Watercolor artist Eric Wiegardt lives on the Long Beach Peninsula, in Ocean Park, Washington, a place where his family’s roots go back many generations. Though you would not know it from his humble demeanor, Eric is recognized as one of the top watercolorists today. Since 1985, he has provided for his wonderful wife Ann and five children through his art business. Here is the story of the artist with roots.
Eric grew up on the beautiful Long Beach Peninsula, an arm of land twenty-eight miles long along the coast in southwest Washington, bounded on the west by the Pacific Ocean, the south by the Columbia River, and the east by Willapa Bay. Its long sandy beach is a popular destination for tourists in the summer; in the winter it is a place of solitude and wild beauty.
Eric’s great-grandfather, who immigrated from Denmark, got the Wiegardt family started in the oyster business. He was single when he came to the Peninsula from Denmark, and he heard about a Danish woman that lived down at Cape Disappointment lighthouse who was an indentured servant. He got in a boat and rowed the length of the bay, which is quite a distance, to meet her. He must have been interested because he made that journey three times. The third time he said, “Honey, I’m getting tired of this rowing. Let’s get married.” Their home in Ocean Park where they raised six kids, one of them being Eric’s grandfather, was built in 1897.
The Wiegardt family has quite a bit of history in the Ocean Park area. Eric’s grandfather and his brothers built houses along Bay Avenue, and cousins have built homes nearby, too. “Our family is a family of oyster growers. I grew up working in the oyster business. Right next door we had a cannery. I spent a lot of years working in that business. Either picking oysters out in the oyster beds, a lot of time out in the bay, or working in the cannery,” Eric says. Eric chose a different career path, but in 1985, after he finished art school, his great-grandfather’s house came available to him. He’s been selling paintings out of it ever since.
When Eric was in fifth grade his family moved from Ocean Park to Oysterville. “This is my home. My roots. This is where I grew up.” When he was in high school, he had some free time, so he signed up for a shop class. And he loved it. He loved working with his hands and being creative. His senior year in high school he arranged his schedule so he could have two to three hours in shop class. “I worked on some very creative things. One of them was a sand sailor that I could ride up and down the beach on. I had a good time.”
Eric graduated from Ilwaco High School–Home of the Fishermen–in 1975. He went to the University of Washington and studied civil engineering. There he met Ann, who was also an engineering student. In the summers, both were employed selling books door to door for a company out of Nashville. Eric had thought that picking oysters was hard work, but selling books door to door in New York, Ohio and Indiana, was very challenging. “Quite a story there,” he reflects.
Eric and Ann got married and finished up their last year in college. They both went to work at Caterpillar, Inc., in Peoria, IL, in their corporate headquarters. After two years of that, Eric realized that he was not interested in pursuing a career in the corporate world. It wasn’t the right fit. “I realized that I really liked to work with my hands and do creative things,” he says.
The American Academy of Art, Chicago
Eric was taking some weekend drawing classes while they were in Peoria, and his teacher told him about an art school in Chicago called the American Academy of Art. His teacher said, “If you can make it through that schooling and graduate from there, then you’ll have really good skills in painting.” So Eric told Ann he wanted to go and take a look at it. As they walked through the doors of the school, Eric thought, “This is what I want to do.” He was thoroughly impressed by the eighteen- and nineteen-year-old art students who were producing some very beautiful, traditional work. He found that he could understand traditional artwork better than the modern work he had been exposed to at the university level. The American Academy of Art was classical painting at its best.
The day of their visit, Eric talked to Irving Shapiro, President and Director of the American Academy of Art, who was also the watercolor instructor. Eric said, “I want to learn the discipline of painting.” And Shapiro replied, “If we can’t teach you, I don’t know who can.” Eric turned to Ann and said, “I want to do this.” And she said, “OK, let’s do it” And with that, he switched careers. Eric was twenty-five years old when he started all over again. Where the engineering studies had felt somewhat strange and had been a struggle for him, art school just clicked in his brain. “It felt like this is what I was made for,” Eric says. His paintings were not great in the beginning. In fact, when an instructor saw his drawing from the life drawing class he said, “She looks like she’s been through the meat grinder.” But over time he started to pick it up. The ethic of hard work was ingrained in him. But it took a while.
