American painter Erin Spencer calls upon the natural surroundings of her home in Rhode Island and travels abroad to evoke emotional landscapes for all seasons. Her energetic brushwork and use of color set her apart as a landscape painter to watch. Below, we discuss how she began her life as an artist.
AF: How did you start making art?
ES: I was always drawing, coloring, and painting as a child. I’ve always found the greatest satisfaction from making things with my own hands. Yet, while I was always an avid sketchbook and journal keeper, I didn’t pursue art as a career until after graduating from college with a History degree and getting married. One fateful day I visited an artist friend’s open house where she was announcing to the world that she was taking that courageous leap into becoming a professional artist. I remember looking closely at her work and being in awe. I walked out of that open house, turned to my husband, and said, “I want to do that.” The next day I bought my first set of oil paints and gathered up all the materials I would need to begin making my own paintings. I didn’t even have an easel, so I sat at our fold out table and began paintings from photographs I had taken while living in The Netherlands several years earlier. The rest, you could say, is history.
AF: What does a typical day look like? Do you have an established routine?
ES: I am a mom to three bright and beautiful children, two boys and a girl. My daughter is not quite 3 yet, so the bulk of my day is spent with her, doing the usual kid things. I am usually up before my children for a bit of quiet time to myself. I still keep a journal and this is my time to meditate, ponder on life, try to solve problems, and pray. Once everyone is up and moving it’s a bit of a mad dash to do breakfast, brush teeth, put on shoes, pack lunches, and get out the door to take my two boys to school. In my time at home with my daughter I can sometimes sneak in either painting or sketching while she plays and watches shows. When she naps is when I get the bulk of my painting done. Then it’s a whirlwind after school is over to accomplish all the typical family tasks, sports, piano lessons, homework, dinner, and reading before bedtime. I will often take time in the evenings to paint, as well. Really, for me, my art happens in the pockets of time I carve out for myself in the midst of all the crazy chaos.
AF: Where do you typically look to find inspiration?
ES: I am so inspired by the landscape around me. It’s all about the colors and shapes and light. When the right combination strikes I can fill up page after page of my sketchbook with composition ideas for future paintings. I am also incredibly inspired by trying to see as much original art as possible. I love to stroll through galleries and museums, taking time to look closely at brush strokes, the cumulative effect of the application and scraping away of paint, the vibrant colors, and just being there in person to experience the artist’s hand. When I can’t see art in person there are always the troves of images and information online. I am quite active on Instagram where my feed is choking on art from around the world. Currently I’m stopped in my tracks quite often by several artists’ work that I see there!
AF: What are you working on currently?
ES: I am in the final stages of preparing for a group show here in Rhode Island. I will have around 20 new paintings hanging at a local courthouse for 6 months beginning in April. I have been working around the clock to get enough large pieces to fill the huge walls! I’m also preparing for a show at a gallery in Provo, Utah where I will be the featured artist during the month of May. I will probably have around 30 small to mid-sized pieces for that show, as well. Needless to say, it’s been a busy couple of months! There are always new projects on the horizon, and I love to envision seeing my work all together in one place!
AF: One cup of coffee or five?
ES: I don’t drink coffee! Or tea! Or Diet Coke! Haha! I know, right? I suppose I don’t have a secret to staying awake and getting it all done. I just try not to be too grumpy about being tired!
AF: Would you mind describing your creative process?
ES: I would say that the vast majority of my paintings come from sketches and impressions of real places where I’ve been. In terms of the physical process I will usually take a sketch and translate it into a painting in my studio. I love to paint en plein air (on location), but it’s not always feasible, so I will often sketch on location and take my ideas inside to work up finished paintings. I usually work on wood boards and panels. I begin with toning my surface with thin washes, working out major values and laying in my composition roughly. This will often shift and change over the course of a painting, and I’ve learned to be okay with that. It’s better to follow what is working rather than be constrained by what the sketch is telling me. Some information needs to be edited by the artist in order to land on a composition and color interplay that works for the painting. Sometimes I will leave this underpainting stage to dry before coming in later to lay in more color, build up texture,
and refine the shapes. Other times (usually on a smaller painting) I will just go for the painting in an alla prima approach. My approach to painting is always met with greater results when I am courageous, without hesitation, and decisive. That doesn’t mean I am careless, but I try to not be afraid of ruining a painting. I just tell myself that if the painting doesn’t feel right it just means it isn’t finished. So, I’ll just keep at it. When the last stroke is put down I usually know. Sometimes a painting will nag me later to be changed, but more often I know when it is finished.Some information needs to be edited by the artist in order to land on a composition and color interplay that works for the painting. Sometimes I will leave this underpainting stage to dry before coming in later to lay in more color, build up texture, and refine the shapes. Other times (usually on a smaller painting) I will just go for the painting in an alla prima approach. My approach to painting is always met with greater results when I am courageous, without hesitation, and decisive. That doesn’t mean I am careless, but I try to not be afraid of ruining a painting. I just tell myself that if the painting doesn’t feel right it just means it isn’t finished. So, I’ll just keep at it. When the last stroke is put down I usually know. Sometimes a painting will nag me later to be changed, but more often I know when it is finished.
AF: What do you do to great creatively 'unstuck' when it happens?
