“I think the strongest paintings are the ones that have the simplest ideas behind them. It’s very easy to be dazzled by a vista, and then you wind up doing six paintings in one. To me, it’s more important to keep the idea as simple as possible, to make the message clear. Each piece should be an iconic celebration of its subject.”
Jill Carver’s work is distinctly different today from just a few years ago. When I first became aware of her work, she was exhibiting in the Outdoor Painters Society “Plein Air Southwest Salon”, and if I remember correctly, received one of the top awards.
It’s a curiosity to see one change their style so dramatically in such a short time. An explanation for this may be found in the clarity in which she is able to envision the type artist she wants to be. Rather than being almost exclusively a plein air painter, she now divides her time almost equally between the studio and outdoors. This has forced her to think more deeply and prepare more thoroughly. That combination has led to very distinctive statements on canvas…simple, clear messages executed in a way that appears fearless, decisive, and bold. “I just want to get better as a painter”, she says. “In my head, I’m six months in advance of what’s coming out at the end of the paintbrush. There’s always a sense of chasing to catch up. That’s what gets me up every day.”
It’s a pleasure to bring you this thoughtful interview with Jill Carver.
Why are you an artist? I have always been very observant, very visual in the way that I learn, express myself and how I remember or recall things… even learning a language or a poem… it’s not the sound I remember but the shape the word makes upon the page. There was a recent issue of Scientific American dedicated to the creative mind, and it was very revealing… or confirming!
What would be your definition of art? I think Henry James gets close: “We work in the dark – we do what we can – we give what we have. Our doubt is our passion and our passion is our task. The rest is the madness of art.”
I think it is an exploration of what we know and what we don’t know; it is and should be very personal. For me, it is also celebratory and emotional; it is an attempt to capture that and transfer it in a stimulating way. I am constantly asking myself what is the difference between a painting and a piece of art? A piece of art somehow elevates itself to another level – it transfers the personal exploration and the emotional process of the artist to the viewer. It is the record of a process not a concluding statement. ‘Certainty’ is not very interesting to look at; the exploration of an idea is.
You state in your bio that nature has provided you with a spiritual compass in life, what do you mean by that? Being outdoors, in nature, being a student, being reverent and humbled by its power and majesty has bought me the spiritual calmness we all seek. It’s where I go to feel centered and calm. Even when my husband proposed, my answer to him was that I would have to go and talk to my river – The River Wye in the Peak District of England! He thought that was a great response – perhaps being a fly-fisherman he felt the same way.
For 12 years you were a curatorial research assistant at the National Portrait Gallery in London, please tell us what that job entailed. I worked in the Archive and Research Department of the National Portrait Gallery. I had a variety of tasks which included: researching and giving opinions on portraits in terms of their attributions, provenance and so forth; cataloguing drawings and prints from the gallery’s reference collection; maintaining and adding to the archive’s massive research archive of all British portraits; managing the gallery’s photography sessions (which involved being trained as an art handler); and dealing with inquiries from the public. So part art historian, part art detective! It was a very rewarding environment.
Did that job in any way prepare you for your career as a full-time professional artist? Aside from the obvious inspiration drawn from being around a variety of great art on a daily basis, I think one of the major benefits was the development of a ‘critical’ or ‘discerning’ eye. Certainly in researching a portrait’s authenticity or attribution, one becomes attuned to an artist’s style. That visual acuity comes slowly, and with time… but yes, one sees the difference between the genuine ability to see and draw, as opposed to the stiffness of something copied; one can distinguish a genuine confident brushstroke from one that imitates some other. It took time, but it was fun to be able to walk into a room of any gallery and identify an artist’s work from afar without needing to read the caption – like painting, it’s a skill that needed to be practiced repeatedly… and alas, I have realized, since I have been away from that environment, that it is a knowledge and skill that is quickly lost!
But having a ‘critical eye’ when painting and judging one’s own work or progress is crucial.
