Q&A: Which artists are your favorite and how did you adopt this technique?

In December (in the middle of the madness) I was asked by a couple Instagram followers "Which artists are your favorite and how did you adopt this technique?" It's a great question and I knew I wanted to come back to it when I had more time (thanks for your patience!).

Turns out, I have a lot to say about this subject. So, I'll break this into two pieces. Here's the short answer:

Cezanne has always been my favorite master painter, but there are so many great Impressionists from that era. I really like Van Gogh as well, especially "Café Terrace at Night". I love the looseness and color these two both use and the way they don't have to define every single thing in the painting. Impressionism really speaks to my heart (way more than realism).

A blurry museum picture of me and Cezanne at the Met in New York

A blurry museum picture of me and Cezanne at the Met in New York

I came across a painter from Park City, Utah (near me) named Carole Wade and fell in love with her painting style. I was lucky enough to take a workshop from her and it changed how I paint. I steal a lot from her methods of setting up a painting and really like how they turn out. Carole does underpaintings in the complimentary colors of what will end up on top and lets a little color peek through every layer. I love this style and have had a lot of fun exploring it in my paintings.

I also took a really great workshop from Robert Burridge and his loose style and techniques have influenced mine as well. Both he and Carole are acrylic painters and I've appreciated seeing how well they both work with this medium (which is also my preferred choice).

For a longer list of some of my favorite artists and what I like about their work, scroll to the bottom.

Here's the long answer:

My mother is an artist, so I grew up in a home where art was always encouraged. She could draw anything, but her favorite thing to do was sculpt. I spent my childhood filling in sketchbooks and doodling, but having a hard time finding which type of art I was good at. I took art classes in junior high and high school and had fun working on a variety of projects. Some I was better at than others.

I went to college knowing I wanted to study art from day one, but still wondered where my talent was. At the time I thought the only way to make money (and a career) out of being an artist was to go into graphic design, so that's what I initially set out to do. I took typography and web design and computer art classes. I had a roommate who could make any graphic you ever wanted on her computer. But I struggled, and worse, I didn't find as much fulfillment creating art on a screen. I felt a deep love for design elements (and still notice and appreciate good typography), but I kept feeling a pull to create something in real life with my hands. As I worked toward my degree, I took a lot of other foundational classes that helped broaden my skills and made me understand and appreciate the value of a good drawing and perspective and the rules of composition. I also spent time in classes that were fun, but not something I wanted to pursue further (like 3D design where I had to build a functional chair out of cardboard, or a roller skate out of wire. Or ceramics where everything I made went to pot. Not literally, like it should've). I took photography back when we all used film and had to process in dark rooms and expose in a series of special fluids. Interesting, once again, but not the thing that thrilled me. The hard thing about taking a bunch of classes you're not particularly great at, and being in a major that is so subjective (darn the math majors that just get things right or wrong!), is that you start to feel pretty down about your sub-par skills and feel like maybe you weren't cut out for this field after all. Other classmates seemed to really be finding their niche and getting awesome. I felt like I was still bouncing around, very unsure and very talentless.

A nice wall of my amateur college art

A nice wall of my amateur college art

I went through a crisis mid-college and found myself asking, what was I thinking being an art major? How on earth am I supposed to make a living at art? I started looking into lots of other majors, trying to find something that made more sense. I very seriously considered starting over as something else. But the trouble was, nothing lit a fire in me the way art did. I couldn't get thrilled about sitting in classes doing something else all day. And I was having a hard time giving up the identity of being an art major. I loved telling people and watching their faces light up, "Oh, wow! An ART major? That's so cool! I can't even draw a stick figure." (Neither can I, but no one needs to know that).  In a sea of elementary ed and pre-nursing majors, I liked being something unique-- having a talent that not every other girl on campus had. Now, if only I could find it.

I took my first painting class as a senior. I still was having trouble seeing how the "painting & drawing" emphasis kids were ever going to have decent careers, but I needed credits and was running out of options. I stood in front of the canvas with a brush in my hand and immediately fell in love. Drawing always had to be so exact, but painting? Painting could be fluid and ambiguous and full of color and light. Where had this been all my life?? I had an early morning paint class and I remember never getting up in enough time to have breakfast, so I'd take it with me. The smell of peanut butter toast and oil paints still takes me right back.