Irving Shapiro was a huge influence on Eric. At the time, he was one of the top watercolor instructors in the country and a terrific watercolor artist. “I was so fortunate to study under him,” Eric says. “I just bird-dogged him for the two years I was in his class.” Over his three-year course of study, Eric was under Shapiro’s tutelage as much as possible. It was a wonderful school and time in his life in many ways.
Later, as Eric prepared to launch his own fine art career, he began reading art books by other artists, and he started to wonder whether the teachers at the Academy had taught him enough. He was finding a lot of information in these books that he had not heard about at the Academy. But over time he realized that in their wisdom, the teachers at the Academy hadn’t burdened the students with unnecessary information. They gave them the core understanding of good painting. Looking back, Eric is very grateful to have had that experience. He’s drawn upon it ever since.
Wiegardt Studio Gallery
In 1985, Eric finished art school and he and Ann came back to Ocean Park. Eric wanted to live in a small town, and he liked being near the water. “I wanted to basically live in my hometown, and I wanted to make a living as an artist.” Eric’s parents very generously allowed him to use his great-grandfather’s house as a gallery. Its historic architecture, tall ceilings and large rooms made a great gallery space. Eric thought this would be temporary, because he expected to be putting his work out into stronger art markets elsewhere. But as it turns out, this is where most of his paintings have been sold.
While Eric took up his paintbrush, Ann managed the home front. She homeschooled their kids up through high school. For many years they have lived just across the street from the Gallery. During most of those years, Ann was not active in the art business. Eric built the business, and eventually hired employees. Over the years he has had wonderful employees: Christl has worked in the Gallery since 1991. Eric tells how he coaxed her to come to work for him. He said, “Christl, could you just help do a little framing?” Thirty years later, she essentially runs the business. Cindy and Candy are also part of the team. Eric says that, like Christl, they do a wonderful job.
Ann has stepped into the business in the last five years after their last child, a nephew that they raised, left for college. At that point Eric was ready to make a change in the business. He said to Ann, “I’m tired of managing the business. I’m going to pay someone else, or you can have the job.” Ann took it on. She organizes the workshops and oversees the other employees.
When asked about who has been most influential in his journey as an artist Eric answers without missing a beat: “Certainly, Ann. She’s been a wonderful support. Here we had two engineering degrees. And I said, ‘I’m going to leave all that. There’s not going to be any engineering opportunities in Ocean Park and I’m going to make my living as an artist.’ And she said, ‘OK, let’s do it.’ That’s really something. She’s quite a gal.’” The five kids she homeschooled are flourishing. The two sons are engineers. One daughter went to Moody Bible Institute and married an engineer. The other daughter is a speech pathologist. And Eric’s nephew is in college studying computer programming. Ann’s nurture of them gave Eric the space to paint.
Eric is thankful for the way Christ maintains a calm and peaceful atmosphere in the Gallery, which enables him to focus on his work upstairs in his studio. He’s thankful for Cindy and Candy and their great work. He’s thankful for his mom and dad who allowed him to use his grandparents’ house. He’s thankful that, because of the cannery being next door, the historic house he uses for a studio and gallery was zoned commercial. The only stipulation was that he produce a product in this building. That’s easy because Eric’s easel is in an upstairs room with big windows where he enjoys the quiet and does his work.
When he was in grade school, a woman who lived down the road was a good friend who allowed him to do some oil painting. Then there was his art teacher in high school. In a way, all these people come together like pieces of a puzzle to allow him to have this unique, exciting career in fine art. Once, he was in New York City riding in a cab with another juror from the American Watercolor
Society. The year before, Eric’s painting had won the gold medal in that prestigious show. She mentioned how that painting had thrilled her. “Eric,” she said, “that was an unbelievable painting. Every stroke was right.” And then she asked, “What do you do for a living?” And Eric said, “Well, I sell my paintings.” And she asked, “Is that all?” And Eric said, “I do some workshops too. I have five kids and we have a very nice, comfortable life.” And she said, “I can’t believe it.” She was more excited about the fact of his making a career out of art than about the gold medal.