I think the other major benefit that I took from that career was the ability to manage my time effectively. Though I was part of a team, and I had certain tasks that needed to be completed in any given week or year, the way of organizing my time was up to me, but there was always so much to do, it required great discipline. So just having the tools of effective time management helps hugely; knowing when the mind is fresh, flexible and inquisitive for the more demanding tasks, and knowing which more mundane tasks you can save for when you are mentally weary.
Why are you a landscape painter? It’s my excuse to be outdoors! I think I would also be as spiritually and emotionally fulfilled if I were a gardener, or farmer… just someone that has to be in tune with the land and the seasons. When I am not painting, I am doing something creative outdoors, whether that be building furniture, or fish-ponds, or dry-stacked stone walls, or a sculpture of some kind for the garden.
Would you recommend that artists limit their marketable work to one genre? Why/why not? I see the advantages in working on a series of similar topics and really exploring it… that can be rewarding in terms of a journey of focused discovery for the artist and yes, that in turn has advantages in terms of how a gallery might be able to market or ‘brand’ you… but I am wary in terms of thinking of marketing or branding myself. It is a personal choice – there are artists out there that have been extremely successful in terms of sales in a specific genre even though they continue to explore others. But I have found that as soon as someone describes me as the boat painter, or the barn/shack painter… that I quickly move on to something else! Personally, I continue to strive for range in my subject matter; I pride myself on having ‘range’. I still have too much to learn to narrow it down, nor would I want to.
Your work seems to have evolved over the last few years resulting in a very distinctive style with strong color and decisive brushwork. What brought that change about? Yes, I think there was a clear shift about five years ago.
I wanted to re-define who I was… or rather get back to who I wanted to be as an artist. I was no longer feeling that I was reaching my potential by defining my career through plein air events solely. I had been given the fantastic opportunity to be a part of Maynard Dixon Country and I had also been invited to join The Insight Gallery. Both required the VERY best work I could possibly produce and that meant embracing working in the studio.
I still spent as much time outdoors painting as I ever did but, the definitions of ‘plein air’ or ‘studio’ fell away and it became about whether it was my very best work or not.
As a plein air ‘addict’, I had to make a huge effort to make the studio more stimulating, a place of learning, and a place of experimentation. Larger pieces required more thought, more planning, a more concise and resolved idea of ‘motif’. The studio became a fun, stimulating place to learn and experiment with different ideas, and different art theories or methods. That in turn fed back into the outdoor work.
But note, the studio was not just about sizing up – indeed I often work on 8 x 10s in the studio!
Outdoors work then became about finding ideas, establishing a dialogue with a certain place and then recording accurate color notes – it no longer was about necessarily finishing frame-able paintings. It was a conscious shift away from feeling like a producer of pretty paintings. I changed my mindset to ‘hunter-gatherer’, rather than ‘producer’. It does not sound like much of a shift but it was – rather than impose my will and go out seeking paintings, I went out ready to explore and establish a ‘conversation’ with a place. Sometimes the most interesting conversations came from seemingly unlikely places. I think that is why many of my recent paintings are of more intimate views.
In much of your work there is a great emphasis placed on composition and strong contrast, as in: light/dark, warm/cool, large/small, intense/subdued, hard/soft, bold and refined. Does this reflect your personality? I have been described as ‘complex’, which I think is a polite way of saying ‘difficult’ – my mother said the same thing about me when I was a child! But yes, I think I am full of contradictions and opposing forces. In truth I want to ‘say something’ about a place. I want to convey my emotion. So I probably do take what dialogues or tensions or harmonies or vibrations that are present out there and amplify them up a little.
What’s the one thing you’ve done in the last few years that has made the most difference in how you paint today? Without a doubt: more preparation. I spend much more time planning, sketching, both in the studio and outdoors. I think a lot of artists struggle when they work larger in the studio, and they feel that much of the freshness or vitality that is present in their plein air work is lacking. I found that allowing more time to prepare and experiment with different interpretations of a single motif, resolved any issues or weaknesses that might lead to a painting being overworked (and by that we usually mean over corrected, don’t we?). So I will do notan sketches using a sharpie pen in my sketchbook, and I will do value plans using maybe charcoal, and I will maybe do a color study in oil or watercolor to test if the overall color pattern reads well.
