Meet 6 painters who design and paint the still life
This story was featured in the April 2014 issue of Southwest Art magazine. Get the Southwest Art April 2014 print issue or digital download now–then subscribe to Southwest Art and never miss another story!
Grace Kim doesn’t have to go far from home to find subjects for her elegant still-life paintings. Kim simply steps outside into her organic gardens, and there is a cornucopia of roses, pumpkins, and zucchinis. She also has magnolia and persimmon trees in her suburban Maryland yard, and often these fruits and flowers become stars in her tabletop dramas. Dedicated to the style of traditional realism, Kim is heavily influenced by the 17th-century Dutch masters; light and shadow are key elements in her lush and often colorful still-life works. Last year Kim took home a top award at the International Guild of Realism’s Annual International Juried Exhibition for her still-life painting DRAGON FRUIT.
The award-winning artist studied painting and drawing at Schuler School of Fine Arts in Baltimore, MD, and also with painters including Robert Liberace, Gerald King, and Ken Marlow. Today she continues her art education with forays every Monday to the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, where she copies paintings by some of her favorite masters—a discipline she began in 1998. These regular sessions, she says, help her achieve her artistic goals of not only depicting her subjects accurately but also eliciting the sensations of taste, smell, and touch in the viewer. “I try to put my soul into every painting. Even if it takes five or six months, I just want to make the painting as perfect as possible—museum quality,” Kim says. —Bonnie Gangelhoff
Art and nature have always played a pivotal role in the life of Idaho-based painter Lori McNee. As a young girl growing up in Scottsdale, AZ, McNee spent countless afternoons admiring the birds that flocked to her backyard. “I used to chase them for hours, trying desperately to catch one,” she says. Frustrated with her failed attempts, McNee decided to capture the birds with a pencil on paper. “From that moment on,” she says, “I knew I wanted to be an artist.”
McNee’s passion for birds initially drew her to wildlife art, but she grew tired of painting from photographs. “I wanted to paint from life, so I signed up for a plein-air painting class,” she says. McNee was immediately hooked on landscape painting—but the class provided another, unexpected benefit: she discovered a fondness for still-life painting that continues to fuel much of her work today. “The class would paint outside all day, but at night the teacher would set up still lifes for us to work on in the studio,” she says, explaining that this was when she “fell in love with the idea that I could create and paint my own small universe.”
McNee describes her still-life arrangements as “juxtapositions of natural and man-made objects [that] almost always include birds.” But no matter what she paints, McNee responds to the effects of color, light, and atmosphere on the subject. “My goal is to create a painting that captures a sense of mystery, beauty, and drama,” she says. —Lindsay Mitchell
From family heirlooms, such as her grandmother’s sewing machine, to antique farm tools, Canadian painter Martine Ouellet relishes painting objects that possess personal connections for her and that also may evoke emotional responses and memories from her viewers. “With still-life paintings I find that I am able to tell stories—stories that can be powerful,” Ouellet says. “I try to make the viewer have a personal experience with every one of my paintings.”
The oil painter studied with Canadian figurative artist Emmanuel Garant, but Ouellet explains that eventually she struck out on her own, studying art through books and the Internet and painting miles of canvas. Today she adheres to the philosophy that working from life is the best way to capture the light, colors, and ambiance of a scene, whether she is painting portraits, still lifes, or landscapes. For Ouellet, photographs are a good tool for reference material if she doesn’t have any other choice.
For inspiration, the artist often turns to French Canadian masters, such as Marc-Aurèle de Foy Suzor-Coté, Henri Julien, and Ozias Leduc. Ouellet also finds inspiration in the recognition of the simple beauties and pleasures of everyday life. She is a self-described contemporary realist, preferring to capture the nuances, values, and hues of her subjects in loose, spontaneous brushwork with muted colors and soft edges. “I think it is a privilege for artists to interpret reality and make it better or more beautiful. So I try to do that,” Ouellet says. —Bonnie Gangelhoff
Alabama-based Lisa Price’s artistic journey has taken many different paths over the years. As a child, she excelled at drawing, playing the piano, and dancing—the latter led to her being accepted as an apprentice at the Alabama Ballet as an adolescent. As a teen she enjoyed handcrafts, such as knitting, sewing, crocheting, and flower arranging. Needless to say, Price had an early love of all things creative. “I got some of my talents from my grandmother,” Price remembers. “But I mostly just picked it up along the way. I always loved the arts, and [my interests] just evolved.”
But she wouldn’t pick up a paintbrush until her early 20s, after having children. With no previous formal training, Price sought out an oil-painting class and later got a job working as a decorative painter for an interior designer, which led to painting murals and then portraits. “I was focusing exclusively on commissioned portraits, but now my focus is mainly painting still lifes,” she says. As an avid antiques collector, she combines her affection for arrangement with the love she has for collected objects. “I love the hunt for items to paint—that’s as much fun as anything,” Price admits. “I love to gather those objects and create an arrangement, to determine the light and textures I want within the still life. Somehow I feel like I’m breathing new life back into something old.” —Joe Kovack
Kristin Gibson is fond of saying she paints the way she cooks: “a little of this, with a little of that.” In fact, when she completes a still life, she often cooks the ingredients she has just painted—the eggplants and onions make their way from the studio to the kitchen. The North Carolina-based artist says she first turned to the still-life genre when her children were young. “I was enticed by the organic shapes, forms, and hues at the farmers’ market and in the produce aisle. Everything was accessible and readily available,” she says. “Paired with my grandmother’s teapots, vintage linens, books, and inherited chairs, fruits, flowers, and vegetables offer a jumping-off point for composition and vibrant brushwork.”
Recently, empty chairs have come to play a more prominent role in her works, a phenomenon that was unconscious at first, she says. But after some reflection, she realized that the chairs had come to represent the sudden, profound loss of her brother- in-law to cancer in 2013. “It just occurred to me that the empty chair was a place where someone used to sit, and now, they are not there anymore,” Gibson says. “It’s a tribute of sorts to those who have sat there or shared around the table. The still-life genre is where I have found my voice, and it occurs to me that this is even more meaningful now, as a still life is truly a reminder of both change and the joy in simple pleasures.” —Bonnie Gangelhoff
Spectrum Art & Jewelry, Wilmington, NC; Tyler White O’Brien Gallery, Greensboro, NC; I. Pinckney Simons Gallery, Beaufort, SC; Eno Gallery, Hillsborough, NC; City Art Gallery, Greenville, NC.
Seattle-based artist Sandra Power is always on the prowl for interesting props to use in her still-life arrangements—often she can be found perusing thrift shops, antiquing, or scouring the Internet for the next object that will one day make it into her paintings. “I wait until I have a strong visceral response to something I see,” she says, explaining that this rarely has to do with the object itself but rather its qualities, such as shape, tone, or patina.
When it comes time to create the setup for a new painting, Power has a closetful of inspiration to turn to. “One reason I like still-life painting so much is because I get to be in control,” Power says. She describes the process of arranging her setups in metaphorical terms, as though she is directing her own play: “It’s like I’m creating my own stage and allowing objects to ‘audition’ for different roles,” she says. “Once I find my star piece, I look for others to cast as supporting actors.”
For Power, the most important part of creating her art is always painting from a place of honesty and tranquility—which isn’t to say that the artistic process is always peaceful, however. “There is sometimes a point when I feel a painting just isn’t working,” she says. When that happens, she puts her brushes down, takes a deep breath, and reminds herself to “respect the fact that art is about trying to create beauty in the world—and that is very important work.” —Lindsay Mitchell
Fountainhead Gallery, Seattle, WA.
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