Art career takes flight despite weak economy

by: Shanda Tice Artist Dean Crouser of Gresham puts his signature on a painting.

The term starving artist exists for a reason: It's a tough way to make a living. But longtime Gresham resident Dean Crouser has not only managed to launch a successful career as a thriving artist, but he's done it during the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression.

It helped that his prior field - he worked for 20 years as a real estate agent - has been gutted by the economy.

'So it was a perfect time to transition,' said Crouser, 51.

And what a transition it's been.

His image of a great horned owl graces the back of about 20 TriMet buses as a promotion for the Audubon Society of Portland's Wild Arts Festival on Nov. 19-20 in Portland.

Oh, and Patagonia just called. The outdoor clothing and gear company bought the rights to two of Crouser's images of a Chinook salmon and a tarpon for use on T-shirts and hats appearing in its spring 2012 catalog.

'It's been a good month,' says Crouser, a 1978 Gresham High School grad. 'It'll take it. I'm happy.'

For most of Crouser's life, painting was a hobby. As is fishing, camping and absorbing the outdoors. During his former career as a real estate agent, he carved out a business creating novelty fishing lures called Old Oregon Classic Fishing Lures. The hand-carved wooden lures collected quite a following and he sold thousands of them.

Then about three years ago, he painted a watercolor fly-fishing scene, which he made into his family's Christmas card. Friend Hobart Manns, also known as 'The Outback Angler,' gushed about the image, asking where Crouser got it.

'I made it,' Crouser said.

'No, really…' his friend replied. After some convincing, Mann confessed he didn't know Crouser painted.

Mann encouraged Crouser to sell his art, and helped line up a commission from Subaru for an original work with 500 prints. Sensing a niche in the sportsman market, Crouser started showing his fly-fishing paintings at sportsman shows across the Northwest.

But the niche proved too small for his loose, impressionistic work with Crouser's signature paint splatter, so he moved on to more general art shows.

A series of epiphanies hit during one such show in Boise. Even though it was well attended by tens of thousands of people, Crouser didn't sell much.

Mystified as to why - 'unless you're really crappy and I just didn't think I was that bad,' he said - Crouser analyzed what successful artists did.

He noted friendly vendors talked to clients.

'They're buying you,' Crouser realized. Sure, your art has to be something people want to buy, he said. 'Your product has to speak for itself, but you also have to market, sell and be a talented artist.'

Instead of having a limited supply of a few large $1,000 original works, Crouser diversified with smaller paintings for $175 to $275, affordable $30 prints and greeting cards, $6 each or two for $10. He even offers sketches his original paintings are based on

As for the product itself, it has to reel in a consumer within seconds.

Crouser began experimenting with more color, brighter hues, larger images and individualized subjects. He traded scenes of fly fishing for individual fish.

'It's what I like to paint, but not necessarily what people want to buy,' Crouser said. 'And if you don't make compromises, you won't be successful in this business'

But instead of the detailing every scale on a salmon - 'People have seen that a million times,' he said - Crouser stayed true to his graphic, spontaneous looking style.

People bought it hook, line and sinker.

He also experimented with digital technology, layering colors behind his images to make them appear brighter. 'It's like a science experiment,' Crouser said.

One day, Crouser found himself stuck. Successful artists offer fresh works of art and Crouser couldn't seem to spread his artistic wings beyond fish.

'Do something else,' said Molly, his high school sweetheart and wife of 22 years. Molly, who happens to be a master gardener, pointed him to the backyard, where he painted a hummingbird on a fuschia.

The image became one of his best sellers.

'Whoa, a bird,' Crouser recalled thinking. 'People buy birds?'

Buyers flocked to his new subject matter and commissioned pieces.

Now, his work includes everything from horses to otters. 'Not everything is a big hit,' Crouser said. But he's still surprised by how well his birds and other animals have been received. 'I never thought I'd be painting hearts and hummingbirds,' he said, referring to a Valentine's Day card. 'But here I am.'

And his customers seem surprised that Crouser - a University of Oregon track and field champion who stands 6-foot-5-inches tall - is the person behind the images they so enjoy.

'So you did all of this?' they ask at art show. 'But you're so big.'

Crouser takes it in stride. He hears the same thing when he tears it up on the golf course. 'Apparently you can't do those well if you're big,' he quipped.

For the past two years, Crouser has worked fulltime out of his home-based studio. Paintings and custom-made creels - one complete with a silver whiskey flask on the side - cover the walls of his converted garage located in Gresham's Southwest neighborhood.

His experience being self-employed serves him well in his new profession.

'It's second nature to be in business for myself,' he said, adding that it drives him to look for innovations and efficiencies.

Ever perfecting the business side of his operation, Crouser is working on becoming '100 percent self-contained,' meaning he handles every aspect of production, from making his own prints to perfecting the art of framing.

He's also put his images on inexpensive tiles and even rustic wood that's perfect for outdoor displays. Tiles featuring his popular bird paintings are available at Portland-area Backyard Bird Shop locations.

But most of all, Crouser credits his success to his wife, who has supported him every step of the way.

'You're really sticking your neck out any time you start something on your own,' he said. 'It's kind of a dream come true.'