Ted Hartley of RKO Pictures: 5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me When I First Became An Artist

Yitzi Weiner
Authority Magazine
Published in
17 min readNov 19, 2022


Relax. Let it go. I wish somebody had allowed me to or helped me believe that helps the creativity with the brush or the pallet knife in my hand. Letting go is what makes it real. You are not thinking something through as you would if you were designing something mechanical. It’s not that it must work mechanically, a painting. It must move one person or 20 people in some way that allows them to have a different point of view or satisfy some curiosity they have about themselves.

As a part of our series about “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me When I First Became An Artist” I had the pleasure of interviewing Ted Hartley.

Born in Omaha, Nebraska, Ted Hartley was educated at Annapolis, Georgetown University, and Harvard Business School. Ted Hartley is a former US Navy fighter pilot, investment banker, actor, and film producer and is currently CEO of RKO Pictures, a historic now independent production studio. He is a member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (Oscars), a Tony voter, and active on several corporate and charity boards. Later on, Ted found personal satisfaction in his own artwork. Now fully exploring his own found passion in painting, he progressed from representational art into more daring subjective expressionism.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us the story of how you grew up?

There’s a town in northern Iowa called Hartley, Iowa, named after a great, great uncle or somebody like that who was a surveyor for the railroad going across the western plains after the Civil War. Part of the job benefit was he got to name the towns when he found a place he liked and named it after himself. That was the first time I realized that maybe there was something in the world bigger than I was to have a town with the same name that I had and some long-ago relative that had named it. Wow.

In any event, my father did not want to be a farmer; although that’s our stock, that’s our heritage. He went to the University of Iowa, got a degree in engineering, and worked his way through being a telephone lineman back in the pre-internet days when everybody had a telephone on a telephone line. In the country, you had an operator that picked up the phone when you picked yours up and connected you with whomever it was you wanted to talk to. That fascinated him, and he worked his way up and, finally, became the president of something called Northwestern Bell Telephone, which was part of AT&T, which is still one of three big telephone companies today.

My father died suddenly for me, but apparently not so suddenly for my mother and the people who knew about it. My mother was so shaken up about it that she never felt comfortable discussing it. As far as I knew from her, he’d just gone away on a long trip. I knew something terrible had happened, and my life was in danger because whatever happened to my father could happen to me. I grew up with that feeling that I had to be perfect. If not, life could be yanked away from me. That gave me some experiences that some of the other kids didn’t have. Being perfect is an impossible dream, and it’s not even very interesting. But if your life depends on it, you struggle, and you can feel guilt and a sense of danger because you’re never quite what you need to be.

I knew I had to get out of Des Moines, not that there was anything wrong with Des Moines. In some ways, it’s a pretty place. Good education. Schools, high schools, colleges. Wonderful four seasons of bright-colored leaves in the fall, and the buds come out early in the spring. But the danger lurked in Des Moines, and there was no way you could become as big as you had to be to stay alive there. I knew that instinctively. I was able to get a scholarship to a prep school in Minnesota. The school, now called Shattuck-St. Mary’s School, and that was my first experience living away from home. But I did it, and I knew I could take that whole idea of growing bigger in a different place, in a different world, and that it would make my life safer and more worthwhile if I became something that I couldn’t become in a city in Iowa.

Can you share a story with us about what brought you to this specific career path?

This is a funny question for me because I’ve been a jet carrier pilot, been an aide at the White House, and acted in a few movies, commercials. Having a wonderful, exciting life, and by happenstance, I was able to get some training in painting while doing some other things.

Although I’ve always been interested in color, movement, and shape, I came into painting because my wife fell ill, and I knew she would probably not make it out of that illness; it would be long and difficult for her. She would undoubtedly get self-conscious about her appearance, not remembering things, or not being up to her usual standard. To make her life easier, I pulled together a group of her friends and hired a painting teacher. We started having painting classes around our dining room table. That was good for wife Dina because she could concentrate on her painting and not have to carry on conversations. It was suitable for her friends because they didn’t feel like they had to be social. They were there with Dina and me, enjoying an activity that felt creative and didn’t require social effort. That was the way it all began.

As Dina became less active, she began not coming to class, but she could hear the voices of her friends even though she was in bed. I could tell that that cheered her up. When Dina died, after a while, one of her friends asked if we could start the painting class again, and we did. That was about five years ago when I threw myself into it, and suddenly, it became vital to express myself.

