I was recently asked why I often use bright, warm colors in the backgrounds of my paintings. Being caught off-guard, I answered that they bring out the warmth of the flesh underneath the fur of the animal. While that is true, there is more to it. I enjoy working with complementary colors (colors that are opposite each other on the color wheel). These opposites, when placed next to each other, create a visual vibration. I find that optical illusion fascinating, and I use it to create interest and add life to a painting. It’s also a challenge to me as an artist – how to use these opposites in a harmonious way.
It all started with a trip to the Art Institute in Chicago. I became entranced with a self portrait by Max Beckmann in which he used a vivid, almost fluorescent orange in the background. Objects in the distance tend to get cooler and softer in color. In this painting Beckmann used a bright, warm color to effectively accentuate his figure and managed to keep it in the background so that it didn’t overpower the figure. I was new to painting at the time and thought I would give it a try with “Thanks, Harriet!”
I was pleased with the result. In “Thanks, Harriet!” I used primarily warm colors, but the cooler colors around his face contrasted against the background and intrigued me. In my next painting, “Lily Red,” I experimented with more intense complementary colors.
Three years later I began experiencing migraines while painting. The odor of the oil paints and thinners were causing the problem, and no amount of air purification or ventilation seemed to help. The following year I was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, which has made me sensitive to odors among other problems. I was forced to switch to acrylic paints. Acrylic paint, being water-based, dries within minutes as compared to oil paint which takes days or weeks to dry depending upon the thickness of the paint. Classes with Boston based artist Ellen Rolli helped me to navigate the new medium. At first I found the transition frustrating. The quick drying time made smooth blending difficult, but I soon realized I could use that to my advantage. By allowing colors to show under and through other colors, a visual blending occurs.
I was hooked! I’ve continued to challenge myself with color combinations ever since. Not only is it an expression of my sheer joy in color, but it also helps me to illuminate the beautiful souls I see within animals – souls that often go unnoticed otherwise.