-By Vanessa & Ron Lemen


Below is a Q&A about what it’s like to be an Artist married to another Artist. This interview was shared a few years ago. We asked some friends to ask us a few questions which we then answered separately. It was tough to narrow the answers down, so we’ve included all of them. It ended up being a little lengthy, but here’s what transpired:

First off…

How did you meet?

Vanessa: We met when we were in grade school in Fair Oaks, CA – we were about 10 or 11 yrs old. Ron’s juggling instructor brought his class to our school to do a performance.

Ron: We met when she was in 5th grade and I was in 6th. I was in a juggling troop from my elementary school and we went to Vanessa’s school to put on a show, we met after the show when our troop was getting ready to head back to our elementary school.

live painting with a clown model!


#1 – Free Time, Work Time, and Alone Time

Anyone being married to an artist will tell you it can be hell. Art takes skill and hours to produce good work. Hours of “internal” work, solitary work. An artist can disappear. The reality is that this kind of inner focus can put real strain on a relationship. Having two in the house doing this may only increase that strain.

(My colour teacher at AAU commented that illustrators are among the highest in divorces… not sure if it’s true, but she got me thinking.) ~HW

I know you both are very involved in many things including teaching, commissions, freelance, workshops, gallery shows, personal work and so on. How do you separate the day to day work and take the time to relax to spend together? When is the work day over? ~NV

Vanessa: I actually don’t know anyone who would tell me that being married to an artist can be hell. In comparison to what? And who is that person to say what’s right/wrong or comfortable or not a good fit for another? Maybe there are tough times, sure, but not *because* of being married to an artist – we’re all just human beings with different or similar ways we do stuff. Tough times can happen in any relationship, and between any types of people no matter what their profession. And even more importantly, good times can happen – and they do – a lot more than the bad.

Art does take skill and hours to produce good work, true, and a lot of what’s really great about being married to another artist is that he is well aware of that. I’ve found that the acquaintances we have who are not artists are usually the ones who tend to think that art is more like magic – an ‘either you have it or you don’t’ type of trade – and I’ve found that it’s tougher to explain the idea to those folks that hard work is involved to 1) attain the skills and 2) to do work in any type of arts.

Having that “inner focus” is a great thing. When I see that Ron is ‘there’, I think ‘awesome!’ And try to let him be. And he does the same for me. As far as our schedules being very packed with many things we do – most times, it’s art-related in some way or another. Work time and free time seem to overlap on many occasions. The thing we try to take note of is when we’ve both been working for days straight, that we should take a break and go out and do something – just to get out for a bit. Breaks are good for the ‘inner focus’ too.

Ron: Having two artists in the house is a blessing. When the deadline is looming and the other half “knows” that time is necessary in the studio, it just works. Strain comes from when the partner does not understand the many faces of what creative strain can look like or how to handle them without having some feeling that they might be the reason for this “mood swing”.
The pain of the deadline, the bleak moments of creative flat lining, or the need for silence is understood because she has been there too. We give each other space when space is needed and intervene when it is appropriate to do so.

Deadlines are real and we both know it and live it. It is a part of the life of an artist and what better way to share that way than to share it with someone who knows and cares about those precious hours of contemplation, creativity, and crafting.

Relax time to me is not about sitting around and lounging. I find that most of the time, I am the most relaxed when I am creating. Art is relaxing, it is what I want to be doing and I relax knowing I am in the act of visiting the imagination. The boundaries are blurred between work and play because to me my work is also my play, as is with Vanessa.

a few paintings Ron has painted of Vanessa painting


#2 – Inspiration and Motivation

Do you have routines to keep one another motivated and feed one another’s inspiration in your separate projects? ~SB

How do experiences in each of your projects and classes inform those of the other? ~SB

Vanessa: We don’t necessarily have routines to keep one another motivated or inspired, but it does happen. For example, we do stay up sometimes because the other one has to stay up or do an all-nighter. That can really help to know that the other is there working too. Ron might not know how much, but he motivates and inspires me a ton. He is one of the hardest working people I know. Maybe the hardest working person I know. That alone motivates me so much. He’s kickin’ my butt on a regular basis, and it’s just by being who he is.

So many of our experiences we have in our surroundings, in the studio classes we teach, and in the projects we’re working on are what come up in our daily conversations, so I’d definitely say that they come out in our work as well. One routine thing that I’ve found that’s helpful for my own inspiration is just to get outside, go for a walk or run. We have really great trails right around our house, that we can use regularly, but that’s something I usually do on my own. Ron and I go on adventures, like drive out to somewhere new, go for a hike, etc. and we always come back inspired.

