After a career in the banking business and a doozie of a mid-life crisis, I was looking for a new career. An artist friend took me with her to a painting demonstration by Ted Goerschner at a local arts club. I was impressed by his demonstration and decided that I wanted to learn to paint like him and become an artist. Of course, I knew nothing about art and had never painted (except for the little gifts for Mother that all children make in elementary school). But I wouldn’t let a small detail like that stop me.
Being a logical person, I signed up for a painting workshop with Ted Goerschner. I didn’t paint much in that workshop, mainly because I didn’t know the first thing about painting. But I did know that I wanted to be an artist. So I said, “Ted, I want to be a professional artist. What should I do?” And he told me that I needed to go to art school and study life drawing. “Well,” I thought, “What’s this life drawing stuff he’s talking about? I want to paint landscapes—not people.”
Being fairly stubborn, but persistent, I said to Ted’s soon-to-be wife, Marilyn Simandle, “Marilyn, I want to be a professional artist like you. What should I do?” And she told me that I needed to go to art school and study life drawing. “But,” I said, “I don’t want to paint people. I want to paint landscapes like you and Ted do. Why do I need to study this life drawing stuff?” And, of course, she told me, but I still didn’t understand.
When I returned home from the workshop, I decided that I needed some more instruction—at least a couple of weeks worth—in order to get the basics of this painting stuff down so that I could get on with my career as an artist. So, I found a local teacher, Chet Collum, and I said, “Chet, I want to be a professional artist. What should I do?” And, you guessed it, he told me that I needed to go to art school and study life drawing. “In fact, Mary, there’s an old guy who really knows how to draw and has started a small school nearby. Why don’t you call him?” Stubborn I may be, but stupid I’m not. “Hmm,” I thought, “Maybe these professional artists know something after all.” I called the art school and made arrangements to visit for an hour to see a class in session.
I walked in the school, the proverbial art rube off the turnip truck, went up to the owner—a great artist and outstanding teacher—Fred Fixler, and said “I want to be a professional artist. What should I do?” And Fred said, “Well, you’ve come to the right place. Sit down and do what we tell you to do and we’ll see what happens.”
And I did sit down. I sat down at the California Art Institute in Calabasas, California for just over 1 year. I figured I had a lot to learn, so I drew from life from 9:00 a.m. to 12:00 noon. After a lunch break, I drew from life from 1:00 p.m. to 4:00 p.m. Then I fought the traffic on the L.A. freeways, went home and made dinner for my husband, and turned around and went back to art school and drew from life from 7:00 p.m. to 10:00 p.m. I did this Monday through Friday. On Saturday and Sunday I did household chores and practiced drawing from books of charcoal drawings by John Singer Sargent and J. H. Vanderpoel and from photographs.
Well, I learned a lot from Fred and the other fine teachers at the Institute. Mostly I learned how ignorant I was about art and how far I had to go to become a professional artist. I’ve never believed much in luck; I’ve always believed in working hard to get what I want. But serendipity is something else. After all, I was totally naïve about art and I literally stumbled into one of the best art schools in Southern California—perhaps even the United States. And I studied under one of the finest artists and teachers—if not the finest—I have ever known. All my life drawing work at the Institute gave me a basic framework from which to begin my art career. I’m just thankful that I had the sense to take advantage of that opportunity.
My last day at the Institute, Fred Fixler looked at the life drawing I was working on and said, “Mary, you have talent. But you must continue to study. And you must teach. That in itself will help you become a better artist.” I later realized that I was given a great opportunity at the Institute and, because of that, have an obligation to pass on what I learned there. So I conduct classes and workshops whenever I get the opportunity, in the hope that the artistic fire will be lit in someone else. And, on the very first day of every class, I always tell my students the story you’ve just read.
Since leaving the Institute and California, I have had the joy of studying with such great teachers as Harley Brown, Gregg Kreutz and the late Bettina Steinke. And I have had my award-winning paintings featured in juried shows in New York City at the Salmagundi Club, American Artists’ Professional League and Pastel Society of America, and other fine national and regional juried shows, including Women Artists of the West, Quad-States Regional Exhibition, National Oil and Acrylic Painters’ Society, Oil Painters of America, Evansville Art Museum, Bartlesville Art Association and the St. Louis Artists’ Guild.
I grew up in rural Missouri, but spent over 21 years in Los Angeles. During that time I sorely missed the peace and tranquility of rural life. When I left art school I knew I had to find a refuge from urban life, and have finally found one in a small town in midcoast Maine.
I always start a painting with a concept. The concept doesn’t have to be revolutionary, awe-inspiring, or earth-shattering. In fact, I prefer that it not be.
