Artist Ralph Kerle, image courtesy of the artist.

Meet Artwork Archive artist Ralph Kerle

Kerle is a fine art photographer hailing from Sydney, Australia who plays with the lines between abstraction and reality in his photography.

Like his physical art, Kerle’s art philosophy creates a lens for reflection and interpretation. Kerle started creating work while on a journey of mental health, inspired while kayaking by the calm of his movement and the rippling sun-soaked water surrounding him as he moved through the water.

Kerle believes that art is a medium for reflection, imagination, and ultimately well-being. He’s built a successful art career on these beliefs—and by embracing art and business as a learning process.

We caught up with Kerle to learn how he has created an art career through his unique approach to photography and how he is changing his art practice in response to COVID-19. 

How do you understand your artwork within landscape photography and abstract art?

I observed nature, creating fully-formed abstract paintings on the surface of the water as I kayaked. These “paintings” initially reminded me of works by Abstract Expressionist painters like Jackson Pollock and Wilhelm de Kooning and the color field painter, Mark Rothko. As my practice grew, I began to see works from the entire lexicon of 150 years of the Modern Art movement nature delivered fully formed as reflections on the surface of the water.

I realized I could capture these natural images photographically. It was one of those epiphanies artists often have in the moment. Suddenly the uniqueness of the landscape I inhabited, the surface of the water from a kayak, became my atelier. 

Viewers would regularly comment on how my work reminded them of a particular modernist painter, and they were surprised that the works were photographs and hadn’t been manipulated using Photoshop.

Viewers often try to identify the specific geography of an artwork. “That’s a shot from offshore,” or, ”I have been to that place,” are comments I still often receive.

These observations helped me understand how the reality in the photographic work was being perceived. It also assisted in building a set of creative practices that sit outside the accepted norms of landscape photography and abstract painting. Sharpness and detail, the basic elements of photography, are not important to me. The color and movement that nature shapes on the surface of the water is the subject I seek to capture.

How much of your photography is planned and how much of your photography captures something unintended?

My work is completely unplanned and its outcomes are unintentional and unpredictable in all senses. It is based entirely on serendipity. Nature is in total control. I only have one chance to capture what I am seeing and that is whilst I am moving. 

When asked to describe how I work I say, "I go fishing for reflections." It is not until I download the images that I know whether I have made a good catch or not.

Burnt Out 3 90 x 120 cm (35.43 x 47.24 in) Ralph Kerle

What is different about your art practice now from when you started creating?

An iPhone started the journey for me. I posted my initial shots on Facebook and my Facebook friends, mostly Australian actors, writers, filmmakers, and artists, encouraged me to continue posting. Several of them recommended an exhibition.  

All of this was new to me. My original art school training and subsequent arts experience was in multi-media performance, rather than single-shot static photography.

iPhone files didn’t cut it for exhibition presentations. Suddenly, I was required to develop an entirely new set of technical skills for the tools I was using to create the artworks. I had to start all over again. 

Understanding the most useful type of camera and how a camera might react when exposed to saltwater, along with file sizes and file outputs for printing, was just the beginning. I had to learn about different types of materials and color printing—and its vocabulary.

I remember a conversation in the early days when I didn’t think the black was strong enough in the color proof. My print compositor, who had 40 years of experience in print compositing, asked me, “So if that’s not right, what color is black?”

I learned a lot online, but I learned the most from people around me in the photo industry. I will never be able to thank the gallerists, professional photographers, and suppliers who have given me the benefit of the advice and their vast experience. 

One particular piece of advice from one of Australia’s leading documentary photographers and a mentor of mine, Anthony McKee, was essential. His advice was not to waste my time entering photographic competitions because my work broke too many of the standard photographic conventions and protocols. This advice has been continually important to me as my artistic practice has evolved. Graham Maslen’s company, Spitting Image Australia, has an international reputation in the creation, design, and publication of fine art books for international museum blockbusters and leading artists and photographers. Graham took me on as one of a few photographers he works with and has been instrumental in helping me understand all the intricacies of digital print.

