Denise LaRue Mahlke Interview

Posted on

I first met Denise several years ago in Arkansas where I was teaching a workshop. She didn’t need to be there, but it’s a testament to her desire to always learn and grow as an artist that put her in the class. She was good then, but

in recent years she’s really found her creative voice and is doing some really nice work. When she won 1st Place in the Landscape category of the 2009 Art Renewal Center International Salon…well, that to me was a turning point. More and more her work in both pastel and oils is gaining a national reputation. She is quiet, thoughtful, and considerate.

Rhapsody – 24″x 36″ – Pastel
(1st Place, Landscape – Art Renewal Center Salon 2009/10)

Denise has achieved her high level of competence through hard work and attentiveness to the instruction and guidance of other artists, gleaned through workshops she has taken over the year. Bob Rohm was a big influence during her early years of study, while T. Allen Lawson continues to mentor her to this day.

I’ve asked her to speak about her work. I think you will really appreciate her comments and learn a great deal from her response to my questions.

What is your definition of art?  An expression of beauty and truth communicated through the skillful and thoughtful mastery of the artist’s chosen medium.
How would you define your role as an artist?  Art is a gift from God and as an artist, it is my responsibility to glorify and honor God with the work of my hands and to continue to learn and grow as an artist that my work might be a reflection of Him. My work should communicate something of His beauty to the viewer. 

Lavender Twilight  –  6″x 6″  –  Pastel
(1st Place  –  ‘6″Squared”  –  Randy Higbee Gallery Show)

How does your work reflect your personality?  People say my work evokes a sense of peacefulness and quiet or contemplation. I tend to be drawn by more intimate, quiet scenes and I guess that is a part of who I am.
How does one find their individuality as an artist?  By continually seeking, asking, and knocking in pursuit of excellency in our work. It takes time, perseverance, and practice to develop your skills to the highest level possible. It also takes love, I think, and a heart of thanksgiving.
Do you consider the process of painting more important than the result?  In the process is thanksgiving, praise, and joy – mixed with sweat and tears at times, but the result is the giving of the gift to connect and communicate with others.
How much of your work is intellectual vs. emotional…and how would you define the difference?  The emotional response to a scene is what makes me stop and take notice and inspires me…the intellectual is how I go about best defining and presenting it through thoughtful manipulation, editing and designing of the scene to somehow express it.

The Test of Time  –  12″x 16″  –  Pastel

What part does plein air painting play in your work?  I love painting outdoors. I go to seek answers to questions, to gather material, and to just observe first-hand, color, light, texture, and value. It is useful to then take my plein air study into the studio to develop a larger studio piece using my color notes, along with sketches, writing, and photos. Sometimes I will do a finished piece outdoors but most times it ends up as a reference.

Summer Idyll  –  9″x 12″  –  Pastel
5th Place, Landscape  –  ’13th Annual Competition’  –  Pastel Journal)

What is the major thing you look for when selecting a subject?  The thing that makes my heart skip a beat. The heart response, triggered by the light, or color, or mood is what I try to hold on to as I continue to ask myself, what was it that made me stop? Why? and how can I best express it?

The Gilded Edge  –  11″x 14″ –  Pastel

Do you let the subject determine the concept of the work or do you create the concept and use the subject only as the starting point?  I guess I work both ways. Many things can spark an idea, the written word, beautiful and masterful art, God’s creation. I like to travel and paint letting the subject move me, or I will go seeking the landscape I need for a concept I have.
What part does photography play in your work?  I do take photos wherever I go, and while painting plein air. I use photos in my work as an aide, especially when the subject is a moving target like clouds, fleeting light effects, or young children, but mostly as a jumping off point or to jog my memory of place.
You work primarily in pastel…and some in oil, are there any significant differences between the two?  Actually they are similar in that with pastels, I work dark to light, hard to soft, keeping darks more transparent and lights more opaque. In oils you work dark to light, thin to thick, keeping darks more transparent and light more opaque. When I started painting in oils again after several years of working in pastels, I would often ask myself how I would handle a subject or solve a problem with pastels then I would apply that to my oil painting. It worked!
With pastels, you can layer and optically ‘mix’ color on the painting surface, but you cannot really mix a color like you can with oil paint. That is why you often hear from a pastel painter that you can never have enough pastels.
In both mediums, it is very easy to mix ‘mud’ if you are not careful…and if you start out with too soft a pastel you can fill the ‘tooth’ of the paper too soon, making subsequent layers more difficult. 