Me working on a painting in college

Me working on a painting in college

So, this was a breakthrough. I LOVED to paint! We found the thing I love! That was a good first step. There were just two problems. One, oil paints were hard for me to use. I wasn't patient enough to let them dry, so all my colors got really muddy and mixed together. I was afraid to use too much paint, since it was expensive, so I painted really thin and dry and it didn't look good. And I was intimidated by the intense process of chemicals to paint with and wash your brushes with, so I hardly ever pulled out my paints at home. The second problem was I was at the end of my college career, finishing my last credits and anxious to graduate. With a few years of painting instruction, I probably could've overcome some of these things and learned to be better. But I was burned out and wanted to move on with life. It also didn't helped that I had moved around to four different schools in my college career, making my academic instruction pretty choppy. I still wonder how I would've been different as an artist if I had stayed in one program the whole time.

Anyway, I finished my classes (with pretty mediocre work) and got my degree. I listened to the praise that was lauded on some of my talented classmates and thought, well, I guess they'll go off and be famous artists and I'll do something else. Which is what I did. I got office jobs that paid my bills and put all my art supplies away for MONTHS. I've since identified that I was pretty blocked, as an artist. But at the time I didn't understand what that meant. I just knew the thought of creating art gave me anxiety and a lot of fear. I still hung some of the work I wasn't overly embarrassed by on the walls of my apartments and appreciated when roommates or friends gave me compliments. But I had no idea how to replicate any success I'd had or find a place to explore new work. I looked on jealously at other friends who were creating great artwork and thought, I guess I just didn't have the talent they did. I was terrified whenever anyone was playing pictionary and said, "Hey, Steph, be on our team! You're an artist!" (and by the way, not every artist is great at drawing things in a hurry in a board game. I'm a PAINTER! Such a difference. My quick horses or hands look just as chunky and awkward as anyone elses).

I remember a year after college a guy I was friends with learned I was an artist and commissioned me to do a painting for him. He gave me a really open theme and wanted me to just paint whatever inspired me. I bought a canvas and felt hopeful that maybe with my long break my skills would've magically become amazing and my brushes would know just what to do. I worked on that thing for MONTHS. I'd play with one idea and hate it and paint over it and start a new idea only to hate it and paint over it too. Nothing came together and I felt so hopeless and frustrated. Who am I kidding that I'm a real artist? Eventually the friend moved away and the painting never did get finished (he never paid me, so it was all fair).

A version of his painting that got painted over

A version of his painting that got painted over

I met my husband two years after I graduated. He, like so many others, thought it was really cool that I was an art major. He didn't know anything about art, but he could tell that I loved it, and he was falling in love with me, so he was supportive. His wedding present to me was three tubes of acrylic paint-- red, yellow and blue-- from the really good art store (Utrecht), not the cheap place I always got mine (ahem, Michaels, ahem). I was so touched to see that he believed in me. A few months later, we celebrated our first Christmas and one of his gifts to me was a giant 20x30 inch canvas. He wanted me to paint something beautiful for our wall. With his encouragement, I started trying again. I found that I loved acrylics SO much more than oils. They dry so fast, so I could play with lots of layers and not muddy all the colors. I loved how easy they were to clean (no chemicals, just water!), there was no aroma, and they were so much cheaper (meaning I could paint much thicker and not feel guilty). We moved several times in our first couple years of marriage, but he always made sure I had a little space to work. It pleased him so much when he found me painting and I loved winning his adoration (true love makes us such better people, doesn't it?).

I painted simple things that weren't very good, but I was trying to be patient with myself and keep at it. I found out I was pregnant with twins and spent weeks painting giant animal paintings for their nursery. The huge canvas Adam bought me that first Christmas had been started, but I wasn't sure of what I was doing and hadn't finished it. The problem was, it was so huge we had no place to safely store it except on the wall, so it hung in our dining room for years. We laughed whenever people came over and complimented it. Uh, it's not finished at all, but thanks (the good thing about impressionism is a lot of stuff can pass for art, right?).

The roughed-in sketch of the painting hanging on the wall of our first apartment. 

The roughed-in sketch of the painting hanging on the wall of our first apartment. 

We live in Salt Lake City and had been up to Park City (30 minutes up the mountain) several times for things. On one of these trips, we were wandering through an art gallery up there when I came face to face with a painting by Carole Wade. I stopped in my tracks and couldn't stop staring. I was in love. It was exactly the way I dreamed of painting. Carole did such a great job of making her colors feel alive and exciting. She was specific enough to show what things were, but loose enough to let things bleed into each other and live in their surroundings. I love when paintings look like PAINTINGS, not just perfectly recreated photographs. I love seeing the brush strokes and texture and suggestions of form and light without showing the whole story. I went home and browsed her website over and over and wondered how I could ever learn to paint like that.

I kept muddling along and wished I could paint something I was proud of. I knew what I wanted in my head, but couldn't seem to get that out on the canvas.