I have certainly found that notans and value plans have advanced my design concepts considerably. In the example below I allowed myself two darks and two lights. I literally drew lines on my palette to keep my four value groups separate but then, within each value, I allowed myself as many temperature or hue shifts as were necessary.
It is NOT how I work every time but it is extremely useful when dealing with landscapes that might otherwise dissemble into a multitude of color notes – it gives the painting an underlying structure and cohesiveness. At the very least I will separate my darks and my lights on my palette. I came across some teaching notes by Harvey Dunn in a book and he recommended this approach to his students. The palette then becomes a built in check: if you ensure that your lightest dark is still darker that your darkest light the painting will read well.
You have said that your work walks the ‘line’ between abstraction and realism; please explain. Hmmm… I think of it now as more of a dialogue than a ‘line’: ‘All representational art is abstract, and all abstract art is representational’ Even as a child looking through art magazines at those progressive 1-10 step shots of a painting in progress, I was very aware that I responded to Step 6 or 7 more strongly than the finished No. 10. They just had more energy, were more dynamic, more personal, and they left something to the viewers imagination to complete. That is not to say that I think of abstraction as something left out, or unfinished; rather I think of it as a way a painter ‘deconstructs’ a landscape and then ‘reconstructs’ it using his own language and personal selection of what is essential and what is not. It is much more of a complex relationship than simply the contrast between the literal and the imagined. It creates the space for the artist to convey a very personal interpretation.
Are there basic rules of composition that you adhere to? The composition structure you use has to support the motif. There are abundant proven ways of aesthetically dividing up the canvas – I do often use thirds and the golden mean to divide up spaces and I am very particular to the entry and exit points of shapes as they meet the edges of the canvas.
Along those lines, how do you know when a painting is finished? I think of this quote all the time: “Perfection is achieved, not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.” – Antoine de Saint-Exupery
I take a series of snapshots using my phone as a painting progresses. At the end of each day I look at these just as a series of small thumbnails; I often see that I have started to chase too much – that I have lost the power of a simplified statement… and so the final stages for me are pulling back if anything.
How do you determine the concept for each painting? The concept is crucial – I often refer to it as the ‘motif’. It is the reason I wanted to paint a certain scene. It can be many things; an object, a dialogue between two colors or atmosphere or a moment in light. You almost have to deconstruct why you hit the car breaks or why your heart skipped a beat. What is that very thing? Then everything else out there has to be edited, or made submissive to the motif.
Place in order of importance the following words: color, technique, framing, concept, edges, drawing, value, and composition. Tricky! – I am certain on the first three though…Concept, composition, value, drawing, color, technique, edges, framing.
What percentage of your work is done in plein air? I probably spend about 50% outside and 50% inside, but for those paintings ending up in frames and in shows I would say 70% are completed in the studio… maybe more.
In judging the upcoming Plein Air Southwest show, what are you looking for? What qualities must the winning entries possess? Well, technical prowess is not going to be an issue given the caliber of the artists participating in this show! All works included have to have been painted en plein air, so I will looking for those pieces where you sense the artist was totally consumed by studying or exploring something, where the piece becomes poetic rather than a literal rendering of a scene. Elizabeth Bishop in a poem described a painting that seemed to have been ‘painted in one breath’. It should be fresh and immediate, and it should say something specific about a place, and about the artist’s emotional response to that place.
If you could improve one thing about your work, what would it be? I am limited by my imagination – or rather lack of. I’d really like to be able to stretch those parameters of what is possible.
