This interview is part of the Creative Catalyst Artist Interview Series and was originally published in 2011.
Oil and Acrylic artist Elizabeth Bauman's paintings evoke a mood. It's not always a happy mood but the oil and acrylic painting techniques she uses draw you into the page and into these often solitary stories. Looking at these paintings makes us ask questions of ourselves, and maybe it's that wonderful self reflection that makes her paintings so personal.
1. How did you get into art? Did you go to art school?
I drew and painted quite a bit growing up but didn't really take what I did seriously until I was in college and decided to major in art studio. After graduating, I did little more than paint here and there. I did enough to keep it going but didn't trust I'd be able to do much more with it until about 5 years ago. Then something clicked and I decided to dedicate much more time to my work and treat it finally as a profession.
2. I read in an interview you talk about the importance of execution over concept. Was there a point in your artistic career when you had mastered the skills enough to focus on process or have you always been a process painter? It seems like a lot of people have a hard time trusting themselves to be process painters.
I waver back and forth between execution and concept but I have found for me no matter what I expect going into a painting, it will change and evolve as I go. For the first few years of serious painting, I stuck with very simple paintings. When I was ready to move onto more I wasn't sure what I was going to include and I think the process painting sort of evolved from that. I would try different things out and what didn't work I'd paint over and try something else. I also think I can't really "see" the finished piece in my mind like I know some people can so I have to explore as I go. This way I can see what works for me and what doesn't in terms of color, pattern, placement. It all moves around as I go. Perhaps that will change over time as I improve? I'm not sure, though it is a fun part of the whole painting experience for me. Plus, I just love playing with the paint and seeing what it can do.
3. Your paintings evoke such moods, how do you do that? (Small question, right?!) Do you create a story for each person as you paint them?
How do I evoke moods? That is a tough question for me because honestly I'm not sure. I like to capture moments where to people do not look particularly happy or sad, as if they are just in between. That expression seems to just come out of me, though sometimes I do need to adjust it if they look a little too happy or sad for a particular painting. As for the story, I always sense a story of the person I'm painting but I'm not always sure what that narrative is, if that makes sense. I often feel like they are strangers, even to me, and all I'm getting is just to witness a moment of their time.
4. What are the steps in your process? Do you do a drawing first and then lay paint down? Do you do thumbnails? Walk us through a painting. How long does a piece take?
I try to always sketch first, sometimes multiple sketches. If I'm painting from a vintage photograph this gives me a better feeling of the individual's features and will save me time later. I don't try to accurately paint them, but I like to have it resemble them if only a little. Sketching also gives me a better idea of what size panel or canvas to use. I don't use thumbnails except if I can't decide panel/canvas size (square or rectangular, for instance). Depending on the painting, I will not usually draw directly on the panel or canvas prior to painting, but will instead sketch it out with paint and go from there. That said, I've started a series which I'm trying something new and I am drawing it almost entirely first, though I doubt it will resemble that original drawing in the end. Once I've started the painting, I let it evolve from there. How long a piece takes depends on what I'm painting. Simple, small portraits can take 3 to 5 hours. Something larger and more complex would go up from there.
5. Do you have different goals for each step? Is there a point where you really step back and consider color or composition? At what step do you really begin to consider the mood of the individual character in the painting?
With the little portraits I don't have goals as such, but I do have a pattern of steps I follow so I don't really think about it any more while I go through the painting. It just comes naturally. But for larger paintings, I just go with the flow of the painting. I continually adjust the color and composition as I go, focusing first on composition and then later on color though I do try out colors throughout the painting process. As for the mood of the character, since the tone of my paintings is often very similar I usually am satisfied with the slightly solemn expression on the person I seem to naturally paint. Sometimes they look too stern or too happy for that particular painting so I'll adjust it.
6. On your website, your 2009 paintings are very different from your 2011 paintings in the sense that there is less background behind your images. How did you make that change an why? Are you trying to bring the attention more to your central figure?
For a couple of years, I painted mostly solitary figures with plain backgrounds. I think during this time I needed the experience of working with the figure and wasn't quite ready to add more. After awhile, though, it wasn't enough. I was getting bored. Since then, I've been adding things in, taking things out, and working with what I want to show in my paintings. This has been one of my greatest struggles: what do I want to paint and how do I want to paint it. What I have learned, and have recently been reminded of in my work when I tried to omit it, is that for me keeping a narrative in each piece is important. When I painted just the figure, even though it was quite simple, to me there was a story. Untold perhaps, but I could sense it. Now I'm adding in more of the story and am working, to this day, to figure out just how I want to tell that story.
