Interview with Robbie Laird

by Paint Tube 8 Minutes

Interview with Robbie Laird

Robbie Laird (Flowing Florals: The Informed, Intuitive Approach), is an innovative painter, teacher, and juror. Her paintings captivate the viewer with an exciting balance of flowing ambiguity and varying amounts of specific detail. Using large brushes and flowing paint, her work dances on the edge of abstraction in areas but pulls you back in others. She sometimes uses the unique qualities of flowing transparent pure watercolor to create mysterious rhythmic works, while in other pieces she incorporates a variety of other watermedia. See how Robbie works through a painting in a step-by-step here

Could you talk to us about what is informed intuitive painting? What does working this way bring you as an artist?

I have always felt that intuitive was not an accurate description of my painting goals or processes. “Informed Intuitive Painting” is a term that evolved as I begin to describe what happens in the creation of my paintings. I love the unknown, the ambiguous, the excitement of anticipation and surprise, and I love discovery. I also love the process of observing and learning about different artists and planning how I can make my work stronger.

I think of Informed Intuitive Painting as the artist’s personal quest to find their own best individual expression… how much informed? How much intuitive? It is the combination of both.

Intuitive painting is observing and responding to what is happening in the painting. It is like a dance, discovering what the painting is suggesting, and seeing what I suggest in response to the painting. The outcome of intuitive painting can be anticipated yet is also always a surprise. Becoming informed is a conscious process of making observations, documenting ideas with sketches, notes and studies. Reading and learning about artists, seeing exhibits or learning about a specific medium or method that I might want to use in a painting. Informing myself happens when I do a careful study after observing and then sketching. As I work through a sketch, I am thinking about contrast, or emphasis, or about the strength of design. I add notes to the sketches and color studies in my sketchbook.

Becoming informed includes seeing other artists work, reading, taking and cropping photographs, taking close-ups to see things in different ways looking for information; thus becoming informed about something that I haven’t previously observed carefully. Collecting information is a way that I not only learn more about what I’m observing or hearing, but it is a way of capturing and storing my own inspiration.



How do you become familiar with your subject? Why is taking the time to become familiar important?

Probably the most important thing for me is observation, taking time to look, taking time to see, taking time to analyze what I’m seeing, and paying attention to detail. In addition to many sketches and color studies on location, I like to read about the subject I want to paint. Sometimes historical accounts or articles and programs by naturalists.



The more I know about my subject the more interesting or intriguing it becomes and my desire to express my feeling in a painting increases. A specific example of this is all that I have learned about the Ancient Bristlecone Pines has made them one of my favorite subjects to honor with my paintings. They are the content of my current ongoing series.




There is a tendency for artists to want to work fast. Where in your process do you work fast? Where do you work slowly? Why is it important to slow down?

I watch some artists jump into a painting very quickly and I am in awe of how fast they seem to know exactly where they’re going. I often paint very quickly but that comes from feeling confident about the materials about the process and effects I want to create. That confidence comes from being very familiar with the subject.

My process slows down as I work on subsequent layers where I am fine-tuning my design and other elements of design through the process. Without pausing and slowing down there is no time to contemplate what the painting is saying to me. I think it’s like dancing when both parties are having a chance to follow and lead and working/moving in rhythm together. Sometimes I am leading the painting by introducing certain colors, certain gestures and adjusting the amount of water or detail. Sometimes I need to pause so the painting can offer to me a possible unexpected twist or turn, or a new way to go. 

Slowing down is the time to get fresh eyes on what I have been doing. Sometimes walking away is the best way to give the painting a chance to breathe and for me to come back with a new look with fresh eyes, and an opportunity to see something I haven’t noticed. For me, working continuously fast or slow may not give a chance for the natural rhythm to reveal itself. The painting may become overworked or labored, or just unsuccessful in my eyes.


How do you use sketchbooks? Why are sketchbooks important to you as an artist?

Ahhh... sketchbooks! I used to think I didn’t like to sketch. I now realize that I absolutely love sketching. I had always dreamed of becoming an artist. As an adult, I had very little time to pursue art. My life was filled with a full-time teaching job and two small children. When I did squeeze in a little time for art, I didn’t feel like I had time to sketch. I just wanted to get in and paint! My dramatic turnaround was when I realized how valuable the quick sketches were to me, that I did on our family camping trips. They were my references when I did have time to paint and many of my designs had already been worked out in those sketches.

