An award-winning artist, Nancie King Mertz has spent her lifetime painting in oil & pastel. She received her BFA in painting from University of Illinois and then went on to be an instructor for three years at Eastern Illinois University. Nancie has traveled to nearly 20 countries for inspiration but Chicago remains her favorite city to paint and explore. It’s also the city that has named her, twice, “Artist of the Year.” Nancie teaches across the country and we are happy to carry her workshop Urban Pastel Painting in the Creative Catalyst shop.
What have you decided before you put the first stroke down in a painting? How do you do that thinking? (For example, is it in your head or does it take a physical form like thumbnails?) Why is that thinking beforehand important?
My work is either plein air or studio, and while the process is very similar, the pre-painting-thinking is very different.
With a studio painting, I'm working from an old-fashioned 4x6 photo reference that is often of poor quality, but has an element that inspires me, such as an unusual angle, compelling shadow shapes, or composition that I find interesting. I'll look at that photo many times to let it "cook" in my brain before starting the painting. Once I feel I know how to modify and push the reference, I'll start and complete in a few hours.
For my plein air work, I'm usually in new surroundings and looking for interesting light or color that I feel will translate well into a painting. I'm racing the clock as the sun moves, so decisions are immediate and definite as I aim to complete the painting in 2 hours.
Could you walk us through your process once you start a painting? How does an idea transition from out-in-the-world to actually being a completed painting?
Nearly all my paintings begin with a "tick-mark-map," the initial charcoal notes I make on the surface to include all desired elements in the composition. The quick map helps me to get the perspective correct and the scale right before I begin adding pigment. (See demo for "Come From Away" below.)
Often when we just start-in painting, we run off the surface, omitting some of the elements that are key to the composition. My "map" helps me avoid this blunder. From the quick map, I begin to place all the darks throughout the piece (only the darks) and then lightly wash them in with denatured alcohol and a fan brush for pastels.
For oils, I scrub them in with turps--it's important to keep the initial darks transparent when working in oil or pastel--they appear much richer when transparent. Throughout the process, I keep the hoped-for final-outcome in my mind, striving to make the painting as I see it improved from my crummy photo or as the scene that inspired me when I first set up my gear on-site. It's that image that pushes me forward to rapid completion. (see "Brake Time" oil)
Pastel artists especially have unlimited color options with no need, necessarily, for mixing. How do you pair down what colors you use in a painting? All those options seem amazing but totally overwhelming.
Again, I work in both pastel and oil, but have found over the years that the ease of pastel set up, transport and rapid results have made it my favored medium for plein air work. In my small studio, I have both an oil & pastel area, and tend to do most of my oils in-studio now.
I feel it's important to have pastels within easy reach, especially when painting on-site, so I have my 2, 80 piece Signature Richeson sets at waist-height to see and grab what I need. The pastels I use for each piece are tipped-up in the box or set to the side so I may use them without searching, again, speeding up the process and keeping the color cohesive.
Students often have boxes scattered all about them on the ground, spending valuable time searching in each box for just the right color. I encourage all pastelists to combine their sets/brands into one convenient palette box and Remove. The. Paper. Labels!!
Along similar lines, how much do you decide about color before a painting? Do you paint what you see or do you have a color plan in mind before you start to work? Why?
I always say that I paint what I see, but I do push the color and make value decisions to push structures and elements into the distance. When painting an urban scene, I often determine the warm sunlite side and balance it with the complimentary cool side (see Chicago Low Down)
Where and how does color mixing happen in pastel painting? If an artist comes from a watercolor background, how does their thinking about color need to adjust? What can you do with color in pastel that you can’t in other media?
Mixing color in pastel happens as the pigment is layered, one hue over another, much like dry-brushing over an underlying color in oil. When out painting, I'm always giving my "pastel lecture" when viewers walk up and say "ohhh, chalk!". I then explain that they are, in fact, pastels, the purest pigment form--the same pigment in oil paint but in a dry, pure stick form. And then they usually say: "like chalk, right?" and I go on to explain the difference, saying that the painting process is similar to oil, in that we work from dark to light in both.
As I remember from my long-ago watercolor days, I feel this is the opposite approach from watercolor painting--they build up from light to dark, and have to wait for layers to dry--I am just not that patient!
Dealing with details can be tough for artists of all skill levels. Either on location or in a reference photo, you are left to contend with a lot of details - too many for a painting. How do you decide what to put in and take out? How do you decide what to leave sharp and what to soften? How does a beginner even begin to approach this?
Learning to edit detail is a skill that comes with completing hundreds of paintings. Even those painters who work in a photo-realistic style have learned to leave-out elements that are unimportant to their design.
If something in your scene or photo is distracting or draws attention away from your focal point, simply omit it or shift the color or value to simply suggest it's there--to make it a secondary element.
Study the work of artists you admire and determine how they have simplified details and softened edges. Our eyes see hard edges only where we focus, and the perimeter is soft or fuzzy. Keep this in mind when composing your painting and guide the eye where you want it to be. (see Open Table)
Where in your process do you think most about design? What are principles or elements that you get most excited about in your work?
As an urban plein air painter, I get excited about structures that criss-cross overhead. I call it "calligraphy in the sky" and love to paint the equally important negative space as it helps to carve-out the positive. (see Sun Tracks - at top of interview) Usually those overhead structures create interesting ground shadows that balance the design and provide energy to the piece.
When landscape painting, I enjoy applying similar warm/cool principles that I do when urban painting, to add more interest to an otherwise "all green" scene. (see "The English")
You finish around 150 paintings a year and encourage students to finish 1 or 2 per day in your workshops. Why do you think it’s important to work fast? What does a painting start to lose if people start to slow down too much?
When I'm painting, I feel the "fire in my belly" and am excited about the process, the image and seeing if I can achieve or exceed the final image in my brain. It's my hope that this energy transfers into my demos, my work, and most importantly, to my students, to help them get fired-up their work.
Work done quickly is usually more fresh and inspired than work labored-over, I've found in the many years I've been a painter. I do stress, however, that it's most important to know how to draw before learning to paint. Incorrect drawing can not be hidden by color and value.
For you as an artist, what were you working on that helped you transition from a beginner to an intermediate painter? How did that focus change as you moved from an intermediate to an advanced painter?
I began painting as a child and enrolled in extension painting classes from the University of Illinois when in high school. I went on to get a BFA from IL as a figure painter, and began my Masters in Painting at Eastern IL Univ. soon after, where I focused on foliage painting, and taught there for 3 years.
I suppose my "intermediate years" were during university training and once I finished, the "advanced painter" years began! I've painted all my life, began a gallery & frame shop in 1979 while in college and have continued along that path ALL these years.
Our gallery/frame shop in Chicago is still going strong every day and I've added travel-teaching to my schedule now that we have wonderful daily staff in our business. The teaching has helped me grow as a painter as I work with eager students and allows me to see inspiring new places for painting.
What is one thing an artist could start doing everyday today that would greatly improve their art in the next year? Why is that particular practice important?
If I'm limited to one, I would say "draw, draw, draw." The knowledge of perspective is important whether drawing structures, figures or landscape.
You can learn more about Nancie King Mertz by visiting her at her website and on Facebook and Instagram.
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