ES: I just paint through it sometimes. Deadlines are a massive help in this way, pushing me to get into the studio even when I’m not feeling particularly inspired or when I feel a bit paralyzed by the fear that I’ve “forgotten how to paint”. Usually I am also helped on my way by looking back through old sketchbooks and pulling out sketches I never got around to painting or by sketching more new compositions. I will also go on different drives, explore new places, look for new shapes and bends along the road, fields, interesting trees. I also find that just changing up my medium can help. I’ll pull out my gouache paints and work up quick sketches, or I’ll draw some figure studies. Each of these practices tends to feed me and my art in some way or another. Sometimes the best way to get a fire under me is to see a piece of art (whether in person or online) that makes me want to jump out of my seat and put some paint of my own down on a panel. I’m highly motivated by the desire to get better!
AF: Who has inspired you most as an artist?
ES: I’m inspired by other artists for sure. I’m inspired by their skill and what I see as pure genius at times. But I would have to say that my greatest inspiration comes from within and I would say also comes from my belief that I have been given a precious gift of life. I have been given the chance to learn so many things, to grow as a person and as an artist. To be given that gift and then to squander it on despair seems a sad waste. I find inspiration from the idea that I have one life to live, to give my all, to surrender my fears in order to leave something beautiful behind for the world to see. I don’t know that my art will stand apart from other art, but I feel a great privilege and responsibility to keep making art, to keep dipping my brush into those hopes and dreams, and to hopefully leave behind something that has been created with determination, love, and courage. I am inspired by the idea that one day someone will say, “She painted all her life and she never gave up. She never stopped believing that what she was doing was good and important and magical.”
AF: Nature plays a large role in your work. What does it represent to you?
ES: I started out painting landscapes because it’s a highly accessible subject matter, but perhaps even more than that because landscapes are an important part of my sense of self and sense of belonging. I feel like the landscape is so universal in its appeal as it is all around each of us all the time. The history of a place and the memory of a place all have a story to share. I love to think of the landscape and elements within the landscape as a tool to tell a story. When the sky is overcast and a storm is approaching we often associate that with feelings of anticipation or perhaps turmoil. And yet, even in that anticipation or turmoil there is the stability and constancy of the earth beneath our feet. So, while there may be a storm raging, the landscape offers us reassurances, as well. In a painting we can see metaphors for our own lives in a cloudscape or in a sunset or in the high horizon line, putting the sky just out of reach for the viewer. We can be uplifted, humbled, calmed, intrigued, or simply in awe when we see a certain interpretation of a place that may or may not be familiar to us. Seeing a landscape painting is like looking through a window into another world, one that may be there to remind us of something, or to link us to the past, or to give us a longing for something bigger and better!
AF: Does the digital world play a role in your approach to creating art?
ES: I think that the access alone to thousands of artists and their work has an inevitable impact on all of us as creative people. Unless we reject all use of the internet in our lives I feel it’s safe to say we are influenced by the art we see there. Social media has opened up many doors in terms of which artists I am exposed to. I’m very grateful for learning about other artists, their work, their process, their output, etc… I am motivated by my social media audience to keep a good pace as I continue to learn and paint. If nothing else, social media in general, and Instagram in particular have given me a glimpse into the studio and work environment of so many wonderful artists. I have learned from many of them, gleaning bits of knowledge they may drop from their tables from time to time. It is a gift to have a community of artists around me! Some of my greatest friendships and art collaborations have come as a result of this community. So I would have to say that it has made a very big impact on me and my desire to keep at it!
AF: What is your most important tool? Is there something in your studio that you cannot live without?
ES: In terms of making art, I suppose there are loads of things I cannot live without! However, in my small studio space I find that my handmade wall easel is a pretty indispensable tool. I built it in my garage and my husband helped me to install it. I am able to mount huge panels and canvases on that easel, thus freeing up all that other precious space in the studio. I’m quite proud of it and it quickly became a much-appreciated addition to my small space.
AF: Where is the next place you would like to travel?
ES: I am so fortunate to belong to a group of women artists who plan an almost annual painting getaway. Last year we painted for a week in the Lake District and Yorkshire Dales region in England. This year we are traveling to France. We will be painting for a week there, thus filling up our reservoirs with new ideas, colors, sights, and sounds. I hope to come home with lots of new inspiration! Now, I just need to learn a bit of French!
AF: What do you like to do in your free time?
ES: I almost laughed out loud! I haven’t had much free time in that last 10 years, but if I can steal it, you will find me reading a book on my sofa or watching a movie or hiking. I’m never happier than when I’m camping or swimming in a lake, so if I can do that I’ll take it any day!
AF: What is the last show you saw?
ES: I visited the Newport Art Museum here in Rhode Island for the opening of their Domestic Affairs show. That was in February. I need to get to a few more local shows soon!
AF: Who is your favorite living artist?
ES: Currently I think I’d have to say either Michael Workman or Douglas Fryer. They are both landscape artists with a very tonalistic leaning. Their textures, shapes, edges, and colors are all so inspiring to me. When I stumble upon one of their paintings I almost always stop to stare for a good long while.
See Erin's work at these upcoming events:
April 6 - April 27, 2018
Jack Meier Gallery
2310 Bissonnet Street
Houston, TX 77005