Learning is a process that I am still taking on. Malcolm Gladwell in his book “The Outliers” proposed it takes 10,000 hours of practice to be an expert in a field. After eight years on this journey, I estimate I have only about 8,000 hours chalked up.

 

Is there an artistic milestone or goal you’d like to achieve in your art business?

The pandemic postponed my realization of my first artistic goal. I was selected and offered a three months residency at the Mark Rothko Arts Centre, Daugavpils, Latvia from April through June 2020.  

This art center was established by the Rothko Foundation in Rothko’s birthplace, Daugavpils, and holds the largest collection of Rothkos in Europe. A residency in this prestigious cultural institution (re-assigned for 2022) will offer me recognition way beyond what I had initially envisioned and will undoubtedly open new doors. 

 

What is your advice to artists who are working to make a career of their art? 

Curiosity, persistence, and risk are important elements in my practice. However, the art of reflective practice is vital.

It was the famous American choreographer Twyla Tharpe who first described the ups and downs of an artist’s creative life when she described her own work practice as a balancing act between a groove and a rut. 

Every artist knows when they are in a groove. It is the rut that is most difficult to overcome.

Some days the sun is shining brightly whilst the wind is blowing at 15-20 knots, enough to disturb the surface of the water—so much so that no work is possible. Other days, I return with shots that seem to be repetitions of previous works I have taken and it feels like there is nothing new available in my working environment.

But, just when I think nature is not offering up anything new, I will suddenly see a different pattern emerge in a series of shots. I smile in wonder at the vagaries of nature and frown at my stupidity in trying to control her for an outcome.

What I have learned is if I try to recreate these moments of anticipation and excitement, I fail. The question I have learned to ask myself is only an approximation: "Is there a possibility of an artwork in this reflection?"

Curiosity and persistence coalesce. “Now go take the shot!,” I shout loudly to my artistic self.

Stays Afloat Canson Edition Etching Rag 310gsm 107 x 157 cm (42.13 x 61.81 in), Ralph Kerle.

How do you keep up with the administrative side of your art business?

When I first started to sell work, I had no business systems in place at all. 

I decided I needed to understand how to market and sell art. I found the Abundant Artist on the internet and participated in one of their excellent five-module practical courses on how to be a successful artist. During the course, Artwork Archive was recommended, and while I looked at it, I didn’t think I would require anything as sophisticated as that. How wrong I was. 

Artwork Archive is a very smart, well-thought-out software platform for artists.

Artwork Archive is now the main glue holding my business together. Two hundred plus artworks with editions of between 5 and 50 have been uploaded and coded for inventory. Every new work and every new sale is added instantaneously. This has made the ability to be able to administer the business so much easier and efficient, allowing me to focus on the creation of the artwork.

 

Has COVID-19 changed your art business?

Aside from my residency being postponed, I recently appointed a digital marketing assistant.

My gallery was in The Intercontinental Hotel Sydney. This hotel became a quarantine hotel in March when the pandemic hit, forcing my business exclusively online. 

It is early days yet as to how successful online selling of art can be for a singular artist without a substantial marketing budget.

The Red in Resilience Water-based inkjet print on museum-quality archival paper - Canson Edition Etching Rag 310gsm 85 x 107 cm (33.46 x 42.13 in) Ralph Kerle

What is your advice for artists looking to grow professionally while still focusing their time and energy on creating?

Australia’s leading ceramicist, Deborah Halpern, gave me some very good advice that I follow to this day. "If your work is not showing or being exhibited somewhere, you won’t sell. Don’t reject any opportunity to show your art," she said.

Exhibit in some way 365 days of the year! I keep that advice uppermost in my mind.

Want to see for yourself how Ralph keeps his art business in order? Try out Artwork Archive’s 30-day free trial