A bouquet of flowers – they lift us up and bring us joy. Which was one of the reasons I was taken by the work of this month’s guest blogger Steph Mouw – it goes beyond that happy emotional feeling.
I’ve featured Steph’s pastel work twice in the roundups – the first was a still life (click here to see it) and the second was a vase of flowers. What caught my attention on the second was the combination of beauty (expected) and the dramatic setting with some menacing eeriness (most unexpected!). You can see it here.
Since then, I’ve been following her work closely. Since it seemed perfect for a guest blog, I asked and yay! here she is!
But first, in case you don’t know her work, here’s a teaser!
And quickly, a wee bit about Steph Mouw.
Steph Mouw Bio
Steph Mouw only began painting with pastels in 2015. She attended the Cleveland Institute of Art, where she majored in Medical Illustration. Steph’s work has been juried into national and international shows, such as the Pastel Society of America’s Annual Exhibition and the International Association of Pastel Societies Exhibition. Her work has received numerous awards, including, most recently, a fifth place in the Still+Floral category of the 20th Annual Pastel 100 Competition. She is an Associate Member of the Pastel Society of America, the Connecticut Pastel Society, and the Catharine Lorillard Wolfe Art Club. Check out her website here.
And now, heeeeere’s Steph!
A bit about my journey
I became serious about art at 15 as a student in the vocational commercial art program at my high school. The program was 3 hours a day, 5 days a week. My teen years were quite emotionally turbulent and art proved to be my life preserver. I was blessed to have a wonderful instructor, Bob Takatch, who fostered my growing passion for art. I then matriculated to the Cleveland Institute of Art where I was awarded a prestigious Honorary Scholarship. My paintings from that time are filled with
In my spare time I filled sketchbooks with what I termed “hallway drawings”, arrangements of strong value contrasts, cast shadows, and reflected light.
Although I didn’t pursue a career in art it has remained a lifelong passion. I’ve always known that I’d come back to a regular practice of drawing and painting when the time was right.
Discovering pastel and finding florals
In 2008, I began taking drawing classes at our local community college, and then a few years later at a local atelier-type art school. Early in 2015, I came down with a rheumatic illness which caused me to be severely photosensitive. I’ve always been an active outdoorsy person. Now I had to avoid any exposure to sunlight or suffer pretty miserable consequences. After spending 2 weeks in my darkened bedroom, I decided I needed to “retool my life”. Yet again art saved me.
I threw myself into painting and drawing, and that’s when I discovered pastels. At the suggestion of a fellow artist and friend, I signed up for a pastel class given by a wonderful pastel artist, Jane McGraw-Teubner (MP-PSA). I immediately loved the vibrancy and freedom that these little sticks of
I began to fill small sketchbooks with people, places, and things I observed. In doctors waiting rooms, on the Long Island Railroad, in Starbucks, and on the beach, I drew. Art increasingly tugged at my heartstrings. I’ve only ever been interested in painting and drawing from direct observation, from life.
In need of simple subject matter for my pastel paintings, and not wanting to reinvent the wheel every time I approached the easel, I chose to paint mainly fruits and vegetables. Lots and lots of them! So much so that my dear husband finally said (with a smile) “I’m tired of fruit”!
In early March 2017, my husband arrived home with a lovely bouquet of flowers for our 10-year wedding anniversary. I loved how they looked in a vase on our kitchen table. My gift to him in return was to paint them.
Just as I’d been doing previously with my fruit and veggie still lifes, I set up my floral subject on a shelf which I then lit using a gooseneck clamp-on lamp. I was immediately drawn to the dramatic lighting and exciting shadow shapes that this type of direct artificial light created.
My initial floral paintings were a bit clumsy but full of
Light falling on and defining form, creating dramatic shadows and colors – to me that’s thrilling! The assortment of greens serving as a perfect foil for the bright reds, pinks, oranges, and yellows in the florals.
Initially, the glass vase didn’t figure prominently in the early compositions but as I continued to work with the florals, I found myself increasingly seduced by those little reflective vessels.
My studio happens to be next door to The Little Flower House, a family-owned gem of a florist and also my landlord. So in addition to my husband’s largesse, I have constant access to floral inspiration. Many of the flowers I paint have been gifted to me, thus the titles, “Isabel’s Gift” and “Bruce’s Bouquet”.
