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Q&A with Award Winner Elizabeth Loftis

If you’ve been to the Gallery to see the December All-Media Show, you’ve seen the large, striking painting in front. Procession, an oil pastel and watercolor work by Elizabeth Loftis, won the Carol Zakaski Memorial Award for Best in Show as decided by juror Linda Hafer, who praised the piece’s movement, warm palette, and value contrasts.

Elizabeth told us about her creative process, being a drawer rather than a painter, and drawing inspiration from travels, patterns, and animals. Read all about it in our Q&A, below, and see Procession in person through January 7 in the Gallery!

The opening reception for the all-media show and Suzanne Vigil’s “Up Close & Too Personal” is this Thursday, December 13 at 6:30 pm.

“Procession” by Elizabeth Loftis.

People often ask about your process for creating your paintings. Can you tell us about it and how and why you started doing it?
Elizabeth Loftis: Many of us are familiar with a variation of my method from art class in elementary school, when we drew fish with crayons and covered over them with watery blue paint. I started using my specific technique of oil pastel and watercolor in 2000 while I was living in Mozambique. I had long been attracted to printmaking, specifically the outlined look of woodblock prints. However, I never found the opportunity to take a class. I guess you can say my “ah ha” moment came from looking at zebras: they are the ultimate natural canvas with their strong black and white stripes. It occurred to me that if I took some white oil pastel and painted over it with black watercolor, I should get a nice, interesting contrast. And I was very pleased with the results.

“Procession” before painting.

Now I’ve refined the process. I start with a pencil drawing on watercolor paper which I then color in with oil pastels, carefully leaving an outline around the various forms. Then I paint over the entire picture with watercolor — the pastel repels the paint, and the outlines and black spaces vibrantly come to life. I use an x-acto knife to scrape any excess paint off the pastel. I go back in with additional pastel to make any final changes.

Read more below!

What appeal do pastel and watercolor hold for you — why do you work in this medium in this way?
While I have used various painting mediums, I have decided I am a drawer at heart. I like the control I have over the pastels, the feeling of making the marks on the paper, the richness of the colors. I like the messy feeling on my fingers. And combining the pastels with paint gives me the outline/print effect I so admire without learning printmaking. I also love the wonderful “surprise” moment when I paint over the picture and you see for the first time what it will look like — it really is quite exciting.

What can you tell us about Procession? Who are we looking at?
First I should say Iʼm from Colorado so I love all things western. I’ve been drawing horses since I was a little girl. I think of aspen trees as the zebras of the forest world — they are beautiful in their contrasts. The people in Procession appear to be American Indians, and I guess that is now true. But when I originally started drawing the “blanket” people, they represented the natives of the African nation where I lived — Lesotho, a small, mountainous country surrounded by South Africa. It gets very cold in the winter and the people ride around on horses wrapped in patterned blankets. My blankets slowly became more intricate and my landscapes became more evocative of the western US. In the end, I think this tells the story of the nomadic nature of the American Indians. However, my ravens added a dimension that creates a mood of apprehension.

Is this piece part of a series? If so, how did the series start and where is it now?
I’ve been doing my blanket or “cocoon” people for several years now. But Procession is a companion piece to a work called Passages. No horses, but it was the first piece I did with ravens. I still own that piece.

How do you capture the mood or personality of the people who are subjects in your paintings — especially the ones who are facing away, or covered up in blankets? Is it different to do with pastel and watercolor?
I think the blankets create the mood — my people are basically closed: they are cocooned, huddled, covered. It might be against the elements, it might be because of modesty. Or it could be for some ceremonial purpose.

What are some of your other favorite subjects? Where do you find inspiration and ideas for new work?
The greatest inspiration of my work has by far come from our time spent overseas — particularly in Africa. My husband was in the Foreign Service, so our travels opened my mind to so many different possibilities. An over-arching theme for me is pattern. I have discovered as I get older that pattern calls to me like a beacon. I notice it in everything from the tattooed face of a Maori in New Zealand, to the baskets and fabrics of Africa. The painted creatures of the natural world, especially birds and fish, are wonderful. Toucans make me swoon! I frequently will use an animal such as a fish as a small canvas on which to experiment with pattern. I am attracted to the robes and garments of so many different people of the world, from the American Indians, to the peoples of the Middle East and South and Central Asia. I also like the women and nature genres — the female form draped in flowing fabrics.

Is one technical element most important in your work, like color, composition, or line?
I think line is paramount. While people frequently are attracted to certain pieces because of the colors, it is line which defines the patterns, the form and the overall composition.

What would you like the viewer of Procession to come away with?
I donʼt have any agenda with my work. I just hope that viewing Procession or any of my pieces will bring people pleasure.

Where do you see your work going next, or what are you working on now?
Lately, I’ve been wanting to explore the boundaries of what I am able to do with oil pastel and watercolor. I want to investigate pattern, and learn how I can incorporate it in different ways into a composition. I want to do more with the human form. And I am sort of on a bird kick right now. Canadian geese are very cool.

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