Excerpts from a
2013 interview with artist N. Stewart for The
Art League blog
What’s your goal with a figure painting or portrait?
I approach portraits and figure paintings differently. In a portrait, I want to capture the personality or expression, like the tilt of a head, that is unique to that person. The expression that a loved one would look at and say, “That’s my dad!”
I see figure paintings in three ways: as figures that fit into a scene, organic and part of the whole, or perhaps as the focal point. Or I see figures as depictions of the human form in all its variety.
My favorite figure paintings are figures as portraits — imparting a part of the inner person. With models, the luxury is that it can be a purely artistic interpretation. I have set the scene. But for me, I like to think I am showing a little something from each model that we all feel or have felt at sometime in our lives.
What’s your creative process like, from an idea to a finished painting?
It depends on the type of painting I am doing.
If I am painting one of my husband’s cacti or other unusual succulents, I tend to work from a photograph, either because the flowers are so ephemeral, or the plants are so small. I also seem to be fixated on old, often crooked buildings. I am a terrible landscape painter but enjoy painting old townhouses from my own photographs. The paintings are more simple, more graphic. Compared to portraits, this is color book coloring for me. I throw in a lot of saturated color and just have fun with it.
Painting a person is the most challenging for me, and I seem to be drawn to challenges. While I can paint from photographs, I do require some “face” time to find that expression I need. At the very least, I want to do a quick color sketch. Usually I do a portrait from both life and photographs that I take. Whether I work with a models or a client, we are often having conversation during the painting or photography process. I want them to be comfortable. When they relax is when I get the most natural poses.
Why are you a painter?
This is a second career for me. Although I do not have a PhD, my first career of over 25 years is what most people would recognize as a “plant doctor.” I was a horticulturalist and IPM specialist for both government and private companies. My husband and I used to be the hosts of the WMAL Garden show, and my last regular job was as an adjunct lecturer, teaching plant pathology at the University of Maryland, Institute of Applied Agriculture.
I loved art as a kid, and I dabbled a bit in pen and ink, graphite and water media as an adult, doing one or two pieces a year, but took my first oil painting class in 2006. I loved it! I started painting constantly. Oil is so forgiving, so easy to “fix’” my mistakes. And I was good.
In 2008 I told my director, “I’m going to paint full time.” I loved teaching at UMD, but the three hour round trip commute was rough. Now I have a studio in Leonardtown, Maryland, the newly designated Arts and Entertainment District, and it’s a joy to paint there as many days of the week that I can. And when I get a portrait commission, and visit my client at their home, I feel privileged to become for a brief time, a small part of their lives.