I have a lovely painting studio in an overhang at my little house. Some powerful moments happen there. Painting allows me to grow because I still have so much to learn. You start with sketching and go to watercolors, then the gouache, and may end up with acrylics or paints. I found acrylics and colored pencils the easiest to make color move around. And so, as a result of that adventure with my wife, I have now had my third exhibit.

Can you tell us the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?

My career is a series of progressions: each aspect, each new job, adds to the possibility of future things. My background includes being a Navy jet carrier pilot, a White House aide, an actor, a producer, then a storyteller. Storytelling led to ways of expressing myself, and here we are at painting. Each of those progressions was important. As an actor, I learned how to free myself to become, to take on the point of view of a character without judging it. And as a producer, I learned the importance of telling stories with allegiance to the authenticity of whatever tale you tell. “Is it possible? Did this happen? Could this happen? What is the nicest thing you can say about the bad guy? What is the failure or the weakness of the good guy?”

And painting, I found, and I’m finding and will find, is like that. I started modeling myself after a Chinese painter, Zao Wou-Ki and then became attracted to some of the work of Jackson Pollock and, more recently, Gustav Klimt. There is a graduation of quality that each artist had that the other had not found. Melding those two together is what’s happening in my painting.

I started as an acting person trying to understand the techniques of painting. ‘What are the things you need, and how do they work? And how can you make them work to produce the results that you’re looking for?’ And then discovering the painting is more than merely blending colors or drawing lines. It is about something. It is about something that moves you and looking for a way to integrate the search for authenticity and what’s real and the desire to express the stories, the deep convictions that run in your mind into colors and lines. It’s a wonderful trip.

What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now?

Some people call me the Warrior Painter because I rely on my background as a fighter pilot but also as an actor in many roles. Now one thing that moves me the most is the heroic story of the Ukrainians fighting with whatever weapons are available to them and with the determination to resist the invasion and the enslavement by the Russians. They’re dependent on the support of the West and their friends where they can find them, but their heart is all of their own, and only they can defend their country. I find that profoundly moving. I have recently dedicated my time as a painter to telling the story of the defense of particular places in Ukraine. And the largest painting so far is called “Kyiv, Pro Patria,” where all of it, for whatever fees and recompense is received for those paintings, will all go to support the Ukraine people in their fight for their homeland.

Each of the paintings in the series, which may extend to five, but is at three currently, uses dominantly the color red, which is the Russian red, also stands for blood and for anger, and has lots of symbolism; as well as blue in various shades with gold or yellow, which are the colors of Ukraine. And how those symbolic colors come together tells the story of a particular fight and, so far, has been the defense, successful defensive Kyiv, and the first steps in driving the Russians out of Eastern Ukraine and the shore. And those are called “Retreat from Snake Island” and “Red Flight from Izium.” That gives me great pleasure to paint these.

The first one was already sold, and that $50,000 went to the Ukrainian Red Cross and supporting units. And the next ones go to Madam Zelenska, the First Lady of Ukraine, and to her foundation for the children’s education and health, many of whom are orphans in Ukraine. I can’t pick up a rifle, pop into a fighter jet, or wage a political campaign in Europe or elsewhere to support the Ukrainians. But I can paint these large, colorful paintings of the fight, reminding viewers of what that war’s about and how that fight is for freedom everywhere while raising a bit of money for Ukraine. And that way, again, the paintbrush, not the rocket, is my kind contribution to the defense.

Who are some of the most interesting people you have interacted with? What was that like? Do you have any stories?

One of the most interesting people I met recently is Madam Zelenska, the wife of the president of Ukraine. Her husband was an actor, and he’s turned those skills of dealing, of making things meaningful to an audience, to excite them and encourage them and lead them, together with his wife’s ability to write and to make things happen in a humanistic way. Two people who I have admired since the Russian invasion and whom I felt I would be privileged to meet. It happened. I was invited to a breakfast in New York for a few financial institution clients. I had the chance to meet, talk with, and listen to Madam Zelenska.

Her cool calm while her country is being ripped apart, her strong, persuasive way of saying how… of talking about helping, of how she would like to help the children of her country. She underlined their need for investment when the war ends and the Ukrainians have driven the Russians back across the border. Not only was her belief strong, but she was so inspiring to the group, many of whom pledged resources, small or large. Every once in a while, you meet somebody who really affects how you look at things. She was one of those with me.

