshires of Western Massachusetts, where
we renovated a 200-year old house, and turned a collapsing barn into a
dream studio and art gallery we called The Gallery At Mill
River. That was when I began painting full time.
prompted you to begin painting haunted houses?
LL: I got
started because of a little Halloween painting (one of a number I was
then doing from time to time) I had done for our
gallery. This must have been in the late '80's.
Color Xeroxing had just become available. I made some prints of
this painting, and sold them along with other prints of my pen-and-ink
art at our gallery. In the process of moving to Arizona in '93,
the unsold prints were packed, forgotten, and rediscovered six years
later when I brought everything home from the studio I'd been renting
to the one we'd just added to our house. At that time, I was just
beginning to sell on eBay, so, on a whim, I listed the
print. It was snapped up at a better price than I'd hoped
for. The same happened with a second, then a third copy.
One of my buyers pointed out something I'd never suspected: that there
were a great number of people out there who love Halloween, and love it
all year around! She suggested that I could sell more of these and
recommended that I get in touch with a Halloween-centered clearinghouse
web site she knew of. I emailed to its webmaster, attaching sample
images of this painting and another I had done. He told me that I
should have a web site, and offered to host it in exchange for prints
of future paintings. When I thanked him, I let him know that I
knew zilch about creating a website. He suggested
another person he thought would do that for me on the same
basis. I was off and running!
The name, "The Haunted Studio" just came to me. It was a
natural. When I went to apply for a URL, it was there waiting for
me - a good omen!
PG: Which was
your very first "haunted" painting?
LL: My first
painting for The Haunted Studio was "Nine Spooks," and the painting was
purchased by an artist friend of mine here in Arizona. I had to
borrow it back to scan it for The Haunted Studio print
PG: Have you
painted your own house?
painted our former home in New England several times, but never as the
haunted house we know it to be. I painted it a couple of times as
a night scene in the snow, and once as a day-lit autumn scene.
PG: Do you
sketch first, or go straight to canvas?
LL: Well, I
use watercolor paper, but I know what you're asking. I almost
always begin with a pencil sketch, often several. And follow that
up with a watercolor sketch to prove my design, and to see how the
composition moves my emotions. Sometimes I publish these sketches
in The Halloweenist, my free monthly newsletter, which now goes to
several thousand fellow Halloween enthusiasts, in search of
feedback. I like to look for reactions and thoughts from Haunted
PG: Is watercolor
your preferred medium?
is! (Thank you Mrs. Kreisberg's sister!) I have always loved
it, and for many years struggled to master it. I estimate
that since 1985, when I began painting in earnest, I have done
maybe 3,000 paintings, though many were failed efforts which I
destroyed as soon as I realized that they'd gone off the
rails. Now I have a backlog of experience, and I'm reasonably
certain that what I start, I can usually complete to my satisfaction,
though not always!
PG: Have you
ever thought about doing a haunted version of a national landmark, oh,
let's say ... the White House?
really. A recognizable subject will invariably overpower the
subtle little hints of the supernatural I insert, much better
(I believe) to take the innocuous subject and bend it to my nefarious
purposes, muuuaaahahaha! (Sorry, got a bit carried away.)
painting from a photograph, have you ever gotten a sense that the house
you're painting truly is haunted?
LL: Sorry to
disappoint you, but no, that usually doesn't happen. A photo is
just a cold, static image. However there have been instances, such
as when I painted "The Enduring Mysteries of the McPike Mansion," when
I did have the feeling (reinforced by time spent discussing the project
with Sharon Luedke, who is restoring this historically haunted house in
Alton, IL, and who showed me some very spooky photos!).
PG: Have you
done any illustrative work for writers and/or publishing houses?
LL: Not in
this life! I don't really want to do illustrative work.
Illustration is a pain. At this stage in my life, I'm able to
paint what I want, when I want, and that keeps me happily busy. No
art directors looking over my shoulders, no deadly deadlines. Been
there, done that.
Three days before leaving for Peru, I received an inquiry from an art
director in Las Vegas, who thought my style would be perfect for a
Halloween party invitation he needed for a casino-hotel
client. When I saw the deadline and the budget, I was tempted to
tell him that if he'd triple the time required and the budget, I'd take
it on. It's nice not to be hungry.
PG: Are there
other art forms you dabble in?
LL: As for
medium, I stick to watercolor. However, every so often I embark on
a series that has come to me out of ... somewhere! Layered
constructions, watercolor paper sculpture, miniature
screens. During the years 1989 - 2002, while keeping busy with
art, I also wrote six
books on art, for artists.
PG: Lew, just
when I thought I knew it all, I've discovered that you are also an Art
Instructor - tell us about that.
LL: I have
taught watercolor classes for the past dozen years at The Scottsdale
Artists' School here in Arizona, and workshop classes in artistic
travel journaling for the last 5 or so. Artistic travel
journaling is a particular passion of mine. Whenever we travel, I
bring along a sketchbook and pocket watercolor kit, and sketch and add
commentary whenever possible along the way.
Teaching is how I learn. With twenty years of serious painting,
and between 3000 and 4000 paintings under my belt (some good,
some failed, a few great), teaching demands that
I think through the process of what I now do almost
instinctively, so I can explain it to someone struggling with painting
number 5. Teaching also affords me a captive audience before whom
I can be stand-up comedian, commentator, and conveyor of the
excitement I experience washing color onto paper.
