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Tete-a-Tete: Mike Callahan: Image

Tête-à-Tête: Mike Callahan

The Wise Owl talks to award winning artist Mike Callahan, a fourth generation Nevada native who counts himself privileged to have grown up in one of the most beautiful places on earth, the eastern Sierra Nevada Mountains near Reno, Nevada where he still lives today. Mike Callahan is an expert not only in Sierra Nevada landscapes but also enjoys painting Western themes as well as portraits.

Mike’s work has been featured in numerous solo, group, and juried shows including the 54th and 56th Juried Exhibitions at the Haggin Museum in Stockton, California, the Oil Painters of America’s National Juried Show of Traditional Oils 2008, and the National Oil and Acrylic Painter’s Best of America Juried Exhibition 2009 and 2010. Mike has won recognition and awards in each of the aforementioned shows.  Mike's work, can be found on his website or

Hi Mike. Thanks for talking to The Wise Owl about your work.

Thank you, I’m honored and very happy to be able to do so!

Q. Our readers and viewers would love to know what made you become an artist. Were there any people in your family or in your circle of friends who encouraged you to pursue art as a profession?

A. If I think back on it, I'm going to have to say initially, my grandmother encouraged me more than anyone else at a very early age. I'm not sure if it was just to pacify me or keep me busy when I was at her house, but oftentimes, she would pull out a sheet of typing paper and hand me a pencil, and I'd be busy for hours drawing things. A little later in life, I would have to say it was my mother who encouraged me.  She signed me up for some private art lessons when I was maybe about 12 years old. I went to painting lessons every week for about three or four years. And that's where I really fell in love with the medium of oil paint. But I only progressed so far; the teacher I had, though she was a dear lady, was really not all that skilled herself, and didn't really teach me much beyond the basics. So, a little bit later on in life, actually early in life, but few years after that, I met this beautiful girl who was ultimately to become my wife. When I had graduated from high school, I had really no idea what I was going to do with my life, and she was still in high school, and she knew how much I loved art and there was a recruiter at the high school for a technical school that taught illustration and design. And though I wasn't there, she thought of me and encouraged me to look into that.  Essentially, she put me in contact with the recruiter.  I ended up going to that technical school for a short while, shortly after we got married. So, I would have to say that my biggest encourager and the one who is mostly responsible for my having entered into the graphics field and the field of art in general would be my wife. She has always been my biggest encourager, and my biggest fan.

Q. I was looking at your works displayed on your website, and I noticed that your preferred medium is oils. What is it about this medium that has made it your medium of choice?

A. Having worked in oils pretty much exclusively as a child, I was comfortable with the medium. When I went to the technical school, one of my professor's showed me how much more you could actually do with oil paint. And from there, I just started noticing and looking at other oil painters and though I tried some other mediums, some water media, it never held a candle to oil. I love the medium. It's probably the most forgiving and most versatile medium that I've ever come across.

Q. In your works you seem to prefer a palette of blue with a dash of white. It looks beautiful. Our readers would love to know why you prefer to use this colour.

A. It's funny that you would ask that question. I really hadn't thought of that. I never realized that my paintings have a predominance of blue. But, as I look at some of my paintings, now that you mentioned that I can kind of see how you came up with that. So why I paint more things blue than other things I would have to say because that's what exists in nature. The sky is blue, reflections are blue, and so being a landscape painter that is going to show up in a lot of my work.

But to get back to that question of color and the color palette, I'm glad you asked. It's going to be, I think, very interesting for people to know that I work with a total of four tube colors. Well, actually three colors really and white. I use Hanza Yellow Quinacridone Rose (which is the same as magenta) and Phthalocyanide Blue, which is a very powerful blue. (And so also perhaps that's one reason why it shows up more.)

I used to have a palette of probably 30 or 40 colors, and I was constantly being frustrated with mixing up a color, using that color, running a little shy of that color and then trying to mix that again. And with all the colors that I had on my palette, which colors I used to come up with that particular mix was often in question and sometimes so frustrating to try and hit that color again. A friend of mine suggested that I use a limited palette of about six colors. And I thought to myself, why would I want to do that? I would be mixing all the time with so few colors, I thought. Then I got to thinking about it and I couldn't really decide which six colors to use so I decided I would go with primaries and give that a try.

I discovered that pure primary colors are Hanza Yellow, Quinacridone Rose, and Phthalocyanide Blue.  With those three colors and Titanium white, I can mix any color that I can see with my eyes. There really hasn't been a color that I can't mix other than something ridiculous like fluorescent colors or something like that. But as far as colors that I need for the type of paintings that I do, I have not found a color that I cannot mix. And so that's why I use those colors.

Q Do tell us a little about your creative process. What inspires you to pick up your brush, how you conceptualize the idea of a painting and how you create the final product?

