Artist of the Month: Karen Kaapcke

 This New York City artist’s creative process involves self-reflection, during which she asks herself not only what she is painting, but also why she’s compelled to do so.

by Naomi Ekperigin

Daniel I
2006, oil on linen, 22 x 18.
Collection Mr. and Mrs. Andres Barragan.

Karen Kaapcke reached a major turning point in her life when she decided shortly after earning an M.A. in Philosophy that she would pursue painting and drawing. This came at an unexpected time—mere months before she was scheduled to start her doctoral studies in the field. “I was having difficulty putting what I wanted to say into writing when I was earning my Master’s,” the artist recalls. This prompted her to turn to art for assistance. Although she had grown up surrounded by the creative arts (her mother was a dancer and her father was a writer, and their social circle was full of visual artists), Kaapcke never pursued painting or drawing seriously. It wasn’t until one day, when Kaapcke ventured down to the Fine Arts Library at her university and picked up art books, that she found what she needed. Viewing the sculptures of Donatello and Auguste Rodin, she was instantly inspired. “I felt a connection to the work," she recalls. "I thought, ‘This is what I’m trying to do, but with words.’” She took the books back to her office and started drawing the sculptures, awakening a talent and interest that had lain dormant.

Kaapcke moved to New York City the following summer to take courses at the Art Students League of New York, in Manhattan, where she spent much of her first year trying to figure out what she hoped to gain and how she could accomplish her goals. “When I started at the Art Students League, it was really hard to look at my work,” the artist recalls. “My art was very tied up in the search going on inside of me, and I found it personal and private. I tended to keep to myself during classes and didn’t really socialize with other students during breaks.” Doing this, Kaapcke says, helped her maintain a private, safe space where she could focus on creating work without distractions caused by working in a classroom setting with other artists.

Joe's Shirt, Late Afternoon
2006, oil on board, 10 x 8.
Collection the artist.

Although the decision to change her path was initially daunting, the artist found that her background in philosophy has deeply influenced her painting. “When you’re studying something like philosophy, you’re searching for truths, basically,” the artist says. “My work always seems balanced between an analytical, measured approach and an emotional and existential one.” Take, for example, the painting Joe’s Shirt, Late Afternoon. This piece was conceived at a time in the artist’s life when she was questioning the act of creating paintings that were  meant to hang on walls. She wondered how she could make pieces that would be more than merely decorative, when, “I realized that in my actual world I was surrounded by things that hung off of not only walls, but also chairs and tables, all around me: my clothing, my husband’s clothing, the clothing I wear when I’m painting,” she recalls. “One day I noticed how the late afternoon light hit those shirts and I saw that it could be a painting. What more natural thing to paint and subsequently hang on a wall than a shirt that was already hanging on a wall or door?” Thus began a series of paintings of piled, hanging, or draped clothing bathed in afternoon light.

It is this process of questioning and self-reflection that motivates Kaapcke to paint, inspiring her to take on various subject matter that help her learn a bit more about herself and the world around her. She splits her time between her homes in New York and France, where her environments inspire her choices of subject. “In New York, I focus on figurative painting, drawing, and still life, and when I’m in France, I paint the landscape,” she explains. “For some reason, I get more interior when I’m in New York, though I know there are beautiful cityscapes to be captured. When I’m in France, painting the landscape allows me to take a break from the figurative work I do, while still working and thinking; this break also makes returning to the figure exciting.” The artist developed a love for France while studying there with Ted Seth Jacobs, who initially guided her when she was a student at the Art Students League. She spent a brief period exploring abstract painting, which she still does periodically to “keep my color sense alive and remind myself of the freedom essential to painting,” but she has been committed to figurative work for the last 15 years. “In 1992 I visited the Prado Museum in Spain and saw the work of Velásquez,” she recalls, “and I once again felt all the possibilities inherent in figure painting, and became recommitted to painting from life.”

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Daniel II
2007, oil on linen, 22 x 18. Collection the artist.
2004, oil on linen, 12 x 12.
Collection the artist.

Kaapcke approaches her work in a traditional way, and finds the early stages of sketching her subject to be her favorite. “I love the quiet focus that comes with simply laying down marks. I would love for that to go on forever,” she says. She usually starts with a quick oil or charcoal sketch, and then adds in some details either in charcoal or loose paint. She then lays in a colored wash and slowly builds up the piece in thin layers. “Towards the end I may do some glazing, but I think that in a way, when working with oils that are naturally transparent, one is glazing throughout the process.”

Although the artist considers herself traditional in terms of technique, and she admires the work of Old Masters such as Titian and Leonardo, she struggles most with her own work when she is unable to figure out why she is creating a given piece; it is this process that separates her work from traditional realist painting. “I am rarely content with a painting that seems assembled or posed merely for the purpose of making a nice picture,” she says. “When I first started painting at Ted Seth Jacobs’ studio in France, I constantly asked myself why I was standing in front of an easel. And I could never–and still can’t–answer that question. I actually think every painting I create is an attempt to find an answer.”

Clearly, this process of self-discovery and interrogation has yielded positive results, as the artist has received much praise for her work. She was most recently a finalist in The Artist’s Magazine 2007 competition in the Figure and Portrait Category, and in that same year won the American Artists’ Professional League Award for Representational Painting. In 2006, she won the Margaret Dole Portrait Award from the Catharine Lorillard Wolfe Art Club, in New York City, and has received numerous other accolades. For more information on Kaapcke, email her at, or visit her website,

Naomi Ekperigin is the editorial assistant of American Artist.


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