Eric doesn’t take credit for all these puzzle pieces fitting together, because the biggest influence in his artistic journey has been Jesus Christ. He puts it this way:
“I can’t say all those things just happened. I can’t just say all those things just came together and that’s the way it is. It’s not the way it is. I can tell anyone how I did it. And how it worked for me. But it might not work for them. It’s how this all pieces together. There were points in my life when I wondered if I should go one way and it turns out I’m so glad I didn’t. I went this fine artist way. For example, would I have been good teaching in a college environment if I had gone back and got my masters? No. I’m just not made for that environment. But all those things were orchestrated for me to be here. It doesn’t happen on its own. It’s only by an understanding and a faith in Jesus Christ that this is what puts it all together. As Jesus says so clearly in the book of John, not only are He and the Father one, but also that He, through the Holy Spirit, lives in our lives. And through that Holy Spirit that direction and that orchestrating of all these things happens. It’s not just me. It’s not just that I pieced this all together. I would be remiss if I didn’t say this.”
Eric’s roots were in the Christian faith; he had grown up in the church. But he still had a lot of questions and a lot of wondering about his faith. Was it real? Eric had to get that worked out in his mind, and the unknowns and pressures and fears of doing art vocationally were a great test. Eric wrestled with the question, “Is Jesus Christ who He says He is?” He knew if that was the case, it would be life changing. His faith in Christ helped give him peace. There were other times when he didn’t know if this was going to work out. But through it all he has found that Jesus Christ has been faithful.
Watercolor as a medium
Eric was exposed to watercolor in high school. At that time an artist named Charles Mulvey made a living as a watercolorist at the other end of the Peninsula. Even though in high school Eric wasn’t focusing on painting, that was encouraging to him. “It made me realize that maybe I can do that.” He thought Mulvey’s watercolors were beautiful.
But Eric points out that having an appreciation for watercolor is not sufficient to become a watercolor artist. There must be something magical about it. Putting the brush down on the paper should really thrill the artist. Eric noticed it had that effect on him immediately in art school. It was a medium that was unpredictable. It had its own rhythm or music about how it works. And once you get it working for you, it’s incredibly beautiful. The process of painting with watercolor was very stimulating. He took some other classes in oil painting and pastel but didn’t find the process as interesting. Instead of the little strokes of pastel, he liked the big brushstrokes of watercolor with its unpredictability. Watercolor was exciting to him, as was fine art rather than commercial art. Even though most of his fellow students at the Academy ended up with commercial degrees and work in the commercial world, there were a handful who stayed on the fine art side and who are producing some beautiful work today. Watercolor is still exciting enough to keep Eric going for years to come.
Struggles and Joys
One of the biggest struggles for Eric was internal: Could he accept that his journey of painting and being an artist was really led by the Lord Jesus? He puts it this way: “Was this something that I could really trust Him in? That was hard. It was not something that came easy for me at the beginning. But, over a period of time, I learned that yes, God is faithful, and He can be trusted through his son Jesus Christ. That was the deepest struggle. On a more superficial level, living on the Peninsula there are times–mainly the summer months–when the Gallery is busy and paintings are selling well, but during the winter it’s dark and rainy, and business is slow. Ann going to work was not an option. They both wanted her to be at home. So there was the struggle of those financially dry months. And it took Eric a long time to trust that during those lean months his family would be provided for. And they were. It took years and years to see that everything was going to work out fine. The waiting was hard.
Learning the business aspect was another struggle. Eric soon realized that he couldn’t just be an artist. He had to focus on the business, too. In the early years, they tried different things. They even moved away for a while, thinking that another location would be better, but they moved back. There was a six-year period of adjustments, from 1985-1991. In 1991, Eric said, “OK, this is the place. And I’ve got to treat this as a business.” Since then, he’s been thinking about business and painting, and kept both moving forward. At times he felt that he had too many balls in the air that he was juggling. “And all those balls kept going around in your head,” Eric says. “That’s hard. And it’s challenging amidst the stress of business to be a good dad and relax and be at home with your kids. It takes some maturing to be able to get that to work.”