7. You have a monthly newsletter, an etsy shop and a blog. How much time do you spend working on these different forms of marketing and how important are they in terms of you as a business person as well as an artist?
I suspect I spend quite a bit of time on each of those sites and more (Flickr, Twitter, etc.) and am hesitant to total up the hours as it is likely more than I think! For me the internet has been a huge asset particularly getting started. Through sites like Flickr, I could immediately interact with other artists and not only get my work out for others to see but it also served as motivation to get more work done. Particularly during the first couple of years. I felt this pressure (totally self-inflicted of course) to post new work at least once a week and sometimes more. While I was probably rushing a bit, there is nothing like that to gain experience quickly.
The internet continues to be a very important tool and community for me. Now that I've settled in a bit, I use it differently than I did at first. While before I might have rushed to show paintings the minute they were finished, now I hold off a bit. I share them with my newsletter subscribers once a month and then later will add them to my other sites. I have two art blogs now, one for finished work and one for studio practice. I really enjoy being able to share not only my finished work but also my process and development overall. I have so appreciated reading about how other artists work, their struggles, their successes on their blogs or other sites so I'm inspired to share my journey. The community of artists connected through the internet I think continues to grow through blogs and sites like Flickr and it is nice to not be so isolated in my work, at home, as it would be so easy to be without these connections. I often wish that this community of internet sites had been present when I graduated from college (1993). Then, you worked unnoticed until you got lucky with a gallery, all of which I suspect slowed me down. It is so different now for the artist just starting out. So many opportunities to show work and learn.
8. You said in an interview that you study a single artists work pretty intensely for awhile and then you move on to another artists work and study that fairly intensely. What role does that study play in your own approach? How do you take what you learn from others and bring it into your own?
I do obsess over an artist for awhile. I read books, watch videos, study their paintings until I guess I'm ready to move on. I often feel like I "find" these artists just when my work is ready for them. Either I feel I'm ready to try something new or, in researching a particular medium, I come across their work and it takes over. Last summer, it was all about Frida Kahlo. I couldn't get enough of reading about her, watching documentaries, the movie, studying her paintings, and more. And while I didn't want to paint just like her, there was something in her work that I wanted to represent in my own. While I'm in the middle of one of these obsessions, I guess you could call it, I'm sure the paintings I'm working on look like they were inspired by that artist to an extent (which is why I often won't share which artist at the time, I don't want it to be obvious). That isn't my objective, but it is kind of unavoidable. What I do like about it, though, is that what I've learned from the study and practice of an artist is what comes much later. The things that really resonated for me will continue to show up in my work (for example, with Frida Kahlo, her surrealist elements keep coming back to me). This helps tell me the direction I want to take my paintings, these reoccurring ideas . Often, I am slowed down by the thinking that I need to have this or that in a painting or that I couldn't possibly do something it would just be wrong. By studying these other artists I'm reminded that only I am making the rules in my paintings and I can do whatever I want.
9. I know you've worked with acrylics before but what is it that draws you to oils?
I love working with oil paint and I love the look of a finished oil painting. It has such an earthiness that I don't find with all other mediums. I love how it blends and covers and I even like the smell. I find, though, that I'm always going back to acrylics because working with oils, for me anyway, is very slow. I need my ideas to move faster than I can always paint in oil. Lately, I've been doing some paintings with both acrylic and oil. This has allowed me to work through the painting more quickly in acrylic first as an under painting but then add the rich oil paint to finish.
10. How long had you been studying and practicing art before you felt like you had your own style? How did that realization happen?
Since my paintings are still evolving and changing, I didn't really realize that I had a distinctive style until I think long after it was there because I'm still to this day figuring out certain aspects of how I want to paint. About a year ago a gallery owner and friend said "I love how you do your faces." Why I hadn't noticed it before I don't know, but it was then I realized that there was a consistency to them. After that, I started noticing more and more how I painted different things and accepting that was how they were going to be. I stopped trying to force myself to paint objects to look a certain way. Obviously, there is room for improvement, practice, and growth. But if I want to have a distinctive style, I need to paint as I'm am naturally inclined. It took me about five years to get to that realization and I still struggle with it in every painting and I was even reminded about that with this question. As I mentioned before, I'm working on a new series of paintings with new ideas and so things will look a little different and yet it still looks like my work because how I handle a brush or how much detail I want in objects is still pretty much the same. If you would like to learn more about Elizabeth Bauman or her fantastic oil and acrylic paintings, please visit her Etsy store, blog and website.