Some thoughts on one Artists’ convoluted road of failure, travail, and success

I have been teaching art for over 50 years and drawing and painting for 75 years. Where did the time go?! Like most people, I have certainly had my ups and downs and now that most of my life is behind me I have the tendency to reflect and think about what the heck happened! I was fortunate to get a lot of support from my family, friends and most teachers. Drawing was my favorite thing to do, other than sports and most of the first half of my life revolved around either or both of those activities, along with backpacking and traveling this wonderful world that we live in.

“Mom Knitting” by Ned Mueller OPAM

I never had much confidence in myself when I was younger, mostly just a very curious and competitive nature while being raised in the magnificent Gallatin Valley in southwest Montana surrounded by mountains, just North of Yellowstone Park and hanging out with some great friends helped me get through a lot. I have heard some horrible stories of people who were not allowed to follow their passion for a whole lot of reasons…probably with good reason. As for most of us, it is the great love and passion that takes many years of hard work to get anywhere good at it, unless we were one of the lucky ones blessed with superb talent, genes and maybe a trust fund or two! 

Bronco Bustin, Neddy

I had a little of the talent, however, one of my great uncles was one of the countries better sculptors. I was very competitive, inspired mostly from lack of self-esteem and on the flip side from a fairly poor family, which isn’t always such a detriment in small-town America. Most of us seem to have a mixture of positive and negative influences whether we want them or not and I think the bottom line again is that we really must have the love for doing whatever it may be as that is what can carry us through rejections, tragedies, and disappointments so many of us may have to endure. Growing up in Montana, I was not aware of any great artist role models, probably more due to my lack of initiative to find any. We had Charlie Russell and that was about it! That era from 1940 to 1980’s we were fortunate to have so many great magazines and books mostly chock full of some very great illustrations, a lot of it being great art done by some really great artists! We didn’t have the great museums as in New York, Chicago, Los Angeles and the other great cities of the world, so those magazines for me were a wealth of inspiration and I kind of wanted to make pictures but deep down I felt that I could never be able to do that.

Plein Air Sketch by Ned Mueller OPAM

I kind of wandered around for my first 17 years, dreaming, but somewhat disillusioned of what I could do with my life, and won’t go into all of those details here (a long story). But my father (we did not see eye to eye on much, another very long story), finally got it out of me what I would really like to do, to become an illustrator, and he told me to give it a chance, but to try and get into the very best art school that I could get into. He was very competitive also and those were the people I would have to match to make a go of it! To his generation, failure was not really an option! Well, we both researched around for the art schools and living in Northern California decided that the Art Center School in Los Angeles seemed to fit that bill. So, we drove down to L.A. and had an interview with them. I put together a rather shabby portfolio of my drawings and a few paintings. I figured that there was no way that I could get accepted, woe is me, yet they seemed to be impressed regardless of my lack of faith in myself and accepted me (Art Center was and still is one of the hardest art schools to get into and also one of the hardest to graduate because of its high standards. If you didn’t quite meet those standards you were politely asked to leave!) On top of being accepted and because of our rather poor status, I was also offered a full scholarship after the first three semesters. A semester was an outrageous $410 back in the early sixties, which I think is about $30,000 a semester now, but don’t hold me to that. We from Montana have a tendency to exaggerate at times! 

I managed to graduate, a wonderful experience surrounded by such great students and friends and best of all, the instructors were all working professionals who knew what it took to succeed at whatever program you chose. One of their premier offers was automotive design and all the Detroit car companies got most of their top designers from Art Center and also sent promising students to the school. Certainly, in hindsight, I know that so many other artists, for so many reasons, were not that fortunate. Right around my graduation, autumn of 1963, they had the draft and so I had to go into the service. Two of my best buddies and I joined the Marine Corps and the Vietnam War was just around the corner. Needless to say, my experience was short-lived and I got an Honorable Medical Discharge (a mental and physical breakdown, another long story) and so missed that awful, misunderstood and divisive part of our history. Sorry for these distractions, but I think they are related to the struggle to keep trying, sometimes against great odds, and how I as an individual and with individual issues somewhat succeeded. As in this case, I was in a vegetable state, discharged, hospitalized and felt I had let myself and my country down and scared to death of what may happen! I was lucky to have friends and family to get back on my feet again.

Illustration for Children’s Magazine by Ned Mueller OPAM

Eventually, I got a job as a laborer, then a carpenter, and to work as a postal carrier, a wayward art student, not knowing what to do! I at least had the sense to go to some life drawing sessions at night, twice a week to keep my hand in the game and slowly regained some confidence to the point I was going out with my portfolio to ad agencies, book and magazine publishers, whatever seem related to my goal of being an illustrator/artist. I had some pretty darn good skills, but not much confidence to go with them! This is where my main theme of trying to succeed comes in. I call them the three P’s! Passion, Perseverance, and Patience. Not that I was endowed so greatly with them all but at least had some of them and mostly less of the Patience one… Perseverance, being a lot of stubborn… and Passion, wanting to be able to eat!   

 “Leg Study” by Ned Mueller OPAM
Automobile Ad Layout by Ned Mueller OPAM

It took me about two years to where I was slowly going out to agencies, publishers and a couple of galleries, that I was getting assignments. Hearing that I would get a call for this assignment or that, but, discovering that once out of sight I was pretty much out of mind as there was a pretty constant flow of other artists knocking constantly at their door. Pretty much the same with the galleries. This is where perseverance comes into play and the love of what we want to do. Some are so gifted that THEY are getting the knock on the door or phone call but for most of us, that is not the case.   

