Interview with photorealistic oil painter Karen Woods
Seattle-based artist Karen Woods photographs ‘moments of beauty’ every time she’s out on the road in her daily commute. She then takes these photos of intersections and wet roads, and turns them into photorealistic paintings. In this exclusive interview, she talks about the challenges of being a photorealistic painter and what compels her to paint rain drops on wind shields [Read our original post about her here].
At what age did you start painting, and how long did it take you to achieve the photorealistic images you make now?
I didn’t really start painting until I enrolled at California College of the Arts (CCA). Before that I studied architecture. After a couple of years I realized I wasn’t cut out for it. I made the switch to fine art knowing full well I may never make a living as a painter, but with the strong desire to learn all I could.
I went to art school at a time when realism was considered less valuable–at least less cool–than abstraction, or painting from memory, etc. Trying to fit in, I closeted my impulses and painted loose, ethereal, abstracted landscapes.
About ten years ago I began using my own snapshots for source material. I loved the detail and immediacy of photographs. Rather than inhibiting my palette, painting style, and subject matter, they freed me from the constraints of direct observation. It was quite the opposite of what I expected and what I had been taught. My studio practice became more intense, demanding and rewarding. It seems silly now, to have wasted so much time ignoring my own instincts.
What was the most challenging part of capturing the rain drops on your wind shield on canvas?
A great and ongoing challenge is learning to relax and realize that the painting I’m working on is not going to come about in a formulaic way – that is, number one: paint the background, and then number two: paint the raindrops, and then I’m done.
The need to correct my drawing, composition, colour, whatever, inevitably leads to layers upon layers of paint, so that the image itself gets painted many times over. In fact if you took one of those x-rays that conservators use to see the painting underneath a finished work, my own underpainting would reveal an embarrassing mess of crooked cars, funny-looking raindrop-marks, and heavy-handed power lines.
How long does it usually take you to finish a painting?
It’s hard to say, I work on several at a time, either because they have to set up before I paint another layer, or because I’m not sure what to do next and need to put it away for a while. The larger scale ones seem to take forever. I probably finish about twenty-five paintings a year.
Most of your works take place with you in the driver’s seat. What is it about the view from behind the wheel that fascinates you to continue doing what you do?
I wish I could tell you. My best guess is that it has something to do with the fact that the raindrops, or even the windshield itself, provide me with the sense of two-dimensionality, while the land beyond the windshield, the road ahead, provides me with the challenge of achieving the illusion of deep three-dimensional space. I’ve always been drawn to the studio window motif in art history: Matisse and Bonnard, Eugene Atget’s photographs, many Japanese woodblock prints, among others.
I keep thinking I’m nearly finished with this subject matter, and then I get pulled in by it again.