Meet this month’s Artist of the Month, Kathryn Stats. (See all of Kathryn's video list here).
Kathryn has developed a keen eye for the landscape and nature. She wandered the Utah countryside on her horse until her early 20s, then studied with artists in the Salt Lake City area for 20 years.
Kathryn started out by painting the familiar rural landscapes of her childhood, but, curious about new subject matter, she began to make road trips to southern Utah, becoming more and more enthralled with the powerful red rock formations.
She has traveled to and painted the coastal areas of California and Oregon as well as locations in Alaska, Russia, Spain, Italy, France, and Portugal.
Art Notes: What does the plein air painting give you as an artist? Why do you head outside to paint?
Kathryn Stats:Plein air painting allows me to be out of doors, observing nature up close and in person as the light changes and shifts. Things start happening that you would not have seen had you not been sitting there killing time.
I say “killing time” as a tongue-in-cheek reference to wasting time, which it certainly is not when you are a painter. It more or less justifies itself; you are putting down color notes and working out your composition. I’m trying to describe something with paint, which is what draws me to paint in the first place. When I am on location, I often think that I am the luckiest person on earth to be out there watching and observing the light, and putting down a bit of paint while I’m at it.
Art Notes: Could you walk us through your process? What do you need to have figured out at each stage?
Art Notes: When you talk about designing with large value patterns, what do you mean? Why is that important for a strong painting?
By abstracting any subject matter, you are distilling it to its most simple form, thus being able to see it as shape and pattern instead of naming “rock, tree, stream, rose,” etc.
A painting without abstraction at its core is destined to be a weaker piece.
Art Notes: What does a reference need to have for you to want to paint it? (And whatdon’t you need from it?)
A reference needs to stop my eye. Then I have to figure out what it is that caused me to take a look. Color, contrast, and interesting patterns are key to why I am drawn to a reference. I do not need a reference to have flat light with no shadows or color. Very often shadows carry the color where highlights tend to be very pale and washed out.
As I drive down a road and something strikes me as special, I will stop and often be disappointed by the lack of interest when the car is not moving. The interest came from the snapshots of landscape that popped up between passing trees — it was the movement that made the interest and excitement. John F. Carlson and William Wendt are good examples of giving you glimpses of the landscape broken up by foreground masses such as trees.
Art Notes: How do you approach color? Do you use only local color, or do you change the color to make a better painting? How?
While using local color, I look for ways to make it more interesting or complete.
For example, when painting a white house in direct light, I would never use just white. Cad lemon pale would be the base high tint, supported by same value pink, turquoise, orange, or blue in small quantities. I wouldn’t get more cool colors than warm, as the highlight often has a slight warm cast.
Same approach goes for shadow colors as well: As long as the value is the same, you can get a lot of color vibration going by playing warm against cool.
Art Notes: What is the biggest challenge you see students facing when it comes to getting realistic light in their work?
Because the light shapes seem to call to us, people tend to start using light way too early in their paintings. If the light patterns are painted first, they tend to disappear as they have no contrast to work against.
If you do not have a base set of values that are darker, the light paint will prevent you from proceeding without slipping and sliding throughout. Darker values tend to wash out and pick up the white paint. It is better to build up from the darker passages and then cut back into the darker values with the light paint.
Out of doors, I apply my darker values with stiffer paint, thinly applied. This provides a base that will allow lighter paint that is less stiff to sit up on the surface without picking up the dark underlayer.
Of course, you can also apply the darker paint thinned down and get the same result, as long as you stay away from the white.
You can save the bare canvas for the lighter areas so you don’t have to work up from a darker value. Just paint the darker values only where they go and leave the bare canvas for the lights to come later.
Art Notes: How do you think through the composition of your piece? What does a painting need to have for a strong composition?
I would refer you to Edgar Payne’s bookComposition of Outdoor Painting. He shows many different composition options, such as the L, S, or O shapes, or a large mass balanced by a much smaller mass on the opposite side of painting. The steelyard approach is is another well used composition. The division of the canvas into uneven thirds is a valuable tool.
Fibonacci is a bit to digest but fascinating. I played around with it regularly to get my head around it. There are many ways to study this great tool for composition, thanks to the Internet.
Art Notes: Plein air painting can feel intimidating to a painter of any skill level. Any advice to a beginner?
When painting on location, I first forgive myself for not having a lovely, finished piece of work.
I find that doing a few thumbnail sketches first is quite settling. This also allows me to make measurement marks on the sketch to use when doing the real painting. Following the sketch is easier than having to constantly measure from nature to my canvas.
As soon as I find my painting slipping backward, I quit.
My purpose in plein air painting is to work on material I am having trouble with. For example, I just returned from painting in New Mexico. I am currently finding it very challenging to paint warm saturated or high-key colors in shadow. I concentrated on just that problem, trying different approaches at different times of day to nail that down. I learned more than I would have just trying to get a finished painting. I did a lot of half-finished pieces, but they are good references for future work.
Art Notes: How do you assess a piece after it’s finished?
When you believe the painting to be finished, turn it upside down and place it in a position you will pass by regularly in your daily activities. If something doesn’t work in the painting, it will tell you.
Have a list of things to keep in mind — for instance, focal point, design, composition, texture, soft and hard, etc. I am using James Reynolds’ list, published in his bookThe Art of James Reynolds, from O’Neil Printing in Phoenix, Arizona.