Friday, February 10, 2012

Daily Paintworks Interviews: Amy Stewart

Photo credit: Scott Brown
From Amy's DPW gallery page: "I'm the author of five books on the perils and pleasures of the natural world, including three New York Times bestsellers, Flower Confidential, Wicked Plants, and Wicked Bugs.... I've been painting in oils for ten years. It's a wonderful break from writing and gives me a kind of instant gratification that writing books, with the long delay before publication, never does...." 

Tell us a bit about how you first started painting. 

I grew up in a family of painters--my mother and my brother--but I never painted.  I always thought that art was their thing.  Then, in my twenties, I got the idea that it would be fun to learn to draw a little--just enough to maybe scribble in a travel journal or draw little pictures in my garden.  When I was 30, my husband and I quit our jobs, moved to Eureka, CA, and became self-employed.  (I'm a writer and he's a bookseller.)  So I had some time on my hands and I started looking around for a drawing class to take. 

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I did a couple of short-term classes, and when those ended, the only other thing that really worked with my schedule was an oil painting class with a painter whose work I really loved.  (Linda Mitchell, who has also joined DPW.)  I didn't think I would like oil painting--it sounded so complicated compared to scribbling in a journal with a pen--but it turned out that I loved it.  Painting in oils is very much like writing--it's all about revision.  I'm so used to editing, rewriting, throwing things away that don't work.  When Linda says, "You need to wipe that out and start over," I just shrug and go, "Okay."  Doesn't bother me at all.  I do it all the time as a writer.
So I'm still in that class, 10 years later.  It's become more like a social hour--a bunch of women who get together to paint, drink wine, and gossip once a week.

What sort of art do you love to do?

Well, oils, definitely. And I work from photographs, because cities don't sit still long enough to paint them from life. Cityscapes are by far my favorite subject, and New York is my favorite city. I don't do touristy things when I travel--I'm very happy to just pick a neighborhood and spend all day walking around, taking pictures.

And there is a particular kind of cityscape I seem to paint over and over again, which is a long view down a busy street, looking into the distance. I just love that feeling of the buildings rising up into the sky and people and cars rushing around, and the possibility of something interesting at the end of that street. And I love that moment with the lights come up in the early evening. That's my favorite time to walk around and take pictures--starting an hour or two before sunset, and continuing until it's too dark to get a good photograph.

I have a few other specific things that I love to paint. It's funny--if you'd asked me before I started painting, I probably would have said that a good painter learns to do everything equally well. I had a friend who only painted fish and olives. Fish and olives! That's crazy! But I kind of get it now. Certain subjects are just fun to paint, and interesting, and if a painter figures out a way to do it that no one else is doing, why not run with it?

So I love to paint chickens--I have a little flock in my backyard and they pose for me--but I treat them like serious portraits, with these dark grey Sears Portrait Studio type backgrounds. And I love to paint the insides of bars--I like low light, and the bottles, and the dark figures. And I do still life from time to time, when the farmer's market is particularly inspiring. I learned a lot about still life from taking a workshop with Carol Marine a few years ago.

I have been terrible about learning to paint figures and particularly faces. I took Karin Jurick's workshop in New York because I wanted to get better about putting figures into my cityscapes. I'd always thought of Karin as a painter of cityscapes, but of course she's a painter of people. Sometimes those people happen to be in a city. So I really learned from her to approach it differently--rather than find an interesting street and stand there until I could get a good photo, I learned to pick an interesting-looking person and follow them around until the light hit them just right or I liked their pose.

But I'm still totally intimidated by it and I revert to these busy streetscapes with tiny little wisps of figures off in the distance. Or I paint people only from behind so I don't have to deal with their faces. It's funny--look at my paintings and how no one is ever looking at the camera! Like this one:

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That's me avoiding faces. Of course, that makes it easier to photograph people, too, because they don't see you doing it.

Did you have any stops and starts in your painting career?

One of the great joys for me about painting is that I'm not obligated to think about it as a career. I have a difficult career in the arts already! I don't need another one. So I paint, and of course I sell the paintings because I don't want hundreds of little paintings sitting around the house, but I don't feel obligated to build a resume or anything like that. I turn down commissions-- I tell people that I take "requests" and that if it works out, they can have first right of refusal, but no commissions!

And I never enter contests or apply for awards--why would I? It won't make me a better painter, and that's all I'm really interested in. I don't even really want to do gallery shows. I agreed to do a local show in December, but only because I know it will be the easiest thing in the world for me to put 20 paintings in the car and take them down there. If it was going to be any more complicated than that, I would have passed. I get a ridiculous amount of satisfaction from selling a little painting to a complete stranger on DPW and packing that up and shipping it off. That, to me, is as much of the trappings of a "career" as I want.

What mediums and genres have you experimented with? Which ones have "stuck" and which ones have fallen away? Which ones are you looking forward to exploring?

