Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Artist Interview: Oil Painter Gwen Bell and her Not-So-Still Life Painting

Truth be told, I’ve never been much of a fan of the still life genre.  There have been a few artists, most notably Wayne Thiebaud and Paul Cezanne, whose still life paintings managed to inspire me, but for the most part I've always found still life to be a bit, well, still. 

But Gwen Bell’s paintings refuse to sit still.  Her somewhat whimsical paintings are full of movement and tension.  Gwen's a master at capturing light and reflection and has a wonderful sense of composition.  She often presents a birdseye view of her subjects, carefully arranging groupings of fruit, dishes, or small figurines against beautifully colored cloth patterns that would do Matisse proud.  She combines an impressionistic sense of vibrant color with a realist flair for depiction.  Her diminutive pieces often hint at underlying narratives, but the real joy here is in the process of painting itself.
When Gwen received my interview questions her responses were thoughtful and candid.  I recently had the chance to view some of her paintings in person and they are truly stunning.  Her sense of space and the depth of color belies the small scale of the work.  We chatted awhile at the Dutch Art Gallery during the reception for the Spirit of Texas show.  She's a warm and open artist whose happy to share her knowledge and love of painting.

"Milk and Cherries"
Gwen Bell
Oil on Canvas Panel
10" x 10"
What’s on your easel right now?  Can you tell me about your works in progress and how they fit in with your body of work?
I'm currently working on a series for the Artists of Texas Show at the Dutch Art Gallery in Nov. I've developed a signature style over the past few years that consists of wild background fabric and a simple still life composition. I always have something solid and shiny...like a ceramic cup...that the pattern can reflect into.

You've had a long and varied career in the arts.  Are there any artists or movements that influenced you or inspired your current direction?
I credit the Daily Painter movement with kick-starting my transition into small oil paintings. Before that I was a Muralist and Commercial Artist. The small format and the ability to finish a painting in one or two days was very appealing. Plus, I was new to Oil paint and the frequency of painting helped me find my legs quickly. The Artists who initially caught my attention were Carol Marine and Karin Jurick.

You work in oils on canvas panels.  What is it about oil paint on a rigid support that you find so compelling?  
I love the buttery consistency of the paint and find that their vibrancy cannot be matched in other mediums. I also like that I can paint as thick or thin as I want. I prefer the hard surface of the canvas panels rather than the bouncy stretched canvas.

"Apple Blossom"
Gwen Bell
Oil on Canvas Panel
6" x 6"
Where do you draw your ideas or subject matter from?  Do you always paint from life or do you use photographs as references?  Do you keep a sketchbook?
I usually form a composition in my head, thinking of what existing props I have and then try to recreate it in the set up. Although I have a lot going on in my work, my main inspiration is how the fabric and props will look in the reflection. I play around with the set up until I get the reflection I'm looking for. I never ever paint from memory. In fact, I'm probably too literal with what I see. Sometimes it doesn't look quite right in my mind, but I go ahead and paint what I see.
I prefer to paint from life but find that I fall back on the expediency of photos quite often. I always take a reference photo of the set up for my files and then paint it using both life and the computer monitor. I like the way the monitor helps me navigate difficult areas into 2-D but like the colors of life. Ideally, I like to keep a sketchbook going but, sadly, I've fallen behind.

Your paintings tend to be on the small side, but they are often quite complicated. What size/scale do you usually work in, and how long do you spend on a typical painting?
The majority of my paintings are either 6 x 6" or 10 x 10". However, I do any size for Commissions and would like to start doing larger ones for Gallery work. I like to work Alla Prima. I finish the 6 x 6's in the same day. The 10 x 10's take 2-3 days. Larger than that can take weeks.

Are there times when you can’t be creative or the paint just isn’t flowing?  How do you handle periods of “artist block?”
Yes...I regularly forget how to paint! It seems to come in spurts. I like the discipline of painting every day but sometimes it just doesn't work out. If I wipe out a painting 3 times then it's time to walk away. And of course, there are times when life happens - either health issues or family obligations - that make a steady painting schedule impossible.  Periodically I experience a true block which can be terrifying. I've learned to take a deep breath and consider it as a time for my creative mind to regroup. So far, the creativity always returns. Whew!
"Pass the Cherries"
Gwen Bell
Oil on Canvas Panel
10" x 10"

How do you know when a painting is finished?  Is it sometimes hard for you to decide a work is complete?
I somehow just know when it's finished. That is usually when I've finally covered all of the canvas and completed the crazy patterns. It feels like working on a Jigsaw Puzzle. When the last piece is in, it's done. I've learned the hard way that it is really easy to ruin a painting by over working it. I try to focus on values and shapes and not worry about whether it's "perfect". Right now I'm painting tighter than I'd like but the patterns pretty much dictate that.

Do you use any particular painting mediums (damar, linseed oil, liquin, alkyd gel, etc.)? How do you prepare your surface?
I always paint on Raymar Canvas Panels for the small paintings. If it is larger than 16 x 16" I move to stretched canvas. I do a heavy wash of Burnt Umber as a base for nearly everything and allow it to dry thoroughly before starting the painting. Occasionally I'll do a wash with Raw Umber/Indigo Blue. I use a combination of straight Oderless Turp and a 50/50 mixture of Turp and Lindseed Oil. After it's dry to the touch, I finish it with a light spray of Liquitex Soluvar Gloss Varnish to even out any dull areas.

"Mango Salsa"
Gwen Bell
Oil on Canvas Panel
10" x 10"

What do you think makes the difference in becoming “established” as an artist, and what advice do you have for young and emerging artists looking to develop a career?
I'm still working on becoming "established". I don't know that I'll ever feel like I'm really there. That's one of the things I love about painting...there's always something new to learn and places to grow. I am currently in 4 Galleries and have a nice following on my Blog. My advice to a new Artist would be to paint, paint, and paint some more. The more you paint, the better you'll get. If you're doing what you love, it will begin to show in your work and people will take notice. Chuck Close had a good comment about that: "All the best ideas come out of the process; they come out of the work itself."

"Egg and Ginger Tea"
Gwen Bell
Oil on Canvas Panel
6" x 6"
Do you teach or lead workshops?  Do you feel that teaching helps an artist develop, and if so, in what ways?
I do not teach or lead workshops. In my opinion, it takes a special person to work with people and do it well. I have only taken one Workshop, Carol Marine's, and I do feel I benefited from it. She is a wonderful teacher! Seeing how to do a set up with proper lighting, how to search for the values, how to think about complimentary colors was all very helpful. I would love to take more Workshops from various Artists I admire. Painting with other Artists in the class was fun too. However, I am most comfortable painting alone.

What's next for you and your art?
I will most likely continue with my crazy patterns/still lives for the forseable future since I enjoy them and they sell well. But I can see myself going in a completely different direction as well. Big cats and horses really appeal to me so who knows?

Visit Gwen Bell's Studio Blog to learn more about the artist and view more of her not-so-still life paintings.  Search Paint Daily Texas for more artist interviews, art tips and techniques, and paintings.

3 comments:

  1. What a lovely interview with Gwen! She and I are in a couple of art groups together and I so admire her work. We both talk about loosening up our work, but she seems to have found her niche with these detailed small works. Know she appreciates this well deserved post! Well done, Mark!

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  2. So great to see this and read about Gwen. Great questions, great replies. I've been following her for several years.

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  3. Great interview . Gwen sounds so professional. i am lucky to own few of her works and honored to know such a wonderful person and an artist.

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