Spring Reflection  –  8″x 8″  –  Pastel

Do you consider pastel a drawing or painting medium? Why?  Both! I have heard the explanation that a sketch or drawing uses the tips of the pastel, or pastel pencils, letting most of the paper show through and that a painting uses more of the sides of the pastels, covering most of the paper with pastel. I consider what I do, painting.
What’s your preferred surface when working in pastel?  I use a sanded pastel paper (Uart, Wallis, etc.) mounted on gatorboard to have a more rigid surface. I also experiment with making my own surface, gessoing gatorboard to seal it, then applying several layers of pumice mixture, sanding between each layer.
Talk about your selection of colors when working in pastel and oil.  My pastel box is divided into warms, cools, and neutrals separated into three main values, plus accent darks and lighter lights. It is a mix of medium to very soft pastels and a separate smaller box with hard pastels.
When I paint with oil outdoors, I usually limit my palette to Ultramarine blue deep, Cobalt blue pale, permanent Alizarin, cadmium red light, cadmium lemon yellow, cadmium yellow medium, and titanium/zinc white. I will at times use transparent red oxide or burnt sienna, and viridian on my palette. I do like to try different colors from time to time, depending on where and what I am painting.
What is your major consideration when composing a painting?  I think about placement of a center of interest and leading the eye through the painting, as well as areas of quiet to counterbalance an area of movement or emphasis.

Autumn Veil  –  12″x 12″  –  Pastel

How thorough is your initial drawing?  I love to draw. Most of my drawing before I paint indoors or out, is small thumbnail sketches to work out design and values. I like to do a more thorough drawing when the scene or subject is more complex. I love charcoal and pencil drawing and try to make the weekly life drawing session, drawing figure or portrait. A goal of mine this year is to do more large drawings outdoors, especially of trees and old buildings.
How do you decide on a dominating color key for a painting, and how do you maintain it?  I think about this in the planning/design stages of a painting. I will play with different color schemes and the use of complementary colors as well as the dominant value of the painting before I begin painting. Sometimes I will do small color studies in the studio with pastel, watercolor, or oil. I use my Analogous color wheel which is based on the Munsell system after I determine my dominant color, for different color combinations. It helps too, to go back to those notes as I paint. Like my thumbnail sketches (used for design and value), these are my road maps if I get off track. Another way to help maintain the harmonious color scheme, is to block in the under painting in the same analogous color family, using warm and cool versions of red, for instance, under a predominantly green painting.
Keying the sky is very important since it is the main light source. At times I will choose not to block in the sky but let the paper add luminosity to the sky. This works especially well with white Wallis pastel paper. Uart is a buff color so it also works well with the predominant blues of skies and clouds. Other times I will put down an initial color, paying close attention to value, especially for evening or morning twilight to set a mood for the painting.
Describe your typical block-in technique.  After deciding on my design, using my small sketch as reference, I will lightly indicate major shapes on my pastel paper or canvas with a hard pastel, soft lead pencil, or with thinned paint when working in oils. After that I approach my pastel several different ways, depending on the overall key or mood of the painting. Most often I will use hard to medium soft pastels to block in the shapes, sticking with mid-dark to dark values relative to each shape. I will usually pick at least two pastels, a warm and a cool of the same value for each shape. After covering the paper lightly with the pastel (sometimes I will leave the sky alone, letting the paper show), I will then use odorless mineral spirits (Gamsol) and an old brush to scrub and ‘paint in’ these areas of pastel. This stains and tones the paper. Once dry, I start the painting process by reestablishing some darks then working mid-dark to light, saving the lightest lights for last. Outdoors I will sometimes start from the center of interest   outward, knowing if my values are right in the under painting, I can pretty much leave the secondary areas of the painting alone and have enough information to use the painting as reference back in my studio.

Welcome Spring  –  11″x 13″  –  Pastel
(2nd Place, Animal  –  ’10th Annual Competition’  –  Pastel Journal)

What advice do you have for a young artist/painter?  Very few good artists get to where they are without working hard and taking risks, always trying to grow. Ultimately, your job is to focus on the quality of your work, continually moving from ‘painter’ to ‘artist’. The awards, shows, galleries, will come in time. Keep after your goals daily. Pursue excellency in your work and work to give. I think this quote from Andrew Wyeth pretty much says it all: “I think one’s art goes about as far and as deep as one’s love goes, I see no other reason for painting but that.”
Any advice for a first-time collector?  Educate yourself. Talk to artists, gallery owners, and other collectors, then buy what you love.
If you could spend the day with three artist, past and/or present, whom would they be?  Andrew Wyeth; Russian master, Isaac Levitan; Mary Cassatt and Edgar Degas (together).

Twilight on Spring Creek  –  18″x 24″  –  Pastel
(Honorable Mention, Landscape  –  Art Renewal Center Salon 2009/10)

Thanks Denise for a great interview. Here’s her website to see more of her work.

Upcoming interviews will feature Marc Hanson, Michael Godfrey, and others to be named later.
If you would like to receive my monthly newsletter, please click HERE


Please Note - You must be logged into a Facebook account in order to write comments. We highly recommend using Google Chrome, Fire Fox, or Internet Explorer since some individuals have not been able to leave comments on the Safari browser. If you have any issues, please email me.