PG: For my own
selfish reasons, I am especially interested in your recent trip to
Mexico - particularly with Dia de los Muertos fast approaching.
I'm no authority, but my impression is that the Mexicans' concept of
Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) is quite different from
ours. Their concept of death is not scary - it's
reverential. They take that time to celebrate the
deceased. Whole families go out to the gravesites of departed
parents, where they bring food offerings, picnic at the site, clean and
tidy up the gravesite, and generally celebrate their lives. A very
wholesome attitude. All of the DDLM artifacts, the grinning
skeletons, skulls, tableaux, etc., are really very humorous and jolly,
if you look at them carefully. The practice, I surmise, is a
pastiche of pre-Christian and Christian rituals and beliefs. We
saw much the same during our visit to Peru. There, Dia de los
Muertos is also celebrated, but (as far as I could tell) in a much more
back to the art, tell us about your commissions.
LL: An aspect
of the Haunted Studio, which I enjoy immensely, is working with people
who'd like their home (or a grandparent's home, or the home they grew
up in) painted as a haunted or Halloween scene. I can't recall
exactly how I came to do the first one, but the idea seems to strike a
chord with many visitors to the website. In the five years The
Haunted Studio has been online, I've completed more than forty, and
these days I generally have five or six in the works at any given
time. Every one is different, and I look forward each time to
the challenge of taking a gaggle of daytime, summertime (and
occasionally wintertime) photos, my client's description (real or
imagined) of their house at Halloween, or in a projected state of
haunted disrepair at sometime in the future, or transported to the
midst of a ghostly cemetery - and creating a painting they'll be
excited with and treasure as a family heirloom.
One of my favorites was commissioned by a man who sent me an assortment
of old and new photos, and a faded old snapshot of four kids, perhaps
ranging in age from 4 to 9, sitting side by side on a doorstep. He
was very specific in his desires, telling me what fun the family would
have at Halloween each year, when they were young, as he dressed up as
"Egor," stalking them around the house, to squeals of laughter and
fright. He asked if I could put Egor in the front window and the
four kids at the bottom of the porch steps. When he'd approved the
finished painting, he asked me to run prints of it to give to his grown
children, married now, with kids of their own.
I didn't hear anything for quite a while. Then one day, I received
an email from his oldest daughter, which read in part as follows:
"At Thanksgiving, my Dad
said he had a great Christmas present for all of us. He usually
gets us something strange so I didn't give it much thought or even
try to anticipate what it may be. (He isn't good at
keeping a secret either so looking back on that conversation, I am
even more surprised he didn't sneak me a peek of what was to come
on Christmas day.) My siblings
and I opened your paintings at the same time and we
were all instantly crying. Our childhoods were spent in
that beautiful house and to see it painted and us sitting on the
step was so incredibly special. Then, after looking closer
to the amazing details we see Dad/Egor in the window, the
meaningful title and also our grandmother in the painting. More
tears were shed!
your work instantly as Mom and Dad also have your Strange
Light painting hanging in their house. It is
Halloween year round there as Dad is a collector
of haunted houses and ghoulish items. It's not surprising
your work caught Dad's eye! I can't thank you enough for
capturing cherished memories and painting them as you did, Mr.
That letter, more than anything, exemplifies why I find continual
pleasure, not only in creating these commissions, but in just about
everything that has to do with The Haunted Studio.
PG: Share the
music you listen to while painting.
I don't usually listen to music. When working in my studio, I
usually have National Public Radio talk programs on. I enjoy the
intelligent conversation they provide, through the likes of Terri
Gross, Diane Rehm, and others. Not only do they keep me in touch
with the world, they somehow prevent me from over-intellectualizing the
instinctive task of painting. When I do opt for music, I'll load
the CD changer with opera, symphonic, popular music of the Gershwin,
Cole Porter, Rodgers & Hart era, and whatever else appeals to me at
the moment, as I marvel at the incredible creativity each
LL: I must
admit that the poetry of Robert Frost still moves me. I love the
little twinge I experience savoring a well-turned Haiku. I
often tell my watercolor students that when successful, watercolor is
to haiku as oil painting is to poetry. I look for the same twinge,
which might be brought on by a color passage or an understated detail -
an ideal, incidentally, which I strive for but only occasionally
achieve. (See my favorite watercolorist, Winslow Homer for
this sentence: "If I was not allowed to paint anymore, I would -
LL: Go back to
this sentence: "The one skill I'd still love to learn is - ”
LL: The art of
writing narrative fiction.
we're nearly through, give me this: "Black is to death what orange
is - ”
LL: "Black is
to death what orange is to flame." (Do I detect a hint of James
PG: Long range
plans - where do you see yourself in the year 2015?
LL: One of the
pleasures of my little enterprise is its free-form nature. I'm on
a pathway that's leading somewhere, and I am content to follow
where it leads me. In 2015 I'll be 82. Who can plan for
82? I enjoy the mental stimulation of what I do. It keeps me
active and interested. It helps finance our love for
travel. If it ever gets to be anything less than fun, I suppose
I'll hang it up.
PG: And we hope you
never will. Thank you, Lewis B. Lehrman, thank you for keeping
Halloween 365 days a year. Wait - here's a question for
me: Ebenezer Scrooge is to Christmas what Lew Lehrman is - why,
to Halloween, of course!