African Watercolor, Part 2
Interview with Laura Pelick
News for December
Interview with Laura PelickArtist Spotlight
by Constanza Ehrenhaus
Laura's art is absolutely magical and organic. The flow in her pieces leads the eye around like few other artists can. She uses beautiful feminine forms, swirls, trees and branches to transport the viewer to a magical realm. Her use of tea in her paintings gives them a very unique feel too. It was a pleasure to interview her and see what she has to say about art in general and the difficult decision of taking a leap of faith and becoming a full time freelance artist.
Hi Laura. Please tell us a bit about your origins as an artist.
Probably like almost every other artist out there, I started the moment I realized what a crayon and the underside of the table was for. Or perhaps it was the day my dad let me and my sister draw Santa Claus and his reindeer on the wall he was going to wallpaper. My family had popsicle framed 'art' from when I was very little (a fat zebra, a buffalo...), and when I started taking art lessons at the age of 8, it became pastels of other animals copied from calendars and Ranger Rick magazines (A children's magazine with articles on nature) that was passed around as gifts at Christmas time. My fifth grade teacher has a whale painting.
In high school I took both violin lessons and art lessons, and played softball. It really wasn't until a few years before the college years that I even considered taking art seriously, I'd silly notions of being an architect (can you imagine what kind of buildings I might be designing NOW, though?). My high school art teacher, Mr. Bishop, got used to seeing me practically living in his class room (I even skipped math class in Senior year to work on my portfolio) -- helping out other students, or working on the school backdrops for plays. Even my parents put up with the accidental messes of spacemen and stars on the basement floor when I forgot to put a few layers of newsprint under a backdrop.
I've always been into fantasy work -- I grew up watching Jim Henson's movies and tv shows, strange cartoons, going to the museums in NYC with my parents and sisters... I loved to make up stories in my head, and started to draw them after school and on the weekends (much to my father's dismay, making him listen to classical music when I was in the basement in my 'studio' he put together for me).
It wasn't until I hit the oh-so-scary wall at the college I ended up at, that 'fantasy art' is 'illustration' and therefore not 'real Art'. Not until years later, that I realized that this was an advantage for me -- I originally felt as if the teachers just did not like me -- and I learned that I really wasn't a fantasy artist, but a storyteller. Not that I can resist drawing a dragon once in a while!
Your art seems to have evolved into something more stylized, loose and organic. Do you find there is a reason behind this?
College is the reason. It sort of made me really think of other ways to sneak in my love of storytelling and fantasy without getting too illustrative. I don't think I'd be the artist I am today if I did not have abstract teachers, minimalist teachers, 'did he really set up a rocking horse with a doll in a lopsided wig?' teachers. I learned composition from my two photography classes, and how to pluck ideas out of music from my graphic design classes. When I was in college, I hated, and struggled, against what my teachers wanted me to learn.
Today, I thank them for telling me I had too much information in one piece. Sometimes.
You know that saying about thinking outside of the box? I'm so far away from thinking in it, the box was forgotten years ago. I stole ideas and warped it to work for me; I learned tricks of the trade and covered it in globs of paint; and I bounced off of what was around me -- from my husband's writing, to a line of music, or someone else's grief. I ALWAYS bounce off of what is around me. I see a tree I like? I doodle it. Maybe it'll show up 5 years from now in a painting.
The organic side of my work has always been there, though perhaps not as well thought out as it is today. I've always been very interested in the shapes of trees, women, and anything that fights a straight line. I hate rulers, I hate perspective. Straight lines are evil to me. No matter how hard I try to make a straight line perfectly straight, my stuff comes out crooked. So out with the perfect, and in with the "eh, I'll just hide it behind some circles!"
The loose almost abstractness that I often start leaning on heavily, comes from sketching. 90% of my work is in pencil, sketched in a sketchbook, never shown to anyone other than myself and my husband. I enjoy linework. If I could eat my lines, I would be a very happy (a bit very odd) woman. Sometimes I wish I learned how to animate (someday!), I would bring that looser feeling into the pieces. Loose for me often feels like it's about to move, a breath was taken, or for a split second, the wind thought about gusting into a full blown tornado. It feels too restrictive to be TOO careful, though I am often found leaning -- with half an inch to spare -- towards my paintings to pluck out lines that had been drawn and hidden away by layers of paint.
