“I am inspired by the landscape, specifically the water and the sky, but can always find something of interest no matter what the subject.”
Stephanie Amato is an inspired painter, working in an impressionistic alla prima style. Her work evokes a strong sense of movement and energy. One would find it impossible to describe her paintings as static and boring.
I was pleased to award her First Place in the Plein Air Division of the recent Oil Painters of America Wet Paint Competition. The highly competitive event received over 200 entries and for the first time offered an Open Division…providing an opportunity for non-OPA members, and international artists to participate. All submitted work in the three divisions: Plein Air, Studio, and Open had to be painted from life. You can imagine what a challenge it was to select the award winners. Mary Beth Karaus won the Studio Division and Heidi-Jo Summers was the Open Division winner. I hope to be able to share interviews with these two ladies in the near future. If you want to see my report on the competition and see all the winners, click HERE.
For now, and the reason we’re here…I’m very pleased to bring you the first of those interviews with Stephanie Amato. You’ll enjoy this. She is a real pro. (Click images to enlarge)
Tell us about your winning Oil Painters of America Wet Paint Competition painting, “Windswept Morning”. Prior to this event I was preparing for a gallery opening in March 2020. I had been working on a series of large coastal scenes with stormy rainclouds and overcast skies. This piece was a creation of all I had learned over the past year with regards to the movement, value and temperature of the clouds and atmosphere. When painting this piece for the OPA event, I approached the scene with confidence, letting my instincts take over and actually feeling the energy of the approaching storm.
How did you go about choosing this subject; what were you looking for? I was in Florida the weekend of the competition and had planned to paint the boats docked at the city marina. As I set up my easel and was ready to start working a rainstorm developed, and in order to continue I had to move to a sheltered area. I was able to complete two paintings of different scenes but was not satisfied with the results. The next morning, in a last effort to submit a piece worthy of the show, I decided to stay in my community and paint the cloudy sky and lake at the end of the street.
Painted en plein air, how long did it take to paint? Since I had been painting similar scenes for the past year I was able to move quickly through the scene. The painting itself took around 90 minutes to complete. I used a 9×12 panel so I would have time to finish the painting before the rain reached me. I chose a smooth linen to keep the paint movement fluid and help with the sweeping motion of the cloudy sky. I was encouraged by the wind to move fast, not overthink my brushstrokes, and to keep the shapes simple but strong.
What colors did you have on your palette? For landscape painting my palette always consists of five transparent and five opaque colors, plus titanium white. Specifically, Ultramarine Blue, Viridian, Transparent Red Oxide, Transparent Oxide Yellow, Quinacridone Magenta, Cadmium Yellow Pale, Cadmium Yellow Lemon, Cadmium Orange, Cadmium Red, and Yellow Ochre.
Years ago, my palette consisted of just six colors, but overtime I found the desire and confidence to push the color further in my work. After I relocated from the north to a southern state, I noticed I was not capturing the cooler colors of this landscape. Attempting to figure out what the issue was, I decided to finally work on the color charts that I had put off for years. What I learned is there are more saturated and vibrant colors here in Georgia, with Viridian being a significant color in both the landscape and sky. Creating the charts was a long and involved process, but a project I would recommend to any artist.
What typically is your process when painting en plein air? I first take a few photos and do a quick sketch to choose my composition. I always start with a transparent dark mixture and leave the light areas untouched. In the case of “Windswept Morning”, I put the dark value of the tree line in first, followed by the transparent reflection in the water. My next step was to start filling in the middle range colors of the clouds, making sure they were not dark and heavy, but greyed down just enough so the light around the edges would sparkle. At this point, I started to lighten the areas around the clouds using large brushes and thick opaque paint. I could make adjustments to the temperature once I put these big shapes down on the canvas. What I have learned is that a strong value separation is the difference between an acceptable painting and an exceptional one.
What is your artistic background? I attended Parsons School of Design, Mason Gross School of Fine Art (Rutgers University), The Art Students League and New York Art Academy. In addition to receiving a fine art degree, I also pursued a degree in graphic design. I have worked for several magazines and newspaper publications and in 2006 started my own design and website business.