The joy of watercolor is seeing it work. It is seeing people appreciate his paintings enough to pay good money for them. It is seeing those paintings displayed on their walls. Eric says, “I love going into people’s homes whom I’ve forgotten had bought a painting and there it is: my painting in a special place in their home. That’s thrilling.” Eric loves being his own boss. He can come and go as he pleases, especially now that many of the details of running the business are off his shoulders. But even in the beginning years, as challenging as they were, it was also very thrilling. He would be painting for a while, and he could see a big leap in his ability, a big improvement in his technique. He would be encouraged by people coming in and buying paintings, confirming that he was heading in the right direction. There was the thrill of competing in national and international art shows, and winning awards. There was satisfaction in the affirmation of his peers. All of that combined has made it a rich and rewarding journey.
Early Art Success, Societies and Workshops
Eric had success entering art shows from the beginning. Early on he got a couple of paintings into some New York shows. Those shows weren’t as big as the ones he would enter later, but they were the beginning. Articles in the local newspaper helped to get Eric’s name out. Eric reflects, “The local paper was very generous in writing up those articles.” Since then, Eric’s paintings have been accepted into international shows in which he has garnered signature membership: The American Watercolor Society, National Watercolor Society, Transparent Watercolor Society of America, Northwest Watercolor Society, and others. He has also participated in international shows in China.
Eric supplemented his income from selling paintings by teaching watercolor. In 1996, he wrote a book called Watercolor Free and Easy. It sold well. That led to opportunities to teach workshops around the country. During the pandemic, he started teaching watercolor via Zoom. Classes are a mix of demonstrations, critiques, and technique instruction. It has been an ideal format for working with students on a long-term basis, in the comfort of their own homes, and at a very economical price compared to in person instruction. He has had the joy of seeing students improve greatly in their painting ability.
Participating in art shows and workshops has brought Eric into contact with art students and other artists. He’s met other well-known artists who are also teaching at the workshops. There are friends he’s gathered through the years teaching together, and Eric keeps in touch. For an artist, community can be rather sparse. Art is a solitary profession. There is a lot of loneliness that goes with it. As an introvert, Eric is fine with that. He loves the wild, quiet solitude of the Peninsula in winter. It is in that solitude that his wonderful art works are born.
Lessons for the Next Generation of Artists
Eric points out that artists can make a living in the commercial art world. They do have to work long hours, but there is a lot of business out there for commercial artists. The path for fine artists–to make a living from selling paintings–is more difficult. But if all the pieces come together, by grit and by grace it can be done.
Artists who want to make it professionally should develop their basic skills, like Eric did at the Academy. “It’s good to develop your skills so that you can draw freehand and express yourself freehand without any mechanical means. I think that then we can get to the real core to the personality of artists when we do that.” If they learn the fundamentals of art, they can find their own voice, like Eric has with his use of color.
To create a cohesive painting, artists often simplify their palette to just three or four colors. This makes it much easier to create a harmonious painting. Eric’s paintings, on the other hand, are brimming with color–diverse, bright, beautiful color. What is his secret? Again, it goes back to the basics he learned at the Academy, including this principle: Color can be anything you want as long as it’s reasonable, but watch the values! Eric says that it’s not very hard to make color reasonable. “If you have a lot of red on one side of the painting, pop a little more over here. That’s not difficult. But you have to watch your values.” Eric learned his lessons from the American Academy of Art well. And he’s letting those lessons sing in the beautiful, big, bold watercolors he paints in his hometown of Ocean Park, the place of his roots.
Sunnyshore Studio invites you to join us for the Vintage Watercolorists of Washington Art Show:
- Opens on Saturday, March 12, 10am-5pm
- Meet the Artists Reception, March 12, 3pm
- Continues on Saturday, March 19 and 26, 10am-5pm
- Open by Appointment: Call Jason 317.209.6768
- In partnership with the Northwest Watercolor Society (NWWS)