Let’s kick the month off right with a great conversation with October’s Artist of the Month, Dena Peterson (Portraits Van Gogh Style and How to Paint Like Van Gogh).
An award-winning artist, Dena has had her paintings exhibited in regional, national, and international shows, including Birds in Art at the Leigh-Yawkey Woodson Museum and the national traveling exhibition. She received her training at the Loveland Academy of Fine Arts, the Art Students League of Denver, and the Scottsdale Artists’ School, where she was selected for the prestigious Wade Fairchild Memorial Scholarship.
Dena was honored to be selected as one of 120 international artists (out of 5,000 applicants) to create paintings for the film Loving Vincent, a labor of love and a tribute to the life and struggles of Van Gogh as told through his paintings.
Art Notes: You paint across several different subjects. What does the landscape give you as an artist? What does portrait painting give you?
I am less interested in subject matter than in the opportunities it presents to explore shapes, values, colors, and textures in paint. I enjoy changing the subject to fit my interest visually and to ultimately add excitement to the painting. I try to ask, “What does the painting need?” rather than, “How close does my painting look to my subject?”
Art Notes: Could you walk us through your process? What do you need to have figured out at each stage?
Before I begin a painting, I like to do several thumbnail sketches to sort out my composition — the placement of major shapes and value groups. That’s a quick way to save so much trouble later. I try to stick to this plan; however, as the painting develops, I may change some things for the good of the painting. Sometimes when I allow myself to let go and not overthink it, the best spontaneous things can happen. Then it is equally important to know which spontaneous things to keep!
Art Notes: Why is planning important? What does it give you as an artist?
I believe planning, even for a few minutes, can give an artist a better intention in the work. Especially when painting realistically, planning helps you to eliminate unnecessary detail and to focus on what really spoke to you in the first place. We tend to think that we have to replicate everything we see in our scene or our reference, and this is especially true in the novice painters that I teach. As Hans Hofmann once said, “The ability to simplify means to eliminate the unnecessary so that the necessary may speak.”
Art Notes: For your reference: What does a good reference need to have? What doesn’t it need to have?
I am a big fan of the idea that less is more. I feel that too much detail all over a painting does not make a successful work. Make it easier on yourself and do some cropping and eliminating in your reference or subject right away. For me, the best reference is something, first and foremost, that I am excited about. What is it about this scene that attracts me? It may be the division of light and shadow, something that has a color scheme that works, or interesting shapes. To think like a painter, you need to think less about the reference itself, and more about what you are going to do with it to make it a great painting.
Art Notes: What are the questions you are asking yourself when you’re composing a scene?
First, I might ask myself what my intention is with the scene. What attracts me to it? Is it a strong patch of light in a mostly shadowed area? Think about where you want your viewers to spend time in the painting, and design it to lead them there. Elements such as strong value contrast, hard edges, thicker paint, or stronger color all tend to attract the eye. I also then decide to downplay areas that are subordinate to that, such as by softening edges or decreasing value contrast and detail.
Art Notes: From a color standpoint, where do you use the color you see and where do you push the colors? Why?
I have always had a tendency to push color in my work. I think it’s part of my voice as an artist. Lately, however, I am learning to appreciate that color speaks louder if it is supported by colors that are less intense or grayed. Color is very relative and subjective. I believe a strong design is more about having a good understanding of values; then, color choices are less important.
Art Notes: What advice would you give to someone who is trying to move beyond realism?
I actually just finished teaching an online class called “Beyond Reality” through the Bemis School of Art in Colorado Springs. There are so many ways to push reality in art. To me, a painting is so much more exciting when the artist begins to let go of the need to copy reality. Van Gogh certainly figured that out, and aren’t we glad he did! Some tools to do this are pushing color or changing it from what you see, cropping your subject in a unique way, flattening space and playing with perspective, stylizing shapes from reality, adding lines and other types of mark-making, using larger brushes, knives, or unconventional tools, increasing the texture in your brushwork, and “disruption,” or smearing, wiping, and covering up shapes as you paint. I emphasize the importance of designing for your painting, rather than copying what you see.