How would you define ‘success’ as an artist? Well, this is a big question for me, and one that I took a lot of time to re-address a few years ago. Early on in my career I used to do maybe 5 or 6 plein air events each year, and I did so for maybe 6 consecutive years, and indeed they dominated my calendar, and so at that time success was defined by sales, by awards and by whether I’d had a good time or not! There is absolutely no doubt in my mind that those events made me grow incredibly fast as a painter, and the awards that I won – particularly those chosen by my artist peers – were crucial in developing a sense of self-belief and faith in my capabilities – I think we all need that. But after six years of functioning like that, it felt a little shortsighted. I had started to feel I was working so hard to meet the production pressure of these events, that maybe I was not doing my best work – I looked at individual pieces produced and wondered if I’d just had some more time, or had the opportunity to return and re-visit the subject again… and maybe again… that maybe I could have done something more with it.
I wondered whether I was being the best painter I could be? I realized that my own ultimate goal was to give myself the opportunity to be the best painter I could be. That become my new definition of success and I realized it would be a life-long journey.
Who has had the greatest influence on your career? Why/how? I have to cheat here and name two people, not just one. I would have to say firstly my husband – he has been so supportive from the very beginning; he understands the emotional rollercoaster being a ‘creator’ can be but he does not indulge me in that! He is my constant. And, yes, he tolerates my frequent trips away from home and the clutter of frames, paintings and shipping boxes that have spread from my studio, through the hallway, to the dining room. He is also an English professor and so we share a lot of great writing, poetry and so forth. The parallels between writing and painting both in terms of a discipline and in terms of creativity are very similar, so it’s a very conducive environment… for both of us.
The second influence, this time in terms of artistic knowledge and guidance, is Skip Whitcomb. He probably has the broadest breadth of knowledge of any artist that I know. I feel that the dialogue between so-called abstract art and realism has become somewhat polarized and stagnant. I grew up loving abstract artists and abstract expressionists; the work of De Kooning, Franz Kline, David Bomberg, Peter Lanyon and Ivon Hitchens, to name but a few, was so exciting to me. Skip also has a deep understanding and enthusiasm for more abstract work. He certainly understands that ‘all representational art is abstract and all abstract art is representational’. He has also been extremely generous with his knowledge of dealing with the daily discipline of painting, and negotiating this career with all the madness and battles that it entails.
If you were stranded on an island, which three books would you want with you? Three empty sketchbooks!
What’s your typical workday like? I am definitely a morning person, so I rise early and walk the dogs for about 3 ½ miles. It is definitely my time for meditation and contemplation. Then it is straight to the studio about 8.30 am and I will work through to about 2pm, take the dogs out for a short walk and work again till 4 or so. Then I will do some studio chores while watching the work in progress – I’ll make decisions, do some scraping maybe and then set myself up with a list of things I want to do with the piece the next morning. I’ll even load up my palette for the next day… so I am totally ready to go. If it’s a week working outside it’s a similar routine actually… the dogs walks have been an essential component of the process both for contemplation and for finding new vistas and ideas.
What are your artistic goals for 2014? Firstly I’d like to meet all my deadlines on time! Also, I want to experiment with my process… right now, once I have done all the necessary preparation work and I embark on a canvas in the studio, it tends to be quite a controlled process of bringing that piece to fruition. Much of this is dictated by the calendar and the need to fulfill quotas for shows. I would love to have the time to let paintings marinate and evolve in a more organic way – have them sitting around for a while and maybe have them even change direction. I am also working on exploring the possibilities of reworking over a dry canvas surface again, and again – until recently, not being able to complete the painting wet-into-wet felt like a compromise – I am beginning to see the benefits and beautiful effects one can get from re-working over a longer period of time.
Jill that was such a thoughtful and helpful interview. Thanks for sharing your talent with this Blog’s readers.
Jill Caver’s website: jillcarver.com
John Pototschnik is an Art Renewal Center Associate Living Master
To view his art and bio, please click HERE
Scheduled Workshops for 2014
22-24 May – Dahlonega, GA
20-22 June – Lowell, MI
18-20 September – Jackson, MS
1-3 October – Portland, ME
(For details on each of these workshops, please click HERE)