Interview witih Artist Kathleen Newman
After studying at the American Academy of Art, Kathleen Newman began an illustration and design business, Queen of Arts Studios, Inc. After the arrival of her children, she began painting full time. She now teaches both in her native Chicago area and across the United State and world.
After art school, you ran your own illustration and design business. How did running your own business help prepare you to be a full time fine artist?
While working as an art director at an ad agency in Chicago, I decided to return to Chicago’s American Academy of Art to develop an illustration portfolio geared towards making a living as a storyboard artist, layout renderer and logo designer.
I became “Queen of Arts Studio” and was thrilled to be making a living through my marker and watercolor skills and thoroughly enjoyed working as a team member developing art presentations and illustrations for a variety of clients.
Running my own business taught me many important skills in time management, professional accountability and the importance of developing a “big idea” for each piece of work.
I found that rather than waiting for inspiration to appear, the very act of pencil on paper begins the process to inspiration. Develop the habit to get the hand moving with a pencil or a brush and notice the creative juices begin to flow.
There were deadlines to meet and no time to waste fooling around. I became very good at thumbnail sketches, drawing pages and pages of quick ideas. Rarely were the first ones the best ones. An idea seemed to usually build on the idea before it and I enjoyed the process of letting go to brainstorm quickly. Ideas beget more ideas. One or two were then chosen to develop further through design and composition.
I love beginning paintings and still like to scribble and loosely develop ideas as I work in a sketchbook. Art is work, as renowned designer Milton Glaser professes and I totally agree with his assessment.
You paint mainly in pastel but also paint in oil and watercolor. What freedom does pastel give you that other media don’t? What causes you to reach for your pastels when deciding the tools to use for painting?
I love drawing and pastel provides the tactile experience of drawing and mixing color on the paper right before my eyes. It becomes a very intuitive way to work as I respond to the painting and the painting responds to me.
A set of pastels is like a visual candy store of color and all one has to do is pick up a stick and try it out. It either works or it doesn't ~ and onto the next selection. I explore color relationships that I never would have imagined otherwise, especially using an oil or watercolor palette.
In fact, I’ve been setting out an open box of pastels next to where I’m oil painting to benefit from the random response of colors that I see. I also love the layering of color upon color to build depth and atmosphere in the painting.
There is a beautiful relationship between interwoven color that mixes visually so it remain very colorful and not over blended. Pastels are also very forgiving ~ they can be completely or partially brushed off and then reimagined ~ so there is a lot of freedom while painting.
What are some of the biggest challenges you see in your beginner pastel students? What advice do you give them?
The biggest challenge I find in all my students is taking the time to think about WHY you’re creating a particular painting and then how to create the best design using thumbnails or notan (black and white) value sketches. A little preparation goes a long way.
Developing a sketchbook habit is also very important and provides so many opportunities to be creative in short passages of time; while waiting for the bus, commuting to work, picking up the kids and waiting in the carpool line. You can do plenty of thumbnail sketches or just doodling ideas while waiting around so that you’re ready to go when you get that 3-hour window to work on your masterpiece.
Technically, each medium has specific methods that need to be mastered. For pastels, it’s important to develop the touch, the pressure sensitivity to glaze, layer and use bold strokes or not. Patience to let the pastel build slowly for layering effects is also important in the way that I work. There are more direct ways to use pastels.
I work slowly as if the painting appears before my eyes, dark to light as if turning up a dimmer switch. It’s very meditative and enjoyable getting lost in that process.
Drawing can be really intimidating, especially for beginners. You teach a meditative approach to drawing through observation. Could you describe this approach? How does this approach help artists with their drawing? What does this approach teach them that perhaps another more strictly traditional approach doesn’t?
After teaching painting for awhile, I noticed that it was really difficult to get students into the sketchbook habit for preliminary work as well as just playing around for the enjoyment of it, like children do! We all are so afraid that our skills aren’t good enough and yet the only way to develop our skill is to do it!
Blind contour line drawing is a unique way to observe as if our eyes are slowly watching a tiny bug crawl along the edge of an object as our pencil simultaneously maps the road that the bug is crawling on. It can be a contour line along the outline or in, out and through the interior of the subject. The game is the pencil stays on the paper to record what the eyes are looking at.
If you slow down enough you begin to realize the experience of truly seeing. Not thinking, just looking, slowing down to allow the hand to follow/match the brain. It takes patient, mindful attention and at first no one likes it very much.
First, not being allowed to look at our hand, then we learn to look quickly every once in awhile so as not to lose our place. Everyone begins to notice when they lose track and start to make things up. Take a breath and come back to the practice. It’s very much like meditative breathing.
To truly observe as an artist takes a lot of focus and the reward is inspired and intuitive drawing with the benefit of stronger hand/eye coordination through practice. These drawings show much more poetry in line, in my opinion, than a measured drawing with more accuracy. The inaccuracies are part of the experience. Focused? Not focused? As we pay more attention, we begin to experience the therapeutic reward of being fully present in the moment the drawing is actually a record of where the mind has been while the hand has been drawing.
Why plein air? What does plein air bring to you as an artist and why do you recommend it to students? What can plein air teach you that studio work can’t? Why leave the security (and weather control) of your studio?
Nature always harmonizes. It’s the color of light that influences the color in everything. Working en plein air combines the enjoyment of being outdoors while developing the optical sensitivity to compare value and color relationships.