Having been painting florals for a few years, I now have quite the collection of glass containers from which to choose. I have mason and jelly jars, vases square and round, squat and tall. Once I’ve obtained the flowers I then chose the vase. I may try out a few shapes before settling on just the right one.
Working setup and process
I find a spot to place and light them. In still life painting, I have total control over my set up, and for someone with “control issues” that works for me! I play around with lots of lighting angles, looking for exciting shadows on a back wall or those falling across petals and leaves. Using the clamp-on light affords me plenty of lighting options. I’m apt to jest that I prefer drama in my paintings, just not in my personal life!
I also may sit on a chair or a high stool, or I may stand depending on the view I prefer. Next, I look at the composition through my little grey adjustable viewfinder to visualize various dimensions and formats.
In my toned grey sketchbook, I make a few thumbnail sketches. I use the grey page along with black and white pens or pastel pencils in order to work out the main values. Of late I’m partial to Faber Castell’s white Pitt Pen paired with a black marker like Sharpie or a Micron pen). The Pitt pen uses white India ink and I so enjoy using it that I sometimes have to force myself to put it down to move on to the actual business of painting!
I usually do one, two, or three thumbnails. I may also do a
Importantly and most essential for my sanity, endurance at the easel, and general comfort in my
So balance is key! I can usually carve out a chunk of three or four hours at a time in which to paint and since I like to work
I prefer to complete a painting in a single sitting. I liken the experience of creating a painting to a gym workout: first I warmup with the thumbnails and begin to move into the workout with the block-in; then by the time I’m applying
To date, I haven’t had good results when I’ve returned to complete an unfinished floral painting a day or two later. It seems I lose that initial momentum which is so critical to my process. So if I happen to run out of time, that usually signals the end of that painting. Often I’ll paint the same bouquet the following day or later in the week, maybe trying it using a different setup.
Some of my
Two demo examples
For the block-in, I use a piece of vine charcoal or a dark NuPastel. I value solid draftsmanship so I’ll spend the time to get the drawing right at this stage. I think of this as the scaffold upon which I’ll construct the painting.
Then I often lay in the areas of shadow using large broad strokes of local
To key the painting I determine the darkest dark and lightest light. Then I’ll rough in more of the middle value colors. I may spend some time on the center of interest area at this point. I do try to bring the painting along fairly evenly, moving around to different areas to bring these up to speed as I work. Occasionally I’ll lose myself in one area, often a flower or leaf that’s in half-shadow and dappled with light, or maybe in the glass, which I love to paint.
Looking through the glass I’m able to see the color shapes a bit more easily, I see what’s within the vase more abstractly likely because I’m not thinking “leaf” or “stem” or “flower”, but rather seeing shapes of color. A helpful tip came in one of Jane McGraw-Teubner’s class demonstrations on painting glass, rather than paint the glass itself she painted what was behind it. I love the way glass and water bend the light, resulting in stems that don’t match up but rather zig and zag, and colors that are slightly altered in value, temperature, and chroma. For the glass, I tend to use NuPastels, which I can better control.
I’ll also slow down at this point, applying a softer, more careful touch to get edges and some of the reflections. I
Finishing up and going forward
In my more successful paintings, I’m able to keep the marks loose and gestural yet remain true to my subject. I greatly admire the works of realist artists John Singer Sargent and Richard Schmid. In addition to being imbued with mood, their works exhibit a bravura, a virtuosity of execution, and a loose impressionistic accuracy.
In viewing a painting, I want to experience the hand of the artist that created it, the marks made. Schmid, in his wonderful book, Alla Prima, says that he has at times wished he would have stopped a painting sooner, just past the
Sometimes a painting will fight me tooth and nail and others seem more like smooth sailing. Some paintings turn out surprisingly well, most not so much. The process of painting can be quite difficult at times (complete with my inner critic bellowing comments!) but those small moments of “getting it right” feel oh-so-good as to make the pains worthwhile.
My work as an artist is to continue on, no matter what, to see the painting through to the best of my ability on that given day. My hope is to continue to learn, to grow, and to always marvel at our awe-inspiring visual world!
My oh my oh my!! Who knew flowers could be painted with such drama?! Thank you for sharing your work and process Steph 😀
Now it’s your turn! Steph Mouw and I would LOVE to hear from you! Do you have any questions about Steph’s process? Are you inspired to go paint a vase of flowers? Were you surprised to see flowers painted this way? Do let us know your thoughts!
Until next time,