Ron: When either of us hits a big creative road block we both love to go driving and shooting photos. We both usually have that itch to get out and go exploring around the same times together so that is very helpful. There are times when we are not synchronized in those creative slumps and we have to find something else to occupy that dry time while the other is busy working away. We also have our furry kids, and spend time with them.

When it comes to teaching, we always discuss our daily classroom experiences and we usually find that we share similar problems with students, and our discussions really help focus on what the issue is when sometimes they seem so random, obscure, or out of the blue that they can be taken the wrong way. Having that other take on the issue really does put the problem into better perspective and helps me see it from an angle I was blind to see in the first place.

With projects I come from the Art/Creative Directorial position and plan the crap out of everything sometimes to the point of not starting because it has all been worked out in charts and looks great. I more often than not need to be more spontaneous with my work, most of the time Vanessa works that way and took a lot for her to let go of that illustrative planning past but has successfully shed that skin. And at the same time she can use it again, comfortable in that old role so long as it is for a brief, and I mean brief, did I say brief?, moment in time. So watching her work really inspires me to be more reflexive and spontaneous.

A few portraits of Vanessa by Ron


A few portraits of Ron by Vanessa


#3 – Competition and Jealousy

Is there ever envy or jealousy re: Skill, Recognition, Awards, Income from art (one sells more pieces, or for higher prices than the other)? ~HK

Vanessa: I think any of this is natural to some extent, but it’s more of a human nature type of thing, and it can be used as motivation.. **on a side-note which I think is relevant and important to mention here** Ron did not teach me how to paint. I have actually gotten asked this a lot, and it is one of my biggest pet peeves, I think. It mainly comes across as if because I’m the female in the relationship, that he taught me. It’s a very old-school way of thinking that still finds its way into the minds of people in today’s world. One thing I’ve found that has evolved over time in our marriage is my reaction to that. 1) I worked my butt off and got better (and still am always working towards new levels in many ways). 2) I gained confidence. 3) I stopped staying silent (I stayed silent for fear of sounding defensive) when someone would ask if Ron taught me how to paint. I’ve realized that in order for anyone who may think that he taught me to truly understand that that should not be the automatic assumption, it’s my obligation to inform them that that is not the case – in our relationship, or just in how things work overall. But getting back to just competition and jealousy overall.. that’s a thing one needs to address as an individual. Having a husband who’s super skilled and knowledgable in art and gets recognition for it has been a huge source of motivation for me – and a huge source of simultaneously softening and toughening up an already pretty tough individual. When someone tells me that Ron is an amazing artist, they’re not telling me I’m not. It’s not a comparison thing. It’s just an observation, and they would be correct in their observation, and so I can say ‘yes, I agree!’ Ron deserves all the recognition and accolades he may get. He’s earned that, and I’m proud of him for it. As for income, no, that’s never been an issue.. because it all goes to the same place in the end.

Ron: Jealousy is natural and there is no escaping it. I find that when it happens, if it happens, it becomes the fuel that stokes the next project into existence.

An illustration by Ron of Vanessa after a bad car accident and surgery
#4 – Creative Energy and Emotions

Creative work seems to go through a rollercoaster throughout production. There are times of sheer joy in the production of what one might consider a “successful” piece, but there are times of real deep slog. Creatives themselves seem to be quite human in response to this ride; the emotions will soar and they will tank. Having two in the relationship doing this ride, and especially at different times, could add real strain on the relationship. How do you two handle that? ~HW

Vanessa: I think that having two in the relationship doing this is why it does work! Whether it’s at different times or at the same time. We both “get it” and that’s really important. Getting it means having been there, and knowing that it will eventually work out in some way or another. Getting it means protecting the other’s solitary time in order for them to have the time and space to work it out. And getting it means being there and talking it through or just not talking but still being there if they might need you to be. Again, to me, this is more of a human nature thing, and not so much an artist living with another artist thing.

Ron: There is a strong support from the other partner when there are those creative down slides just as much as when there is an upswing or success streak in the work. Those creative highs and lows are best understood from someone else who has them too.

I can’t recall too many times when we both fell into the same funk at the same time and when we did we just bought bigger tubs of ice cream. Our creative peaks and valleys happen opposite each other or on the coat tails of each others previous emotional state for whatever reason and what is interesting about that is the previous experience from her is usually insight to my current dilemma, so the only thing standing in my way of finding peace for the moment is me and my stubbornness.

in our booth at SDCC


#5 – Tools and Studio Space

Do you share tools – brushes, pens, etc or do you each have your own sacrosanct set-ups? For example, it has been said that a pen or a brush, or any implement absorbs the energy of the user, and anyone else touching it contaminates that energy. ~HK
Are you able to work when the other is in the room with you? For example, does it affect the degree to which you can focus/concentrate? ~HK

Vanessa: We don’t really share our tools, materials, or surfaces when it comes to our own personal stashes. We do have some things we share when it comes to tools at the school studio, and those are materials that students can use as well. That stash has built up over time. Ron and I work in very different ways in terms of painting or drawing, so some of our tools don’t really even cross over. But the fact that we don’t share our stuff doesn’t mean that when one is out of something that the other can’t use some. Or that one can’t try some thing that the other is using, just to give it a try or see what it’s like. Both of us, though, do not go through the other’s stuff when we’ve run out of our own. Apparently, we’ve both always been that way. It’s never been an issue or something that needed to be said. It’s just the way we both are.