Much of this is from finding out what I liked and just kept going. I knew what I liked when I was younger, I just pushed and pushed every year to just explain my ideas better. It's just the way I grew. 'Specially when it comes to my trees and women mixtures. The line flows better if I'm not careful and restrictive or correct. It feels a little more human, a little more 'natural', to have a few erroneous lines coming together to make something beautiful.
Is your technique related to this feel that your work have? Could you please give us a brief description of how you work?
Yes! It took me a few years of teaching myself how to use watercolors in a way that wouldn't make me crazy (they didn't teach it in college while I was there), but the way I work moves with my style. I figured out what paper best fits the way I paint, I even taught acrylics to behave like watercolor, and my paint to behave like my pencil lines.
My work is very messy. Not as messy as fingerpainting (though sometimes my fingers get involved in the process), and no where as hurricane devastating as Pollock's way of working. But, there are some bits of blue on the wall, and a lovely stain on the carpet upstairs where the paint flowed overboard.
I sketch a lot, as mentioned, and this process is usually my gathering information phase. I get an idea in my head, any old idea, and start hunting through pictures. This isn't to copy other artists or photographers work, but to make sure I get the hand gesture I want from one picture (and often the fingers will come from somewhere else)... or "hey, I really like the shadow, but if I twist and flip it this way, it becomes a giant hole in the ground, and now I see a door!". I have pieces that have taken me 3+ years (I'm still sitting on one from 2005...) to figure out, where as others took me an afternoon. Sometimes when I'm out of ideas, I will go back to my sketchbooks from 1998 and flip through them to see what I forgot I was going to do.
Once I have thumbnails that I'm happy with, I start working out details. The face will appear above the thumbnail. A way I want a branch to look will emerge in the bottom corner. I write things down, I make sure I have the right music in my MP3 list, or sitting nice in front of the TV with CSI on for background noise. Lately I've been attempting to paint right onto the paper or canvas, but usually what I start off with isn't what it ends up to be, just because of the way I am constantly gathering information.
My watercolor work involves a lot of watching the paint dry in the first layers. I'll cover the entire paper (once I've drawn out the image and erased the lines to be a little lighter), with water and either blue or yellow. Very very washed out. Then I'll start to let it dry and go back in AGAIN with my very large brush and just drop water in some areas, sometimes I'll get more color and drop it onto the paper and let it spread out. Some areas are clear with just water, some have puddles of color. This pushes the color that was already there around, kind of like dropping oil into water and letting it do its thing - it spreads out slowly. Usually I try to do this stage when I have to go and do something else, because the hard part here is to just walk away and let it dry.
Once it is, I start going in and pulling out general shapes of trees, or whatever else is in the piece. Still with a large brush, leaving puddles behind to do their thing. The pigment likes to gather at the very edges of the puddle and will leave a nice little line. Over and over I do this with smaller and smaller puddles, until I am working with a smaller brush (I go from 2inches down to 1inch, then to 1/4th inch, until my size 00 brushes, then I go back in with my 2inch and do some more washes). With trees, these left behind lines become the bark, or where the shadow falls, or the light touches.
Layers upon layers, on very heavy 300lb watercolor paper (thinner stuff wrinkles far too much). This goes on until the detailing phase, where I go in with gouache or acrylics and start sharpening up the edges. You might be wondering how to avoid 'muddying' the watercolors? You stick with similar colors. Pick three and stick with them (aka - I use blue, I won't smear orange into it, but yellow actually works very well). And if they mingle, make sure it's in an area for shadows so that you don't have to use blacks to get the darks.
People always wonder if my pieces are really watercolor. Yes and no. More of my recent work is a mixture of watercolors, gouache, and acrylic (only used for detailing, specially with white). The watercolor is often 100 layers of color, so it gets REALLY opaque, but not as opaque as acrylic will right off the bat. And I do often water down my acrylic. It's tricky, but it does work and can make some pretty cool effects with texturing since the paint doesn't break up as much as watercolor or gouache.
Tell us too about the tea painting technique. It seems unusual, but the results are amazing!