In the spring of 2013, I was invited to be part of a small art show. I believed in the group and was happy to be part of a show, but still felt intimidated about creating a GOOD painting. I picked a subject and worked forever on it. There were small parts I liked, but overall I wasn't happy with it. I had break downs as the deadline drew closer. Why on earth did I commit to this? How am I supposed to show this terrible work to anyone? I was especially having trouble with the face. My husband, in an effort to be helpful, said, "Why don't you see how Carole does faces?" He set his laptop next to my easel with her website up. I stared at her work and then mine and felt even more foolish. I had no idea how to replicate the magic she had going on.

The show date arrived and I took what I had. I tried to let go of how I felt about it, but I really hated my work. Unfortunately for me, my work was displayed right next to my friend Loralee Nicolay's and hers was AMAZING. Everyone walked over and couldn't stop gushing about how great hers was (rightfully so). Then they'd say nice things to me that I was sure was just them trying to be gracious and I felt smaller and smaller.

Loralee and her beautiful painting.

Loralee and her beautiful painting.

Me and my painting... I mean, I post these embarrassing pictures just so you can see how far I've come. Maybe there's another amateur out there who needs some hope. You can rise above bad art! Keep painting!

Me and my painting... I mean, I post these embarrassing pictures just so you can see how far I've come. Maybe there's another amateur out there who needs some hope. You can rise above bad art! Keep painting!

But! After the show, Loralee and I got talking. And this conversation changed my life. My husband had been suggesting maybe I go back to school and that would help my work get better. I talked about this with Loralee and she said formal education wasn't necessarily the way an artist gets better. Especially because in grad programs there isn't much instruction, just a lot of studio time to work on your stuff and then get critiqued by professors (something I had had enough negative experience with, thankyouverymuch). She suggested seeking out specific learning opportunities that would benefit me. Like, for instance, getting in touch with artists I admire and want to paint like ("they're not as intimidating as you think, most are really nice and willing to help." I've found this to be so true) and asking if they're teaching any workshops, or if I could come shadow them in their studio for a day. Genius! She also suggested some books to read, among them was, "The Artist's Way" by Julia Cameron. She said it had changed her life and really helped blocked artists work through their blocks (aha! Maybe I wasn't alone and crazy and talentless after all. There are blocks? We can work through them? Why wasn't anyone teaching me THIS in college?).

So, I came home and got brave. I immediately thought of Carole Wade, since I lived near her and I loved her work so much. I sent her an email and was giddy when she actually emailed me back! She said, "Funniest thing, I never teach workshops, but I'm actually teaching one in a couple weeks. And it's only $20." My husband said, "You're going. I don't care what we have to do, we'll make it work." It can not be overstated how much his support has meant to me (since, at this point, we not only had busy little twin girls, but I had just had our third baby). I talked Loralee into coming with me, and we spent a really fun Saturday morning at some community center in Syracuse meeting my idol.

Carole Wade, painting

Carole Wade, painting

Carole turned out to be so kind and humble in person. She was incredibly generous with her wisdom and tips and was so gracious to show her methods. Watching her paint unlocked something for me. I loved seeing, layer by layer, how she set up her paintings. And it was incredible to me how many layers went into her painting. You see the finished piece and think it's all hurried and crazy, but really it's an intricate tapestry of several, thoughtful brushstrokes, built on really strong foundations. She mixed just the right shade of a color, might dab it just in one or two places, and then washed her brush out. It was brilliant. She didn't overpaint for fear of wasting the paint in her brush, like I always did. She did overshade things that didn't need it. SO, so many good tips from watching her work. I loved that she was an acrylic painter, as well. I loved seeing how she made this medium I felt so comfortable with look so good as a professional painting. In the art world, I think acrylic sometimes doesn't get as much credit as traditional oils (since it's such a newer medium). But I love seeing it come into it's own. Carole painted thoughtfully and beautifully and I scribbled as many notes as I could about everything. The painting I did in the workshop suddenly was my favorite work I had ever created. I was PROUD of it, in a way I had never really been proud of my work before. I couldn't wait to take it home and show my husband. It wasn't even finished, but our class time was up so we just had to stop at one point and I never actually did go back and finish it. Which I ended up loving. The painting is so raw, in such a good, interesting way. Carole painted on boards instead of canvases because she liked how much less they soaked up the paint. She gessoed with black instead of white because she felt like it made the colors sing more. So many of the tricks I use today I took from this one, simple workshop with her.

My painting from the workshop that came from a photo Carole took on her travels and shared with us. I named it "Traveling Carole", after her. 

My painting from the workshop that came from a photo Carole took on her travels and shared with us. I named it "Traveling Carole", after her. 

