Nathan Greene: Dialogue With an Adventist Illustrator
When did you know that you would become an artist?
When I was four and five years old I was drawing all the time. During grade school I knew I wanted to be either an artist or a physician. My parents provided private art lessons for me with my first-grade teacher, Mrs. Kilstrom, who was a very good artist. She taught me about art and drawing one night a week for two years. Since I always had an interest in medicine and art, aside from drawing, I would also build human anatomy models. I even read through my mother's old textbooks from nursing school, trying to replicate the illustrations of different skulls and bones.
A career in art can be considered a non-traditional vocational choice. What guided your choices and what gave you the confidence to pursue art?
When God gives you a talent, and if that talent is strong enough, you cannot help but let it guide what you choose to do. I believe that if you ignore those primary talents you may never quite be at peace with yourself or satisfied with your life. There are certainly other things I would enjoy doing, but I feel this is what I was supposed to do.
How important was the concept of role modeling to your career decisions?
Very important. I have been influenced a great deal by Harry Anderson, one of the Christian artists who illustrated the Bible Story books. A friend took me to meet him when I was 17 years old. I immediately felt that he was a godly man. Harry is the kind of person that you meet and then want to emulate. I especially admire his ability to paint with the minimum amount of brush strokes. Both my parents have also been wonderful role models in life, because of their principles and convictions.
Is there a magic moment in your creative process when you say "Yes, that's why I became an artist."?
There are many magic moments, there are many unmagic moments, too! For example on the painting, "Chief of the Medical Staff," everything just clicked. There are times during painting when everything flows. There are other times when I have to struggle through a painting. I do not know what makes the difference. Perhaps it has something to do with the meshing of experience, inspiration, and motivation all tuned at one point. Of course, no one can maintain a high creative energy level all the time. When I am in the midst of a painting I may work for 18 to 20 hours at a time. I do this partly for creative consistency and partly because of the limited drying time of the paints I use. However, when I finish a painting I usually rest and spend time with my family for several days before starting another project.
What is the theme of your work?
It is not hard to identify the theme now. However, during the first eight or nine years of my career as an illustrator I did many different types of projects for clients. But now I am doing primarily Christian art, specifically depicting Christ. Now I have the same opportunity to do what Christian writers, musicians and pastors do--to portray through their talents the character of God. I hope my art gives people an impression of a kind, loving and compassionate God. I believe when you communicate what God is truly like you are being a help in the great controversy between Christ and Satan. And that is the whole issue, isn't it? Is God fair and just and worth obeying? I believe that He is, and I am just trying to add my contribution to make that message known.
What feeds you spiritually and then, subsequently, feeds your work?
There's always Sabbath, one of the great benefits of being a Seventh-day Adventist. God gave us the Sabbath because he knew we would attempt to fit too much activity into our lives. I am also influenced by people like Mark Finley and Graham Maxwell. I listen to many types of tapes while I work. During the painting of "Chief of the Medical Staff" I listened to tapes of Graham Maxwell's Sabbath school class at the Loma Linda University church. Dr. Maxwell spoke often about the unique responsibility of the physician to witness to people about the character of God.
What are your greatest challenges and struggles?
I think painting Christ is one of my greatest challenges. I put a great deal of pressure on myself when I paint Christ because it is such a responsibility. Who really knows what He looks like? I wish I knew. All I can do is base my painting on the best historical evidence available. Other subjects are easy in comparison. When I painted the portrait of Christ for the "It Is Written" telecast I had a difficult time. My first attempt at painting the face of Christ took 18 hours. But I did not like the end result. I woke up the next morning, scrubbed it out, took the day off and tried again the following day. The next face took me 20 hours and I kept it that time. When I painted the hands of Christ, I repainted one of them three times, the other two times. I feel a real responsibility to make every painting better than the one before. I do not think anyone should settle for doing mediocre work. If you strive for excellence, it will pay off.
What makes Nathan Greene tick?
Patty, my wife, helps me a great deal. She organizes me and reminds me of things, because artists are notorious for being absent-minded. Patty does much of the correspondence and all the bookkeeping. She is also my best critic. Although she is not trained as an artist, Patty has learned to really understand the art work I do. She can spot things that I cannot see because I have been staring at the canvas too long. Family is very important for me. I would not be a very happy guy without them.
What counsel would you give to young artists and/or those seeking careers in creative vocations?
Practice is very important. Being an artist is like being a musician. If you want to be a good violin player you must practice. If you want to be a great violin player you must practice even more. Another suggestion I have for a young artist is not be an imitator of other people, but paint as it comes naturally. Harry Anderson gave this advice to me. I believe, however, that one can learn a great deal by studying others. I would also encourage young artists to learn the fundamentals of art first, the important technical skills, then the creativity will come. This is especially important if you would like to make a living in illustration.
Do you have a vision for your future work?
I would like to keep doing what I am doing now, which is Christian illustration. Of course, I hope to get better at it with each image I paint. At one time NASA, the National Wildlife Federation, and especially the National Geographic Society were examples of clients I wanted to work with. At the same time I considered illustrating for Christian publishers to be of lesser importance. It did not dawn on me until recently that my thinking was somewhat backwards. My ultimate goal should not be to do work for prestigious publishers, but to create art that portrays the character of God in a positive way, which can have eternal consequences.
How do you relate this new vision to your recent works?
I often think of this concept since I have been painting illustrations of Christ for healthcare providers. When people come into a hospital they are often at a difficult time in their life. At that particular moment they are much more likely to be thinking deeply about the meaning of life and where their life is heading. What better time to have a sermon on the wall? That is why I often compare my work as a painter with the work of a preacher. The difference is that I use an image instead of words. Many people who go into a hospital might never set foot into a church, sit through a sermon, or take faith seriously. To me it is exciting to think that someone may be positively influenced by my art.
Interview by T. Lynn Caldwell. T. Lynn Caldwell teaches in the Communication Department at Andrews University, Berrien Springs, Michigan.