Like almost a lot of my work, I 'discovered' this technique while in College. I was in an advanced drawing class that focused on nontraditional means of creating, and I had an assignment to do a collage. What I wanted to do was make paper look really, really old. And what better way to stain something old, is to use coffee or tea? Coffee didn't work out well, it was greasy in the end, so I stuck with making a very large batch of tea. The process has involved since then, it's more now about what organic lines I can make while staining it, instead of just turning it into a tea colored 'parchment'.
It's pretty simple, and all the end results are completely random. Green teas tend to stain lighter, and more yellow, while tea like Darjeeling will get darker faster. I will be trying out a new tea I've enjoyed drinking -- Pommegranate tea (which is herbs from seeds and roots, etc). It was leaving a lovely pinkish hue to the water. That's how I play around with things. "Ooh, this looks like a good color!" and I go and buy a box to play around with!
All you need for this is paper (watercolor paper is best, less wrinkles and holds together better), somewhere you don't mind accidentally spilling a gallon of water on the floor if you're doing a large batch, and of course, tea! I have a bin I got at a hardware store that's used for mixing concrete, lined it with paper and a sheet of plastic. This way, after the batch is over with, I can throw out the plastic and pull up a new sheet (you can find them in the paint section of hardware store). If you forget about your batch of tea, there is a chance of rot, and it can smell pretty nasty so be sure to clean up once you're done making a few sheets.
Fill the bin with a gallon (or more) of HOT water, add your tea. How much you use is a guess, but I use about 4-5 bags per gallon. Let it brew while you're ripping paper down to the sizes you want. This is so each piece is completely different from the next. Then just float them in. The wrinkles and lines come from the plastic, it's similar to printing. If something is touching the paper and blocking the tea from staining it, it will be lighter than where you let tea puddle. I've also folded the plastic liner down over the top of the paper and weight it down with rocks. After a day or two (or more...) pull out the paper, run it under cold tap water to help prevent mildew and let it dry completely in a sunny flat place. If you like what it looks like, there you go! if not, time for another bath! The more you let water evaporate, the darker the tea gets as well, and I like to leave paper in the tub so only the edges are touching the tea puddles - this leaves dark spots and lines as if it were burnt by fire.
Be sure to wash it after you're finished by just running under water and smoothing your hand over the surface until any slimy parts are gone. I haven't had any paper rot on me yet, and my first tea painting is still in very good condition 10+ years later. Now you can use it for whatever. I prefer drawing on top of it, letting the lines and bubbles in the organic stain show me where some details will be in the painting. Water-based paint tends to work best, but your blues WILL turn green. Red looks really good on it too.
Have you had to deal with plagiarism, and how have you solved the problem?
Sadly, yes I had to. It was a few years ago and I was pretty lucky that someone recognized my artwork. One of my paintings had been printed out by a high school student and placed up for display to try to win a Scholarship to attend college. I rarely feel my heart in my throat, but as I read this email letting me know, boy did I get suddenly upset!
I ended up sending off an image of myself with the painting, and notified the gallery explaining to them what had happened. They weren't thrilled by this, and very quickly took down this student's art (all of it, not just mine). Also, they contacted the high school. A few days later I get this letter in the mail from the student almost apologizing for what they'd done. I hope they learned their lesson down the road, but by the sounds of the letter, I was a little saddened because they often stated how they didn't realize what they were doing was wrong.
And that was that. I don't think it'll be something I'll easily forget - that someone thankfully recognized my artwork and alerted it to me. I'm so used to finding things online and contacting people to remove it or add a copyright, but to win a scholarship to go to school? Very troubling to me.
So, I hear that you took the leap of faith not too long ago. What made you think it was the right moment to become a full time artist?
If I didn't, I wouldn't be as busy as I am now. For the last eight years, I've been working various retail jobs here and there while moving from one state to the next with my husband. Each year, my art was a little more known, I got a few more commissions, and started going to GenCon in Indianapolis. This year has been hands down the -best- of all of them, and for a while I was managing with keeping up with my artwork while working as a shift manager part time at the Home Depot.