In 2015, to concentrate fully on my art, we decided to move from New Jersey to Atlanta, where I was able to build a studio and gallery facility. While it was difficult to move away from the New York metro area, having a dedicated space where I am inspired to work has made a significant difference in my career.
Who have been the most important influences in your painting career and why? My figure drawing instructor at Parsons, Pam Klein, was probably one of the first instructors to introduce me to the value of a traditional art education. She emphasized the importance of learning anatomy and that there are no short cuts, all the while encouraging her students to add originality to their work.
Another artist of great significance was Elizabeth Tolley (Libby), a landscape painter from Los Gatos, California. I had been working primarily in pastel and struggled with oils for years. Being determined, I pursued an instructor that could help me approach painting with a limited palette. Libby taught me the importance of developing strong values, using transparent paints to add luminosity in a piece, as well as the significance of subtle temperature shifts to give the painting a sense of atmosphere.
Working in oils, I paint impressionistic landscapes, floral and figurative compositions. My intention is to produce work which creates energy and movement that will resonate with the viewer.
How would you define your work? My work is impressionistic with a sense of realism. I have learned that establishing a strong drawing is critical, especially when working from the model.
In figurative work, I start with a detailed sketch, measuring, and making sure my proportions are accurate. Once I am happy with the sketch, I then start massing in the darks giving the piece a painterly quality; this is also true of my landscape paintings where I will design the composition and start filling in the darker values, keeping the structures strong and balanced and then adding my creative style to complete the painting.
Your website shows that you do Abstracts, Figurative, Florals, Landscapes and Still Life…why is it important for you to paint such a variety of subjects? I am inspired by the world around me. I have always enjoyed drawing and painting the figure and I currently facilitate a figure group in my community which has been well received. While I have done some still life work during inclement weather, I am excited to go outdoors as the warmer weather approaches.
When I moved to Atlanta, I was exposed to a world of contemporary art. In an effort get back to the excitement of learning something new I decided to work on some abstract paintings. I started by experimenting with different mediums and techniques. What I learned was there is much more to creating a good abstract than just randomly putting paint on a canvas. There are rules, similar to ones applied in representational work, but in a different order. In my opinion both require a strong design, but while representative work focuses on value and temperature, contemporary work is more focused on temperature and value.
What’s the fastest way to grow as an artist? As with any career choice, I do not think there are any shortcuts. Whether you are a contemporary artist or a realist, learning the foundations of art is important and just takes time and commitment.
By setting realistic, long and short term goals, you will not only challenge yourself but you will stay focused on the outcome and the steps needed to get there. Trusting your instincts, continuing in the face of rejection, and learning to stay true to yourself is key to a successful career.
Having a traditional art education was the foundation of how I began, but this was not the end of my training. There have been many other people throughout the years who have influenced the direction I have taken. Sometimes the smallest suggestions or critique have pushed my work to the next level.
What are the three most important lessons you have learned about painting en plein air? Be flexible. The weather is definitely the driving factor that will determine the subject matter. As with my piece “Windswept Morning”, I had planned what and where I was going to paint for the competition, but that quickly changed when the rain began. Even the canvas I had prepared was the wrong size and orientation.
Packing Your Gear. Packing light and keeping your gear to a minimum is important, especially if you have to hike to your location or pack up quickly. The paint is always prepared on my palette prior to my venturing out, I always have two size panels as well as an extra tube of ultramarine and cadmium yellow pale.
Time of Day and Working Quickly. The sun moves quickly as the day progresses and you need to commit to certain light from the beginning. Small value sketches are a good reference that you can refer to as time passes. I have learned to paint what I feel and rely on my instincts. Since there is only a window of two hours before the light drastically changes, I do not want to end up painting two completely different scenes.
Please put these words in order: drawing, technique, composition, concept, color, values, framing. Looking at this from an artistic side, I would put these terms in the following order: Concept – Composition – Drawing – Values – Color – Technique – Framing
But from a business side, I might put Framing first. With a very large collection of frames, I might choose a location or scene based on what might look good in a particular frame. Unfortunately, costs and materials factor into the creation when working in the art industry.
