Interview with Artist of the Month: Shelby Keefe

by Paint Tube 6 Minutes

Interview with Artist of the Month: Shelby Keefe

Meet this month’s Artist of the Month, Shelby Keefe. We met Shelby when she shot her video Painting from Photographs.

Shelby is an award-winning, impressionistic painter, a teacher, and a performance artist. Born in Whitewater, Wisconsin, she graduated in 1981 with a BFA from Cardinal Stritch University in Milwaukee. She was always painting, even while working as a self-employed graphic designer, and it was in 2005 that her success as a fine artist allowed her to become a full-time painter. Her award-winning urban landscape paintings and plein air work have earned her participation in prestigious national juried shows, plein air painting competitions, residencies, and arts festivals, as well as garnering commission work for many corporate clients and private collectors.  


(“Ryland’s Live Oaks” 18 x 24, plein air oil on linen, painted in Texas, 2017, collection of the artist)


Art Notes: What is it that the landscape, as a subject, gives you as an artist?

Shelby Keefe: I am passionate about our beautiful planet! I love being outside, smelling the air, feeling the breeze, listening to the sounds, and most importantly, getting lost in nature’s unrelenting beauty. Even if it isn’t a "picture postcard” type of lovely, I am simultaneously grounded and stimulated by complicated, as well as starkly simple, terrain. As human beings, we are connected to the energetic pull that links us to this earth and every living creation — add to that the sensitivity of being an artist, and you get the "perfect storm" of landscape-as-painting-subject, resulting in a willingness to stand for hours to capture a piece of it and take it home! For me, what beckons to be painted are the abstract shapes, colors, textures, and layers, even while the eye sees infinite amounts of detail within the big picture. 


(“These Old Bones’ 18 x 24 inches, plein air oil on canvas, 2015, private collection (This barn has completely collapsed as of 2019)


As much as I am in love with nature and the outdoors, I enjoy painting a complicated man-made landscape such as an urban scene, complete with cars, glowing artificial light, and architecture. Because I love drawing, I am more impelled to capture the personality of a street corner or an old rusty truck rotting in a field than just paint a postcard scene of a pastoral landscape. And I’ve been a fan of depicting old, falling-down barns and buildings for many years. Maybe it’s my way to preserve them forever. 


(“Ghost House” 12 x 24 inches, oil on canvas, 2017, painted from a photo reference)


What I didn’t mention that’s extremely important to any subject is how the light hits it. It’s the drama of sunlight on my subject that grabs me by the collar and compels me to set up my easel and paint the thing. Of course, we don’t always get sun on those days wehave to paint, like at painting competitions that happen to fall on a bad-weather week. Yuck! But then it’s still about the light — contrast and perhaps some bright color to make a statement even when it’s gray and tonal.


(Value Sketch)


Art Notes: Could you give us a brief overview of your painting process?

Shelby Keefe: When I finallydo figure out what to paint — and this is the hardest part for me, deciding where to spend the next three to five hours of my time — I have a few basic things that I do in my painting process.

First, I get rid of the white of a canvas by toning it with vivid color, usually in acrylic. My general idea is to use the complementary color of what ultimately is going to be painted in oil. For example, a blue sky will have an orange undercolor. Green grass is usually magentas and red tones. A brown brick building may have a blue or violet underpainting. Painting color on color is just plainfun! Plus it adds a sparkle and energy to any painting, especially if it’s a gray day.

After my acrylic underpainting is dry (usually only takes 10 minutes), then I do my drawing/value study in dark paint. No need to use a pencil because you wouldn’t see it well over the underpainting, plus you can erase the paint a lot easier with a little Gamsol on a rag. I literally do an entire painting in my darks, as this makes my job easier in the long run. The time I spend on this drawing is time well spent because it is my road map of the rest of my painting process.

After I’ve got my drawing done, I can start using generous amounts of oil paint in the colors I see in front of me. It almost seems easy at this stage because it feels like I’m painting in my coloring book and I know where to go with the paint.


(Notan thumbnails)


Art Notes: Why is planning important? What freedom does that give you later?

Shelby Keefe: My best planning when out in the field is making thumbnail sketches before committing to a scene. By investing a little time in small compositions, I am able to determine if my idea has a good composition. Do I go with a horizontal or a vertical format? Do I crop in closer to my subject or get the whole darn thing on the canvas? A good viewfinder helps with these decisions, and my thumbnails are a way to “capture” what I’ve framed out in my little viewfinder. I can use a Sharpie to get a notan sketch, a pencil for a larger variety of values, and I’ve even used a ballpoint pen to make my thumbnails. 

I make a point of not spending much time on them because they are only 1-2 inches in size, and that’s all I need to determine if I’m going in a pleasing direction. Even if I am painting from a photo reference, I sometimes make sketches to determine what to leave out or what to add, or how to enhance values in areas that may need strengthening. Sketching can give me confidence in my ideas for a painting as well as being a good road map to success.


(Ball point pen thumbnails)


Art Notes: What does a good reference photo need to have to make a good painting? What does it not need to have?

Shelby Keefe: A good reference photo has all the elements that a good plein air scene would have. I want a captivating subject that’s more than just a picture of an object or a predictable postcard-type scene. But first, that photo reference needs to have good color, contrast, and sharpness and needs to have the potential to be more than just a representation of a recognizable something. Can a story be told? Is there mystery and intrigue that beckons the viewer to want to know more? 

These considerations are the same as when I paint outside. What grabs my attention and how I can capture it in a way that is more like poetry rather than journalism is what I strive for. (Thank you, Jill Carver, for that analogy.) If my photo has awkward juxtapositions, I just edit the scene just like I would en plein air. We get to move mountains and power poles, eliminate people, simplify limitless detail, and in general design the scene as we see fit. I like my photo to be pretty close to exciting, or I won’t be motivated to paint from it. My photos are extremely important to me, and I paint from my reference material more than I paint from life outside. But both practices feed each other in a very good way.


(“Under the Tracks” 16 x 20, plein air oil on linen, 2019, collection of the artist)


Art Notes: How do you approach color? What decisions do you make before you begin a painting, and what decisions do you make within the painting when it comes to color?

Shelby Keefe: I paint the color I see, plain and simple. But I exaggerate it a little. When I paint from a photo reference, however, I have to bring what I know about painting outside into the studio. There areinfinite colors the eye can detect when painting from life, but a photograph is notorious for flattening and generalizing color. Shadows become mostly black, and color can be uninteresting. Painting successfully from photos requires taking the slightest cue in a subtle color shift and exaggerating it. Shadows become more purple than black, whites have color added and gradate from a warm to a cool — yellow to lavender, as an example. I don’t do much planning in advance for my color, I just paint what I see.


Art Notes: What’s the biggest challenge you see your students facing? What advice do you give them?

Shelby Keefe: The biggest challenge any of us have as painters is taking an infinite amount of detail and not becoming overwhelmed by it. Keep it simple and learn the basics of good composition. Simplifying a scene, saying more with less, and saying it with your unique voice takes years of practice and self-discovery. When choosing what to paint, chooseless to paint, come in tighter on your subjects, and let the phrase “shapes of color” be your new mantra!