Thursday, August 14, 2014

DPW Spotight Interview: Arena Shawn

Each week we will spotlight a different DPW artist who will give away one of their best paintings.

To enter to win Arena's painting, "Remembering June" go to Daily Paintworks and click on the link at the top of the page announcing their interview.

From Arena's DPW Gallery page:

Arena Shawn was a science major and obtained a Ph.D. in Physics in 2008 from Purdue University. However, alongside science she has always had a passion for art. After coming to United States for graduate school, Arena took the opportunity to attend many art classes provided by the university, and attended painting workshops around the country with nationally-renowned instructors. Eventually, her calling to art has led her to leave her technical job as an Application Scientist in a scientific instrument company in Silicon Valley. She is currently studying classical drawing and painting methods following the 19th-century French academic lineage in the Golden Gate Atelier in San Francisco. (click to read more)

Tell us a bit about how you first started painting.

I was a graduate student majoring in physics in Purdue University, Indiana, and in the midst of my third year of Ph.D. program, my adviser went on a one-year sabbatical abroad. Without having to report my progress in the labs twice every week to him, I had a little more free time on my hands, and as a graduate student I can take most of the undergraduate classes offered by the university for free. I've always wanted to take some art classes, so I thought, "why not taking this opportunity and have some fun?" And I took a watercolor painting class. I had a great teacher and I was hooked ever since.

Remembering June
(click to see original image)

Enter to win by clicking on the link at the top of the home page announcing Arena's interview.

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

I played with watercolor, taking classes and workshops for about two years, but never did a painting based on my own reference materials. I did workshop projects and class assignments given by the teachers, and copied works from watercolor artists I love as exercises of techniques, but was always too timid to start a project of my own. Then I graduated and got a job in California. It was a sales engineer job for a small scientific instrument company in the Silicon Valley, and I was busy doing trade shows and installations and instructing in customers, flying all over the country. It was in the midst of the recession and I was under a lot of pressure, and being in hotels three weeks out of every month did not leave much room for painting. So I stopped for a couple of years. Then I took a workshop with Kathleen Alexandar, a very good watercolor painter of large-format tropical flowers and radiant still-lives, and a very enthusiastic teacher. It happened that she was a science major in college too. She encouraged me to take up painting again despite of my busy work schedules, giving me tips of squeezing out a little bit time every day and always have my painting set-ups ready at home, ready to go, even taking small sheets of paper and palettes with me on business trips. I painted my first quarter-sheet watercolor from my own reference materials that year, and gathered my courage to submit it to North West Watercolor Society's international juried exhibition. Not only did it get in, it won the President's award in the show. I will never forget the thrill I felt receiving the letter for the award, and I've never stopped since.

River's End
(click to see original image)

What mediums and genres have you experimented with?

I have painted mostly in watercolor on my own, doing florals and landscapes, especially little plein-air landscape studies. And I have started a full-time atelier study with a very good oil painter in the classical-realism tradition, doing drawings of portrait, figures and still-lives from life in charcoal for two years. I will start the oil painting part of the program this fall! I've also dabbled in pastels on my own a little bit... But not enough to call it a medium of my own yet.

Which ones have "stuck" and which ones have fallen away? Which ones are you looking forward to exploring?

Watercolor so far is the medium I have work with most, and feel most comfortable with, and I do mostly florals and landscapes. I've tried portrait and animal paintings a couple of times, but for one reason or another, not as much as I'd like. I'd definitely love to do more portraits and figures in the coming years! Also, I am thrilled that I will start to paint in oils starting this fall in the atelier, and I can't wait to do some still life paintings as well as plein-air landscapes in oil soon...

Who or what inspires you most?

A painter near and dear to my heart is Qiang-Huang, a name many in the Daily Paintworks circle are familiar with. I took a workshop with him in early 2010, despite of the fact that I never painted in oil, only in watercolor at that point. I love his works so much that I decided it was worth the cost even if I just go and see the demo when he was teaching in Sacramento, CA. He is a fantastic teacher, and a fellow Ph.D. in physics from China. In the workshop I have learned so much about the aesthetics of painting, but even more importantly, he talked about his plans of leaving his job (a stable, and I'm sure well-paid position as senior engineer) and pursue his life-long dream of being a painter. It has directly inspired me to take the plunge, leaving my job and start my four-year atelier training as a painter in the tradition of classical realism. I would have never been able to get the courage to do it without him, and he will always be my personal hero and inspiration.

Fire Dance
(click to see original image)

In the world of watercolor there are many painters I admire, many have influenced me greatly in terms of techniques, design philosophy and aesthetics, but if I have to list one greatest inspiration, I will say it is Dean Mitchell. Not only is he a great master of watercolor, being able to use it to paint any subject matter of his chosen, he also never stopped experimenting, trying new techniques and new media throughout his entire career, and never stopped growing as a painter despite of all the success he has enjoyed. His paintings are hauntingly beautiful and moving, and technically impeccable while always designed with uttermost care. Never did I see any sloppy passage or a section of a painting that has indicated the painter has lost interest or patience at this point of the painting. Whenever I feel frustrated with a painting and just want to "get it done" because it has lingered in my studio for too long and I just cannot seem to get it right, I always take out my books on Dean Mitchell, and remind myself the high standard a professional painter should hold him/herself to.