A. As is mentioned in my bio, I live in a very beautiful part of the world. And so I'm really oftentimes inspired by the beauty that I see around me and I sometimes feel really compelled to paint that. I internalize that beauty but then I have to put that out. I have to let it kind of flow through me and so that's kind of what inspires me to paint the landscapes that I paint. I'm really fascinated with the effects of light and how light shines on certain things at certain times of the day. I have a huge library of photos that I take, and I keep them on my computer and oftentimes I'll combine certain elements from one piece to the other. So, I'm not always painting a specific place that exists but sometimes I'm kind of modifying that place taking artistic license and making it what I would consider a little more spectacular or pushing the colors a little further than they actually go. However, I do paint a lot of other things besides landscapes. And I guess some of the same thing is what is inspiring to me about that. If I see an interesting face, I might want to paint it if I see light shining a certain way, in a room or on the side of a barn or something like that, I feel inspired to paint that as well. As an artist I do not shy away from painting anything that I feel like painting so I will paint still-life from time to time.  I will paint the human form and figure. I will paint portraits. I will paint Western scenes - I love to paint cowboys. Sometimes I may see wildlife that sparks something that I want to get out on the canvas.

Things I see just kind of ruminate and then I just have to try to get them out and then once I have a canvas in front of me on my easel I kind of have this compulsion from the beginning of the painting all the way through the end to get that painting just how I want it to be.  And sometimes, things happen, and I surprise myself and things start to take shape in a way that I wasn't necessarily planning but in a delightful way. And so then I'll push that a little bit and I'll just use that experience to kind of put in my back pocket to use on other paintings as well. I consider myself not to be an experimental painter, but an experiential painter. I love to paint and gain the experience of using texture and value to translate something a certain way. You know, manipulating the paint and getting it to do interesting things on the canvas. And so all those sorts of things really motivate me and it's just all part of my creative process.

Q. You do Sierra Nevada landscapes as well as portraits with equal dexterity. Do you have a preferred genre?

A. I would say no, I don't. I pretty much love to paint anything that excites me. However, if you look at the bulk of my work, you're going to see that it is landscape and so I think probably if I'm being honest with myself, the landscape probably is my preferred genre just because I paint it more often than anything else. Part of the reason for that is, I think, as it takes less prep work, and it's going to be a beautiful painting. For instance, if I want to paint a portrait, then I have to have a subject, I have to have a model or I have to find somebody that's willing to have their portrait painted. I have to set up lighting and I have to really conceptualize the painting in a different sort of way than I do with a landscape. Landscape can just be more spontaneous, and a little more freeform. If I paint a face and the nose is off slightly or the mouth is off slightly, it's going to show. If I paint a landscape painting and the mountain is not quite at the exact angle as the one in my reference, or if the branch of a tree is in a different spot, then it doesn't matter. The human eye doesn't see that sort of thing. And so, I feel that there's just a lot more preparation and thought that goes into the human form or human face or even an animal for that matter. And so, it just takes more forethought and preparation. And it has to be much more planned. I still love to do it. But I just do it less often, probably because of those sorts of reasons. So anyway, that was a long answer to a short question.

Q. Do tell us about your favourite painters. What is it about their paintings that draws you to them?

A. To be honest with you, I have a bookmark folder on my computer that has literally hundreds of painters that I admire bookmarked there. And, you know, I could probably spend a good amount of time telling you about any one of them, but to keep this brief, I will probably just mention a couple that come to the forefront of my mind. First and foremost, would probably be John Singer Sargent. I think he is just an awesome artist. The way that he handled oil paint was amazing; the way that he painted faces in human form, is equally amazing. He could capture a likeness, and from what I understand, he was just a super thoughtful painter. When it came to that, however, you know, many people are probably not aware of this, but he was an equally talented landscape painter, and he was equally adept at using watercolor which I am not and really kind of don't care to go there but I admire his amazing ability with either of those medium.

Another artist who I think I want to mention because I really admired the way that he painted the Sierra would be Edgar Payne. He painted a lot of his paintings, large paintings, in plein air. I don't put paint in plein air that much, but occasionally I do, and I enjoy it. I'm certainly not as adept at it as Payne was. But if you look at his paintings up close, (which I have had the opportunity to do on numerous occasions) it's just fascinating the way he layers his paint, and the texture he achieves and the way he captures the light of the Sierra, which is unique in that the air here is very dry and very clear. And so atmospheric perspective in the Sierra is a bit different than atmospheric perspective at the seacoast would be.  One more landscape painter I probably would mention would be Scott Christensen. I think the way he paints large format, oil paintings is pretty phenomenal. I would also like to mention Josh Elliott, he’s another guy who just paints these large, representational, realistic landscapes. If you haven't seen their paintings, take the occasion to look them up on the internet and in take a look at what they're doing. It's just phenomenal. I just admire their skill. And so, I aspire to that I suppose. Although at this stage in my career, there are certain things that I will stick to that will continue to keep me, me.

Q Our readers and viewers would love to know if you are working on a project or getting ready for an exhibition. Please share details for the benefit of our readers.

