Q&A with Award Winner Betsy Kellum

Artist Betsy Kellum won the Carol Bruce Pastel Award for The Ram, her piece in this month’s all-media show, in The Art League Gallery through April 30. Juror Joseph Di Bella said of the painting, “The nuanced color palette really allows the viewer to sense the light falling on the form. The progression from light to dark shows that the artist has the ability to modulate temperature. The colors are very transitional and soft. There’s a great quality of light in this piece.” We asked Betsy to tell us more about the piece, her other artwork, and her art education.

Is there a story behind The Ram? What was your inspiration or motive in creating the piece?
Betsy: I love animals and love painting them. I know of no other medium that can capture the texture of fur, hair, or fleece the way pastel can… probably because is it a dry, soft medium. Sheep are especially fun because of their coats, plus they are rather inactive, curious creatures, thus allowing for close up examination, both ways. This ram fellow was the main star in a previous painting called The Committee Meeting, and guess who was the chairman! I decided to showcase him in a large format, up close and personal. The dramatic lighting that day cast an array of color in the shadow areas that I couldn’t resist.

The Ram by Betsy Kellum

You won the Carol Bruce Award. Why do you work in pastel? What initially drew you to pastel and to realism in particular?
I knew Carol, and we shared space in Diane Tesler’s Wednesday class for several years. At that time I was learning to paint in oils, but was intrigued by what I saw Carol, Barbara Rachko, and some other pastellists doing. A friend and I shared a box of pastels, set up a simple still life, and painted it. That first painting was accepted into a local art show and got an award…. I was hooked! After an Art League workshop with Albert Handell and his introduction to working pastel on sanded paper, I fell in love with the versatility and brilliance of this wonderful medium. It always came easy to me.

Continued below:

What is your artistic process like?
I will limit my answer to this question to my studio pastel work (as opposed to plein air or oil work). I have thousands of pastels; a wide variety of brands with Girault being my anchor. After trying many different types of papers, I find UART pastel paper (roughest grit) and Wallis pastel paper best suited for what I do. There is so much ‘tooth’ I can put endless layers of pastel down without suffering a lot of ‘fall out’. That layering gives depth that I can’t get any other way. I sketch out my composition and then underpaint with an oil and turp wash that stains the paper. This saves on those expensive pastels, and gives me a solid foundation on which to start applying the pastel. I think of my process as sculpting. Pastels can give me lines, color blocks, glazes and just about any kind of mark possible, and I use them all to create form. And, most importantly, I can fix mistakes! A paint brush will remove the pastel dust, and a swipe of turp will take be back down to my ground. Piece of cake. Watercolorists garner my most high regard… I don’t think I could ever get it right the first time. (On my website, www.betsykellum.com, I have a ‘Pastel Demonstration’ that you can view.)

Is one technical element most important in your work, like color or composition?
The success of any painting requires and combination of many elements. I would love to say one is more important than another, but it’s the combination of solid composition, value/light and color harmony that make a successful painting, regardless of style. On top of that there needs to be an element of confidence in the manner in which the artists makes marks or strokes, and shows a solid understanding of their chosen medium.

You mentioned that you got your formal instruction from the Art League School. Why did you choose this school, and how did it impact your art?
We lived in South Florida when I developed an interest in art. Just about the time I figured out that I had learned all I could from Bob Ross and Lynn Pittard on TV, we moved back to where I grew up: Northern Virginia. Of course I was familiar with the Art League, and enrolled in classes: Beginning Drawing with Lisa Semerad, Painting with Diane Tesler, Danni Dawson, and others. My children were high school and college age, and I had the time to jump in with both feet and give this new adventure time and effort. The Art League IS the reason I’m an artist. I had a lot of catching up to do, as I had absolutely NO fine art experience before my classes there.

My brain works in a way that I visualize detail more than generalities. I get excited when I am able to paint a peach that doesn’t look like a nectarine. Back when I was studying at the Art League, realism was not in vogue. That’s why Diane Tesler became my “mentor.” She was never apologetic about being a realist painter, and it encouraged me to follow my heart and my inclination.

Where do you see your work going next, or what are you working on now?
A good oil painting is the most beautiful art in the world to me, but so difficult to achieve. Right now I am concentrating more on my oil work as there is a comfort level that I haven’t yet reached. My vision and my product are not quite in sync. Basic to the creative part of painting is the ability to manipulate the medium without much thought. I have collected the learning tools and pearls of wisdom from many accomplished teachers and artists over the years. At this point, my artistic growth must come from within and by continuing to paint every day possible. Teaching art classes is also an important element to my personal growth as I find myself echoing those early instructors; it is a reminder of what I have learned and insight as to what I need to try next.