You don’t have to think hard or struggle with theories ~ just slow down to observe and take notice. There is a short window of time, maybe 2 hours, so the game does have a deadline which encourages some quick, painterly decisions without time to overthink or overwork it. A day outdoors feels like a day off to me. Guilty pleasure!
Along those same lines, you teach a class about the importance of keeping a watercolor sketchbook for plein air studies. Why is it important to keep a watercolor sketchbook? How can students use this tool effectively?
Sometimes I want to go out to explore and just don’t have the time or space to set up an easel for oils or pastels. Watercolors are so portable that all I need is a small shoulder bag with a watercolor sketchbook, small tin palette of colors, a brush or two with a water bottle and I’m able to record my experience and gather reference out in the field in minutes, rather than hours. Even a tiny pocket sketchbook, water brush and a few watercolor pencils will do the trick.
The idea is to sit and observe, record, respond and collect information while being fully present in the environment. Sitting in a cafe, riding the train, walking around ~ grabbing small sketches of people, buildings, even just painting a palette of color notes of the day are rewarding ways to wander our world.
I am taking a group this October on a Belgian barge cruise to experience travel sketching in this way. It’s been found that people do not remember what they’ve seen while taking photos ~ I want to experience travel in a more thoughtful and painterly way, be present to the color of light and sounds around me and have a collection of memories in my sketchbook when I get home.
As a plein air painter, how do you know when you’ve found a good subject to paint? What does a scene need to give it hope of turning into a good painting? What do you consider when choosing a plein air subject? Will any view do?
I am always searching for a certain quality of light in a scene or time of day which might illuminate almost any subject; people, interiors, buildings, water scenes. I once did a gorgeous painting of sunlight on an alley in Chinatown!
Outdoors, I respond to the color of light and it might simply be the sky against an interesting foreground shape.
Find your subject within 10 minutes and get going. The point for me is being there to learn about color. Sometimes the paintings work out and are complete. Other times they become collections of natural color palettes that I might use for my studio work to superimpose on other photos or use as reference. I enjoy urban settings for the excitement and energy of being with people and also love the quiet sounds while being alone in nature. It’s all very inspiring!
Additionally, how much planning do you do when working plein air? What are the steps you go through before starting your painting?
I usually start with a very quick pencil sketch to find the design and composition. I also like to do a small, quick color sketch to lock in the moment. Things move so quickly, I want to remember what inspired me in the first place. That might change. Sometimes the light gets better or someone walks through the scene and I improvise the plan. That’s another reason I love plein air. Using photographs is more static. They never change. Outdoors things happen and its fun to go with the flow.
Back in the studio: How does your approach change when working on a studio painting? Could you walk us through your studio process? Is there a shift of thinking between plein air and the studio that needs to happen? A slowing down?
If I’m working up a plein air painting in the studio, I try to stay as true to the experience as I can, using the sketch, photos, color notes and whatever else I’ve collected.
If I’m working strictly from photo reference, I’ll work with a thumbnail composition and then play around with cropping in iPhoto.
I usually print my image with a grid and in black and white. I almost never follow the color in the reference photo since the shadows are all so dark and the lights are pure white. I have so many other harmonies available to play with from previous color samples and sketchbook references.
Just recently, I began using Procreate on my iPad to continue exploring photo reference and I have to say it’s very exciting with so many options to explore as a tool for designing and manipulating photo references for painting.
I use odorless mineral spirits with NuPastel sticks on UArt sanded paper and enlarge the same dark and light pattern from my notan sketch to tone the background of my paper at least one value darker than I plan the finished painting to be. (or use on oil wash on canvas) I love beginning paintings and like to keep it loose and expressive while still keeping the dark/light abstract pattern. I love to play with a variety of color strategies; complements, analogous or monochromatic and try to leave some of this underpainting color show through in the finished piece.
The next step is to lightly find my drawing where I need it depending on the subject and its complexity. I then start with my darks and choose different colors to begin the layering process, keeping my value intact and using many colors to visually mix together. I always tell my students to go for correct value first. You can always bend the color later to where it needs to go but its the value pattern that is holding everything together.
After the painting has received the same level of color application everywhere, I’ll begin to refine the center of interest and decide how far it needs to go. I’ve found that if I paint loosely with soft edges throughout, I can put hard edges and high contrast in the center of interest when I begin to finish and that might be all the painting needs to be complete. Less is more and I am working hard to keep my paintings fresh and simplified. If I decide the reason “why” has been expressed ~ there’s no need to do anything more.
You mention that you are inspired by the impressionists and the tonalists. What does working tonally give you? What do you feel working this way gives you that working more in strict realism wouldn’t?
I love to work with abstract patterns of light and dark and then spend time exploring the effects of light through color strategies creating atmosphere, high and low key moods, or particular times of day. I think strict realism explains too much and I want my viewers to become engaged in the mystery and possibly recognize or imagine a memory they might have experienced themselves, somewhere, some other time, some other place. Through my application of layered color (impressionism) on a strong pattern of dark and light (tonalism), I am more interested in expressing poetry in my work rather than a full analytical explanation.
Learn more about Kathleen Newman at her website, Facebook and Instagram. And if you'd like to learn to paint while traveling through Belgium and the Netherlands with Newman as your instructor and guide, be extra sure to check out “Sketchbook Journey Through Belgium and the Netherlands.”