In this month’s “Color Sphere” exhibit, the Gilham Award went to Christine Lashley for Margaret, an appropriately colorful portrait of her daughter. Juror Lee Boynton called the oil painting “evocative and full of great color and emotion.” We asked Christine about the painting, her views on color, and her artwork in general.
How was Margaret painted?
Christine: Margaret was painted “alla prima” (all at once) with M. Graham oils – these paints are extra buttery and I can layer strokes of bright colors together and get a juicy look. I had my daughter pose for me and I took some photos of her slouched on the sofa with the afternoon light streaming in the window behind her. I had painted her from life (in watercolor) and I wanted to an oil in the studio. When I was painting I asked her to come in to the studio and look at me a few times.
The idea for the painting was how she looked to me at the time she was sitting on the sofa. I liked that she looked natural, and not posing with a frozen smile for the camera. I wanted to portray a mix of my feelings as her mother and of her feelings as an individual.
Since this month’s theme was color, what is your philosophy on color, and how do you know which one to reach for — for example, the reds and blues in the subject’s hair? What is color’s place in a successful painting?
When I fully understand a subject and have a very clear idea of what to paint and why, the color choices seem to jump onto the canvas. Color is personal. So, my color choices are very intuitive. It’s a wonderful feeling when a painting seems to paint itself. That’s what happened here. At first, I had a more traditional (vertical) composition sketched in with a burnt umber drawing (much more conventional). But this looked boring and did not convey an emotional impact very well, so I wiped the whole thing off, turned the canvas horizontal, and started the head larger, with bold, bright color and a large brush. It was really fun to start over and slash away at the first, boring attempt.
What makes a successful portrait?
You should start to feel an emotional pull to the person… want to get to know them and have ideas on their personality. The painting should start to tell you, the viewer, a story.
What draws you to painting? Since you work in oil, acrylic, and watercolor, how do you decide which one fits a certain piece?
It is fun to hop around. I don’t over-think it, just what I feel like doing that day. I’ve been really having fun with oils and seeing how I can push that medium. I think all the mediums are quite similar in a way. Look how I’m treating the oil here: colors layered together wet-in-wet with a hint of the under-painting showing through, but mostly using direct strokes on the white canvas for clean color. Sounds like watercolor, right? The only way I like acrylics is when they are very wet and fluid, leaving drips and running. I guess I like my paint really wet, so it has a life of its own. I like to be surprised by my paint.
What is your creative process like?
I used to be very concerned with accuracy vs. spontaneity and lively brushstrokes. The problem was getting both in the same work. Painting from photos was not the answer as I just ended up copying the image. Working from life came the closest to what I wanted in the final art. So, I painted a lot on location. Over time I wanted to work larger, and I tried many ways of working. I had a big breakthrough when I started tapping into my memory of a subject or idea first. Now I start the artistic process by thinking. Instead of WHAT to paint (as a subject, or collection of objects), I think about WHY to paint it (the story, time of day, mood, etc.) I do little doodles first from memory. Then, I take these ideas, and start a painting or another, more detailed sketch. Finally, I’ll get to work on the art and see how far I can go on memory alone; later I’ll refer to reference photos, previous location studies or real life to finish my painting. So, quite the opposite of how I used to work, although I don’t think I could have taken a shortcut to this stage. All that “from life” painting got me to a good place first.
Instead of what to paint, I think about why to paint it.
Is one technical element most important in your work — color, composition, line, etc?
No, but I’ve found that the idea (not necessarily the final image, but the abstract idea) must be clear in my head from the beginning. Then, as the artist it’s my job to make sure every stroke, shape, etc. matches the main idea. All technical elements must contribute to the whole, or else they detract.
What do you want the viewer to come away with after viewing Margaret?
My painting means a lot to me, but that’s only my personal reaction to it. The viewer can and should make their own interpretations. If the viewer looks, and an impression is made, that would please me greatly.
Where do you see your work going next, or what are you working on now?
I am continuing to enjoy manipulating wet color moving on the canvas or paper. In addition to teaching my ‘plein-air’ watercolor classes I will start teaching oils this summer. Larger works have been fun to work on as well. My latest work, still drying on the easel, is another painting of my daughter Margaret!