Where do you draw inspiration from? Can you share a story about that?

Inspiration has a relationship with hope and betterment, and creativity. Those words describe how I feel about my painting. Its bright colors, its sense of movement across the canvas, and the surprises as you look into the layers and discover things all come out in my feeling that life has many layers and that painting, if it’s going to express one’s feelings, must both be simple in its colors and movement and lines, but also profound.

Simple, by the way, does not mean small pieces or single lines, although those can be beautiful. The fruit of simplicity comes from being sure that there is something meaningful there that is not haphazard with a question in your mind of what it all means and where it came from.

Often at exhibits, interesting people and friendly, curious people will ask me what a painting means. I have a small work called “I Am Not Going to Go, and You Cannot Make Me,” which draws comments on the exhibition. Often, I’m asked what the painting means and what does the title have to do with the painting? And my answer invariably is, “What does it mean to you? What do you see? Tell me about your reaction to the painting and to the title.” And invariably, people will come up with their own interpretation, which is what I believe I, as a painter, want. I want to excite thoughts, excite emotions, engage and communicate and invite communication with those who view it. And I find that sometimes my own painting will touch me in one way, and at other times, in other moods with different emotions, it will affect me differently. That’s what I like about art.

How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?

Is the desire, the commitment to bring good to the world, a part of a painter’s expression? Is it a good something that you show in a painting? I think not. I feel good has to be in the eyes of the viewer of the painting, and they will find good in the painting as they do in their own lives. As a painter, I want to tell an authentic story, an authentic depiction of feeling that is the best expression of who I am about a particular story, a particular inspiration. It’s about being honest, not painting to fool people or get them to give you money. It’s about painting to share.

And for me, as a painter, the word “authentic” from a viewer means that she or he believed that I was really honestly expressing something, that I was not faking it. I think authenticity is how you allow people to find whatever good and inspiration and generosity they have in the authenticity of the painting that inspires them, I hope.

What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.

Relax. Let it go. I wish somebody had allowed me to or helped me believe that helps the creativity with the brush or the pallet knife in my hand. Letting go is what makes it real. You are not thinking something through as you would if you were designing something mechanical. It’s not that it must work mechanically, a painting. It must move one person or 20 people in some way that allows them to have a different point of view or satisfy some curiosity they have about themselves.

But the number two thing that is equally as important is you must also be a good mechanic. Brush strokes. Moving it in one direction creates one impression, one trail. Moving it on the tip does something else. Washing. It’s gently around the edges of the color. Those are all the craftsman requirements that allow the painter to relax. So, if someone said, “Study everything you can about your craft, take all the chances you can with your materials and your brushes and your instruments, and experiment so that when your emotion moves you, you can express it.”

One is trusting relaxation. Two is craft. You can’t do one without the other and still be a painter. Three, collect everything in your mind. Look at the way the sun strikes the edge of a glass table and how if you look at it in one way, you see the sun going through the table to the floor underneath it. And if you move a little distance, you will also see the reflection in the glass. It’ll have a completely different effect. And you collect these experiences in your mind by looking at things and seeing them in a way you never had before. And then you pass that on into your lines.

And I guess a fourth thing would be welcome to whatever people tell you, experts, casual viewers, people dear to you in your life, strangers. And if you find it touching and useful, relax into that, accept that and feed it back in a different way so that conversation with people is also a source of inspiration to you. When conversing, reading, eating, or putting yourself to bed, those little experiences can also be a source of wonder. How did that happen? What does that mean? Where did that come from? All of that feeds the creative flow that allows an artist to be true and authentic.

And lastly, I hadn’t realized how important love is to me as a painter. Or put another way, how disdain, dislike, impatience, or prejudice about things stop my creative process. It’s only recently as I’ve begun to understand meditation and how it deals with thoughts without judgment, with views without pushing away openness of equality-about quality wherever you find it. All of that comes under the heading of letting yourself be in love with the day, the store clerk, the people who annoy you, governments, and natural disasters. There is something in each of them that is a causal effect of something else.

And down the line, there may be good that you don’t see and benefit from. If you judge it too quickly, as a painter and human being, instead allow curiosity, which leads to affection, often heaven.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)

I don’t regard myself as a person of influence, nor do I feel that as being a necessity for me to value myself. I can come as close to being whatever I am as I can be and express that in many ways as I’m able while still being functional and in a complex society.