Now my shelf of sketchbooks has become a visual diary of my travels and explorations. Looking through those sketchbooks I experience again where I sat or stood as I made the sketch, feeling the warmth of the sun or the mist that made me wonder if I could finish before it turned to full-blown rain. Whether I captured just a quick sketch or a more complete essence of the place, or multiple notes in color studies; they are all resources that not only provide information but enable me to relive what I was feeling and wanting to express when I was there.


I rarely go anywhere today without a sketchbook. Even if it’s open for only a few minutes while waiting unexpectedly at a road closure or in a doctor’s office, I never know when that quick capture or design idea may become part of a painting in the future. During my painting process I rarely use photographs as a reference. I love using my sketches because in using myself as the resource, I am drawing from emotion and personal experience. I consider my sketchbooks my most valuable resource. Wildfires are a fact of life living in California. A question we hear and ask each other, “What would you take if you had to evacuate?” If I were in that situation and lucky enough to have a little time to gather some things of importance, I would take a box of my sketchbooks.


Where in your process do you consider design? How do you think through design (thumbnails? Studies, etc?) What are you trying to solve in the design phase of your work?

Design is something that I consider throughout my process and many times when I’m not even painting design is foremost in what I am observing. I fill pages in every sketchbook with possible design formats and layouts as well as value studies. The principles and elements of design are a strong core of my teaching as well as my own creative expression. It is the language with which we can communicate, and manipulate, the viewer to experience our painting. There is tremendous power in the use of design. It is considered throughout my painting process and is the very last thing I consider when making the decision whether the painting is finished. Does the strength of the design support the expression I want to create?


Are there elements or principles of design that you are currently exploring in your work?

Currently I find myself searching for and expressing rhythm. I frequently find myself talking about rhythm with my students. I believe that it is an underlying fundamental in my personal expression. Rhythm helps me to first consider the feeling and essence underlying the subject or concept I want to express. It helps to express why I am drawn to or inspired by a subject. After rhythm, I think about unity and balance, proportion and emphasis. I then consider how to strengthen this underlying rhythm with the use of contrast in value, color, texture and other elements of design. I Consider design elements to be my bag of suggested tools and call upon which ever ones are the right choice this time, to help me get the viewer to stop and want to stay with my painting, maybe seeing something familiar in a new way.


(Painted from sketch done from memory)

How conscious are you of color going into a piece? How do you use color?

Loving color as I do, I sometimes use it with complete abandon! I positively love the excitement of charging wet colors together or double loading pure pigments on a large brush an watching the magic that happens before my eyes. I am aware of the power of color. I prefer to use pure hues and mix neutral and semi-neutral colors. I have learned to really enjoy the use of neutrals to make colors pop and the use of opacity to make transparency sing.


Images for Rhythm and Color-


What is the biggest challenge you see students facing? What advice do you give them?

Many students are overly concerned about the finished product from the very beginning. They often are expecting a certain result from themselves. I try to help them release their preconceived expectations and to trust themselves with whatever happens. I help them to recognize their strengths, to go with what comes naturally and make the most of what they do easily. I tell them “When you push yourself in a positive direction that already feels comfortable, you can stretch your own boundaries.” When we identify what we need to strengthen, we can practice, practice, practice; and don’t confuse practice with painting. Painting is a process that is the end result of practicing everything you can, letting go and trusting yourself.


One of the artists I mentor on a regular basis has had some incredible breakthroughs. She is a very low handicap golfer from years of practice, before that she was a championship tennis player. Her success in those two endeavors came from incredible number of hours of practice and capitalizing on her natural abilities. To this day she continues to take golf lessons because she is hungry to know more and to be the best she can be. Art is her newest passion, and she likes to refer to me as her coach. Her breakthroughs in painting are coming regularly and it at an accelerated pace because she approaches her art with passion and she can’t wait to learn the next thing. She knows from her athletic experiences that trying something new and not succeeding at first is part of the journey. She can’t wait to practice something she’s discovered and she can’t wait to spend more time on things that she didn’t even think about the last time we painted.

Hers is a journey of constant exploration and discovery. On that journey she’s finding her own natural rhythm and what she does best and is capitalizing on that. Her paintings are becoming more personal more meaningful and extremely more skilled because of following her own natural rhythm. Some days when we are together what she desires is a mentor, other times she needs a muse, and sometimes she needs a coach. I enjoy being all three when I can.