Nancy Howe | Renaissance Woman

By Gussie Fauntleroy

It may not be clear at first how being a mother, training a three-octave singing voice, watching newborn lambs play in the barn, or spending the afternoon with an elderly aunt could contribute to one’s development as a painter. But Nancy Howe is convinced that everything she does is integral to the artist she has become.


“I’ve learned that life is too short and too precious not to take advantage of the opportunities that present themselves,” she says. It is early spring, and Howe is sitting in the studio of her Vermont farmhouse. “I plan each day by asking myself, what’s the most important thing I can do today, for myself or for others?” She believes that how and what she paints is a reflection of all the dimensions of her personality.

And there are many dimensions to Howe’s busy life, just as there are many facets of expression in her powerfully refined paintings, whose subjects include landscapes, still lifes, figures, and many animals. She is not a prolific painter, because she gives to each work all the time and attention it requires.

The result is sensitive, luminous paintings known for their strong compositions. Howe’s works have been included in prestigious shows such as the Artists of America exhibitions at the Colorado History Museum in Denver, the Oil Painters of America national shows, and the International Masters of Fine Art event at Greenhouse Gallery in San Antonio, TX.

Howe’s creativity and commitment are hardly surprising, considering the environment in which she was raised. When her mother was just 16, she was one of five ballet dancers hand-picked by choreographer George Ballanchine for his first American corps. Although she quit ballet in her 20s to raise a family (“We only saw my mother dance when she was vacuuming,” Howe remembers), she also attended art school and studied fashion illustration.

Howe’s father commuted daily from the family’s rural New Jersey home to New York City, where he worked for Esquire magazine. He spent nights and weekends in his dirt-floored basement shop, inventing things like an electronic eye at the entrance to their long driveway to alert them when someone entered. He also came up with one of the first designs for a video camera with sound, but was turned down by Kodak. A couple of years later, the company came out with a similar device.

Her father’s love of the outdoors deeply influenced Howe. As she tagged along while he fished, hunted, and hiked, she developed her own enduring affinity for nature. This, combined with an athletic inclination and a drive for achievement, made her a championship skier in high school and a member of the ski team at Vermont’s Middlebury College.


Howe’s love of nature extends to animals. As a child, she begged her parents in vain to allow her to raise sheep. When she was finally living on her own, she realized that dream. For almost three decades, Howe was out in the barn every spring, helping ewes give birth, nursing sick sheep, or watching the late-night antics of baby lambs. Meanwhile, she was raising two active sons, which she says has also influenced her strongly as an artist.

Howe finally gave away the sheep to allow more time for painting, but insists that she can never be entirely without farm animals. She replaced the sheep with two shaggy, long-horned Scottish Highland cows that she refers to as “pasture mowers.”

The same patience and determination that drove Howe to learn about animal husbandry served her well when she decided to focus on art. In 1976, a friend suggested that she enter the Federal Duck Stamp Competition. She didn’t win, but the process piqued her interest in painting birds and other aspects of nature.

For each of the next 14 years, Howe submitted paintings to the duck and turkey stamp contests, all the while refining her painting skills. In 1991, she finally won, becoming the official artist for the Federal Duck Stamp Program. She is the only woman to earn the honor since the program’s inception in 1934. “It couldn’t have been more perfectly timed,” she says. “It was one of those situations where you realize [that] all things in life have their time. I was ready.” Newly remarried, she had the support of a husband with the job flexibility and energy to assist her as she stepped up to the demanding travel schedule, public speaking engagements, and other respon-sibilities that came with being a Duck Stamp artist.

Within a couple of years, Howe found herself ready to take the next major step in her career—the switch from acrylics to oils. She believed that the more slow-drying medium would increase her choices and expand her potential. With the change, however, came a distressing challenge and the serendipitous hand of fate that again seemed to nudge her forward in her career.


Howe’s formal art education had taken place during the abstract-expressionist era, when college art instructors offered students little more than materials and an injunction to “express yourself.” In other words, she received little actual training in representational painting or the basics of color and composition. Consequently, when Howe began working in oils, she used citrus thinner that ruined the varnish on her completed paintings. At the time, however, she didn’t know why the varnish was being damaged.

“I was going crazy. I had no idea what to do,” she recalls, so she began reading books on oil painting. As she learned about varnish, she was also introduced to all the elements of painting that she had missed in school. At the same time, a friend with an enormous collection of art magazines dating back to the 1940s started lending them to her. “He’d give me a box each month, and I’d photocopy technical information and articles on art history and contemporary artists,” she said. “I was stunned that I went to college for four years and did not know who John Singer Sargent was.”

As Howe gradually assimilated her new knowledge into developing her painting skills, she gave herself permission to do things her own way. She learned, for example, that plein-air painting involves too many distractions for her, yet she needs the excitement and energy of being out in nature to paint landscapes and wildlife. Her solution is to experience a scene, absorb it, take photos for reference, and create color swatches to remind her of the true colors. She then takes everything back to the studio where, she notes, “whatever I create is an assimilation of what’s out there and what’s inside of me.”

In recent years, Howe has allowed more time for “what’s inside” to unfold and develop in various ways. For one thing, intensive spiritual study has put her in touch with the importance of simple but much-appreciated activities like spending time with her husband’s elderly, shut-in aunt. This strong spirit of humanity and warmth is reflected in Howe’s art, including her wildlife paintings, which she refers to as “metaphors for life” and “visual poems.”

She is also taking singing lessons. Besides discovering that she possesses a natural three-octave range, the artist has used the experience to help overcome lifelong shyness and fear of expressing herself in public.


Yet she has learned many important lessons through painting. “I’ve come to understand … that a painting should be approached as a question. I ask myself, ‘What can I learn from this painting?’” she says. She begins with an image or idea that excites her and follows wherever it leads, working out details as she goes along. To do this, Howe says, she has learned to relinquish her need to be in control.

“Painting has taught me … the distinction between reaching and pushing,” she says. “Reaching is taking advantage of an opportunity, whereas pushing is not going to let you discover that opportunity. Reaching fills a vacuum inside of you. Reaching … is much more conducive to learning. “I was always such a workhorse,” she adds. “Painting has taught me to pay attention to the world around me, to appreciate everything in life. Initially painting was important to me as an accomplishment. I was painting to be seen; now I paint in order to see.”

Howe is represented by Triple Jump Studio, East Dorset, VT.

Featured in June 2003