As far as working with someone else around, there are times when that’s great, and times when it’s better to be left alone to work. This goes for both of us. We’re both okay with working with others around us. We teach, so we are comfortable working and talking at the same time, but when we’re not teaching, we have a choice, and sometimes would rather be left alone to work.

Ron: None of my art supplies work when someone else uses them since I had a DNA grip installed on everything I own so even if the art supplies fell into her hands they would just act as inert useless material.

When we purchase something new we usually purchase two. We both do very different types of finishes so our materials rarely overlap in high frequency but if they did there would still be little to no problem using each others things.

The zone is really easy for me to get in to so if you give me give me big headphones and an art table full of the supplies I need I won’t notice when the bombs drop all around us.

Doing a demo together at Legendeer Symposium in San Francisco


Watching Yim Mau Kun doing a portrait demo at our studio.  One of the many artist workshops we’ve hosted at our studio


#6 – Business and Income

Many artists struggle financially. It’s a tough profession, for so many. Having one source of income in the family that is less on a roller coaster (e.g., commission work, freelance contracts, students for studio, etc) helps take some of the pressure off. How do you handle financial instability? ~HW

In regards to the business side of things, do you keep things together like filing taxes or is everything handled separately? ~NV

Vanessa: I think that a lot of what’s perceived as art being a tough profession financially has a lot to do with a lack of knowledge about the issue. I’m not one to throw out some blanket statement about how it’s done. It depends on the individual’s goals, experience, interest and direction that they may take with their art. There are too many variables to form a general answer, but.. In our relationship and partnership, we’ve evolved under different circumstances and learned from them. It’s pretty straight-forward, just like any other scenario – starting from a young age and working a regular job, making ends meet to pay bills, keeping track of your finances in order to know that you’ve got things covered, and if you have enough, to splurge on some special book or art supply thing. The biggest reason that a freelance type of income is maybe more difficult for some is the planning ahead and looking at the whole, and then being realistic about time, money, and financial and life responsibilities. When it comes to finances, Ron and I are a team – and just like any team, we have our individual strengths and weaknesses, and we work with those in mind to try to keep our team the strongest it can be. In regards to the filing taxes, etc, we do that jointly, and most financial and tax issues are predominantly organized and handled by me.

Ron: It is so much easier when the finances are lumped up together.

Portrait of Vanessa – a snippet of a tutorial by Ron for Gnomon


#7 – Deadlines

Creative work is a project-based existence and as a deadline approaches, the schedule can be quite intense. There are other fields that experience this deadline driven approach to job too; but there are many fields that do not. Two artists doing deadline driven work could make it hard for them to find open space (and energy) to spend together. ~HW

Vanessa: Well, when it’s an intense deadline-driven time, that’s not the best time to try to find open space and energy to spend extra time together. Ron and I have meals together on the regular – tea and some breakfast in the morning, especially. Sometimes during those deadline-driven times, it may be our only time we spend together each day, but it’s understood. Spending time doing regular things that we do every day like eating meals, and playing with our furry kids, are times we can make sure to meet up and do together if we can. We also stop in to each other’s studio from time to time, and sit there for a few minutes together talking about things and taking a short break, if we can. If we’re both on crazy deadlines, which often times is the case, then it works out great! Just that once in a while, one of us has to remember to pick up a carton of almond milk for our tea and granola.

Ron: I think deadline time is essential in a relationship. It is concentrated alone time with others around you when “you” are ready or need to engage with another living being. When I was single and working away in my studio, there were so many moments when I wish there was “anyone” there to chat for a minute, bounce an idea off of, or to help me see what I was no longer focused upon.

The deadlines are constantly overlapping, if she is on deadline and I am not, that is time I get to spend working on my stuff that is already difficult to find time for so her deadlines are just as much a time to relish as those times when we both go hang out together, or when I have a job to complete, because I do enjoy my work.