“Oaxaca, Mexico” by Ned Mueller OPAM
Oaxaca, Mexico Market – 1990’s
Photograph by Ned Mueller OPAM
“Artist’s Studio Corner” by Ned Mueller OPAM

Around this time, I was also taking workshops from the very best artists that offered them, such as, Richard Schmid, Sergei Bongart, Harley Brown and Del Gish. They gave me the confidence to teach my own workshops.

Plein Air Workshop
“Sunlight and Shadow”
by Ned Mueller OPAM
“Lagos Portugal” by Ned Mueller OPAM

By having to put painting into words as best one can really helped me to visualize my own work better and helped to pay the bills! As I improved over time and was invited into or applied to some of the better exhibitions with many of the very best artists, I would get a few of the calls from other shows and good galleries. Needless to say it sure is good for one’s self-esteem and that struggle for recognition is finally rewarded! One of the very best exhibitions in the country at that time was the “Artists of America” show in Denver, Colorado. It showcased the very best traditional/impressionistic work from all over and the show that everyone wanted to be in. The best collectors and gallery owners would fly in to see all of the fine work. One could apply to the show and they had a jury panel that would screen the work and that would vary ever so often. I applied for about eight years and always got turned down, but finally, because of new jurors maybe I did get selected and was even invited to give a demonstration at the show. To say the least, very grateful, humble and nervous throughout, as I was in the presence of so many of my heroes and other great artists. The Director of the show, bought one of my paintings.

“Guatemala” by Ned Mueller OPAM

I didn’t think it could get much better than that! Unfortunately, because sales were down, the Exhibition closed the following year. I got into some other top shows and looking back I feel very fortunate that I was able to experience, what for me was some recognition after 30 years of ups and downs and trying to do my very best. After overcoming so much I figured that my last few years would just be spent enjoying creating, pretty much what I wanted to, and whenever I wanted to, but alas, I had to face some of the biggest challenges of my life when about eight years ago, an old football back injury caught up with me. I had excruciating pain that use to go away and this time did not. I had to have back surgery and when I woke up I knew something was not quite right, but went into instant denial. I had an almost dead left leg and in chronic pain, another long story, and told that another surgery might fix it. That did not happen and with my denial, I thought I could just keep charging forward, doing the shows, galleries and a lot of plein air shows hiking and painting pack trips and still traveling the world a bit. I suffered a lot more than I should have, but keeping busy and working on my painting helped me to think less of the pain.

After about four years of that nonsense, I finally started to accept being marginalized. Some of the denial still lingers on and I have learned and accepted, along with being 80 years old, and in love with a most wonderful woman that really cares about me, accepts me and herds me around when I certainly need it! I guess it helps that she herded and ran a dairy farm for her sick uncle when she was just a teenager! Recently I have blessed with this rare disease, “autoimmune pancreatitis”, not life-threatening, but mostly have to watch what I eat and drink, and since I love to eat all the great foods of the world and love a beer or wine ever so much I am still adjusting to all of that. Yes, I do feel sorry for myself at times, other issues also to be dealt with, but I guess I would be crazy if I didn’t. My love of painting and Karen are my great blessings and so I persevere on and am still challenging myself to do a better work of art than the last one, although I still manage to do some real clunkers, but try and cut those down with more time with working out value and color studies.

“India-Color Study” by Ned Mueller OPAM
“Painting Pack Trip” by Ned Mueller OPAM
“China Color Study” by Ned Mueller OPAM

My productivity is down, but very grateful to still be able to do what I love the most! Trying to think of a moral to this story is, maybe you can come up with something better? I have included a few samples of my work from my teen years up to the present day. It’s nice to see the progress and I think that some of the work I am still doing is going in that same direction. Trying hard to come up with something unique, at least for me. I must quote an old artist’s proverb, as I see way too much of it lately…” to copy from one person is plagiarism, to copy from four or five is creativity”. Look at great art..not bad gets in our brain, it is humbling, which is OK, but also inspiring!  Thanks for getting this far and bearing with most of my story. I only hope that with whatever travails you have to deal with you can find some inspiration, hope, and solace in your own work!

I have a Facebook group where I have demonstrations and videos of my processes including portraits, figures, studio, and plein air landscapes along with explanations of demos and references I use and why and how I put them together. I have been teaching for over 50 years and painting for 75 years and so have a lot of experience, knowledge and some wisdom to share. I am also a “Designated Master” with both the Oil Painters of America and the American Impressionist Society and I love to share my process with others. You can go to this link: Ned’s Artist Buddies or go to my website at: and click on works and then “Artist Buddies”. It is a very good deal!

Upcoming OPA Events

Eastern Regional Exhibition 2021 Eastern Regional Exhibition
The Eastern Regional Exhibition will be hosted by the ArtCenter Manatee, located in Bradenton, Florida, September 28 through October 22, 2021. Learn More!
OPA Fall 2021 Online Showcase OPA Fall 2021 Online Showcase
The Fall 2021 Online Showcase is from November 1 - December 15, 2021 and will be open to Signature and Associate members only. Learn More!
Western Regional Exhibition 2021 Western Regional Exhibition
The Western Regional Exhibition will be held October 15 through November 27, 2021 at the Mary R. Koch Arts Center (Mark Arts), located in Wichita, Kansas. More details to be announced as they become available. Learn More!
31st Annual National Juried Exhibition 31st Annual National Juried Exhibition and Convention
The Thirty-first National Exhibition and Convention will be located in Steamboat Springs, Colorado. The Convention will be from May 31 through June 5, 2022. The Exhibition will be from June 3 to August 27, 2022.