I took a charcoal drawing class, and while I learned a lot, all that charcoal dust got tiresome. The medium just didn't appeal. I have a little portable watercolor set and I'll do watercolor washes over a pen drawing when I'm traveling, but that's just for fun. I've played around with acrylics when I'm painting with my friends' kids, but I don't really understand how they work so I end up frustrated if I'm trying to do anything more than join the five year-olds in splattering paint around. Really, I think oils are it for me.

I would like to paint bigger, but then the question becomes--what do I do with all those big paintings? Little paintings are so easy to sell online, and if one doesn't work out, I don't have much invested in it and I can just move on. But I would like to work big, and several painters whose work I admire have told me I'll learn a lot if I'll just go big for a while.

What does procrastination look like for you? What techniques work to ensure that you make time for your art?

I am so very relieved that I never feel like I have to paint. Painting is the thing I can't wait to have more time to do. I still go to my painting class on Wednesday nights, and unless I'm out of town, I never, ever miss it. Beyond that, it's just a joy for me to find that I have enough time in the day to paint.

Once in a while I'll find myself with time to paint, but I'm not really in the mood. When that happens, I just go over to my little painting space and start gessoing some boards. Karin Jurick taught me to paint on black gesso, which I adore. It makes the colors pop in this extraordinary way. And sometimes I'll use acrylic paint, maybe a crazy orange or green, as a ground. So there's always a little gesso work to be done, and usually by the time I have a brush out and I'm putting paint on something, I'm in the mood to paint again.

What do you feel you are learning about right now as an artist?

Well, I think I'm getting a little more accurate and detailed and tight, and for me, that's a good thing. I'll hear some painters say, "Oh, I'm trying not to be so tight, I really need to loosen up," and I think, "Wow, I just can't paint with any precision. I don't know how." Or, more to the point, I don't know how to do it in a short period of time, and because of my busy schedule, I want to be able to do a small painting in a short period of time and actually finish it. So I'm learning how to be a little tighter and more accurate but still be pretty fast.

And I am trying to get better with figures--but then I think, "Why? Who says I have to get better with figures? Is somebody going to give me a bad grade if I don't? Am I going to get fired?"

(And since you're also a writer…) Any differences in your creative approach between writing and art?

Oh, everything. As a writer, I have to think all the time about what will sell, what will appeal to a broad audience, how to market myself--all of that. I get to paint just to please me. They are miles and miles apart. One of the best differences between the two is that I get to paint standing up, away from a computer (OK, I use my iPad for my photo references), while listening to music and possibly drinking a nice cocktail. I do not have to wrestle with words--I can put my hyper-verbal brain in neutral and (sort of) think about nothing. Bliss!

Having said that, there are so many weird parallels between writing and painting. I sometimes think about teaching a workshop about that--I have a long list of all the surprising similarities. One in particular is that there is a narrative quality to painting. It took me years to realize this--in fact, it only came to me last year. I was working on this evening streetscape from a photo I took in my neighborhood. The camera was slightly tilted, everything was a little out of focus, and you could see the neighborhood but you could also see, at the very end of the street, the little lights of the bars downtown. I thought, "This is a painting of someone stumbling home drunk! This is what they see." It's the first time I really thought about the fact that a painting is seen through someone's eyes, and that someone is like a narrator or a character in a story.

I'm always telling my writing students that even if they are not writing in the first person, they are still present in the story as a narrator. What they chose to say and not to say, and how they say it, tells the reader something about them, and in that way they become a character. That's true in painting, too. A cityscape is a perspective on a city seen through someone's eyes. I just put up a painting on DPW of an alley in the French Quarter and I look at that painting and think, "That is a scene. It's a scene in someone's life, in some story." I don't mean that literally, as in, "Well, this is Katy, and she's just getting off from her first day at work…" but in a more vague sense, it feels full of narrative possibilities.
What makes you happiest about your art?

I love doing something consistently, over many years, and doing it reasonably well, but with no attachment to the outcome or to any definition of success. When I read some great book by a writer I admire, all I can think about is whether I will or will not ever be able to do anything like that. But I go to a gallery or a museum to look at paintings, and I never get that feeling that I need to catch up with them or compete. It's great.

And I love thinking about the possibility of painting more. I would like nothing more than to be able to go to some interesting city for a month and paint there, sell the paintings, and somehow finance one adventure after another that way. That's not very realistic, but I love thinking about it.

I think all writers envy painters--one of my favorite writers, Geoff Dyer, said this in his book OUT OF SHEER RAGE:

"For the painter work means a more intense physical engagement with life, it begins with carpentry (making stretchers) and ends in glazing, varnishing, and framing…In the age of the computer the writer's office or study will increasingly resemble the customer service desk of an ailing small business."

So I'm very happy that painting lets me get away from my "ailing small business" and go have some fun!

Thanks so much, Amy!

© 2012 Jennifer Newcomb Marine

Jennifer Newcomb Marine is an author and blogging and marketing coach. She's the new Marketing and Community Manager of Daily Paintworks.

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