When I look at Donna Walker's paintings, I can almost smell the farmland around where I grew up. There is a color and a design to her work that evokes sky and earth. How wonderful that as artists we can not only connect to place but then share that connection with others.
Have you always been an artist? How did you get into oil painting?
I have been an artist most of my life. My first real interest began when I was in 5th grade and my grandfather (who always drew) gave me a set of colored pencils and taught me how to use them. I took art classes all through school and majored in Fine Art in undergrad and grad school (BFA from Illinois Wesleyan University, and MFA from University of Michigan). Although I took a few courses of painting, I focused on printmaking, which I love, but it is quite impractical if you do not have the space and equipment! After graduation in 2000 I was married and moved to Texas. I had previously worked on art conservation projects and it was good timing that when I moved to Fort Worth, there was a big mural conservation project going on in Dallas which I was part of for a year. After that, I began painting because I did not have the facilities for printmaking, and loved the freedom of being able to create a finished piece quickly. And I had various part-time jobs over the years. Just this past March I quit my last job at an auction gallery and began painting full time. Art has always been a very important part of my life, and it even led me to Texas, for a short conservation project, where I met my husband.
Some of your landscapes (like Patch of Blue II seen above, for example) push toward abstract? How has your style evolved over the years?
It has taken awhile to develop my own personal style (which I still find hard to describe, maybe modern landscape, a mix of abstract and realism, its a combination of abstraction and traditional painting.) I love the play between a realistic subject and doing something very creative with it. I love oil paint because it allows me to work quickly and then to manipulate the results before they dry. I guess over the years my style has gotten brighter and I have tried to eliminate a lot of detail, to find the shape and structure of what I am painting and push that over detail. Composition, color, and mood over detail. I hope my work connects with people- I love to hear feedback-- I have had clients tell me they are reminded of their own ranch or farm, from California, Texas, Virginia, and even Australia!
How does your location affect your work?
My location has really affected my work. I grew up in Indiana and lived in Illinois and Michigan--the Midwest. And barns, farm animals, landscape was always there, but I did not really use that as subject matter until I began painting. I did not grow up on a farm, but saw rural life very close by. When I moved to Texas I was immediately struck by the amount of sun throughout the year and how brightly colored everything is. The sky is almost always an intense blue and I love to paint a rich, flat sky. The land seems to go on forever, so I started painting brightly and flattening the large spaces of land. Once I started playing with a palette knife, it really added a layer of texture to my work.
How much time do you spend painting each day? Do you follow a strict schedule or do you let the day dictate how you'll spend your painting time?
I paint between 5-8 hours a day. Most days it is 9-5:30 or 6pm. It just flies by. I always make myself a weekly schedule, so I know how much time I will have to paint that week and I can plan new projects. I also try to set one day aside for marketing, contacts, and photographing new work.
How do you approach a painting? Walk us through your process?
I have a sketch book handy all the time, where I make small sketches of ideas. When I am out driving through the countryside I take a lot of photographs of farms and animals and I have visited ranches where I take images of animals- sheep, chickens, goats, horses.... For larger pieces, I usually stretch my own linen canvas and prepare it with gesso. (smaller paintings I buy pre-stretched, because I do so many small paintings). I will sketch a layout in charcoal on the prepared canvas, and then do an underpainting in very thin oil paint. This gives me a an idea of the layout which is easy to adjust and change before I begin the heavier layers. And it leaves a bit of color showing through on the finished painting. Once that dries, I usually begin with the subject-- a barn, or animal. I paint this with small palette knives or brushes and add some detail. I like to outline my subject matter so that it stands out in the composition. Then I use a palette knife for the background or landscape. I usually have an idea of the colors I will be using ahead of time, and try to keep a balance of value and intensity, detail and texture.
How do you keep inspired? Do you ever feel stagnant and how do you work through that?
I am very inspired by landscape, colors I see in nature, and animals. I keep inspired by looking at other artists' work, museums, travel, and books. I never try to copy any artist's style, but I get an idea or inspiration from seeing other paintings and how the artist created some detail or image. It is instructional to look what is going on with other artists, but you have to find what works for you and trust your own creativity to make something unique. I am always trying something new, and experimenting with color and composition.
You have a master in printmaking. How do your studies in printmaking affect your oil work?
I think printmaking has really affected my painting. With a hand-pulled print, you really have to plan ahead, because you create the plate in a multi-step process; composition and drawing skills are very important. Also a printmaker has to mix a lot of one color to create several prints in an edition, so it is a lot of planning ahead. But there is also room for experimentation and happy accidents, and I always love the beautiful texture that is created in a print. I like to plan my paintings ahead, but also leave room during the process to change and adapt. And I always feel the underlying structure or composition is so important. I may plan ahead, but then this allows me to work quickly and give my paintings a feeling of spontaneity. A lot of great masters make it look effortless and quick but it takes practice and skill to get to that level of mastery, and I am still learning.
I think my use of flat blocks of color fields stem from my woodblock prints, and the strong definite composition I create. I have studied Japanese printmaking, and was lucky to have spent a month in Japan during my graduate work. The dramatic composition, colors, and shapes of flat color are all things I use in my work.
You clearly have subject themes in your work. Do you continue to work across them all or do you go through periods of focus on, for example, fields and then maybe a year later you'll go back to animals?
Right now I have so many ideas for paintings, I feel like I have a lot momentum. And there is always that fear that it will slow down or there will be days with no ideas. I like to go back and forth between large paintings, small work, landscapes and animals. One week I may paint just animals and the next week a barn painting, or a landscape. Those are the areas that I am interested in now. Sometimes I feel I cannot paint fast enough to get all my ideas out. And one painting leads to new ideas and directions-- which reminds me that I cannot plan too far ahead, but instead, just enjoy the journey.
Thank you Donna! If you'd like to learn more about Donna Walker's work, please visit her Etsy, Facebook and website. Donna's work shows in galleries in Grand Rapids, MI, Lee-on-the-Solent, UK, and Fort Worth, TX. See her website for more details.
Originally Posted on: Sep 23, 2011 by Kelly Powers
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