Kate Palmer | Clarity of Vision


By Gussie Fauntleroy

Kate Palmerbelieves that just sitting by the water’s edge on the rocky California coast with nothing in her hands can be an act of painting. As she sits she absorbs the excitement of the crashing sea, the smell of salt air, and the taste of the breeze. At the same time she is engaged in an activity that is second nature to her: mixing colors on a mental palette to capture the look of sun-struck sea spray and imagining the way her brush needs to move to convey the rush of water over rocks.

But more often than not, the act of painting doesn’t need to take place in Palmer’s mind. She makes sure her oil paints and easel are with her wherever she goes. And when she’s on a painting trip—to the Pacific coast, Colorado’s high mountains, Europe, or some part of New Mexico—“all I do is paint, eat, and sleep. That’s how I love to travel,” she says.

Palmer lived in Oklahoma City for most of the first 40 years of her life. From there she ranged out frequently, spending long stretches of time in parts of the country she loves to paint. She traveled to New York City to study at the Art Students League with acclaimed artist David Leffel and elsewhere to study with Michael Lynch, Albert Handell, and others. Finally she decided to move her base to one of the areas she calls her “painting homes.” She spent a year exploring possibilities and in 1990 moved to Santa Fe, finding that it “immediately felt like home. New Mexico has such a blend of amazingly diverse and beautiful scenery,” she says. “We have it all here, everything except the ocean, which I can go to once a year in California to paint.” Palmer’s home, an unconventional solar design by the late New Mexico architect and artist William Lumpkins, is set in exactly the right spot for the artist. Her large, airy studio has an expanse of north windows facing the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, foothills, and a nearby maze of deeply cut arroyos. “I can walk out my door and be in a place I love to paint,” she says.


The roots of her desire to paint reach back to the artist’s childhood years in Oklahoma City. Her father was an architect, and one of Palmer’s earliest memories is of coloring in architectural drawings he no longer needed. A passion for art remained with her even during the two years she spent in pre-veterinary courses, thinking her love of animals might translate well into veterinary work. But art won out. After a year of study in England—with firsthand exposure to masterpieces of European art—she changed her educational focus and earned a bachelor’s degree in fine art and English literature from Oklahoma City University.

During her years in Oklahoma Palmer was pre-dominately a painter but was also inspired by the landscape to design “wearable sculpture,” which she created in silver and gold. Active in professional associations both then and now, she is a member of Allied Artists of America, the American Artists’ Professional League, Audubon Artists, and Knicker-bocker Artists, among others. She served as president of American Women Artists in 2001 and currently is on that organization’s executive board. She has also seen her work earn strong acclaim, including almost two dozen awards in the past five years alone.

Palmer has always painted both on location and in the studio, and in each case she begins by rapidly establishing the painting’s general areas of dark and light, creating an abstract foundation that will underlay and support the finished work. She has a strong attraction to the sim-plicity of this abstract base and occasionally feels hesitant to go beyond it. Yet there is never really any question that she will; she is even more thoroughly drawn to realism in general and to landscape painting in particular.


“I believe there’s a very personal way we see the world. I think there’s a good abstract compositional base to every great painting, but my own personal vision has always been the land, sky, sea, and mountains,” the artist says. “I think there’s something that calls you to express it, and when I look at a scene I often see it painted in my mind—a vision of where I’m going with the work.” Then, she says, comes the real thrill: the actual expression of that vision in oils. “When you lay on one piece of paint next to another and it just vibrates, with one beautiful color next to the other, there’s such an excitement,” Palmer says. “Oils are my true love.”

For many years Palmer painted primarily scenes which contained little evidence of human presence. Then, a couple of years ago on a painting trip to Italy, she began including structures—ancient buildings and walls—in some of her plein-air works. The effect was a revelation and produced a shift in her approach from then on.

“I hadn’t realized how harmonious the land could be with the human-built structure,” she recalls. “I had always seen nature as interrupted by man’s intrusion, but walking through absolutely gorgeous 12th- and 13th-century towns and little hill villages, which enhance the landscape, made me so aware that the two could go hand-in-hand.”

At that point it was natural to turn to the venerable, earth-colored architecture of New Mexico and begin including that in her focus. The artist finds herself drawn back to Europe as well and is planning a five-week painting trip to the Tuscany region of Italy this fall. At the same time, she continues to gravitate toward places like Rocky Mountain National Park and to the unpeopled vistas of northern New Mexico and the Northern California coast. On location she often does small oil studies and then 8-by-10-inch paintings of the same scene. Some of these will later be used in the studio as reference for larger works.


In the studio she had built at the north end of her house, Palmer has everything she needs to create all sizes of paintings, including a giant easel she received as first prize in a show at the Salmagundi Club in New York. She also receives daily inspiration from the expansive view and gets at least a brief taste of the wind and weather on the quarter-minute “commute” to her studio—which she deliberately had built without a door to the house, even though the two are adjoining.

Still, it takes more than the right equipment and a good working space, and it takes even more than years of practice to be able to see the landscape in a way that can be translated into a great painting. “Clarity of painting comes from clarity of vision,” Palmer says. “I think a painter has to be emotionally right out there and present, both to perceive and to express. My job requires me to understand what it is that moves me in order to focus on that. I think we do a lot of this (continued on page 152) intuitively. One of my desires in painting at this time is simplification of a statement, capturing the essence of what I’m seeing and feeling and leaving out all the unnecessary things—saying more with less.

“I paint only what I love and only what I have a strong personal response to,” she continues. “This is the reason I go back to the places I paint again and again. I believe you internalize the experience of a place and that inter-nalization then informs subsequent depictions of that place, and gives it meaning and depth beyond the obvious.”

What return visits may offer as well is a greater ability to capture the vibrancy of the outdoor experience, even when painting in the studio. Palmer strives to visually convey the kind of exhilaration she felt, for example, when she was painting quietly in a high mountain meadow and an enormous bull elk meandered up and stood just a few feet away, “ready to munch on my canvas if he ran out of grass,” she jokes.


“That immediacy is what’s so exciting about painting outdoors. The goal is to get that freshness and the feeling of being there,” she says. “I want people to feel the weather when they look at one of my paintings. I want them to know it was cold when I was standing there, to be able to tell whether I was in a humid area near the coast or the dry clime of the high desert. All that should come out in a painting, whether it’s 4 inches by 5 inches or 4 feet by 5 feet.”

Gussie Fauntleroy wrote about Michelle Torrez, Henry Villierme, and Gail Factor in the April issue.

Palmer is represented by Joe Wade Fine Arts, Santa Fe, NM, and Dragonfly Gallery, Avon, CO. Her web site is www.katepalmer.com.

Featured in May 2002