What does procrastination look like for you?

Starting new projects (you can always start a new project and the first wet-in-wet washes always look so fresh and promising!) instead of finishing the old ones, especially the ones that probably just need a few touches here or there to get done! Oh, and here's a big one -- working on my own projects instead of those whose deadline is about to reach, and looking up ideas in my photo files -- yes I have terabytes of them :-( and that's always a great place to spend a day or two not painting, just dreaming about new ideas, instead of finishing the old ideas, especially when a painting is not going so well, and I really need to work on it... :-P

What techniques work to ensure that you make time for your art?

Set a fixed amount of time for painting every day, and clock-time it. In the atelier we do three and half hours in the morning working from casts, and three and half hours in the afternoon working from live models, that's a solid seven hours every day working on one's projects, and although the process we use is a very meticulous and slow one, with each passing day you do see solid progress. This has taught me so much about time management -- which first and foremost is about putting solid time into projects you want to complete. I set the same seven-hour clocks for myself during the weekends, and if I have to get up and do the laundry, I stop the clock. But if at the end of the day, I do not finish my seven hours' worth of work that day, I do not go to bed. I've been able to really squeeze out time for my art since I started counting them by the minutes. It may sound too robotic when first heard about, but I am often surprised as how quickly seven hours get by once I get the whole painting process going!

Fall Over Marsh
(click to see original image)

How do you generally arrive at ideas for your paintings?

I keep an "inspiration file" on my computer, on my iPad, my iPhone, and in the cloud (Pinterest and flickr clipboards), and if I have 5 minutes spare time any time, I take them out and flip though the beautiful paintings done by artists I greatly admire, or photographs I've taken during my last walk in the garden/hike through the woods. I always get some fresh ideas whenever I do this, and feel so inspired to start new work. My only problem is to find time for all the ideas that has been piled up this way -- I guess I'll never have the time to explore them all since the new ones just keep on coming!

I also take regular painting hikes whenever I have a day to spare -- nothing beats get out and paint in the fresh air, facing the beauty of the great outdoors to get my creative juice flowing!

How do you keep art "fresh?" What techniques have helped you avoid burnout and keep your work vibrant and engaging?

I generally keep more than a dozen or more painting projects going in the same time, at different stages of their development. This way, if I feel too burnt out by three days working in meticulous details to finish a piece, I can always switch to a painting at the beginning stage of its development, and do the "care-free" washes wet in wet, and vise versa. I also constants switch working methods -- dark to light, light to dark, glazing, wet-in-wet, painting around, masking and pour, using as many colors as I want, using only a limited palette of three to four colors and mix all the colors I need from them, using only primary colors and mix all my greys, using only earth-tones and sober blues, etc., to challenge myself. I try all kinds of paper and other surfaces -- not always with great success or a painting to take home with, but experimentation always gets me excited and recharged if I feel I am getting into a painting rut.

I also switch between my rigorous atelier work -- drawing from live models and casts using classical sight-size method during the day and my relatively care-free watercolor paintings at night and in the weekends. I find switching between working from life and working from photos, working only in values (black and white with shades of grey in between) and working in vibrant colors very stimulating creatively. They compliment and compensate each other, and always keep me on my toes.

Sugar Swirl
(click to see original image)

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

I am still very new at the whole "being a full time artist" thing, so I am trying to learn as much as I can about everything -- new techniques, new media, new subject matter, and the business side of it all -- how to market, promote and sell your art to "make it" in the art world. There is not a day go by that I don't feel I have learned something new from looking at master artists' work, from going through the daily updates of my favorite artists, and from different art-marketing tips posted by my fellow artists. But first and foremost, I know I am learning the balance between creativity and discipline, product and process, without the former one cannot claim to be an artist, and without latter there is no possibility of being a great one. For me, it means learning to leave enough time everyday for "playing" instead of goal-oriented work, trying out new things and starting new projects knowing a lot of them will fail, but allowing that time and do not feel guilty, counting that time spent as a good investment into myself, into growing as a creative artist. It also mean trying to finish pieces even at times I don't feel like to work on them, to just forge through to meet deadlines and getting things done, even when I am tired or do not feel inspired.

What makes you happiest about your art?

The process of making them. I am just happy most of the days that I get to paint or draw. Thinking about starting a new piece, looking at fresh, wet colors mingling on paper, or a realistic form gradually emerging from a grey mist of charcoal powder always get me so thrilled. It's hard to believe that I can actually do that every day. I feel truly lucky and happy just being able to paint, draw, and create.

Thanks, Arena!

© 2014 Sophie Catalina Marine CruseDPW

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