Situations arose after this August and I ended up having to pull a few full time weeks. Things started to pile up badly and it was getting down to a "me or them" issue. I didn't want to risk loosing a large commission for three RPG books; I still had to finish the last three pages of the children's book "My Dad Can Beat Up Monsters" for an author in Baltimore; and I was getting inquiries about tattoo designs. And THEN I was asked to do a very large painting of Gustav Klimt's Danae.
That pretty much settled it.
I was looking at pulling in MORE money than what I had made between January and August of working at Home Depot - and yet I couldn't get anything done because I was spending so much time at Home Depot. So I had to be gutsy and quit. There's been a few long periods of time in the past where I didn't have a job, but I was sick and not making any art, so things were not turning out so well. This time, I'm overflowing with artwork and needed more time at home to get errands, chores, and my art finished. My part time job was no longer fitting in.
So here I am, at home after a month and things are still looking peachy!
What would be your dream job?
Other than what I'm doing right this instant?? Helping with Guillermo del Toro! I never heard of him before Pan's Labyrinth, and I was delighted by what was put together for Hell Boy 2. It was almost seeing me 20 years down the road on the screen -- something that would come out of my head. Years ago, people often compared my very curly trees to Burton, but sadly he's not come across my work yet to whisk me away to some dark room to draw trees for him.
But that fantasy aside, one day I would like to finally get around to making my husband finish his book and me illustrating it. There's been spatterings here and there. I am interested in putting together a whole pile of trees and women to show at a few galleries locally, and make a book of that, and perhaps figure out how to come up with my own illustrated story for some of the ideas I have floating about.
For now though, I'm quite happy with my current dream. I am attempting to survive off of my talent and slowly but surely, that foot in the door is popping the door open a little wider. Right now I make art, and I get emails and comments from people that see it saying how I inspired them to write a story, or attempt to pick up a paint brush and try again. That alone keeps me going forward to see what might be around the next corner.
I know, right?
My usual excuse is that I cannot draw a straight line even with a ruler, but I just really, really enjoy drawing trees. No matter how you try to draw one, it'll look like a tree in the end. They also seem to pair up pretty well with women (one day I'll draw a tree man!).
Back when I was in college, and trying to understand where my ideas were coming from and how to explain them, I finally came up with a simple reason. At the time, I was walking back from a friend's house, mildly intoxicated, I stopped in front of a tree and a clear, simple thought popped into my head.
"Wow, those branches look a lot like arteries and veins in a human body."
So there you have it. To me it's like looking at the complex human body, all those portraits in galleries and gesture drawings in sketch books. If I'm stuck with ideas, I draw a tree. If I'm in a bad mood... I draw a tree. It's my 'go to' thing to get out of a slump because I can just wing out a tree and it'll look completely different than any other tree I've drawn before. Then if it's a really GOOD tree, I start seeing 'something' in there and start playing around with it. Most of my best pieces that have trees, started with the tree first and I just kept going until a story evolved.
I'm a huge fan of nature, and the college I went to (Alfred School of Art and Design) was in the middle of a forest. But even before then, I was climbing trees as a kid, finding nifty trees to look at on my way home from school... To me they have a little soul in them, are quite relaxing to be around, and are big, solid, and constantly change throughout the year. Kind of like people!
Though, some of the reason why I draw trees all the time, is... I really cannot draw a straight line!
I love Laura's work, just because she has that wonderful charming style. Her work shows scenes in a wonderful, mostly fantasy world. Her use of color is so delicate - and in some way you just calm down by seeing her art. And no matter, if she uses her watercolors/acrylic or makes digital art -- all mediums she handles very well.
And there is always enough room for your own interpretation, of your own story what the painting want to say.
Looking forward to many more artwork from her!
There aren't many artists out there right now who really make me feel like I'm viewing another world, somehow enchanted, and full of life -- but Laura has certainly achieved that with her wonderful imagery. She's demonstrated a fine passion and control of her craft that I not only appreciate, but greatly admire. I definitely look forward to her future creations and wish her great luck with her artistic journey.
I have been a fan of Laura and her artwork since I first discovered her years ago at Epilogue. I love her style and admire her ability to shift from fully illustrative to mesmerizingly abstract, always with it being recognizably HER.
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