Working in the studio
I am artist Elizabeth R. Whelan, and my studio is located on Chappaquiddick Island, part of the larger island of Martha's Vineyard, off the Massachusetts coast. It's a perfect location for a little peace and quiet in the winter, but lots of activity in the summer! There's a large creative community and a rural component to the island that I love, particularly in the off-season. And it's not far from Boston, which is nice when I feel the need to wander through art museums and get some big city hustle and bustle.
In the studio I do a great deal of portrait painting; there's something wonderful about connecting with another person and bringing out their personality through paint -- I consider it a real honor to paint a portrait, whether of an individual or family, or perhaps a retired executive, school president, dean or doctor, or a fisherman or sailor -- I have been fortunate to meet and paint people from all walks of life. Everyone has a story to tell!
Travel is a component of my work as well, either to meet people for portrait sittings, or to gather reference for botanical paintings and drawings, maritime (marine) paintings or landscapes, or whatever subject has taken my fancy at that time. I enjoy sketching and painting outdoors and usually have at least one sketchbook with me, with pencils and gouache paints, just in case. For example, you can find me painting around the islands, Cape Cod and Boston, all over Massachusetts and the Northeast, down to New York City and Washington DC (I love to go by train!) and then up to Canada, as well as over the pond to the UK and Ireland. Have paints, will travel, as they say, and then it's home to Chappy to get the serious work done.
Most of those sketches and plein air paintings are studies and ideas for paintings I will finish back in the studio. Canvas-mounted panels line the studio walls, as I work on quite a number of paintings at once, in rotation. I enjoy the indirect method of painting in oils that allows for layering and glazing as well as a fresh and direct application of paint when the subject calls for it. Letting the painting dry in between bouts of painting gives me the opportunity to mix it up when it comes to technique.
When I began oil painting, I already had many years of illustration and graphic design behind me. That experience was very helpful as I changed the focus of my work and began concentrating on painting in oils. For many fine artists, the challenges of self-employment and time management, in particular, can be a difficult adjustment. I highly recommend some experience in the commercial arts for younger artists finding their way; you will pick up valuable skills.
Although I'd like my schedule to be the same from day to day, seven days a week, it really doesn't work that way. The ebb and flow is more organic, and deadlines for commissions and shows push me along. However, in general, the early morning is for paperwork, email, marketing efforts, some exercise, or perhaps gardening or a walk. Then by late morning, I am at the easel, taking advantage of as many daylight hours as possible. Daylight is particularly valuable when I am painting skin tones for portraits.
I manage about 4 hours of painting at a time, break for late lunch and then continue painting for another 3 or 4 hours, often on a different canvas and a different genre. Sometimes I will simply be prepping canvases, working on a monochromatic oil sketch (a preparatory underpainting on the canvas), or working on drawings at the drafting table.
In the evening I am often working in my sketchbook on a gouache painting, getting in some reading, or brainstorming ideas for paintings. I also use the evenings to put down the first layers of new paintings or work on other parts of paintings such as backgrounds. Good studio lighting is important but as I gained experience I discovered that waiting for perfect lighting would drastically shorten the amount of time I spent at the easel! There is always a part of a painting that can be worked, no matter the conditions.
Lately, I have been making sure that drawing is a priority. Not only is it fun, but it's also relaxing. I admit I was a little rusty when I started back to drawing after so many years in commercial art, but I am glad I took it up again--it's very meditative. And in 2019 I created the Martha's Vineyard Drawing Prize, an annual competition to encourage excellence in drawing. (If you like to draw, consider entering!)
Years ago, I met an artist whose goal in life was to have 'time to think'. I know what she meant. Time to paint is important, but it's no less important to have the quiet and space to think deeply about what you are doing. Because of this, I try to live in a manner where quiet and space are the norm, not the exception, often at the expense of comforts I used to take for granted.
I have to say, it's well worth it.
- Elizabeth R. Whelan
Studio artist materials
I use coarse-haired brushes at the start of a painting, and I try to use the largest brush I can for the stroke; it stops a lot of fiddling around. I use filbert, bright, and flat brush profiles the most. I am replacing my older sable and hogs bristle brushes with synthetic and I am very pleased with the results. With care (and a little soap and water) a good large brush will last for years, but smaller ones need replacing regularly no matter the price. The old ones still serve a purpose though - I use them for scumbling, softening edges, and adding texture. (Brands: various Silver Brush, Winsor & Newton, Escoda)
When choosing oil paints I go for professional-grade all the time. The difference in quality, ease of use, and results is more than worth the price. (Brands: Michael Harding, Williamsburg, Rublev, Gamblin, Sennelier, Winsor & Newton, Rembrandt.)
Recently I have started mixing my own oil and gouache paints from pigment, which is fun and rather addictive. (Ancient Earth Pigments, Rublev Natural Pigments.) Here's a good how-to video for mixing oil paint, and one for mixing watercolor, gouache, or egg tempera-- all from the same pigments!
I find that a certain amount of tooth can make for very interesting layering effects. I will use a portrait-grade linen or cotton canvas and I adhere that to aluminum or Dibond panels using Lineco neutral pH adhesive. You can purchase premade canvas panels on aluminum or other supports, however, I make my own as I find it more economical, particularly for larger paintings.
With art supplies, consistency is key. Start with some good brands that are reasonably priced, and get to know them before adding on. You really do get a range of results and it can take time to find what works best for your style of painting.