A. I’m not currently working on a project for a specific exhibition. I kind of go through phases of what I want to paint and recently I've kind of just come through a phase of painting, nocturnes. I have been inspired probably by Frank Tenney Johnson who was a Western painter. He painted these awesome nocturnes and got me thinking that really, a nocturne painting is not as realistic as other sorts of painting because you have to make up details that you really couldn't see in such low lighting.  And so, I've been kind of trying to come up with some methods of painting nocturnes, and I've painted several nocturnes lately. I really enjoyed developing a process. Initially, I started out just painting concentrating on darkening up the values and reducing contrast and making it look like night and painting it directly but then recently, I've kind of come up with a process where I kind of paint initially in grisaille or black and white, and that gives me a basis for the painting. And then I start glazing, the painting with dark blues and grays and come up with a muted color scheme to make it look like evening.

Prior to that, I suppose I was kind of going through a wildlife phase and I was painting some wolves, some bison and some other North American wildlife that I really enjoyed. And so I go through these phases.

Right now, I'm not really working on anything in particular theme-wise.  I have a couple of commissioned pieces that I'm working on. They're paintings of Lake Tahoe. That's another place that I really paint a lot. It's because it's a really beautiful place. And fortunately, I had a client recently commission me to paint some rather large pieces of Lake Tahoe and so I'm having great fun with that. One of the paintings is 50 inches by 62 inches. It's not a super huge painting, but for me it is and so I'm having a lot of fun working my way through that.

Q. You mentor young artists through your Zoom lessons. Do tell us what inspired you to launch this endeavour?

A. I was teaching classes live at the local museum, the Nevada Museum of Art in their museum school. And I was teaching live lessons there. And then they closed that program down during the COVID pandemic. And so, I had to stop teaching there and just to kind of help people out in those early stages of the pandemic where people were really, really kind of confused and afraid, I just decided to launch a little Zoom tour of my studio. And so I announced it on social media and had some people come to that initial studio tour. And during that time, majority of the people that came onto that Zoom meeting, were asking me would I do this for a class, when am I going to start the Zoom class, and could they come to it and could they be a part of it and so I gave it some thought and came up with a way to put that together. And so that's kind of how that got started at the beginning of the pandemic. I did zoom classes every week for about probably a year and a half, I guess. And at the same time, I had already been planning on creating a teaching website, which has finally been launched with some courses available now.  If any of your readers want to check it out, the URL is

I started putting courses up on me website so that I wouldn’t have to continue to teach the same lessons over and over again.  Students could just join at any point and anytime they wanted. They could have forever access to the class and things like that. So, I thought this would just be a great way to share my knowledge with other aspiring painters.

Q. What advice would you give budding artists?

A. What I would say to a budding artist is, be observant and be a sponge. Absorb everything you can from other artists, from people that you admire, study their work. And if you can, if they are living and they offer advice or classes, or they have a book or something like that, I would say to try to avail yourself of those things, if possible. And study what they say. Try things and realize there's not a one-way fit all.

When it comes to oil painting, basically, my philosophy is, within the confines of sound, painting processes, there are many ways to accomplish things. And so you have to try things and find something that works for you. And if something works for you, use it, do it. Try something else later if you're not quite getting the results that you want and keep what works and incorporate that into what you do and eventually that will become part of your style.

I mentioned that I went to a technical school, but that was only briefly for about six months and then there was a tragedy that prevented me from continuing my schooling. So essentially, everything I know about oil painting, I pretty much taught myself. So it is possible. You just have to observe nature, observe the things that you want to paint. You have to observe the quality and nature of the paint that you're using. And not only observe it but learn about it and incorporate it into what you do.

I would say first and foremost, teach yourself how to draw really well. Drawing is probably the most overlooked and yet most necessary skill to being a good painter regardless of what you're painting, whether it be the landscape, cityscapes, but in particular, human form, human figure. So, just work at it and tell yourself that you're not going to give up because if other people can do it, you can do it. It just takes determination and trial and error and working time and time again. Don't expect things to happen overnight. It's going to take a while to learn how to develop your craft. I like the saying; it takes a lot of brush mileage.

Don't expect to make a lot of money as an artist. You might and that's a bonus. But pretty typically, artists don't make a ton of money, but they do it because they love it. And so if you end up selling a lot of paintings and making a lot of money, kudos to you. It is possible and there are people that do it and I've made a living with my art, but I haven't made a super lucrative living like some people might think but I do it anyway…because I enjoy it so much and it's just a way of putting a piece of your soul onto a canvas that then others can take into their soul. In the end, I can’t really think of anything more gratifying than that!

I have a couple of things that I’d like to offer readers who are budding painters…my ebook, ‘My Approach to Painting the Landscape in Oils’ It can be downloaded for free, here’s the link for that: and Wise Owl readers can get a 50% discount on any of my online courses at by using the discount code WISEOWL at checkout.

Thank you, Mike, for talking to The Wise Owl. We wish you the best in all your future artistic endeavours.

Thank you so much for asking me. Have a great day!

Tete-a-Tete: Mike Callahan: Feature Story

Works of Mike Callahan


Under the New Moon


Sierra Meadow Sunrise


Still Ragged Edge


Wild Mustangs


Sparkling Shore


Tahoe Meadows


Snow Shadows


A Clear Day


Morning Catch


Sierra Tranquility

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The Forest Path

Tete-a-Tete: Mike Callahan: Sports Articles
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