What is the most difficult part of painting for you? Basically, I find the entire process challenging. The beginning, the middle, and the end. Each step requires thoughtful decisions, when ignored, can turn a good painting into a scrape out…and many of my friends know I am not opposed to scraping out hours of work.
Between coming up with an idea and turning it into a successful piece of art, getting started is probably the most difficult part of painting. The blank canvas holds endless possibilities and putting that first brush stroke down will determine the direction of the entire piece.
As I progress into the painting, I try to separate myself from overthinking and let my creative side take over. At the same time, this is where the painting will take shape, so making wise value and temperature decisions are crucial for an effective piece
When completing the piece, it is very easy to ruin hours or days of work with a single, wrong brushstroke. I will generally let the piece dry for a few days and reexamine it with a fresh eye. I might need to make small value adjustments, but I am generally close to my initial intention.
What value is there in entering art competitions? Entering art competitions helps validate your work, especially when it is recognized among your peers. While entering a contest takes courage and confidence, it also helps you push your limits. Putting your work in front of a juror, where you will receive critical feedback, can help you determine if you’re working to your potential. All are crucial in developing an artist’s career. It also presents an opportunity to gain exposure when you are looking to build a presence in the art world.
If you had to start all over as an artist today, how would you go about it? I have given this question a lot of thought over the years and I probably would have pursued an art career at an earlier age. I worked in the computer field for over 10 years and decided to return to art school in my mid 30’s. If I started out at a younger age, I feel I might have been more willing to push boundaries, being less inhibited by life experiences.
That being said, when I was a teenager, conceptual art was popular. I remember taking a course where the instructor said to paint what you feel. While being creative itself is valid in its own right, I always felt guided by the need to begin with a plan. So, no matter when or how I started I have always been working towards representational art… I might have just arrived a little sooner.
What’s your most important character quality? Commitment. Being a professional artist takes serious commitment and determination. There are so many factors to being successful, from learning techniques, improving your skills, getting into shows, all while trying to juggle other parts of your life. This can be a major impact on your creativity and drive.
I have been fortunate to have the opportunity to pursue a profession which I love. From starting a graphic business and then moving on to a full-time art career, my determination has helped me reach further than I would have imagined. I am also always aware of the need to stay current in the art world, as well as pushing my work more with each new painting.
I am a fairly structured person. More specifically, I will research and have a plan in what I would like to accomplish. Once I am comfortable and feel I have enough information to move forward I will then let my creative side take over.
What’s a typical workday look like? When planning out my day, I will always check the weather and make a determination if it looks worthwhile to venture out to do plein air work. Being outdoors brings added challenges, with such deterrents as wind and rain. I have painted in all types of conditions, and unless I am participating in a plein air event where I am required to be outdoors in inclement weather, I will move toward the studio for that day.
For a plein air session I will prepare my palette and gear before I leave the house… When arriving at the location I will work quickly. My underpaintings do not feature extensive drawings because I want to catch the light and get something completed within a two hour period. My goal is to capture the feeling and emotion of the scene.
When working in the studio, I will first decide what I will be working on…a larger painting from a plein air study, a still life, or just correcting some current paintings. Generally, if I do decide to paint a still life, I would start setting it up and have it ready to paint the next day. I like to approach my work with focus and energy and try to complete the piece in one day.
What do you hope to accomplish as an artist? Each year I set a goal that I hope to accomplish in the coming months. Many have been career based, such as applying for membership in national organizations, seeking gallery representation or submitting work to major events and shows. This year has had a significant effect on my goals, causing me to rethink the direction I will be taking from this point forward.
With all the outside demands and obligations gone I have been able to focus on painting itself. By letting go of all outside noise and creating art for art’s sake, I am starting to see more energy and excitement in my work. Receiving the First Place Award for my plein air painting in the OPA Wet Paint Competition helped validate the direction I have taken this year.