This doesn’t mean demanding that people pay attention to you. I don’t think that’s what this means. You can influence in the most minor ways. If you watch people on buses and subways and plowing the fields in the country, reacting to the crops and hoping for rain, it’s the realness of whatever that behavior is that brings one’s admiration and changes your life or influences your life or creates a sense of wellbeing by seeing that event or that individual as she really presents herself and wondering about that.

It would be impossible for me to measure the good that I do. I wouldn’t know how, and it is not good for people I can provide, nor is that my objective.

I wish everybody well in my painting and my life, in various careers of various kinds, flying and acting and directing and teaching and educating, and all about allowing people to be kind, creating situations where people feel free to be kind and themselves. An openness of sharing and friendliness in what you do.

Yes, in my paintings, I like people to be interested in coming back for more. And ultimately, part of the measure of that is that they buy them, that they want them, that they want to see them more. But that’s not a strong enough motive.

Behind it, it has to be, am I sharing something that I think is part of me? Am I laying myself open so people can take whatever I’m presenting as me on canvas, on paper, with acrylics, or watercolors?

If they could gain from that something that enhances their life, that’s good. It’s good for me, good for the world. It cuts down on disagreement, hatred, jealousy, and disdain, which is the kind of attitude authentic art should engender.

We have been blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she just might see this.

Oh, there are so many people I’d like to have breakfast with. Breakfast for some, dinner perhaps with others. I’d really like to have something, breakfast maybe, with my father. He died suddenly when I was five years old, which affected me more. It became the most important event in my life until I was in my thirties.

I didn’t know how much that mystery about his departure and who he was, why people say my father would be proud of me, or what he wanted, and did he get it? What made him happy? Does he care about me? Those are the things I didn’t know because I did not have a father; I didn’t have my father. And because there was no other substitute for that, I have all these unanswered questions in the way I felt my fear and solitude growing up. So, Dad, I’d love to have breakfast. If breakfast doesn’t work, are you free for lunch?

I’d also enjoy having lunch with some people I feel have patriotism, a love of country, and freedom and how their lives have been steered by that. I couldn’t have a better breakfast companion than Admiral Bill McRaven, head of the American Special Forces. Despite great rank and great responsibility, despite having control over lives and deaths, of having to seek out people like Osama bin Laden and deal with the inherent roughness and venom that comes with defending with force the big large island of inclusive freedom that we live in.

Great people with warts and an awareness of their own humanity, and I again go back to the word authentic. Not trying to be something; simply being whatever you are in the best way you can be.

I’ve got a young man who’s very important to me, a part of my family, who is looking for an adventure that would bring meaning into his life in the summer after he graduated from college, he got on a bicycle and rode from Paris to Beijing to meet all of the people that he could and to live in all kinds of environments without meaningful financial support. He had to take care of his bicycle and trust in the good nature and generosity of the people he met.

As he came out the other end of that, he wrote me a letter, an email, and said, “I’ve done all this, and I’d like to ask you, what is the thing that seems most important to you that you do every day?”

And I knew after all he’d been through that that was not a simple question. He was looking for something he had not found on his trip. Was there something he had not found on his trip, which took more than a year? And as I thought about it, I learned something about myself, which I learned as I was thinking about this. It had nothing to do with accomplishments, not with the film I was doing, not with the umpteenth carrier landing I was making in a heavy fog, not with passing an exam, not with achieving a goal. Every day I realize, and I passed this on to him, and I think becoming part of his philosophy. So, he tells me: “The hardest thing I need to do, and I don’t always succeed, is to win my respect and admiration for being true in whatever way that means.”

And as I think about that, I know what is genuine and fake. What am I doing that is essential in the direction I want my life to go? And what is done for effect? One makes me, and it’s hard to do that examination even in a cursory way every day. And it is the most important and challenging thing I do when I stop and let it happen. And I know I don’t have to stop and think about it when it happens. And the last thing is, I like to have dinner with that guy, and I want to have dinner with him and the me that I like to have dinner with, the me that I like to have dinner with when I pass that test.

What is the best way our readers can follow you on social media?

I am on Instagram @tedhartley.studio.

This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!



Yitzi Weiner
Authority Magazine

A “Positive” Influencer, Founder & Editor of Authority Magazine, CEO of Thought Leader Incubator