There was a moment in the workshop when we were all painting and the conversation was a little slow. I asked Carole how she began painting and she started telling her story. She had taken her sailboat to Europe all by herself and couldn't sail back across the Atlantic because of hurricane season. So she found herself stuck in Spain (Portugal?) with time to kill. Someone had left a copy of a book on her boat, "The Artist's Way" by Julia Cameron. So she started reading it and following the program to the letter. She started painting and painting and selling her work in shows off the side of her boat. She's been painting ever since. This was a little eerie that my friend Loralee had mentioned this book and now Carole credited it to her success, so I got my hands on it as fast as possible.

I started reading and working through my block. I wanted to paint, but we were also remodeling and selling our house and then moving in with my parents, so our home life was a little chaotic. Oh, and I was pregnant with our fourth baby (a little earlier than we'd planned… four kids in four years was not how we set out to have our family originally, but you take them as they come to you). I got one painting in during that time, but it was horrible.

By September, things had settled down a bit and I was ready to really pursue my art career. I found out about another workshop from a highly respected acrylic painter named Robert Burridge. The class was full, but I emailed and by some miracle someone dropped and I was able to buy their spot ("The Artist's Way" talks about how when you really set out to pursue your creative path and believe in it, the universe has a way of opening up opportunities for you. I could not believe how true that was). Bob's workshop was a full five-day experience, which was tricky to manage since I'm a full time mom/caregiver to my three small children. But with my husband's support, and my mom stepping in to take care of my kids, my pregnant belly and I headed off to class.

The bucket was for water to paint with, not throwing up like my sister thought when she saw this photo (I had already thrown up that morning, I was good). 

The bucket was for water to paint with, not throwing up like my sister thought when she saw this photo (I had already thrown up that morning, I was good). 

I couldn't believe how fun it was to go back to school. Especially as a mature adult, who deeply wanted to learn. This was an investment for me, both financially and physically and I wasn't there to waste time. I was, once again, in a room with a lot of retiree's who were pursuing art as a hobby. Being young and pregnant made me stick out like a sore thumb. But Bob noticed my drive and complimented me on being willing to sacrifice to get better. The workshop was so much fun. Bob's theme was "Loosen up" and it was just what I needed. He helped me paint in a way that was free and unencumbered. He taught so many things about warming up and playing with ideas and having FUN as a painter. He also taught a ton about the business of being an artist. I, once again, scribbled pages and pages of notes about his advice on different supplies, how to get yourself noticed, what shows to be part of, how to work with galleries, how to price your art… so many good things.

Bob teaching... such a hilarious man and talented artist.

Bob teaching... such a hilarious man and talented artist.

Some pear studies I did in the class.

Some pear studies I did in the class.

Bob and me.

Bob and me.

I came home invigorated. I painted some fun exercises in the class, but when I got home and started painting my own stuff again, I was through the moon, excited. I was finally painting the way I dreamed of painting! I had the tools to set up the painting and go through the foundational steps to help it be right, and then still make it my own, in the way that's fun for me. Suddenly, I was proud of the work that was coming out of me and I couldn’t wait to be in my studio every day.

I did one of my favorite paintings I've ever done right after Bob's class, "Train to Boston." Loosening up worked!

I did one of my favorite paintings I've ever done right after Bob's class, "Train to Boston." Loosening up worked!

The way to get better at art is to make yourself do it A LOT. We got a business license and set up a website and started selling and finding shows to exhibit in and giving me deadlines to push me to keep painting. I had my baby, we moved again (out of my parents' basement, woo hoo!) and I've kept painting this whole time. It has been so much fun. I've loved finally being able to get the art out of me that was always in my head. "The Artist's Way" was so instrumental in helping me work through and process my blog so that I could take out the trash and make room for a flow. I've been amazed how many artists I've talked to since then who have credited this same book to their success.

I read another book recently called "Daily Painting" by a painter named Carol Marine (what is it with me and the Carol's? They're brilliant!) and she is a new favorite. I really like her soft edges and bright, pure colors.

 It's been fun to see myself get better and tackle new projects that would've totally intimidated me before. But I'm finally confident in my style and my voice as an artist. It won't strike a chord with everyone, and I'm fine with that. Isn't it wonderful that there is so much art in the world for every particular taste? I paint what I love to look at, and I've been so grateful for the other souls out there who seem to like it too. I'm sure my style will keep evolving as I grow as an artist and try new things, and that will be fun to see.

Mostly, I'm excited that I can finally start over on that giant canvas that my husband bought me all those years ago and have the tools to create something I'm proud of.

The journey's far from over, but I'm so happy to be moving instead of stalled out watching everyone else zip past. 

Here's a list of some of my favorite artists and why I like them:

Masters:

My style:

Local friends:

This was a fun question to answer. Anything else anyone wants to know?