My concept for a landscape painting usually comes as a result of seeing something in nature that I find beautiful. Then I carefully analyze what specifically made it beautiful and how I could best translate that onto a two-dimensional canvas. Small landscapes are quickly painted on site because natural light changes dramatically during the day. If I’ve decided to do a larger landscape, I’ll do a small sketch for color and emotion, and use reference photos to enlarge and expand the painting.
Concepts for portraits start with an expression that I find compelling or some aspect of the sitter’s personality that I want to capture. Of course, likeness is critical. But without expression or personality, portraits are cold and impersonal.
Most of my floral paintings start with a walk through my garden. For example, as I walk by an old French hybrid lilac, my senses come alive. And I think as I sink my nose into a flower cluster, “What a heavenly fragrance! These petals feel like silk on my cheek! Look at the subtle variations in the color!” And a concept for a painting is born—translating these sensory feelings into paint—so that others may somehow experience them.
I often make small compositional sketches, especially when I am designing a portrait or landscape. These help me visualize what my larger painting will look like and how effective it will be in realizing my concept. When working on a floral/still life, I just physically arrange and rearrange objects until I’m satisfied.
After I have my concept or painting theme firmly in my brain, I start the difficult process of trying to determine exactly how to compose my painting so that my concept will be realized. Because there is so much extraneous information available, I have to be very ruthless and repeat to myself, “What am I trying to say here?” But even with this focus, I generally spend as much time planning as I do actually painting.
While I am solving compositional problems, I simultaneously develop a color scheme. Since I use real objects as reference for my paintings (as opposed to make-believe), I have “givens” that I start with for a color scheme. For example, if I am doing a floral, I use real flowers. Nature is infinitely varied; using real flowers as reference will help make my work look “real”. If a flower is violet-hued, I will use that color as reference. I like the richness of analogous color schemes, based on the Munsell color circuit, and the excitement of using complementary colors and discords.
After I’ve nailed down my concept, composition and color scheme, I’m ready to start the painting process. Working on a lightly-toned linen canvas, I quickly and loosely sketch the major forms—for placement only. My sketch is so loose that, without looking at my reference, you probably wouldn’t have a clue as to what the subject of my painting is. For a portrait, I make sure that I have the size of the head correct so that I can get all the other design elements on the canvas. For some smaller paintings with a simple design, I might not even do a sketch on my canvas.
Using an alla prima (or all at once) method, I start painting at one place on the canvas and just keep painting until it’s done. Usually, I start with my lights first, because it’s easy to work dark edges over lights, but very difficult to work light edges over darks. I try to be accurate about color, value and edges so that I don’t have to repaint anything. Redoing anything takes all the fun out of painting and turns it into drudgery. Reworking can cause muddy color and I like clean, brilliant color with meaningful brushstrokes that help depict form and texture.
One big obstacle to painting from life is the propensity for living things to move and change. Flowers and fruit in a still life sometimes last only a few hours under hot lights before they dry out. Flowers, especially, tend to move around under warm lights. The sun goes behind the clouds in the landscape, or the cow in the pasture goes into the barn for milking. And the live person you are painting needs to take a break every 20 minutes or so and will never take the exact pose again. That’s why I focus hard on my concept during the painting process (even to the point of having a mental picture of the completed painting), try to know where I’m going to start and have a plan worked out for the completion of the painting. Of course, “things” happen along the way and normally my completed painting doesn’t match my mental picture of it. I hope it never does. I like surprises as much as the next person—I just don’t want to be shocked!
I usually paint fairly thinly. Any impasto is generally reserved for the lightest areas. When my painting is dry to the touch, I apply two coats of synthetic varnish (which doesn’t yellow with time). This protects the painting as it fully dries and brings the darks back to their original richness.
I once read that a painting can be about color or it can be about value—but it’s very difficult to be about both. Well, I love color and I love value, so I’m always trying to disprove that statement. So far, I’ve not succeeded. The only way to even come close to having both color and value is to control both carefully. I keep my color under control by using analogous color schemes as mentioned above. I keep value under control by depicting everything in only five values: highlight, average light, light half-tone, average dark and dark accents. Only by controlling value and color can I create exciting, even powerful, paintings of very fragile, delicate objects.
I have been fortunate to study with some great artists during my short career. But, I also turn to some past masters for inspiration and guidance, including Anders Zorn, Joachin Sorolla and John Singer Sargent. I try to bring their expressive brushstrokes and strong compositions into my own work.
The older I get the more I’m certain that I see the world a lot differently from most people. It’s a gift to be able to see beauty in the most unlikely places or objects. I think I have a responsibility to take this gift and create beauty on my canvas—beauty that is readily apparent. There is plenty of ugliness in the world just as there are plenty of gloom and doom artists that love to point it out (just in case we missed it.) I want to remind my viewers that great beauty exists everywhere (and point it out—just in case).
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