Vanessa live painting


#8 – Feedback and Constructive Criticism

Do you give feedback to each other on work? ~NV

Has criticism/feedback of each other’s WIP/Finished pieces ever caused either of you to have to spend the night on the couch? ~HK

How do you handle it when you offer the other feedback and your advice is not taken? ~HK

Vanessa:  We definitely give and ask for feedback on our work. And we definitely know when not to as well. I don’t really have an issue with Ron not taking the advice I’ve given. A lot of times that happens because other things were done to the piece in a different area that could possibly cancel out what seemed to need a fix in the area that was mentioned.. or he just didn’t feel like doing the thing I mentioned. Totally not a big deal to me. It’s his work. But really, that’s rare on both sides. A lot of times, the thing that’s pointed out is the thing that’s been the issue in the piece, so it becomes more of a talking point in a dialog on how to resolve it.

Ron: Feedback is one of those great things about having another artist in the relationship. Feedback is the thing every artist needs and many are afraid to accept or receive but when you both love it, need it and sorta gauge many of your artistic choices on those moments where the two of you focus on the problem at the moment coming from mostly radically different directions, so many new possibilities can arise if the mind is willing and the eyes can see it for what it is.

How do I handle it when you offer the other feedback and your advice is not taken?
I cry for months. I eat a lot of ice cream and read Nicholas Sparks novels.

the Lemens plein air painting


#9 – Collaboration, Like-mindedness, Togetherness

Do you collaborate on projects? ~NV

I know you both are very involved in many things including teaching, commissions, freelance, workshops, gallery shows, personal work and so on. How do you separate the day to day work and take the time to relax to spend together? When is the work day over? ~NV

Vanessa:  I see marriage as being a collaboration, and owning a business together as being a big collaboration as well. Again, these things aren’t ‘art only’ types of things, but maybe could gain the title of one big collaborative accomplishment – a married couple running a business together. There were times in the beginning of our marriage and our business, where we’d start a conversation with “this is a business-related observation/question..” It would put it into a work meeting type setting instead of seeming like a personal issue. But since we’ve grown as a couple and as individuals, it’s not as necessary to create those boundaries.

We’ve done a couple drawings together for Sketch Theater a while back which were fun and totally spontaneous pieces (see the link at the end of this article). And there have been a couple projects we’ve collaborated on or I had a hand in some jobs as a ghost illustrator to help Ron get the job done. But as far as paintings, I’m definitely super charged to do some kind of collaborative piece with Ron. I made him a hand-made sketch book a while ago, and he still has yet to draw much in it. He says it’s already a finished work of art. We’ve done a ton of work of each other and for each other over the years, and gone on many art adventures together, traveling and sketching, setting up easels and painting in different places, and wandering and finding new places when we can.

Ron: We have collaborated on business projects more frequently than making art. We have done a few demonstrations together but we still have yet to figure out what our collaborative art will be. Until I can wield a spatula the way she does, the convergence of our treatment of the media remains unclear in my mind: It’s all about the Spatula.

To define how we might separate the day to day work routine from the time we take to relax together, I want to first say that the only thing that separates work from play is a deadline, otherwise they are one in the same. So then, the only thing that separates work from whatever else is that impending deadline. I am relaxed when I am doing art, just not when I am doing someone else’s art.

Above: pic by Naomi VanDoren at Legendeer Yosemite, and other misc selfies while hiking and adventuring


#10 – Good Times

What is the best thing about being married to an artist? ~NV

These may not be the best things, but here’s a list of a few great things about being married to another Artist…

  • Going to a museum and actually spending a good amount of time looking at the art. ~V
  • Being excited about and sharing a unique view of something that may seem ordinary to others (For example, saying “look how green your skin looks” won’t be taken the wrong way). ~V
  • Asking each other to pose for reference and knowing the other will not think it’s weird and they will have great poses. ~V
  • Waking up in the middle of the night and going to the studio to work because you got inspired, and knowing that the other one totally gets it and isn’t annoyed you’re not staying in bed. ~V
  • Sharing an understanding that if you’ve stayed in your pj’s all day, haven’t groomed, and might’ve forgotten to eat, that it might mean that it was a really great and productive day in the studio and you were hard at work (and that just because you’ve been in your pj’s all day doesn’t mean you were slacking off). ~V
  • Life is so much better when the one you love shares the same passions for the things you enjoy doing, why would art be any different? ~R
  • It is so much easier to justify the purchase of art supplies over amenities just as long as you share. ~R
  • Whether it’s 1 AM, 3PM, Christmas morning or while on a vacation, time in “the zone” is understood and no excuses are needed to be there. ~R
  • Honest feedback at the 11th hour. ~R
  • The day and whatever is involved with it is anything but routine. ~R


In the Sketch Theater booth at SDCC

Check out this link to watch one of our Sketch Theater collaboration pieces come to life:
Ron and Vanessa Lemen on Sketch Theater – vimeo